In Tokyo, when the flight took off, the work crew on the tarmac, stood to attention in a line and bowed their farewell to departing passengers. In Delhi, when it landed, groups of men slouched around on the tarmac and scratched themselves. Both actions seemed perfectly natural. In Tokyo, the men were at work and every action of theirs reflected this. In Delhi, it seemed that they were present and some work needed to be done, and these two facts were only casual acquaintances. Their primary pursuit was to spend time with each other in amiable masculine companionship; if some work got done in the process, well they could not be blamed.
And this is by no means a one-off observation. This phenomenon is widely visible- in government offices, police posts, hospitals, airports and other public utilities and spaces. There seems to be something quite distinctive about the demeanour of Indian men when on duty. They lean on each other, they lounge, huddle conspiratorially, sometimes they even cuddle, they crack loud jokes, ogle women, swear freely and are generous with the contents of their mouth which they transfer to the sidewalk with purple glee. In a larger sense this is true of most groups of men- they seem to turn into a molten, sticky glob of masculinity, that is difficult to pull apart. Asking any one of them to do something is viewed as an intrusion, and is treated as such.
The Indian male attitude towards work is a complex one. At one level, we see signs of extreme servility, an almost grovelling acknowledgement of authority, and on the other a marked reluctance to be seen to be providing service, particularly if one’s role does not demand it in a formal way. Service in India in many sectors can be quite extraordinary, but often a prickly reaction to unclear lines of hierarchy, wherever that occurs, gets in the way. At every moment, the desire is to communicate that ‘I am doing something you, but I am not your inferior’. In the case where the service is being provided to the poor or anyone deemed socially inferior, the act gets delivered in the manner of someone providing a grudging favour. The recipient of the service needs to be grateful and has often to express that gratitude in some material form.
The pattern seems to be that what is recognised and understood is hierarchy rather than responsibility. The responsibility is understood in these terms- one ‘obeys’ one’s superior and does what is asked. The dividing line between official and personal work is therefore not entirely clear, and such distinctions don’t really matter. For one’s acknowledged superior, service borders on servitude, and includes running errands of a personal nature for the boss, while for others, the duty that is assigned is performing with visible reluctance.
This is true in one way or another across the country, although it is more pronounced in the North. It also cuts across the spectrum of class and occupation, although white collar boorishness is less visible because it isn’t on public display. But the approach towards the work ethic is similar. In most cases, eight hours of office means two hours of real work, another two hours of pretend work, and the rest of time in gossip, tea, and ‘meetings’. Even here, it is easy to be infantilised by authority, a strong boss makes nervous, fidgety boys out of grown men, who giggle with relief when the boss turns his attention elsewhere. Every gesture or word of the superior is analysed, and inflated stories of one’s cheekiness in the face of authority are told, in an effort to redeem some pride.
It would seem that men in India by virtue of being men in India are to the manor born. Being men is the ultimate truth that there is allegiance to; everything else appears to be secondary. There is a sense of entitlement that gets translated into a default mode of tetchy aggression when dealing with an undefined relationship. Perhaps having grown up with an air of presumed superiority, one that is reinforced socially in many different ways, men tend to equate the act of providing service with an admission of social inferiority. In this context, gender trumps class, although within the male domain, formal authority is deemed paramount. Being in a group reinforces and aggregates this impulse, which spills over in an unselfconscious way.
The one organisation where this kind of behaviour is rare is the military. If in the civilian world, the tendency is to make work look like an excursion with the boys, the army makes everything look and feel like work. Every aspect of military life carries an element of formality, of structure, discipline and hierarchy. Socialising in the army has its protocol, and partying its SOPs. Part of the reason why the army gets valorised is that it exudes such a sense of discipline and order, qualities utterly alien in the cultural landscape otherwise. By making hierarchy so central to a relationship makes everything becomes easy- one knows exactly where one stands and how one is expected to behave at every instance.
Tellingly, the best service across India is provided by the ubiquitous ‘chhotu’; the child who is seen to have no rights- not to the immunity that childhood must enjoy from being asked to earn a living nor to the prickliness of adult masculine pride. Chhotu can be ordered around and no one minds; a version of this is when serving adults are called ‘beta’ by other adults in a clear effort to mark hierarchy by infantilising the other.
Service, it seems, is almost necessarily decoded in terms of power. The inability to look at relationships in terms other than power and hierarchy converts most encounters into mini arm-wrestling bouts. Reluctance and indifference are the weapons of choice here, which men on duty in India seem to have mastered.