It is not enough that you have to learn your so-called three 'R's (And, no-one has given me a satisfactory explanation for why they call Writing and Arithmetic 'R's, when they so clearly are not) and, then, muddle through college, picking up desultory bits of thermodynamics, fluid mechanics and other such obscure pockets of knowledge..no, it is not! Leaving the educational system, happy with the thought that what passes for your brain shall be taxed no longer is a sure recipe for disappointment if not disaster.
I should have known, though. After all, in Tamil we were used to greeting each other with a "Vanakkam", to which the reply was the same. Since that meant a sort of "Hello", it was perfectly all right to reply with a "Hello" or a "Hi". In English, they had this habit of asking, "How do you do?" or "How are you?" How was I to know that this was a question that had to be answered with the same question, instead of a detailed listing of all my bodily ailments? (Would have loved to extend the concept elsewhere - most notably interviews? How wonderful if the acceptable answer for 'Do you know why .......?' could be 'Do you know it?' Alas!)
And, then, I take up a job in Delhi. Around the second or third day there, when I had come to know people enough to greet them, I ventured a 'How do you do?' with one of my colleagues. He replies with a 'Bus aapki dua hai' i.e '(Am well) thanks to your wishes'! Having searched my memory and found no sign of my having wished anything for this chap (could not come up with even his name, now that I was searching my memory), I felt guilty. Here was this guy depending for his well-being on my wishes and I had let him down. Luckily for me, someone else interrupted us before I started abjectly apologizing for having failed him.
Luckily, did I say? I made the mistake of greeting the other guy with a 'How are you?' too and got "Bus aapke chatrachaye mein' for a reply. Huh! I dredged my memory to recollect the last time I was crowned - since the other chap meant that he was happy under my aegis - and could only come up with the information that I had even lost my crown of hair. Feeling that the other guy had mistaken me for a newly anointed Cabinet Minister, I was about to disabuse him of the notion when a third chap, who seemed to understand the look of bewilderment on my face, took me aside and explained that all these were to be taken at par with a return 'Vanakkam' in Tamil.
It did take a while to get adjusted to the situation for me. Things that Tamilians say to each other, only when they were close friends, flow easily and well from Punjabis even to rank strangers and rabid foes. Most of what makes it difficult to trust people across cultures seems to be the fact that all that you learnt of how to assess character from behavior - and how you assessed behavior, too - give you misleading results when applied on a person from a different background.
Back I am, in Bangalore and more familiar terrain? I accost a new made acquaintance and he comes out with 'Oota aayittha?'. Well - I have, by now, learnt that this 'Have you had your food?' is only the 'Vanakkam' of Tamil and not an invitation to a detailed description of what was on your plate in the morning.
AND, there are people who love going around the world? All power to them, I say, but let them first make their detailed guide-books before the rest venture out. Would hate to be beheaded for saying the wrong thing in reply to someone's greeting.