Thursday, March 15, 2007

Of Garb and Barb

IT WAS a hot summer day in May in the late 1960's -- three decades before Badagara became Vatakara. The sleepy little town woke up to the sight of a young man walking purposefully towards its central section. Attired differently from those around, he commanded the attention of all eyes.

He located the building with the signboard in blue enamel, much like the signboards of T. A. S. Pattanam Podi and the Life Insurance Corporation of India. It was his first day in the bank where he had been offered appointment as an officer. Vijayakumar was born and brought up in Hyderabad and had worked for a few years in Mumbai. He knew that executives were required to conform to a dress code -- though power-dressing had not become buzzword yet -- and had worn a pin-striped shirt with a pair of cuff-links, a conservative tie and a deep blue suit.

Govinda Menon, the branch manager, a portly old gentleman, got up from his seat and welcomed him, for such a person could not obviously be taken lightly. It could be a big boss whom he did not know, an inspecting official from the Reserve Bank or a tycoon who had strayed into the bank. Whoever he was, he was important. Introductions over, he was directed to Prakash Mullassery who had joined the bank a year earlier and to whom Vijayakumar would be understudy to.

One of the first things he told Vijayakumar was that in this part of the country, only medical representatives and mad men wore suits. Prakash recalls that it took some time for him to `educate' the novitiate who was rather puritanical in his conviction about sartorial propriety.
That was one end of the spectrum. The experience Varadarajan narrated was of a different type.

A middle level officer then, he was assigned the task of surprise verification of a one-man branch of the bank located in a suburban coastal village. After banking hours, the officer-in-charge had all the afternoon to write up the accounts for the day. When Varadarajan reached the branch, it was past banking hours.

The verification exposed nothing untoward on the official front. The report of Varadarajan, however, had an innocuous comment, "The officer-in-charge is advised to be properly attired during non-banking working hours". Pressed for elaboration of what transpired to be the understatement of 1971, Varadarajan confided, "When I went in, he was seated in his chair, legs resting on the table, wearing a thin towel around his midriff and anointing himself liberally with balaaguluchyaadi oil." That was the other extreme.

Somewhere in the middle of these preferences is the story of Mammen Joseph. In 1974, on the anniversary of the formation of Kerala, Mammen, another probationary officer, reported for work in Kollam branch in a voile jubba, ecru-coloured double dhoti and sandals that squeaked, wearing a gold chain round his neck. Sebastian, the branch manager, espied, sitting in his cabin, the young officer walk into the office.

Before he settled down at his desk, Mammen was summoned and Sebastian thundered, "Have you come for work or for a wedding reception?"

Trembling like a leaf, Mammen mumbled something about Kerala Day but the boss would have none of it. Mammen was bundled out of the office with instructions to get back "decently dressed".

Can you imagine how martinets such as Sebastian would have reacted to find young men in office wearing fluorescent shirts or sleeveless T-shirts or with an adornment on just one of his ears? Or a sweet young thing in body-hugging skivvies and knee-tickling skirts? To say that he would have revolted is to state the obvious. But then, he'd have to hold his horses, for these twenty-somethings are only practising what they have been doing in IIMs and other hallowed temples of lofty management education they have graduated from.

They have seen photographs of students of Harvard and Kellogg's Business Schools in bermudas and shaggy T-shirts. If Wharton and Yale are doing it, can Gurgaon and Jamshedpur be far behind? But then little do they know that even the top B-schools in India have realised that bohemianism is passé and have reverted to a code of conduct in this area, though not too rigid.

The unconventionality is not limited to matters sartorial. The puritans find the way the youngsters speak on the telephone and greet customers distasteful. Maj. Pillai just cannot stand the direct sales agents who address him by his initials, lopping off both his rank and his surname in one fell swoop. Mrs. Menon says, "The casual-sounding `Yeah' from the service-station which takes care of my limousine is off-putting, to say the least."

Westernised youngsters sprinkle their conversation with numerous scatological references that might have been fashionable in colleges but not in formal settings. So much so that when the participant in a popular quiz programme on the telly realised in the `oh-no-second' that the answer she blurted turned out to be wrong, she spat out the forbidden word.

Haven't we often come across those who pepper their conversation with expletives, reminding us of the Watergate tapes which, with `expletives deleted', it is said, would shrink to one-fourth its size? A member of the team deputed by the reputed software development company to the U.S., Sharad Kumar Saxena had seen colleagues, seniors and juniors alike, addressing each other by first names, such as Martin, Phyllis, not Mr Baker and Miss Stone, leave alone `sirring' the boss as we do in Indian offices at the drop of a hat. He too picked up the habit and imported it to India when he was assigned the leader's role in a project in India. Soon enough, Saxena realised that we tend to exploit that air of informality and convert it into a back-slapping kind of familiarity and banter. "On the contrary, most of us like to address our bosses as Gops or Sam or Krish or whatever, but do not want to be Ash or Neddy to our juniors," argues Ashwin Nedungadi, another geek.

"It is not that, by any stretch of imagination," says Jaya John. "My boss discovers by chance that I am known in the family circles as Ammu and tucks away that information in the folds of his brain. When he extracts it and addresses me as Ammu in inter-departmental meetings, I seethe with rage as if he has made a pass at me!"

Sophie, a paramedic in a big private hospital, had to make a conscious effort, she admits, to avoid the `Yaar' from her conversations with doctors, patients and their relatives. Though belonging to the `me-generation' that describes itself as bindaas, she was quick to see the point when a senior surgeon dropped a subtle hint that each profession has its own convention in the choice of words and salutations.

For every Sophie, there are a dozen others who do not realise that words like `S-a-l-a-h!' are a strict no-no in the pristine portals of centenarian institutions where everyone has to be prim and propah. If some find the language unacceptable, it is the body language -- whether it is the manner of banging the briquette of cassata on the table or flinging the small change with your purchase across the counter -- that others find offensive.

There is a subtle difference between informality and disrespect, as pointed out at a prestigious hotel by an elderly guest who ticked off an employee for being too informal for his liking.
There is an object lesson in protocol and propriety, dress and demeanour for all of us to learn from that.

No comments: