02 November 2009

Jai Ho!

I am working with a company which has an office in India. It is used mostly for work that involves technical development and support/ maintenance of existing systems.

This office is staffed by mostly junior level consultants who work under the guidance of a few senior consultants. Most of them have never been outside India, and the lure of being called onsite for short-term assignments is one of the factors that makes many of them stick with the company.

One of the main reasons for an India office is reduction in costs. However, another important reason is also to be able to provide 24X7 support to the company’s clients in the USA. Needless to say, this requires the consultants in India to put in very long hours every day; pardon me, I should say every night! The consultants are also required to get leave/ vacations approved beforehand – not only by the India Office manager, but also by the USA project manager that they are working with at the time of making the leave request.

One of the consultants working with me sent in a leave request recently. This person is a brilliant consultant; he finishes his tasks in double quick time, and then asks for more. However, despite being a brilliant technical mind, he, like many Indians, who have not studied in English-medium schools, writes better English than he speaks. However, he still writes ‘traditional’ English. So his leave application went something like this “Most humbly and respectfully, I beg to state that………………….”. Those of you who did not study in an English-medium school will recognize this style of writing applications as something that you also learned in your high school days.

I never wrote a leave application like this. In fact, I had a minor run-in with my branch manager when I was working for the State Bank of India; this was more than 15 years ago. The branch had run out of standard leave application forms; you just needed to put in the dates for your vacation on these forms and your manager would approve them. As I said, the branch had run out of standard forms, so I just wrote a one-line application asking that I be granted leave for one day for personal reasons. My branch manager was shocked to read that one-line application – it did not make a request; well there was the mandatory ‘Please grant me leave’ part, but there was no hint of a servile request at all in the application, which is what the branch manager was looking for. It was just a regular request; I have leave due to me, grant me that leave. What particularly riled the branch manager was that words/ phrases ‘humbly’, ‘beg to state’, ‘eternally grateful’, 'your most obedient servant' etc. were missing from my leave request.

My colleague’s leave application reminded me of this incident, but it also set me thinking about the origins and/ or possible reasons for this kind of behavior. What kind of behavior? Ok, here it is – that of treating the boss like God, the ‘sarve-sarvaa’ ( a typically Indian phrase which means one with supreme authority over all that (s)he surveys) of your life. Is this something that we have inherited from our colonial past? Or, is this something that has come from our own hierarchical society and the British merely strengthened it?

I believe that it is the latter, although the strengthening made it so much more institutionalized. The British had a vested interest in doing so. They had to rule and that required them to be treated like the superior race, the chosen people. It also required them to constantly remind the lowly Indian of his/ her place in the scheme of things; the closing phrase in application, “I remain, Sir, your most obedient servant” was merely one of the language tools that they employed to good effect. This is in stark contrast to the lack of hierarchy in the English language. Notice that there is no respectful form of ‘You' in English, like we have in many Indian languages, ‘Aap’ is the respectful form of ‘You’ in Hindi, and is used for elders and people who enjoy a higher station in life than you do.

So, what impact does this have in our regular day-to-day life? There’s no doubt that Indian society is still very hierarchical and that this hierarchy is all-pervasive – it is also here in our work culture. We fawn over our bosses, and generally do not question their judgment / decisions. As a result, the decisions made are not necessarily the best decisions. I am sure that there is much more; more on that sometime later.

What can we do about this? How do we make our society, our workplaces less hierarchical? How do we promote more open debate and less of reverential dogma that passes for good decisions?

Looking for answers.


  1. Good observation and you did try to take a dig to our traditional way of writing an application and using the "Sir" while addressing the seniors in India. I remember that back in India I had seen a worker standing up while taking a call from his big boss in the steel manufacturing company. That mark of respect had sunk in so deep inside him that had become his second nature so much so that even though his senior was not even in closest of the sights, he still got up - something any junior or subordinate does even now back in India as a mark of respect to his seniors. Submission to anyone who appears to be superior has been the way in Indian tradition. Bowing down, touching the feet, saying "huzur" "sarkar" or "malik", standing up when a senior came nearby, not talking with eye contact, addressing superiors when called by name with Mr./Mrs. in front of their names or calling the name with Sahib/ji at the end and the list goes on and on- have been a very common tradition till date in India. The feudalistic past in India has definitely a lot to contribute to this which has continued in the mainstream and was definitely exploited quite effectively by British when they slowly spread their control over Indian society. Though I must point out here that the tradition of submission goes much beyond the last 300-400 years in Indian society that British Raj was in control with. However, the traditional English which was brought in India had its own orthodox etiquettes and way of addressing - His Excellency, His Holiness, My Lord, The Right Honorable, Respected Sir, beg a pardon and list goes on and one- some still used in the liberal American society to show the politeness! I guess, English in India has been "arrested" to the time when it was brought in, all other places including England where it had come from moved on but Indian English chose to "preserve" the old style till date. Hopefully with Internet and electronic media being accessible to majority of Indians, I am very hopeful that it will undergo a sea change in very short length of time. You may have noticed though, most of the Indians "mean" something else even though they write in the old traditional way - particularly when it comes to office culture. Most of the people have best four letter words kept reserved for their superiors when it comes done to address them in their own circle - call it hypocrisy or double standards in Indian society but they have not been able to transform themselves yet. Ironically the same set of people when go up on the ladder, expect something similar which they had themselves found uncomfortable- when were on the other side of the fence. It will be interesting to see that with India fast developing as an emerging economy, when the Indian leaders have to lead at the international arena - will they be able to lead as someone from within as a team player or will they try to impose the culture they have been so used to - the Indian way of being the Lord in the office!

  2. Why not you try to expand upon it and try to reach to the core of problem? You are just touching the scratch here.

    To really excel, we need to break a lot of things in india including the country itself. This is unwieldy structure serving only as an easy-to-manage market to european companies. A big flux and heavy movement of population is must.

    Some solutions.
    Without bothering for the brain drain, we should encourage more and more populace to move within and out of india. Encourage everyone to spend at least 3-4 years of their education life in some residential institution.

    Dismantle Delhi and throw its populace into different parts of india. It is a big drag on india. That city should be wiped from history pages.

    If english is needed to survive, then lets promote it openly.

    One should feel ashamed of being housewife. This is another form of slavery. And slaves never add anything of lasting value. And if 50% are glorified slaves, what can happen.

    Be aggressive and assert ourself in indian ocean. Build military industrial complex and indulge in few wars like Indira gandhi did.

    Blood needs to warm up again in our veins.

    We are too timid and stay servile to equally timid & clueless managers. And for that, populace must face hardship and especially eastern india. People learn only from hardship. There is no such thing as work-life balance or politically-correct concepts. We must re-learn to fight. Throw it to wolves. Few will die, but then fittest remaining ones will have better quality of life rather than condemned to sub-standard life with sub-standard mentality.