AKA “Quick, shhh! The Big-boss has just entered….”

I was on the Tata-Dhan Academy vehicle the other day (or, as they like to call it, the “vee-kul”) and one of the passengers was the head of our organization. There was a notable hush over everyone in the van as we sat there waiting for the last members to shut down their computers and pack up to leave. Yet this is a time that most of the passengers chit-chat, play music on their mobile phones, finger drum on the seats, and generally enjoy themselves at the day’s end. But in front of me, two of my colleagues are whispering so quietly that I would guess their actual means of communication was by reading each other’s lips.

Today, I asked one of them about it.

“What can I say Ananda?” was the response. “I guess I would say we do it out of respect.”

“How is that?” I ask. No, really, I don’t understand—I’m not just trying to make my colleague’s life difficult. It’s just that everything here gets explained either as being out of respect or because it’s their culture. Like why they all have such a hard time calling me Ananda and would be happier if I just let them call me “Sir.”

The explanation that I eventually get is what can be summarized as essentially, in such a situation as traveling with a superior, you don’t speak unless you are spoken to, and even then, only as much as is necessary.

But I still can’t quite figure that out. That seems so servile and submissive. I mean, I can understand being more reserved, more formal, more “calculated” in the presence of such a superior…. I can understand turning off the mobile phone radio, or using headphones instead of the speakerphone…. I can understand not yelling silly things to someone sitting at the front of the van and acting generally disruptive. But to act as if you don’t have the right to carry on a casual conversation with one of your colleagues seems like it’s going a little overboard.

I have a few other questions. Wouldn’t the leader of the organization, if he truly felt that he was beyond simple conversations with the other people in the organization, simply take another vehicle for himself if he really didn’t want these sorts of interactions? I also like to think that the simple fact of him using the same mode of transportation as the rest of us is not only because it is practical to do so, but also that he can get to learn something more about us beyond the work we do. For example, if it weren’t for him traveling on our van with us and overhearing my conversation about the Academy puppies, how is he to know that I really love animals? By him being there with us, he got to learn of another way to relate to me—a way that is different from our standard discussions on improving the English writing skills of the students at the Academy.

Who knows, maybe that’s the idealist (or the foreigner) in me speaking.

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