Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Officially Anti Social

In my school text book many years back I read that Man is a social animal. I have strong objections against this sentence of 5 words. First why “animal”? Second -what about women? Third and most important, I do not agree with this sweeping statement- not all men (and women) are social by nature. I am very sure I am one of those confirmed anti- socials who are a misfit in any social gathering. I do not understand why such a simple fact is so hard to get. I think this too should be blamed to the school teaching which makes all of us believe that all humans enjoy social gatherings.

I have already shared my awkwardness in attending weddings on this blog. I think my readers would sympathize with me when I say that I dread invitations for lunches and dinners in my office mail. Let me tell you that those who dislike socializing are the most aggrieved and misunderstood group in any organization- may be even in the world. They do not cause any harm, wants to be left alone and yet are considered for some unknown reason, a threat to the organization. We are those who find company of office colleagues and bosses beyond office hours and beyond office work tiring. Yet the uncomprehending majority imposes its own gregarious expectations on us compelling incessant socializing, enthusiastic party-going, and easy shooting of the breeze as norms. I wonder why, our quiet, introspective ways can’t be viewed not as a deviation from standard, but as a different kind of normal.

As long as I was at a small station, these socializing with office colleagues were minimal and it suited me perfectly. Then I came to Delhi and things changed. Delhi follows a very different social code. Here calling on, official lunches and dinners, catching up with colleagues and the underlying networking is widespread. People do seem to look forward to these occasions in bureaucratic circles. To make the matter worse, they notice the absentees. I am expected to have a proper reason for not showing up at farewells and parties, Diwali meet and Holi Milan, New Year High Tea etc etc. That is a tough matter to manage…more so because such events are frequent. At least they seem frequent to me. I mean how often I can schedule a meeting to clash with a party or call my hubby or myself “fallen ill”. How frequently guests are expected at home on the same day and how many leaves I can take just to skip a social meet during the day. I wonder why I can’t be simply spared. No, I do not want my organization to be like my family.

I guess, people with my kind of philosophy did exert themselves in recent times. As a result, about a month back, the Top boss in a meeting rebuked all the absentees (without taking any names) and then looking straight at me issued a milder version of fatwa to refrain from such childish failed-to-turn-ups in future. He seems to think, we avoid socials dos because of laziness. We do not give enough importance to fraternize, to be like a big happy family at workplace. Now, there seems to be no escape!!! But how do I explain to others that I do not want to share meals and small talks with colleagues and bosses. That I feel miserable in such parties and for the life of me cannot appear happy. More than anything, I have no interest in knowing what others in the organization are up to and no, trivia about bosses’ interest does not work as a good appetizer for me. Most of the time when others are entertaining me with tidbits of their past official feats and great aesthetic interests, I do not even appear keen to listen. I mean I do try to pretend but after a while they all sound so same.

It seems in Delhi, people love to meet people-who-matter (read bosses) and they love to eat outside food (however tasteless) and are never bored of same kind of office gossip. I hardly find anyone talking anything interesting and away from work in these parties. On most occasions, to my horror, the music is too loud for any sensible conversation. I mean how long you can exchange pleasantries and praise one another’s clothes. But I realize that I am in minority – anti socials always are! So this dilemma continues.

But then being an uninterested and unattached observer of happenings, I am able to catch what I term top five themes of every official -social get together. Interestingly, most sarkari get-togethers have these invariably.

For some it is yet another opportunity to show off their fine clothes and choice of accessories. Many women flock together and exclaim to each other praising sarees, pearls, handbags etc. Recently some metrosexual men (with purple scarves and even pink sweaters) have also joined the gang. I call this theme Showcasing wardrobe.

Then comes the biggies with “I am great” written all over their forehead. They are great in work, they are great in party. They have finest taste in wine and they know the best poetry. Well, at least they think they do!!! They demand and get attention because of their position and then go on and on about their unusual feats in office projects, their revolutionary ideas about how others should do their work and the accolades they received from the other greats. In brief, they love to enlighten you about themselves and think you should be grateful to get a glimpse of their fascinating life and times. I call this type Ophthalmologists – the ‘I’- specialists.

A big group is there to get free /subsidized food and booze and gossip about other colleagues. They are recognizable by their ready to please smiles whenever a boss crosses their way. They promptly show their face to all big bosses and their wives and then settle down with glasses in hand in one corner. For rest of the evening they remain oblivious with the proceedings. They appear only when the food is laid on table. Except for their gossip part for first one hour, they are a likeable and focused group in my opinion. With clear priorities and good intention, they settle down to make merry. After an hour of course, alcohol speaks and speaks too much.

The most mobile group however is of people on a mission. Mission to get attention, mission to please one particular boss, mission to build bridges, mission to register presence or for pure and simple networking. They get down to their business as soon as the party starts. Some of them even overdo themselves. They try to talk loudly, even try to play semi-host by inviting others to drink, dance etc. They volunteer for work also. For an observer like me, they are good entertainment. I look at them and try to guess their mission. Usually I am not off the mark. Believe me it’s a funny way to while away time in such hopeless situation.

Then of course there are loners like me- unfit in any group and generally confused with the happenings around them. Some play with phones, others try to engage in talks, few vanish in the corners and wait the torture to end. They are generally first to leave. They often call back home and are found standing silently in the groups looking intently in the glass/ plate.

