The company had some Italian participation, but it was really British, and it smelled like it. India had become independent fifteen years earlier, but you would not know it in our company. There were some Indian managers, even a director or two, but the top brass was British. I found it hard to watch how much the Indian executives deferred to the British.
It went beyond deference. The Indian executives diligently aped their British counterparts. They copied their sartorial style, and tried to talk like them, to the point of repeating their clichés. If they had to take a client to lunch, they would order a baked fish and a gin-tonic; if to dinner, cold meat and whisky. At home they might gobble masala dosa or paneer matar, but in public they had to present a more westernized palate. They would start taking golf lessons and quickly seek membership in the elite clubs, to consort with the cream of society – others like them. They would indeed meet others like them because most of them had been hired for companies in the same way, through ‘contacts’ or people they knew through kin or community.
I was prepared to wear a jacket and a tie like the others – though I thought it ridiculous in the humid heat of Kolkata – but that was about the limit of my conformity. I was also glad to attend the parties, especially if there were some beautiful people, and have a few drinks. But for years I refused to move into a company house, because I felt I had an adequate apartment near my aging parents (eventually I moved when the company found a house near my parents). My boss, a golf champion, invited me to join his golf club and was upset when I gave him my reason for refusal: my life was already quite different from other Indians, and I didn’t want to make it any more different by playing what was considered a rich man’s game in India. I scandalized my colleagues even further by declining to buy a car, saying my home was close to the office and I preferred to walk.
Somehow my waywardness was borne patiently over the years. I got a number of promotions and even some fancy titles. For fear of seeming pedantic, I could not tell the chairman that my eventual title was grammatically incorrect. I suspect my elevation was at least partly due to an illusion that I was highly diligent and kept long hours, diligence being a prized British virtue. The fact was I came to the office early only because I preferred walking in the cooler morning air and left late as I taught an evening class in the area. It may also have something to do with my key reports, which some thought unduly acerbic and controverted aggressively but were never successfully contradicted. The chairman, I was told, took a special interest in them.
One other factor I mention gingerly. I was unduly protected and encouraged by the secretaries. Though the British raj had long ended, the company had continued the curious practice of never hiring Indian women as secretaries, only Eurasian women, though they were contemptuously and incorrectly referred to as Anglo-Indians. Many of them were elderly, but three of them were memorably pretty and one worked fortunately for our director. She wittily renamed me ‘Menace’ and volubly complained that I wasted a lot of her time, but she would quietly guide me about how to handle the boss or when to spring a new report. That often saved my skin.
A mining corporation offered me a challenging job. I moved readily and had an exciting time. I also had a sad time seeing my erstwhile employer plummet and hit ground. A few unseeing decision makers and 10,000 unemployed workers.
Five years later I accidentally met a senior strategist of the parent company in London. He made the typically British remark, “We did our best.” I politely demurred. They had done their best to destroy the livelihood of loyal, hardworking men and women.
The last time I was in Kolkata, I saw construction workers pulling down the company’s stately edifice downtown.