Peons and Pooh-Bahs
Here is an excellent photo from Greatbong (this post was inspired by another post by Greatbong here). It is a photo of that a senior police officer in India being carried on the shoulders of a junior one. The photo looks as if – perhaps – the senior officer is exploiting his position at the expense of the junior officer.
Of course, we don’t really know what is happening here. It could be that the junior officer’s greatest wish in life was to carry a senior officer across a flood on his shoulders and the senior officers is merely indulging him. Or perhaps the senior officer will melt like the witch in the Wizard of Oz if he should ever touch water, (in such case, a double reason to pity the poor sap underneath). But it would seem that the senior officer had a very nicely pressed uniform that he just did not want to get ruined by the floodwaters. Indeed, he does look nice in his pressed uniform. It would be a pity if the junior officer would happen to trip and fall and send the senior officer headfirst into the muck, wouldn’t it?
This is something that seems different between Americans and Indians. It isn’t that Americans don’t abuse their authority if they have some to abuse. It is that we lack the imagination to abuse it in this way. When faced with a flood, the thought that, “Maybe I could avoid getting my clothes wet if I have one of my peons carry me,” is just not a thought that would naturally occur to most Americans.
The peon and pooh-bah culture is not unique to India. Europe in the seventeenth century was in many ways the zenith of the peon and pooh-bah culture. Consider Louis XIV of France. He spent everyday the entire day thinking of new ways for people to make him feel more important. This was his life’s work: being the great pooh-bah of France. His greatest accomplishment was inventing new positions to assist him in the lavatory. After using the facilities, one really wouldn’t expect a royal to sully his hands with “paperwork.” No, Louis XIV merely said, “Let the royal bum be wiped,” and it was – with a smile.
You tell this story to a classroom of American kids and you will get a very predictable response, “Ewww Yuck!!” The idea of strange hand touching this area does not appeal (well, not to most people). But they fail to understand the real value of having such a servant. The real value comes in the art of conversation or more precisely the art of belittling others in conversation. A monarch from a lesser nation comes visiting. Louis XIV deftly steers the conversation towards lavatory servants (great skill is needed to steer polite conversation in this direction). The other royal politely and innocently inquires, “What is a bum-wiper?” And at this point, Louis XIV exclaims, “You mean, you wipe your own?? Mon Dieu!”
This is where Louis XIV and Bill Gates would differ. Both would love to flaunt their wealth. But Bill Gates would naturally think to do so by buying some expensive toy – like his own aircraft carrier. That would be cool – I would like my own aircraft carrier. But he wouldn’t see any point in having a bum-wiper. He lacks the imagination to see the value in such a servant. Servants merely serve, and if you could do it yourself, why bother having a servant do it. But the pooh-bah thinks, “Why should I do it if I could get a peon to do it for me?” In fact, the most important things for a pooh-bah to have a peon do are the things the pooh-bah could do for himself: that shows true power.
I would not say Americans know nothing of the peon and pooh-bah culture. Everyone in the military is a peon and almost everyone is simultaneously a pooh-bah. But civilian life isn’t much like that. Most Americans just aren’t very good at acting the role of the peon. And most Americans don’t like pooh-bahs and would not want to be seen as one. And most Americans lack experience acting in the role of being the one served: service is just too expensive here. Other than getting a plate of spaghetti slung in their direction, most American hardly know what service is.
Let me give a trivial example. I was having breakfast at the Accord Metropolitan in Chennai (very nice hotel). They have an excellent breakfast buffet with a variety of western and Indian breakfast items. I liked getting the fresh toast. You can easily spot an American if there is a breakfast buffet with a toaster. The American will always insist on toasting his toast himself. He wants to control the little darkness control knob and the thought that maybe he really isn’t allowed to mess around with the knob never occurs to him, “I promise, I’ll set it back to the old setting once I’m done.” He wants to see the toast slowly move on the conveyor belt and smell the bread being toasted. And he insists on having it on his plate the instant it is toasted; cold toast is like stale donuts: all of the calories and a fraction of the taste. The Indian would never bother – I never saw any toasting his own toast. They would prefer to say, “Let there be toast,” and be satisfied when it emerges miraculously at the table.
I don’t get the whole pooh-bah thing but my wife does. She would love being a pooh-bette. She loves being served – it must be in the blood. She called for room service almost every day we were in India. She loved the idea that people would just come to deliver food to the door. She loved having her clothes professionally washed and pressed, “Oh look, I have pressed underwear; I’ve never had that before.”
