Chocolate and Gold Coins

Friday, January 13, 2006

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?”


  • I can only come up with one explanation: you have been to a desi for too long :P

    By Blogger Nilu, at 3:36 PM  

  • Hi Michael:

    I am a Chennai-vasi (currently on long hibernation in your neighborhood in the US :-)) and have read your blog on and off. Some of your posts have really given me an "American" perspective (if you will) on India/Chennai even though I guess you are an Indophile. I wanted to blogroll you long back but then it kinds fell thru the cracks. I'll do so shortly and maybe if we get a chance, we could also meet up since we are in the same area and I do come to the SSV temple often.

    Reg. this post, I came across this picture first (a long time back) on Keerthi's blog and it was certainly not presenting a good picture (pun intended :-)) of our law enforcement people.

    By Blogger Krish, at 5:19 PM  

  • Hi Nilu
    Thanks for linking to this piece. No - I haven't been married too long.

    Hi Thennavan
    I am definitely an Indiophile and I loved our trip to India. The food was super (I gained some weight though) and the people couldn't have been nicer. I think that India could be a real tourist destination (especially if they cut out the descriminatory pricing).

    The photo of the one cop on the other is a classic. It is obviously an anomaly so maybe not too much should be made of it but really it does look bad - doesn't it. And the smug expression on the officer's face - unbelievable.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 6:04 PM  

  • Today's papers say Ganguly was actually insisting on being sent in as an opener, and Dravid didn't want it!

    By Blogger Gaurav, at 10:17 PM  

  • Loved every bit of what you have written. I don't think the peon and pooh-bah culture can be eradicated from India. People just love to be served.The picture definitely makes the poen and pooh-bah culture look bad.I really admire the DIY culture of america, wish it could catch up in India too.

    BTW did your wife read this post.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:00 PM  

  • Excellent post Michael. Whats funny to see are the different versions of the animated conversation between Dravid and Ganguly that is floating about in the Indian media.

    By Blogger greatbong, at 11:33 PM  

  • Michael ,

    Looks like you had a great time in India. I'm in the process of reading your recent posts (been a while since I last visited your blog , been busy etc. etc.)...but one thing that just caught my attention was your comparison of small house+ cheap labor in India with big house + zero help in US. My view is slightly different. My parents are both middle level bureacrats in the Indian government , and ever since I was a kid , I only remember living in big (rented) 3 or 4 bedroom houses with drivers , gardeners , maid servants etc. Recently my parents built a flashy 3000 sq.ft house in Bangalore.... It was only when I came to US that I lived in a small 1 bedroom apartment , had to cook/clean/do the laundry for the first time in my life , although I was already making more money than both my parents combined.

    I think life is a lot easier in India if you cross a certain threshold of wealth. I have seen software developers making no more than $20k live like kings in India.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:34 PM  

  • excellent post Michael. every power abuser is in turn a poen-abusee himself somewhere in the cycle... I used to have conversations with a cousin who was at army school about the "culture" of breaking in new kids (otherwise known as ragging) and I never understood then when he spoke about these kids putting up with it and waiting for their chance - a couple of years later...

    the constable in turn goes out to the roads and harasses an innocent motorcycle rider - his poen. the motorbike guy goes home nd yells at his wife - so on and so forth sad.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:52 AM  

  • Hi Gaurav, Rajeshwari, Greatbong, Raj, and Charu

    Gaurav: What is Dravid doing opening in this test? He's no Pooh-Bah that's for sure.

    Rajeshwari: No she didn't but surely she will. She finds any post with any mention of her.

    But I should point out that while she would enjoy being a Pooh-bette, she would be one of those truly enlightened Pooh-bettes whom the peons all loved and admired.

    Greatbong: Thanks. We'll you inspired me. I have no idea what happened between Dravid and Ganguly but in the end Dravid opened and I think that is ridiculous. You should never take your best number 3 ever and turn him into an opener.

    Raj: It sounds to me that your parents have done quite well. From what I hear, real estate in India is really no bargain at all. Real estate is expensive in the D.C. area but in the midwest U.S. you can really get a lot of house for the money. It is largely an issue of population density.

    Charu: That cycle of abuser and abuse does seem to happen, not just in India but in many places. I really wished that there were another photo taken two seconds later showing the bottom constable tripping and dunking the top one into the drink. I think we all want to see that.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 2:37 AM  

  • Michael, I can't agree that Ekalavya was treated ( by whoever wrote the mahAbhArata ) as the villain of the story.

    By Blogger froginthewell, at 10:08 AM  

  • Hi Froginthewell
    I agree that the author had intended the story of Ekalavya to be more tragic than "he got what was coming to him" but the story still has the same message. The point is no one thinks the obvious: Eklavya was the biggest goddamn fool in all literature. How else would you view a person who chops off his own thumb in payment for "services rendered" by a statue he made himself? The message to me is quite clear: Eklavya was a peon - he never questioned authority. He simply obeyed and this is what a peon should do. They obey. So the message is in essence that he got what he deserved because he deserved nothing. I do believe that the author genuinely wanted you to think about how clever Drona was in fooling Eklavya.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 12:24 PM  

  • Michael, I do/did agree that the story has a lot of relevance to the peon-pooh bah situation, and also much of your analysis in general. My only claim is that the author in all likelihood did not endorse drONa's action since there is no word of praise or comment on drONa's wisdom there. The original story can be read here.

    By Blogger froginthewell, at 3:38 PM  

  • On the contrary Michael , real estate is the best investment in India. Every year price of a plot increases by 25-30% in the main cities like Delhi , Mumbai and Bangalore. In Bangalore ,the 60'*90' plot on which my parents have built their new house is worth $550,000 at current prices , was worth $400,000 only a year back...and was bought for $8,000 in 1991 (!!!) - just before the IT boom....

    If you want max. returns on your money , I say invest in real estate in India !!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:22 AM  

  • Greatbong , great to see you here. You got a great blog yourself.....I would have voted for you in the indibloggie awards if I could , but I lack a blog profile..sadly for you. :))

    ps : That Amit Varma is overrated...:)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:28 AM  

  • Hi Michael
    Normally you have excellent points to make, but i think this time you have fallen prey to the contagion going going around Blogistan :-) . Namely have a pet theory and look at every event as a vindication. The conversation is wicked funny though.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:25 PM  

  • Hi Frog, Raj, and Anon
    Frog: I sure the author thought he was clever in thinking of this way for Drona to trick Eklavya. It was clever: people are still discussing it.

    Raj: One word: bubble!
    I'm sure Greatbong would be pleased that someone thinks he has a great blog (I agree heartily). Amit might be depressed at your opinion but the I still think he's the king. I don't think you can compare Amit to GB. GB is witty and Amit has the pulse of India.

    Anon: Well if it is wickedly funny then I guess it's alright.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 6:03 PM  

  • Michael, sorry for the delayed reply and also harping on this same point again. The author might have thought the story to be clever but it still doesn't mean he treated Ekalavya as the villain in the story or that he justified drONa. See in the link I mentioned last time, "Hearing these cruel words of drONa,...". Not only does the author not use any adjective of clever for drONa in this context, but he calls drONa's words cruel.

    By Blogger froginthewell, at 10:43 AM  

  • Hi Froggy
    Thanks for the link. I'm sure you're correct.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 2:32 PM  

  • Wonderful post! Very true what you said that people love being served here in India and being one of the species (though definitely a very moderate one) I know how blissful it can be!!!!

    By Blogger Manasi, at 10:49 AM  

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