Every time I land in Kolkata, something funny happens within the first 30 minutes. This time was no exception.
I had a seat at the very back of the aircraft. By the time I got off the airplane and stood in the long, serpentine immigration line, I realized that I was among the last few to stand in line. It didn't escape me that US or Kolkata, I always get to stand in the longer line. The line for immigrants like me is usually longer than those of US citizens and permanent residents, just like the line for Indian citizens is much longer in Kolkata. Anyway, I was tired, disoriented, and could not wait to be done. I had been traveling for the last 30 hours, mostly over the North Pole and parts of Russia, which meant that I had only seen daylight in those 30 hours. I could barely stand straight.
When my turn came, a young guy at the counter asked to see my passport. He barked, in a rather gruff and rude voice, "Passport dikhaiye." (Show me your passport, in Hindi).
One, I was a little put off by hearing Hindi (and not Bangla) in Kolkata, and two, I was a little confused about how to address him. In the US, one usually starts a conversation with a polite, "Hi, how is it going?"
Without thinking, I translated it and asked, "Bhalo achen to?" (Are you doing well?)
What happened next was unbelievable. You see, I had no interest in knowing how the guy was doing, I was merely being polite. But I had forgotten that cues of politeness vary across societies. In India, (usually) no girl smiles at a stranger and asks how he is doing. People get down to business without spending time on niceties.
Holy rangoli, the man actually blushed 50 shades of pink and purple. He avoided further eye contact, grinned like a monkey, and started shuffling uncomfortably in his seat and staring at his crotch while fiddling with my passport. He almost looked like I had married him recently and he was the coy bride. With utmost care, he stamped my passport and handed it back to me, nodding slightly, a nod that probably meant, "You stay well too!" He barely managed a whisper while asking me, "Aapni Dubai te thaken?" Do you live in Dubai?
"Na, US e," I replied, before taking back my passport and walking away. I have no idea why the gruff, Hindi-speaking guy was suddenly cooing and blushing and making small talk. My only explanation is, no stranger chick had ever asked him "Bhalo achen to?" (Are you doing well?) with a smile before.