At the end of the trip, she looked at me and said, “It’s all your fault.” She could have had servants: maids, cooks, gardeners, and chauffeurs. She could also have lived in a house the size of our living room, but she would have had servants to clean it. So which is the better life: having the fancy car you drive yourself and the fancy house you clean yourself or the tiny house with a maid and auto-rickshaw service at your beck and call?
But the peon and pooh-bah society definitely has a dark side. Some people like the officer above want to abuse what little power they have. Greatbong relates a story of a sadistic art teacher he had when he was 12. The teacher viciously ripped up the work of one unpopular student for no reason other than “I don’t like your face.” In a classic Greatbong piece, he images what that teacher might have said to his wife:
Wow what an achiever. Today he is going to go his dingy Bhowanipore hovel and over a dinner of rice and daal tell his fat wife--Guess what I did today! I made a 12-year-old boy cry. While his wife would reply---"Ooh you hunk of a man you. Come to bed bobba and ride me like a rickshaw".
Yes even at age 12 I was having such thoughts.
As Amit would say: read the whole thing.
But to some extent we can guess that the art teacher was being the ugly pooh-bah because he was the unfortunate peon to someone else. It is an endless cycle of abuser and the abused.
Indian culture seems to perpetuate the roles of peon and pooh-bah. The whole caste thing was based on the idea that some people were born to serve and others were born to be served. The classic literature tends to reinforce the roles as well. Remember how Drona treats Ekalavya (who loses his thumb). Drona is not the villain in the story, Ekalavya is. He was a tribal with no right to learn the art of archery from a pooh-bah like Drona. Ekalavya “steals” the wisdom by creating a statue of Drona to learn his wisdom. But Drona cleverly foils the “upstart” Ekalavya by using his own peon nature against himself. The lesson: there are peons and pooh-bahs – know which one you are and don’t make the pooh-bahs angry. In fact, this could be the lesson from nearly every piece of ancient literature.
Let me relate a little anecdote about how the peon-pooh-bah culture. In 1995, my wife and I and her family went to a craft fair to buy a bronze icon (a very nice piece we still own and treasure). We met some government official there and he invited us to chat with him. I think the only reason why he was mildly interested in us was because I was American and not that many Americans came to craft fairs in the early 1990’s. He was definitely acting out the role of the pooh-bah: lounging in his chair and giving the others who wanted to talk with him the, “I don’t have time for you,” look. Then a minor film star showed up. He immediately transformed and went into pure peon mode. He jumped out of his seat ran after this film star and treated him like the pooh-bah. My mother-in-law couldn’t understand why he would care so much about a mere film star. I said, “This is Tamil Nadu, land of MGR and Jayalalitha. A film star today maybe his boss tomorrow.”
And talking of politics, there is a clear connection from a peon-pooh-bah culture and socialism. Europe went down that road and so did India. But America was never into that. You see most people in a peon-pooh-bah culture are necessarily peons and peons always silently resent their pooh-bahs. They always wish for the day when they can turn tables. So when given a vote, the people will vote for the politician who wants to turn those tables. There is a terrible irony here: the vote makes the peon feel like a mini-pooh-bah but he uses that power to vote for conditions that guarantee that his children and grandchildren will always be peons.
One final note: The first test between India and Pakistan started today and Ganguly is in the team. Ganguly was pooh-bah for five years. Dravid was his peon and Ganguly made him keep wickets, something Dravid clearly was uncomfortable with. But Dravid was a good peon. And he thoroughly deserves his time as a pooh-bah; all the great players have this opportunity: Bradman, Lara, Gavaskar, Miandad, Tendulkar, you name them. So how will the former peon Dravid treat his former pooh-bah Ganguly? If you understand India, you know that Dravid has to make Ganguly know that he is the peon. He has to serve Dravid. What role will Ganguly have? Well…Jaffer and Gambhir are out, who will open?
It can imagine the conversation:
Dravid: “You know Saurav, I have a very special role for you.”
Ganguly: “Really?” (a little unsure of what this role might be)
Dravid: “I envision you as our new opener.”
Ganguly envisions a 100 mph bouncer from Shoaib Akhtar aimed straight for his head (so does Dravid but they the images give different emotive responses).
Ganguly: “I’m not really comfortable opening in tests. I’ve never done that before. Is there some other role for me?”
Dravid: “Well, that’s too bad. But there is one other role I can imagine. I need a personal assistant of sorts. (dramatic pause) Have you ever read about Louis XIV?”