Friday night. The DJ’s been told a law firm has booked the place. Just play whatever they want and don’t be too much of an artist. Corporate clients are hard to come by these days. He understands perfectly. Stiff neckties, high heels and cocktails. Soft instrumental to start with, old-school Bollywood numbers later. He queues up 20 songs and arranges to steal breaks with his waiter friends every half hour.
The cocktail bar was booked from 8.00 to 12.00 but the first hour goes by without a soul in sight. At 9.30 p.m., four youngsters make an appearance in unseemly clothes. This is going better than expected, the DJ congratulates himself. A couple more hours till pack up and he’ll have earned a good day’s pay for doing nothing.
One breaks away from the four and takes the centre of the floor. She gives him a lasting look, then bolts into action, thumping to an inaudible beat at lightning speed, electricity coursing through her body. He blinks in shock, fumbles to find something to keep up.
As the music rises to the ceiling, the door opens once again. Almost on cue, troops pour in. The bar metamorphoses into a living thing. Animated embraces, loud laughter, waterfalls into glasses. He can hardly register it.
She dances like one possessed, unaffected by the chaos around her. Her annual bonus came through this morning. It was the highest in her team. She feels like this party has been thrown for her. She can see amused faces in the shadows but she doesn’t care what they’re thinking. Whatever it is, it can wait till tomorrow. Because tomorrow, she will still be the highest paid associate in her team. Without a thought in her head, she drags them all to the floor.
They shake their heads dismissively, put on reluctant smiles, but allow themselves to be dragged. The show of restraint is for the onlookers. It must be known that they would never, ever, dance at a party such as this of their own volition. That would be wild and completely unhinged. But they’ve been foot-tapping secretly. As they step beneath the canopy of bright lights, their limbs betray them. Wild and unhinged, the gyrations are uncontrollable.
Within minutes, the floor is overcome with robots, snake-charmers, chickens. A bewildered DJ strains to keep up – song after song, loop after loop – with this moving, insatiable monster of energy. It is the strangest sight he has ever seen. Everyone has a song request and nobody can wait. They must all be placated, all at once, because – they will have him know – they’re all lawyers.
Two lone exceptions observe this scene from a distance like the DJ, but with far more detachment.
One of them is a first-year associate whose sobriety returned rather abruptly the moment he realised he’d made a spectacle of himself. He had a little too much, too quickly in the part-nervousness, part-excitement of attending his first office party ever. Shortly afterwards, he earnestly confessed that he hero-worshipped his boss, to his boss, in full public view, while the latter tried many a courteous deflection to downplay the scene in vain as the crowd around them grew bigger. Eventually, she cut him off curtly and disappeared giggling with the other Partners.
The other, is the master of ceremonies. The man who built this 200-strong army wreaking havoc in the bar. He is convinced he still has some great dance moves, and can outstrip each one of them at the bottle. But he’d rather not get into it. He wants to get home at a reasonable hour and catch his Saturday morning golf-game with the guys at the club. But he lingers on, because such nights have a special place in his heart. They are, after all, a celebration of how far they’ve come. From a self-conscious team of five with nothing but big dreams to intoxicate their spirits to this successful multitude without a care in the world.
Maybe just one drink then, and he’ll make a quick exit.
The night jingles on. Mr DJ is cajoled, begged, bribed, and eventually threatened into playing for a while after 12.00 a.m. Then a while longer. Just a little while. At 2.00 a.m. he finally manages to slip out inconspicuously, leaving the console in auto-mode. Once outside, he races down the road towards the parking lot without looking back, arms flailing like a madman in the dead of the night.
The pub shuts an hour later under pressure from the local cops, leaving the troops restless like bees without a honeycomb. They eventually settle on the residence of a Partner who lives nearby.
Noon comes too soon the following day. Ms. well-paid-associate opens her eyes in a strange house on a strange couch, jumps up like a singed cat and disappears after repeated apologies to her hosts: the hospitable Partner and his scowling wife. The first-year opens his eyes in his own bed but quickly shuts them tightly, hoping to somehow erase the memory of last night. His boss at that very moment is happily narrating the confessions of her secret admirer to an amused family table over lunch. In another part of the city, the master of ceremonies is sulking behind a newspaper, having missed his morning game of golf.
A thousand calls are made, a thousand stories exchanged, with a thousand different endings. An entire weekend is spent recovering from the office party.
On Monday, the law firm opens at 10.00 am as usual, as if nothing ever happened.
The clapping subsides. She says something in my direction. I smile and nod in return. She looks confused.
Well, what do you think?
I agree with you. You are absolutely right.
The uncle who forwards WhatsApp messages on positive thinking every morning pulls at her elbow, and I am let off the hook. A webinar would be ideal. Someone hands me a cup of coffee. It would engage the younger lot. I smile and say thank you. Maybe 4 speakers? Familiar faces are a blur. And a young moderator?
