In Foreign Parts: Land of kindly crooks and courteous cricketers

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The Independent Online

Delhi is one of the planet's safer cities, yet it does not always seem so. Barely a day passes on which the newspapers do not carry fresh tales of rape and murder, of the wicked exploits of "bad characters", of "dacoits" (armed robbers) and "vagabonds".

Delhi is one of the planet's safer cities, yet it does not always seem so. Barely a day passes on which the newspapers do not carry fresh tales of rape and murder, of the wicked exploits of "bad characters", of "dacoits" (armed robbers) and "vagabonds".

As one digests each new instalment over morning tea, the mind is flooded with visions of a past age, a freeze-framed Victorian world in which truncheon-waving plods careered headlong through the alleys in pursuit of masked and scowling ruffians with bags of swag.

Yet the true line between Goodies and Baddies is not so clear-cut. Accounts regularly surface of Indian policemen pocketing bribes and beating up suspects. And some of the villains are not without their attractions.

Take, for example, "Bunty", otherwise known as 31-year-old Devender Singh. He was finally arrested - "nabbed", as the newspaper scribes like to put it - last year, after amassing a fortune during a long career as a burglar. He has a reputation as a ladies' man, who would courteously greet householders if they happened to interrupt him making off with their antique ornaments and diamond jewels. His geniality also apparently worked on his victims' guard dogs, whom he is said to have trained not to bark at him.

Now another charmer is on the loose. Hot off the Delhi police blotter is a story of a family who awoke at the start of another steaming monsoon morning to find their car and some of their household belongings were missing. The thief left behind a note in Hindi which read: "Sorry about this, but I was forced to burgle you because of tough circumstances." And this week plans were announced for Delhi police officers to attend a politeness course.

There is something strangely striking about this juxtaposition between crime and cordiality, a reminder that old-world manners are not yet entirely extinct in India, as they are elsewhere.

One of the pleasing aspects of returning here last week after a summer holiday in Britain was the relief that here there is no obvious equivalent to the abrasive London Underground official.

Here - at least when Indians are dealing with foreigners - cordiality and kindness is still the norm. It is woven into the fabric of discourse, from the railway clerk who asks you to "kindly give your good name" for his records, to the passer-by who cannot resist giving asked-for directions, even if he doesn't know them, because he does not wish to seem unhelpful. For all its capacity for violence and cruelty, India is still a place where manners matter.

The issue has now arisen in the one arena that unites this country's 1.1 billion people above all others: cricket. Sunil Gavaskar, India's legendary former Test batsman, recently delivered a lecture at Lord's in which he raised his concerns about the loss of manners on the field. He condemned the practice of sledging (fielders verbally abusing batsmen at the crease) and the general onset of mean-spiritedness in the game. Although he did not name them, it was clear that he principally had the Australian team in mind.

"The old adage, 'It's not cricket', which applied to just about everything in life, is no longer valid - and that's a real pity," Gavaskar said. "In the modern world of commercialisation of the game and the advent of satellite television and the motto of winning at all costs, sportsmanship has gone for six." India's intensely competitive host of cricketers are, of course, no angels. But I can testify that they are still capable of great courtesy. Not long ago, I was asked to make up the numbers for a largely Indian side playing a friendly in Delhi. The rest of the players were infinitely better and far younger than me but, not wanting to insult, the captain chalked me down as batsman number eight.

Wickets fell rapidly, thanks to the opposition's lightning-quick opening bowler. As my turn to bat approached, my fellow players began to seem anxious. Finally, one of them approached and asked - sotto voce and with an embarrassed air - whether I was wearing a box. "You absolutely have to have one. This man is too fast to face without a box."

I explained I did not own one. He walked away, preoccupied. Minutes later he returned, spread out a cloth on the ground and, with the air of a man laying out a fine picnic lunch, laid four worn and tatty boxes on it, the property of my fellow players.

I was out first ball, but at least returned with two others intact.