Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience

My article on cancel culture was published a couple of months back. It highlighted situations in which private disagreements sometimes lead to permanent breaks in relationships. Using sources as diverse as the Ramayan and the Mahabharat on one hand, and the Marshall Plan and President Lincoln’s famous Civil War speech on the other, I came up with strategies for being gracious and generous on one hand and principled on the other, even under trying circumstances.

But, what about situations that are public rather than private? When ignoring the issue would be unfair?  What is a person of goodwill to do? The below is an exercise in learning to answer such questions. 

Late in the afternoon of the first working day of the New Year, I visited the post office to mail some letters. I was surprised by the long line that stretched way out on the sidewalk. The social distancing mandate was only part of the reason for the long queue. The other was that there were many people who needed to return packages (gifts?) received over the holidays.

Goodwill

Seeing that it would be a while before she would reach the front of the line, the woman standing in front of me (I will call her Wanda) requested that I hold her spot while she went to her car to get her jacket. I readily agreed.

By the time Wanda returned, more people had joined the line behind me. As previously agreed, she got in line ahead of me. Seeing this, the elderly woman who had joined the line after Wanda left asked her if she was joining the line. It was her civil way of making sure Wanda was not jumping in unfairly into the line.

“I would never do something like that,” Wanda proclaimed with a smile.

“She was here before I got here,” I clarified.

All three of us nodded in goodwill, reassured that the queue remained inviolate.

Ill will

Soon after this conversation, Wanda started playing music on her phone. She did not have headphones and so the sound wafted into the air around her. She swayed gently to the song.

Twenty minutes later, the line had moved. Wanda and I were now just inside the front door of the post office. I heard loud music and didn’t think much of it… maybe it was playing on the PA system.

But, the music seemed to get more shrill and impossible to ignore. Looking closely, I soon realized that the loud music was actually coming from Wanda’s phone. Either she had turned up the volume, or being indoors, the sound was reverberating a lot more than when we were standing outside.

After a few minutes, it became quite unpleasant. The sound was tinny and scratchy, impossible to ignore. The line was still advancing very slowly.

“Is the music playing on your phone?” I asked Wanda. When she confirmed this, I continued, “Could you please turn it down?”

“It is gospel music and it inspires me,” she said.

“That’s great,” I said with a smile. “Could you please just not play it so loud?”

“What, you don’t like gospel music?” Wanda was becoming aggressive.

“I am not familiar with it,” I admitted.

“Well, I am going to keep on playing it. You can go to the back of the line.”

“I am not going anywhere.” I responded.

“You have some nerve!” she insisted angrily and said it a couple more times for good measure.

I admit to being quite taken aback by Wanda’s response. A person who had, just a few minutes earlier, professed her commitment to civic rules and order, was now being quite rude. Moreover, she was being unkind to the very person (me) who had spoken up for her.  

I looked away. Having made my point, I was not interested in continuing the disagreeable dialogue.

Civility restored

Amazingly, after a few more minutes, Wanda turned down the decibel level of her music.

My turn came soon after. My business at the post office completed, as I walked out, I happened to make eye contact with the woman behind me… the one who had asked Wanda about her place in the queue. Despite her mask, I saw a smile in the crinkled edges of her eyes and an almost imperceptible nod of her head. I felt validated. 

This was one of the rare times when I took a public stand in an attempt to check an inconsiderate person. I might have expected a racing heart and clammy hands, especially after Wanda’s outburst. Instead, I felt calm both during and after the brief exchange. 

I am glad that, rather than chafe in silence, I raised my voice against sound pollution. It was a small act undertaken in the interest of preserving civility in the public space.

Civic Responsibility

As an immigrant of almost forty years standing, I have a particular appreciation of the orderly society in which I live. It would be fair to say that through the decades I have been a student and observer of what it takes to build and preserve such a society. And, I daresay I have tried to do my small part in that by being a civic-minded participant in the communities in which I have lived. This has taken the form of volunteering in the local school, returning library books on time and picking up litter (when I come across it, which is fortunately quite infrequent), and writing the occasional letter to the editor of the local newspaper. 

The storming of Capitol Hill on January 6 has added a whole new urgency to the topic of the responsibilities that accrue to citizens of a democratic country, and what each one of us can and must do to preserve and extend democratic norms. 

By itself, my experience in the queue was a very trivial one. But it is not difficult to imagine the chaos, disorderliness, and just plain meanness that would result if incidents like that were to multiply millions of times over. I think it brings out the importance of upholding bedrock principles and not letting them be eroded by loud-mouthed bullies. Maybe we would not be where we are today if Trump had been checked early on. 

As Dr. King put it,

Those who do nothing while witnessing injustice and wrong-doing do worse than those who commit acts of injustice.

Have you been in a situation where you took a stand? How did it feel? Did it make a difference?


Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and cofounder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor. 

imagecredit: noisy neighbor by Gan Khoon Lay from the Noun Project

 

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