Why don’t we thank?

A month or so ago, when I was riding a scooter around the country side, a woman and her mother waiting near what seemed to be a bus stop stopped me and asked if I could drop the woman to another village on the same road (close to KRS, for those around Mysore). Apparently the bus service in that particular route was not the best, and I, a stranger, seemed to be the only option left to them. Loading a jackfruit, some coconuts and other things you would normally carry back from your mother’s home after a visit, we reached her village. After getting off, I received a smile and a ‘barteera’, roughly translating to ‘see you around’. Thanks, though implied, was never vocalized.

On the other hand, just a few hours before this took place, I was at Melkote with a few American students who were here on an academic tour. The scooter apparently is a very quaint thing to sit behind, when all you see is cars back home, and so one of them asked me to drive her around. The number of ‘Thank you soooo much’s that were showered upon me for a 5 minute joy ride was quite intimidating, to say the least. One wonders whether it would not be appropriate to give a kidney or something along with the joy ride for that amount of thankfulness.

If one thinks about it, at least in the places around south Karnataka, to hear thanks in any language is a rare occurrence. The Kannada equivalent, Dhanyavaada is something I have very rarely heard, and then mostly from the mouth of foreigners who have been reading up on some ‘Learn Kannada’ type of book. If any person asks me how to thank people in Kannada, I tell them to say ‘thanks’. Dhanyavaada is simply not common currency enough around here. In fact, it is not uncommon to see old village ladies saying ‘thanks’ (with a strong Kannada accent), maybe hearing it from their grandchildren, rather than Dhanyavaada. One can go on to claim that it has sarcastic undertones whenever it is used. On the other end of the spectrum, Americans and those who regularly converse with them, like BPO employees, tend to use the ‘Thank you soooo much’ as though it were the commonest thing to do. In fact, it is the easiest way to identify an Indian working in the BPO or hospitality sector. It is intimidating at first, after which it simply grates on the ear, especially the dragged ‘soooo’. I am not used to this level of vocalization of thanks at all and it seems very artificial to me at least.

The only people who seem to use the Kannada equivalent are those who consider themselves ‘cultured’ and for whom speaking anything other than ‘pure’ Kannada is unthinkable. This is however a conscious decision and has nothing to do with everyday language. Even here, the very fact that they are using Dhanyavaada shows they are not thinking in native terms. A native speaker might throw in a blessing or two, but never an explicit thanks. If anyone is very strongly thankful, they might use tumba upakaara aaytu, which translates roughly to ‘It has been a great help’, which is just stating the obvious rather than anything else.

It does not just stop at thanking others. In newspaper supplements, you very often see articles asking husbands, wives and parents to explicitly appreciate their wives, husbands and children respectively. Apparently that is also not something very common around here. To make people ‘feel appreciated’ is also a mantra among the managers and HR crowd of corporate India.

It doesn’t seem immediately clear why this came about, but it is hard to let go without a few conjectures. Normally, thanks is directed toward individuals, which implies both parties must concede that there is a very strong individual identity. In a land where people are addressed as X’s son Y or X-halli (village) Y, that is not the case. Also, it is not easy for a person who considers himself superior to the other to thank the other person. The only valid transaction would be for inferiors to act servile and for superiors to look superior and bless them. This would be not just among social classes or castes, but also between elders and the young.

However, more important than the above reasons is the fact that thanking is valid when the other person is not obliged to help, it is not her duty to do so. A society that places strong emphasis on freedoms or equivalently, rights would consider it important to thank anyone for anything. A society arranged along the lines of reciprocal duties (which in India is subsumed under the overarching Dharma) would not see any reason to thank others. After all, it is their duty. You can bless someone for doing their duty correctly, but it is hard to thank them. Thus, it is when a family becomes a collection of individuals with no overarching sense of duty toward the other that it becomes important to make everyone ‘feel appreciated’. That this is the case in any corporation is a foregone conclusion.

That India is transitioning from a duties-based society to a rights based one can be easily seen not only from this example but from everything around us, from advertisements to legal rulings. But a society which is not used to change will pass through a long intermediate phase in which there exist old ladies who know only one English word – Thanks.

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