Last week, on a trip to The Hague the political capital of the Netherlands a friend and I were having a quiet dinner at a restaurant, sitting out in the open and generally seeing life pass by through alien eyes.

Indeed, one has to use the word "alien" because there is hardly anything common in the way the Dutch do things and behave when compared to Indians.

Of course, there is no value judgement involved here, only an observation of the differences in the way two totally different people behave and live out their lives.

But is it always so, one is forced to think, when one is told of the practice in the Netherlands of office-goers being left to themselves to account for the number of hours they have spent at work in a week and not be subjected to physical or card-punching-machine checks.

One lady who works in a Government office told me that people were trusted by their employers to look after this aspect of their office-lives themselves as it was expected that no one would misuse the system to his or her benefit.

This is only one aspect of Dutch society that I noticed to be quite at variance with our own, but something that was not exclusive to the Dutch in Europe.

And yet, as we were having that quiet dinner, one was aware of the great dilemma that the Dutch, among other people in Europe, are facing, namely, the clash of cultures that has become a staple of European society.

Some distance away from us were a group of Moroccans, also sitting out in the open, who were behaving very differently from those around them.

The quiet evening air was pierced by vociferous shouts of laughter and general merriment which certainly surprised the two of us but which, curiously enough, were (at least apparently) not given any special attention by the local people.

Indeed, such was the boisterousness on display that there were times when the two of us (certainly myself) were getting a bit worried about our own personal safety.

Back home, neither of us would have batted an eyelid at such camaraderie because that is just what we are used to in our everyday lives.

But at The Hague the situation was totally different in short, the group of youngsters was, without a care in the world, being loud and boisterous, much like they would be in their own country, where hardly anything is left unsaid and unstated in the actions and utterances of daily human exchange.

Sitting at that restaurant table on a cool summer evening, the thoughts that occupied my mind centred on the way the Dutch took all this, especially because one felt it was at variance with their social norms.

Were they accepting it with a measure of equanimity because there was no option but to allow these people into their country on humanitarian grounds?

These were people in search of work and a livelihood; people who had left their countries and settled down in affluent societies to make ends meet and even prosper.

The critical issue is: Would we allow such a thing to happen in our own societies? Not forever, one would imagine. Should the Dutch, among others, think the same way, however, there could be a major international social cataclysm.

Ranabir Ray Choudhury

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 16, 2006)
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