Do you think you can let work be for one evening?, my mom is back by my side, scowling in my ear. It is my grandad’s 90th birthday.
You get that glazed look in your eyes, she said to me on a previous occasion, that’s when I know you’ve left the room. Moms. What an anticlimactic superpower to have: knowing everything about everything. Imagine spotting a zombie in the first frame of a Hollywood sci-fi movie and knowing exactly what was turning people into zombies even before the scriptwriter’s had a chance to introduce a plot-point observation from the likely lead about the strange look in a character’s eyes.
It isn’t her alone though. Far too many lucid eyes have remarked that something strange is going on with me at holiday brunches and evenings out. I feel it too. I am only half present in any present. The other half is far away. Thinking of things done, undone, to be done.
But am I stranger now than I was before? Let’s see. I took up science in school to keep my ‘options open’, and then exhausted myself ‘building a CV’ in law school. Mooting, papers, committees, I did it all without once connecting the dots with my career goals. Come to think of it, I am not sure I had career goals. Until year five of law school everything was a random shot in the dark. No connecting the writing dot with the LL.M. dot, or even the mooting dot with the judge-or-advocate dot.
Professional life has been more of the same. One moment, nose-deep in a case file. The next, eyes squinted over ways to network. A third, eyes wide at an idea to write about. Later, hunched over a laptop looking up webinars and conferences.
Welcome to life, a part of me snubs. To the inspiring and terrifying possibility that anything is possible. A master’s degree from Harvard can become a relic on a forgettable chamber-wall in Allahabad. A 5-point-something can live out his passion for soccer tossing files to advocates from his Judge’s chair.
The other part of me is frantically trying to figure out ways to maximise my chances of success. It labours relentlessly under the modern-day obsession with activity as the means to a successful life: if I keep working hard at something, I will get somewhere. ‘Something’ could be anything. ‘Somewhere’ could be anywhere.
The vagueness and ambition of this idea is so overwhelming that I just can’t sit still without feeling like I should be doing more. More cases, more conferences, more drinks with clients, more messages to network. In the end, I am calmer re-organizing emails amidst empty office chairs than clapping ‘happy birthday’ at my grandad’s party. I find it easier to be busy than to be bored.
A glance at the glazed eyes of other lawyers at social dos tells me I am not alone. The virus has spread far and wide. I am one in a sea of zombies, arms outstretched in no particular direction, hypnotised by the compulsion to keep going.
Mom turned into Buffy-the-zombie-slayer when I hinted that she might’ve been right about my absent-mindedness. Talk to your bosses. Reduce your workload. See a shrink? Meditate. The slayer was swinging about wildly. I feared she might self-destruct.
Can’t I just start by singing ‘happy-birthday’ in earnest every now and then though? Being lazy on a holiday, getting bored in company, walking aimlessly in a park without counting the number of rounds? Maybe all I need is to re-learn to do nothing, and be ok with that. Like I was on those sultry, vacant, afternoons of childhood while the adults of the house slept. Revelling in the freedom of time, thinking up idle pleasures.
Maybe in a quiet moment, I will catch a fleeting idea that needs a little more attention to become a big idea, or recognise a deep-seated ambition, or figure out how to prioritise my time better – things that just don’t surface when I stare at a blank sheet of paper with a pen in hand on a busy day.
If that were to happen, I could do the thing – not just anything – that gets me closer to where I want to end up – not just anywhere.
In a sense, being genuinely, completely, idle in modern-day chaos could be valuable hard work too. Just not the kind we are used to fussing about.
I remember shifting my knees to find a comfortable spot in the cramped rows of wooden chairs at the far end of the court house when a stir signalled of a more pressing matter. So-and-so, son of so-and-so, was married last month to the daughter of so-and-so in Italy, and this was his first reappearance in court. My colleague to the right volunteered what little she knew of the affair while someone waved congratulations across the aisle and a woman several rows ahead audibly confirmed she knew the couple well, a few times.
When I craned my neck to see, so-and-so, son of etc., revealed himself to be nothing but a boy not thirty years old. Fancy that, we were contemporaries! Separated by a few rows is all. He, in the first, waiting to argue his matter by himself. Me, not an undignified distance away, knees a bit sore under the files I had spent the morning tagging for my boss, back a bit stiff from the lack of space. A memory of the plush corporate cabin I gave up a mere month ago for the sake of litigation whizzed past me inspite of myself.
And so it was that I was introduced to society in the legal world just as I was introduced to the insides of a court-house. Ever since, the experiences have been intertwined. Professional introductions dotted with stories of an illustrious father. Cryptic gibes at the high-maintenance lifestyle of a colleague which could have been flattery. Sudden spikes in career graphs owing to the company kept or married into.
