He had gone to Chennai in southern India for some work and was walking to a house in the suburb. Another elderly man was coming from the opposite direction. One look at my father and the man stepped down from the street. He stepped into a murky ditch of muck. There he stayed until my father had long walked past him.
Father was stunned. Why would the old man step down and that too into a filthy ditch? Once he reached the house he was going to, he asked his friend, a local man, the reason for the old man’s unusual conduct. The friend wasn’t perturbed at all. He explained that, since father was dressed well, coming as he did from an office, the old man assumed that he was a man of high caste. He must have been a man of a lower caste and stepped into the muck to avoid sharing the road with a high-caste person and incurring his wrath.
I well remember the India where, from a distance of a hundred yards, one could safely infer the class of a man by simply observing his appearance, clothes and demeanor. Society had decreed, through means economic and social, that a person could be placed fairly accurately on the social ladder. We were all party to that practice.
The practice that my father saw, let us not forget, had two sides. On the one hand, it had been drummed into some people that they were inferior and needed to stand in the ditch when superior people passed. On the other, the superior people enjoyed and exulted in their superior status and accepted with relish when their inferiors went down to make way for them. All evil practices draw their sustenance from the compliance of victims, forced or habitual, as well as the relish of the victimizers, tacit or overt, whether they openly admit it or not.
During a visit to India, I was talking with the chief executive of the country’s largest public enterprise, just retired, and asked what he missed most from his days as a high-powered executive. I was speechless when he said, “When I came into your office, I had to carry my own briefcase. I haven’t done it in many years.” That silly, inconsequential display of his status, making his office chauffeur carry his lightweight briefcase, was his puny mind’s greatest joy.
There is a heavy price to pay for such joy. When people are judged by their caste or clothes, whether they carry their briefcase or have an underling to carry it for them, in essence we repudiate people’s merit and place value on false, superficial things. We give importance not to what people can do but what is trivial, what they have accidentally received from their parents or family or community.
Shortly after I arrived in the US, I went to work for an international center of management. One morning I arrived early in its large campus bordering the Potomac, parked my car and started walking up the stairs. Coming down the stairs was Jim, the janitor, after the morning clean-up. It was sheer coincidence that Bill, the company President, had just landed in the nearby helipad and met both me and Jim in the middle of the staircase. As we all shook hands, I noticed that all three of us wore identical looking dark-gray pinstriped suits: Bill’s, hand-tailored by order, probably cost $800, mine from Bloomingdale’s cost $350, and Jim’s, presumably from a discount store, perhaps cost $150. Even from a distance of twenty yards, one would have been hard put to know who was the president, executive or janitor. Though the US is hardly an egalitarian society, that moment in a crisp fall morning remains in my memory as a symbol of what can and should be.