A typical Indian Babu knows no obligations lower than his/her own rank. Rank though s/he may be, s/he will enforce the Golden Rule of Babutopia (GRB): “Kick downwards, lick upwards.” This is also called the Brown Sahib Syndrome; BSS is GRB with a melanin-twist: criticise, trample, kick anything native (read brown), and honour, extol, lick anything foreign (read white). My language is harsh, but it is the reality I see even after all these years of post-colonial, independent India, when we are rather kicking some international butt, even if in a limited sense.
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Take this episode for instance.
A few years ago, I was in an Eastern State (ES) conducting certain official duties, these consisting of addressing a group of about 15 educators (teachers, principals, etc.) in the conference room of the premises of the Concerned Department. The Concerned Department was footing the bill for this mini-jamboree, and the larger one of which this was a small part.
I was told that the Principal Chief whatnot Officer who is also the Head of the whatnot Force is in a Meeting (yes, the capital M was implied in the awed hushed tones of the junior Babu who confided in us). I was further told that he has another meeting at 10.30 am. I nodded sagely, implying, “Well! These things will happen,” in the tone that Sir Humphrey Appleby used to talk down to the Rt. Hon. James Hacker, PM.
But there was more information on Sir’s itinerary. In between the current Meeting and the next Meeting, Sir would come to our mini-jamboree and attend ‘for few minutes’. Were it only true! I could even accommodate ‘a’ few minutes. However, in Babutopia, Time is an elastic entity. Highly malleable, but in accordance with the GRB; it favours only those from the level in question and upwards. In other words, the lower echelons’ time is worthless and that of the higher extremely valuable, and most generously and graciously bestowed on the lower.
I was advised by my local colleague, in suitably hushed tones, “When he comes here, please pause in your presentation and acknowledge him.” “After all, he is the one wielding the pen that signs off on our funding,” was discreetly left unsaid.
I am becoming wise to the ways of the world. I nodded sagely again.
It was a day for sage nodding.
Duly alerted, I entered the Sanctum and began my spiel; it being planned to cover exactly four interactive hours, and to elicit certain clear outcomes from the participants.
About 20% of the way into my presentation, where I was holding forth on the difference between teaching a subject and teaching a discipline in schools, the participants looked still on this side of the veil, though beginning to show preliminary signs of a collective coma.
The joy of these damned PowerPoint presentations: I don’t see what is going on at the fringes of the audience space. Yes, it’s all geography.
I sensed, though I didn’t see, movement in the back area beyond the conference table. Soon, my colleague whispered in my ear, “He is here!” I said, “H’m?” She replied, “Mr. Whatnot is here.”
So, with my Back Home (i.e. American) attitude nicely blending with quaint Indian mores, I said aloud, addressing no one in particular, “I am told that Mr. Whatnot is here with us”, sounding like a seer at a séance announcing a visitation by a dearly departed from The Other Side.
The audience did not seem overly disturbed by this. ‘Been there, done that’, about summed up their reaction.
“I am glad you could join us. I am told you have another meeting to go to soon. Still, you made time to join us. Thanks for that. Thanks for supporting our project also,” I said loudly to him. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was around.
15 to 20 necks slowly turned to the back of the room to glimpse this visitation.
The Entity leapt out of the chair it was occupying.
He raced forward with what I thought was ungraceful haste; nothing Nutcracker or Swan Lake or Bhāmā Kalāpam about this movement.
He raced up to the front. “Thank you, sir. If you don’t mind, I would like to say few words.” Again the missing ‘a’ in front of the ‘few’! Grudgingly, I mumbled, “Oh, sure,” in a manner remarkably similar to Bertie Wooster giving in to an aunt’s unreasonable demand.
Mr Whatnot suddenly realised he had no idea where he was or what he was doing. This is a condition that is common to those caught in the upper echelons of Babutopia. At this point, he turned to my colleague and urgently whispered, “What is this meeting about?” The huge banner hanging on the wall right in front of him failed to register, evidently. Colleague whispered back a précis of the meeting. He seemed to vaguely grasp it.
Turning to me, he asked quite loudly, though I was inches from him, “Sir, if you don’t mind, I am having one PowerPoint presentation, I would like to use your laptop to show slides and make few remarks, if you don’t mind, just some comments 20 minutes of your time I will take, if you don’t mind…”
I guess I didn’t mind.
Much flurried activity of inserting pen drive, finding the folder, clicking on things… meanwhile, what of the audience, you ask? They had resigned themselves to the situation.
Mr Whatnot gave an impassioned speech illustrated with some pretty good slides (some even had maps), peppered with quotations from erudite sources (another Babuvian affliction; quoting famous dead Personalities), and interjecting many of his opinions. It was a version of the blitzkrieg that we used to call a sitzkrieg when I was in graduate school, and our chairman would hold forth on the inadvisibility of standing on chairs. (I kid you not!)
I rather enjoyed his presentation. It was informative. However, I had two complaints: he spoke with a not-enough-of-an-Eastern-State accent (which I love to hear), and he was cutting in on my time. The topic was tangentially relevant to the topic about which I was addressing the audience, but only barely.
But the vision of him with a pen poised on various dotted lines that could benefit us held me in check.
Mid-way through his presentation, his mobile phone rang. He answered, gave curt instructions to some underling on where to go and what to do. The phone rang a second and third time. The third time, he was most deferential. Clearly, someone higher than him was on the line. After a few sentences, Mr Whatnot confined himself to saying, “Sssuh!” every 21 seconds. This lasted about two minutes.
Audience? One word: limbo!
I felt like an Eminent Broadcaster abhorring dead air, live on television.
With a hastily muttered half-apology, we were informed that the caller was ‘senior person, chief secretary’; to whom or what was omitted and none of us felt the slightest curiosity to ask him.
On he soldiered, with his presentation. In due course, I heard him valiantly issuing a Clarion Call to the participants that they should make sure that their students learned about the topic of his presentation and became active in its protection and sustenance.
Then came the crowning hilarity. He said, “I am sorry I have to run to meeting now.” No, not ‘a’ meeting. “But I can give two-three minutes if you are having any questions.” Before anyone realised he had finished his few remarks and that he was off to another meeting, he muttered his thanks to me and vanished.
More rapidly than Jeeves does, but certainly more of a ‘whoosh’ than that legendary shimmerer.
After a dazed silence, a huge discussion erupted among the audience on various points of Mr Whatnot’s presentation. I had to hastily remind them that he is no longer among those present and that I had nothing to do with his presentation.
Eventually, order was restored. Mainly by me making increasingly impolite interjections beginning with Jeeves’ respectful cough when wishing to address the congregated masses and progressing rapidly towards, but stopping short of, “Oi! I say! Here! Cheese it!”
Oh, blustering Babutopia!