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Reputation for rudeness bruises proud city in India

SHARE Reputation for rudeness bruises proud city in India

BOMBAY, India — True or false: The people of this bustling city are the rudest on the planet, men and women who could learn a lesson in good manners from New Yorkers, those paragons of politeness.

True, says Reader's Digest, the world's most widely read magazine.

Fuhgeddaboudit, say Mumbaikars. (Yes, that's their name. Got a problem with that?) They're outraged at the New York comparison — or, at least, being on the unflattering end of it.

A war of words has raged here since the July issue of the magazine published a survey of 35 cities around the world to which its reporters were dispatched, undercover, to assess people's politeness.

Bombay, the metropolis also known as Mumbai, came in dead last on the magazine's courtesy index, a ranking that has triggered accusations of cultural insensitivity and maybe just a bit of hand-wringing here in India's biggest, richest, brashest and most image-conscious city.

Writers and commentators immediately sprang to Bombay's defense, like a tigress protecting her cub. "Total bunkus!" scoffed a headline in the newsweekly Outlook. Bollywood stars and other indignant residents lined up to proclaim their love of Bombay, praise its people and pour scorn on the editors of a middlebrow American publication based in a city named, of all things, Pleasantville.

Now, amid moving stories of courage and cooperation in this month's horrific railway bombings — an attack that killed as many as 200 people and wounded hundreds more — many Mumbaikars feel that they have more than proved themselves undeserving of such a denigrating title as World's Rudest City.

Rather, they say, Bombay's true character shone through in how people rushed to help victims long before ambulances arrived, how destitute women in the slums handed over their saris to use in treating the wounded, how blood banks had to turn donors away because they reached capacity so quickly.

"You can see it in the bomb blasts — all the people giving blood," said 21-year-old Girish Khanna, a Mumbaikar born and bred.

For its survey, Reader's Digest dispatched reporters to the biggest cities of more than 30 nations. The covert courtesy inspectors conducted spot checks to see if residents held doors open for others, if salespeople thanked their customers and if bystanders helped someone who dropped a folder full of papers in a busy place.

The magazine acknowledged that the survey was not "a rigorous scientific study, but we believe it is a reasonable real-world test of good manners around the globe."

Bombay scored a paltry 32 percent on the politeness meter, below cities such as Moscow; Seoul, South Korea; and Bucharest, Romania. On the other end of the scale, the cities with some of the best-mannered people included Berlin, Toronto and Zurich, Switzerland.

But perhaps most galling to Mumbaikars, aside from finishing last, was discovering who came in first.

"To rub salt into the wound, the survey rates New York — about which it is said it has always been going to hell but somehow has never gotten there — as the world's most polite city," a disbelieving columnist, Chidanand Rajghatta, wrote in the Times of India.

The poll results touched an especially raw nerve here because Bombay represents India's best shot at boasting a world-class city. Movers and shakers here desperately want to establish their town as a leading center of finance, fashion and fun, worthy of mention in the same breath as London or Paris (which tied for 15th in the Reader's Digest survey).

Critics of the magazine's courtesy barometer note that matters of etiquette are culturally determined. What passes for ill-breeding in some places may not be regarded as such in others.

"Just saying 'Pass the salt' without adding 'please' followed by 'thank you' is unacceptable in the West, but most Indians express appreciation with a change of tone while asking," Rajghatta wrote. Likewise, "in many Indian homes . . . it is considered good manners — and good hygiene — to remove one's footwear before entering the house, something Westerners may not be attuned to doing."

What some visitors mistake for rudeness in Bombay is simply the no-nonsense practicality of a city in a hurry to get somewhere, said Amar Kotekar, 25.

"It's completely fast living. . . . Time doesn't stop here," said Kotekar, who works for an information-technology firm. "On average, Mumbai people are good, friendly and supportive."