The anecdotal image of an Indian guy nodding his head with a wide-toothed smile is not a cliché for nothing. It properly captures how an Indian-born desi (local) treats the rest of the world. Ever calm, ever smiling, ever agreeable. We are forever timid and obliging in a foreign environment. This could be a function of the many adversities we face back home, the gruelling competition we have to trump to get ahead, or just our colonial hangover. Whatever the reason, we behave as if we are not convinced of our own merit in bagging a foreign job, as if we need to do something extra to justify our presence in a foreign place of work. Ever grateful to our employers, colleagues, god, karma, for just letting us inhabit ‘foreign’-space.
We are forever timid and obliging in a foreign environment. This could be a function of the many adversities we face back home, the gruelling competition we have to trump to get ahead, or just our colonial hangover.
On my first day of work as a counsel in an international office, my colleague asked me to hand-deliver a parcel to the law firm next door. He was sincerely surprised when I politely refused. What reason could I, his equal at work, a practicing Indian advocate, an LL.M. from Cambridge, possibly have to not be his courier-boy? I didn’t bother spelling out the prejudice in his presumptions for him. I just put it down to a one-off lapse in judgement, an acceptable margin of human error, and put my mind to something else.
Of course I was wrong. That was the first of many peculiar expectations singled out for me by my colleagues in the years that followed. Whenever anyone at my level took leave, it was a given that I would cover for him / her. When there was some administrative work no one was willing to do, it was a given that I would do it. No one asked for my opinion on work allocation, office-outings, business-lunches, all that stuff. I didn’t object. I worked for European bosses and had European colleagues. They were bound by culture, etiquette, even language in some cases (French, Spanish). And I was on an island of my own. I was the only brown person in the office and the only Indian in the whole building. I wanted every one to like me, I didn’t want to ruffle feathers over small things. I realised that my brethren elsewhere in the world had conditioned people to think of Indians as the hard-working, no-fuss, up-for-anything, lot. In some ways, I was proud of that legacy. I took the extra responsibility as tacit acknowledgement of my value in the work-place (as if earning the job and keeping it like everyone else was not good enough). I never disagreed, I never challenged authority, I never picked a fight. And if other people did that, I stayed a mile away. Always walking the Nehruvian non-aligned tight-rope and agreeing with all viewpoints in discrete measure. Everybody’s comfort-corner, coffee-buddy, agony aunt. I got everyone to love me, and I loved work.
Whenever anyone at my level took leave, it was a given that I would cover for him / her. When there was some administrative work no one was willing to do, it was a given that I would do it. No one asked for my opinion on work allocation, office-outings, business-lunches, all that stuff.…I never disagreed, I never challenged authority, I never picked a fight.
But don’t we know that ignorance is a short-lived bliss. It was inevitable that someday the universe would call me out for tiptoeing around my own life and demand that I choose my place in the world: stand up for myself or let the world push me along.
One of my colleagues was disgruntled because the boss-spot he thought he deserved went to someone else. That someone else, our new boss, was a French mother of five. Mr. disgruntled was determined to make the boss’ life difficult. He disagreed with her in office meetings, hardly ever gave his work on time and challenged every small decision she made. She grew more insecure with every successive confrontation. What followed was mood swings, caustic team discussions, and just general bickering on her part. It was becoming more and more difficult to get work done.
One morning, I knocked on the boss’ door to discuss some cases with her. I was virtually invisible under the dozen files I was carrying. She saw me and then she un-saw me like I wasn’t even there. I strained my muscles to reach out from underneath the files and finally managed to knock. She waved her hand dismissively. It was clear she was in a bad mood. I went back to my seat.
An hour later I tried again. Same door, same files, same Herculean feat of managing a knock. This time she nodded for me to come in.
Me: ‘I have a few questions on 621/2011. I thought I’d run them past you before I finalise the memo’.
Boss: ‘Just send me an email. I don’t have the time to deal with every small query you people throw up.’
Me: ‘Umm, ok. I can do that for some of them, but the others I think it would be more constructive to discuss’.
Boss: ‘The last time I checked I was the one who took that call in this office’, sighs, ‘shoot’.
Me: ‘Ok, so I think we should go into their loan transactions a bit. I have a hunch they have been siphoning-off money to sister concerns with fabricated documents’.
Boss: ‘You don’t need to discuss that with me. If you think the transactions need to be looked into, just look into them and come back to me when you have something more than a hunch. I am surprised you haven’t started work on this already’.
Wow, this isn’t going to be easy, I think.
Me: ‘Ok…I also wanted to know if we should address any issues concerning execution at this stage. We have not been able to get complete information regarding their assets online’.
Boss: ‘If you need to address it, address it. I’ll just remove it if I think it is unnecessary’.
