Sunday, May 23, 2010

We Live By Designations, Honorifics

Have you ever noticed how designations, honorifics, ranks and awards are bandied about and hurled at us, lesser mortals, literally at the drop of a hat by the blessed souls who are the abled (or even otherwise) recipient of any of these largesse? It is a marvel that we have come to accept this as something given, and to flaunt these as the inalienable right of these august denizens. We have never tried to peel off this fa├žade of pretence and see the real him/her.

I am not sure if I am making my point. Let me get more tangible to simplify things. A couple of years ago I was representing my department in a workshop held under the aegis of the Administrative Reforms Commission. I had two rather out-of-the-box ideas battling in my mind for long. One was getting rid of the tag of permanent civil service and making it contractual, renewable every five or seven or ten years depending on good performance. Only the exceptionally brilliant and dedicated could be tenured after proven track record. The other was – and this is what would raise the hackles of many of my confreres – making the public servants sit, not metaphorically but in actuality in glass-panelled rooms. This would be transparency – real and virtual.

I thought I could try out the second idea in an empirical sense before I went to the workshop. I called a friend holding a senior post in the government of India long-distance from home and announced my name to his Private Secretary (PS) and asked him to put me through to my friend. The PS asked me, “Where’re you speaking from?”
I said without any hesitation that I was speaking from my home in Bangalore.
He hemmed and hawed and then after a minute told me that “Saab is in a meeting” and called off.

Ten minutes later, I asked my PS to call the senior officer, and put me through to him. He came on the line pronto, whereupon I asked him if his meeting had got over. “What meeting?” he expressed surprise. “I’ve had no meeting. I’m alone – going through the newspaper and shooting the breeze!” I told him my experiment and the import of it: how designations and office (not home) are the open sesame to reach out to senior officers in government! We laughed heartily.

Don’t you smile mischievously – swearing pox-on-your-face mandarins in your throat. If you thought this happens only in the government sector, please wait awhile. It happens across the board in the private sectors as well unless of course your name rings a bell or the corporate honcho or his underlings is out to sell his ware, in which case he will promptly take your call. This is indeed a human malaise.

We, at least in India, live by designations, ranks, honorifics, awards all our lives – this life at least – well past our sell-by dates. All of us are at least aware of some famed (or otherwise) citizen bestowed an honoris causa doctorate from some assiduous university to flaunt the degree unabashedly before his/her name. In my childhood we grew up amused to learn one of the editors of a regional daily – who was not even a matriculate – who took periodic umbrage to his being referred and introduced to people without the mandatory Dr. prefixed to his name. Ahem, it was as though the august university who had conferred the degree was gratuitously offended! Box such impulses with the real doctorates recognized by the society for their inherent qualities of head and heart who never deign it necessary to prefix the honorific to their names and you know what I mean.

The problem then has to do with recognition or the lack of it. Even security or lack of it. Jobs – government or corporate – provide the prop of identity and security all our working lives; without it what is left is just the name, and what’s in a name that can’t command attention, unless you are one of the famed ones who needs no introduction? And remember: the more the culture of command and servility, the more the need for such psychological props. This is why you will see service officers hanging on precariously to the rank they last held before being transferred to the pension establishment.

I’ve often wondered why a retired gentleman should flaunt his last designation, retired tucked in small font within brackets, to the world when he has a name and a face to show up. I wouldn’t like to say it shows a complex – superior or inferior – but it is a complex all the same. I’m inclined to cross Oedipal and Electra here and call this – for lack of a better combo – Oeditra complex. It is a man’s or a woman’s passionate obsession with progeny – read life after the D-Day – that merits notice. My cousin, otherwise a sensible man who has much to rave about in terms of achievement in life beyond the olive green, can’t live down his rank even 33 years later though he was a Captain in the Indian army just for a few months before gracing civilian life after his short service commission stint.

Mercifully this malaise hasn’t invaded the civilian establishment as yet. Otherwise, we will have ubiquitous Secretary/Addl Secretary/Joint Secretary (Retd) of central and state governments and all kinds of designations different departments/establishments can conjure up, being flaunted to make their presence felt to stay visible. And amid this pell-mell of designations, ranks, all retired, the common man would be one hell of a confused soul – lost and seeking out his moorings. For Chrissake, can we rid this malaise – a malaise as dangerous as the red beacon atop every car tearing down the road with meretricious visibility to massage the uncertain ego of the precious cargo lurking inside it?

Before I end this piece, I must narrate the mother of hilarity as far as this genre of designations and awards go. This was when I worked in an office in Pune that looked after the personal entitlements of all army officers. One irate officer, riled with some perceived wrong in his account committed by my office, demanded to speak to me. He told me his name (of course his designation preceding it) and the awards conferred on him: VSM, Bar. He told me in the same breath that he was speaking from Gangtok and was trying frantically to speak to me the last few days. The line was faint and disturbed and I could barely hear him; I was praying the line held till he conveyed his problem. Notwithstanding my apprehensions and indeed his own as well, he hadn’t forgotten to mention his awards! Befuddled, I asked him innocently if he hadn’t had any AVSM or PVSM to go with his name. He replied blithely “No” and raced ahead, unmoved – his mind lost to my pun and barbed innuendo. So much for our sabre-rattling egos! Amen!

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