Yesterday, I was still recovering from my birthday cum New Year euphoria and missed out two official occasions. In the heart of my heart I know, it was intentional but I was too reckless to even think of an excuse. First thing in the morning, I got a censure from a colleague. I am sure more will follow and to save the situation, I would have to be doubly VISIBLE in the next such occasion. Till they realise the futility of making me forced-social , I see no escape from boring evenings , routine pleasantaries and unappetising conversations .  How very pathetic!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Maid in India

Two days before the New Year an Indian couple, now living in Singapore, visited my house. When I invited them in and said that there is no need to take off their shoes, the wife exclaimed that such luxury is possible only on a Friday. I could not really get her, till I learnt that in her house the help visits only on a Friday to clean and for rest of the week they have to be very careful about dirtying the floor. It got me thinking about the luxury of being served, of having a maid, a help, a dhobi and a chauffeur. In India, mostly, we do not realise the importance of these essential elements of our daily life.
In Kolkata, where I first set up my house independently after marriage, I was amazed to find that even housewives do not cook anymore. Neither do most people do their own laundry (despite having fully automatic washing machines at home!). Of course babies need ayahs to mind them and a driver is a must even for a small hatchback car. Very amusingly the term used to define the serving people is “Kaajer Lok”- the people who work. It is almost like that literally – they work and the rest pay. Kolkata is not alone. All Indian cities today have the same “can’t-survive-without-maid” trend. Not that it was very different in the previous generation. I can now understand how spoilt and feudal the Englishman must have felt during their stay in colonial India. They had power to keep an army of servants – and soon they made it a way of life.
One finds many versions of these server-served relationships in a typical urban setting today.  There are full time maids/servants and part time ones. All in one – servant and specialised mali, dhobi, cook etc. They also join the families at different age groups. Some are teenagers. Some are women with families; others are single men who have families back in the villages. Sometimes entire family is in the business of serving in different capacities. Some live with the “master’s” family, others in the outhouse and some even independently on their own. Some eat with the family they work for, some don’t.  But then there are many commonalities as well. They are expected to be obedient and quick, unquestioning and silent. They speak when spoken to. Their needs come at last in sleeping, eating and rest.

 It is somewhere in our genes.  We love to have people to lord over. If you are born in a certain affluent class – you expect the servility from these workers unquestioningly. Why only domestic helpers – even in hotels and trains, how many of us say “ thank you “ to those who serve or for that matter, even acknowledge their presence by a nod or smile. There is an underlying, unspoken acceptance of their inferiority in “class”. Sounds very feudal isn’t it? Many stories of exploitation of domestic help, inhuman treatment of children working as help must have crossed your mind. They are mostly true. The sad part is that somewhere in our heart, we also expect the children of these workers- inferior to our own. We kind of assume that as our children will replace us in professions, they will replace their parents. In India like most other such complex societies, we do not expect a certain section of society (read poor) to dream. To our convenience we would always like some people lesser privileged than us.  We have a different yardstick to measure their Dos and Don’ts.  The existence of servants in a house is taken as a status symbol.  The new affluence is often recognised by the neighbourhood when an expensive full time maid is hired by the family. 
But then things are changing even for them. The old days of family retainers that lived in servitude of a family for a lifetime are increasingly a fading memory, and today's generation of servants are very clear that this is not their eventual goal in life, and most certainly this is not what they are preparing their next generation for. Most send their kids to school and hope a better future for them some day. I often feel that it’s not them but us who needs this retinue of workers to do our daily chores. That we ill-treat or look down upon them is doubly unfortunate because it’s us who are unskilled to run our lives, look after our kids, cook our food and clean our houses. Interestingly, we are also the ungrateful ones who love to circulate stories about criminality, callousness and unpredictability of our servants to somehow portray as if we are the victims of bad services at a high cost.
 In reality, we often rate the work done by them with a soap opera like evil Mom-in law. No amount of sincerity and hard work satisfies us (it’s a given ....we pay them money after all!) but an isolated case of negligence is worth quoting as often as possible. Oh yes, fascism starts at home.
But that is just one side of the story. There is a bright side of this relationship too. The side which often takes a comical turn . The side which found portrayal in the media and literature too .

In a typical middle class urban setting, maids are also big binding force. A colleague with whom I share my maid rightly claims that we are “maid-sisters”- persons who share the woes and stories of maids. Maids are also great company to many people living alone. They supply information and stories about neighbours free of cost. For many of us they are a mirror to the rest of the society. Their family life, their beliefs, their compulsions- there is so much to learn and compare. I have very fond memories of people who worked in our family in different capacities and became almost like family members. Many keep in touch even decades after the employer –employee relation was over. Some of the skilled gardeners in my parents’ house are responsible for my love for gardening. Some of the “family” recipes actually came from the cooks we had at different stations and are always credited to them. I had my driving lessons from my father’s chauffeur and my mom cannot complete one story about my childhood without mention of one or the other help she had at that time.
There have been many depictions in literature and movies of this servant- master relationships. Some comical and some bittersweet. Some even tragic. I still remember one short story titled Bahadur in our course syllabus is school. Bahadur is often the nickname of people from hills or Nepal coming to serve in the cities. The story tells about one such boy who was working faithfully in a family as domestic help till a false charge of theft leads to his expulsion. The story depicts the sad tale of unequal and often unfair relationship that exists between the two classes . It is still  a relationship which largely depends on the benevolence of the master rather than a fair work contract .

Recently, my poor maid went through hell of a time because of her family and health problems. None of this ever made her even one inch less sincere in attending to her work. So much so that at times I had to warn her from overdoing her bit. Undoubtedly, it takes a superior heart to adopt an unknown family with such sincerity as she has adopted mine. These domestics practically run the show at home, especially in the metros where both husband and wife are in busy earning the family bread. Their world would go topsy-turvy if these servants The numerous maids who rear children of others with care and affection while the mothers go to work/ party are contributing much more to the society than we can measure in purely material terms.  It is they who give us the taste of “home-made food”. Children often learn their language more from the maids and nannies than from the parents. It is because of these men and women that today’s young couple manage their newly set up homes. And yet we consider that we are the masters and mistresses of their fate!