In the 1997 Hollywood comedy ‘Liar Liar’, Fletcher Reede (Jim Carrey) is afflicted by a strange condition that leaves him incapable of lying for 24 hours – his son’s birthday wish comes true. Cashing in on the opportunity, one of his rivals in office asks him to tell his boss what he actually thinks of him. This is what liar, er, lawyer Fletcher had to say:
“He’s a pedantic, pontificating, pretentious bas**rd, a belligerent old fart, a worthless steaming pile of cow dung, figuratively speaking”
Some of us may have held a similar view of our bosses or somebody senior, but since we didn’t take the truth serum, we use the alternative expression – Sir 😀
In the 1979 Hrishikesh Mukherjee classic ‘Golmaal’, Ramprasad Dashrathprasad Sharma who is desperate for a job warms up to his potential employer, industrialist Bhavani Shankar, with a phoney moustache and a buttery ‘Sirrr’ with great results. In the same movie, ‘Lucky’ – his real self (a double role essayed brilliantly by Amol Palekar) falls foul of the same boss with his long hair, clean shaven face, bell bottoms and irreverent attitude. Through most of the movie, Bhavani Shankar is baying for Lucky’s blood while extolling the deferential twin brother.
Growing up in a family with three other siblings, our elders always rued the fact that we called each other by name, regardless of the years that separated us. “Why don’t you use the suffix ‘etta’ (elder brother) or ‘chechi’ (elder sister) while addressing your elder brother or sister? it cultivates respect” was their constant gripe. We had other ideas. Then came Naval Academy and a military career of 25 years. Anybody even a month senior became ‘Sir’, their spouses became ‘Ma’am’, regardless of the most wonderful names from Indian mythology that their parents had chosen for them. I was initiated into the ‘Sir Culture’.
As a civilization that respects experiential knowledge, Indians hold the ‘Guru-Shishya Parampara’ in high esteem. In this tradition, knowledge is passed from guru to shishya through the spiritual, intellectual and emotional bond between them. Flow of knowledge is one-way only. Such a relationship requires the shishya to be obedient and devoted to the guru, a sort of unconditional surrender. This tradition lies at the heart of ancient Indian culture & learning. Then came the British and their oppression. They wanted white-collar clerks who were Indian in colour but English in their tastes and mannerisms. Under colonial raj, all Englishmen became ‘Sir’ or ‘Saheb’. Somewhere in the transition to a modern India, the parampara was all but obfuscated. Now we associate ‘Sir’ with respect. Names are for equals. While the British have long moved on, we continue to excel in subservience.
I am not sure if this is a military thing but the ‘Sir Culture’ usually pervades steeply hierarchical organisations in India, particularly those that are wholly or partly government-owned, & Public Sector Undertakings. These are generally relics from the colonial era or the period immediately thereafter that have endured for decades without breaking the mould. Don’t believe me? Go to any Indian post office, State Bank of India or Police chowky. ‘Sir busy hain’ (Sir is busy), or ‘Madam se poochna padega’ (I will have to ask Madam) are common refrains to any query! Babudom and bureaucracy reign supreme here and calling superiors by name is taboo. And yes, many wheels in the government machinery do not turn without ‘gurudakshina’ or ‘chai paani’ 🙂
To be fair, some institutions like the military require clear chain of command & unquestioning loyalty. All hell will break loose if we tinker with military protocol or blindly ape the West that has a different culture and ethos. If our troops were allowed to question every decision, nobody would have battled impossible odds like the Indian Army did while flushing out well-entrenched militants and regular Pakistani troops who had infiltrated into Indian positions at altitudes over 16-18,000 feet in the Kargil sector (Operation Vijay, 1999). Such episodes of action punctuate long periods of peace when all that goes on is training and more training.
In my experience, the overriding importance given to protocol and honorifics stymies original thought, professional dissent and innovation in organisations steeped in the ‘Sir Culture’. Classic examples are meetings. Discussions tend to be ‘steered’ by seniors who talk down rather than talk to you, people listen to question rather than understand, egos clash, with the senior lot reeling under seniority stupor. In such a situation, how can we hope to encourage young minds to contribute – let alone flesh out – that nugget of a ‘disruptive idea’ playing in their minds?
Then again, why carry this protocol all the way to the grave? Military personnel seem to be most prone to this culture and are unable to come to terms with first names without the rank and ‘sir’ even decades after retirement. Some even load the respectful Hindi suffix ‘Ji’ to Sir and go “Hulloo, Sirji!” Who hasn’t heard bloopers like ‘Admiral Sir’, ‘Captain Sir’ and even ‘Mrs. C-in-C’? Heavens!
When my son recently mentioned Shashank in a discussion, I asked him which grade Shashank belonged to. Turns out Shashank was one of their professors – an Oxford-educated scholar. Students in Azim Premji University are encouraged to address all faculty, including the Director, by first name. They have no-holds-barred discussion on all topics; nothing is off the table. I have seen the difference in him after attending first semester. He no longer takes my advice as Holy Grail. Neither do I profess to hold all the answers.
The questioning atmosphere under which modern students live and grow leaves them less amenable to the ‘Sir Culture’. Why not leave the ‘Sir’ baggage where it belonged and move with the times? You will likely see invisible barriers to communication come crashing down. Free exchange of ideas get a boost and egos get checked at the door. Try it at least once if you think your office is plagued by the ‘Sir Culture’. Maybe your boss may yet approve it. Like Fletcher Reede’s boss tells him after his outburst “I like your style, Reede! That’s just what this stuffy company needs – a little irreverence!”
Here, enjoy some ‘plain speak’! Warning: Do not copy Fletcher’s reply to his boss!
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2017. All rights reserved. Movie clip courtesy Youtube.