We were not getting anywhere. I tried a third question, she promptly found a reason to berate me about a job half-done and lost her temper. I listened to her for about ten minutes, then gingerly collected my things and with a muffled, ‘I’ll come over with the rest later’, showed myself out.
She was not done. She followed me out of her office, throwing wild gestures and loud words at my back. None of which I could understand. She was speaking in French. As I turned the corner to my desk, I could see her surrounded by a bunch of my colleagues. She continued to speak, and I could tell from the apologetic side-glances some of them sneaked in my direction that it was all about me, and it wasn’t good.
She followed me out of her office, throwing wild gestures and loud words at my back. None of which I could understand. She was speaking in French.
As I continued walking towards my desk, a meek inner voice sprouted out of nowhere- *maybe I need to do something about this?*
The International-Indian-me: *Just ignore it. This woman is crazy, it isn’t like you saying something is going to make her less crazy*.
Unidentified-small-voice-me: *But she is deliberately showing me down in front of the whole office! She is talking about me, in front of me, in a language that I don’t understand. She wants me to feel inadequate, like I don’t belong here*.
The International-Indian-me: *Maybe, but what’s the point of picking a fight over small shit. If you say something now, it could damage your relationship with her forever*.
Unidentified-louder-voice-me: *but if I don’t say anything now, she is going to think this is ok. I might as well cower in my cubicle for the rest of my life then. Everyone will think of me as a push-over. That will damage my relationship with her and all the rest of them*.
….if I don’t say anything now, she is going to think this is ok.
I stopped walking and turned around. ‘If you have something to say about me, I’d rather you say it directly to me in a language that I understand’, I said quietly as I met her eyes.
A blanket of silence stifled all the noise around me. I could hear the photocopier’s buzz from three rooms away.
My boss’ jaw nearly reached the floor.
I saw her eyes recover from the initial shock of my words and narrow as she evaluated the situation. She couldn’t afford to back down, that would make her look like a light-weight in front of everyone. She couldn’t afford to deny the charge either. Almost all those watching knew French and they had heard her talking about me. If she denied it, it would look like she was afraid of me and that would make her an even bigger coward. Last but not the least, she couldn’t afford to switch to English and continue to badger me. That would be an admission that she had in fact been bitching about me deliberately in a language which excluded me – an open act of discrimination that could cost her her job. The organisation that I worked for was a no-nonsense kind of place. It would have axed anyone accused of racial bullying in a milli-second. The Europeans take political correctness seriously, my organisation was no different.
She tried a fourth approach. She knew I craved social approval. She tried to embarrass me into submission, ‘it is nothing that concerns you. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that’s its rude to interrupt other people’s conversations?’
Ordinarily, this would have embarrassed me. I would have thought that I am making a spectacle about something these people think is silly. I would have receded into my shell, probably offered her an apology. But my unidentified inner voice had developed an identity of its own by now and it was past repression. Even the International-Indian-me was beginning to see that this had something to do with my survival in the office.
… my unidentified inner voice had developed an identity of its own by now and it was past repression. Even the International-Indian-me was beginning to see that this had something to do with my survival in the office.
‘No actually, no one told me that. What they did tell me though was that it was rude to talk about people behind their back. So why don’t you just tell me what you were saying. I think I would benefit from discussions about work. I miss out on them all too often ’cause I don’t understand French’.
Done. Called her out. Took the punt.
The silence lasted longer than I had expected. My bravado was beginning to fade rapidly. Gosh! Am I about to lose my job? All those long years spent at university, weekends spent in the library, days spent away from home, for nothing? I would never get a job as good as this one. Maybe I should quit the law entirely and do something else. Interior décor? Fashion design? Baking?
Finally, she spoke, ‘I didn’t mean to offend you. Why don’t you come over and join us. We were just discussing the way forward in 621/2011’.
I saw the crowd around us exchange glances, felt the eyes on my back as I walked towards my boss, and heard the quiet amazement with which everyone trickled back to work. I reached where my boss stood and picked up from where I had left off: issues concerning execution in 621/2011.
I saw the crowd around us exchange glances, felt the eyes on my back as I walked towards my boss, and heard the quiet amazement with which everyone trickled back to work.
I stayed in that office for another year and it was the best year of my entire working life to date. When I left, they hired another Indian girl to take my place. And when she left, they hired another Indian girl to take hers. What that tells me is that mine was not an insignificant victory, however small it may have been. That the others who followed me fought, and won, their own battles. That we have all, collectively, claimed our rightful, meritorious, space in that office. I am sure we are not alone in this. I am sure there are many, many, other Indians across the world who are slowly but surely, little by little, claiming their own space as confident, qualified, cultured, equals.
It is about time though, isn’t it?