The polity of lawyers is really made up two all-encompassing halves: the ice-creams and the Tindas (Indian round gourd). Forgive the bald metaphor. I have spent far too much time with my head in the refrigerator these past months.
You can spot the ice-creams from the confidence they exude in any scene: a room full of unacquainted lawyers, a dismissive judge. Propelled by the brand they carry and its assertions of quality, they have no hint of the David-versus-Goliath complex that is the reserve of the Tindas. The Tindas, on the other hand, lie low. With no stamp of origin, they could go unnoticed in a room full of strangers at first. But patience is their forte. They look forward to the moment when they will be discovered for quality and, when it comes, relish it with the knowledge that an ice-cream will never know the feeling.
Ice-creams preserve themselves with notions of exclusivity, forged through a cheerful bonhomie with others of their kind. They go well with fine foods like chocolates and cookies. An on-looker Tinda might get the feeling that they will never descend from the highest echelons of the refrigerator to mingle with ordinary vegetables like itself, heaped in the bottom-most drawer. Wrapped as they are in clouds of wonderous white mist, the ice-creams don’t do much to shake the Tinda’s misgivings. Why should they? The compartmentalization of the fridge suits them just fine. A compartmentalization reinforced with experience of the practice of law.
An unexpected disruption in this scheme of things is the courtesy of nature, which endows all with intrinsic natural abilities. A Tinda, for instance, is a superfood. Despite its humble origins in a kitchen garden or a nondescript farm, it is a coveted source of vitamin A, great for the heart and the digestive system. Whatever the quality of the ice-cream – imperceptible behind a smokescreen of advertisements – a Tinda that has made it all the way from the farm to the refrigerator is no trifling boil over.
How unnatural then, the hierarchy of the fridge! That a packaged synthetic should be bought at twice the price and served with pomp while real merit is left to suffer an uncertain fate in anonymity. It is a tension that affects more than just lawyers. The uneasy shifting of sub-optimally advised clients at the end of the dinner table tells the tale of a major casualty.
There is only one happily ever after: restoring the balance of the universe.
But where do we begin? Are the haves to blame for just existing? For not abdicating the privilege that they came into? One can hardly say that. Are the have-notsto blame for accepting their struggle with ‘everybody goes through this’ and ‘everything happens for a reason’? One would be remiss to come to that conclusion.
If I ever met ‘One’, I would tell him these questions are rhetorical. One man’s Tinda is another man’s Ice-cream. It is no use labelling anyone as one or the other. Inheritance is but one circumstance of privilege afflicting the legal profession. There are a myriad others: man v. woman, northerner v. southerner, ‘born and brought up in Delhi’ v. outsider, English speaking v. Hindi speaking. One is familiar with the rest. One sees them up-close these days.
Maybe what we need is a change in the conversation, away from the subtle reinforcement of past hierarchies. No talk of the so-and-so-ness of lawyers. No gloating, fawning, innuendo, jest. It should be bad form. It is bad form. It makes unsurmountable the distance between a handful of rows in a court-room. A distance which could take decades to overcome, if not an entire lifetime.
[Picture courtesy: Quittance legal services, downloaded from the web]
Ok, you have my attention. I have taken in the swanky hand-bag, the 60’s Hollywood flipped bob and the two subordinates carrying your files. I have patrolled my boss’ office three times to figure out what your meeting is about. It sounds like a big arbitration and all my limbs are crossed that it comes to me.
I did a mental cartwheel when the pyramid of files landed on my desk minutes after you left. I like everything about it. Glamorous MNC, great for name-dropping. High stakes, it will have the boss’ attention. Trips to Guwahati, my best friend lives there. All in all, you have nothing to worry about. This is an important one and I am going to do a good job for you.
I am so glad you are responsive over emails. Did you notice that your files were all over my cabin the second time you came to office? An associate is spending the week drawing up a list of dates and documents. I hope you are satisfied that I have rolled my sleeves up and jumped right in!
Ok, you want to message me on whatsapp, and messenger, and do an unscheduled phone call occasionally? That works. Shoot away whenever you have a question. Don’t you hesitate. I will drop everything else and respond to you first.
Ok, you want to have a quick chat after dinner tonight? Or Friday night? Or Sunday early morning? Sure. But now that we’re talking I am wondering what the urgency was. Couldn’t we have waited until office-hours? Never mind, I want to keep you happy. Maybe this is a one-off thing for you. I’ll let it slide. Let’s talk about what you want to talk about. Matter of fact, let’s analyse it threadbare.
No, the tribunal isn’t likely to advance the main hearing. It took arduous coordination of multiple timetables to get the dates we have. I can always shoot out an email and see what happens. No, it may not be possible to get a stay on all their business transactions without showing adequate cause. I can always do some snooping around on the MCA website and get back. You know, sometimes there is nothing to do between hearing dates, and that’s ok. Just an idea, we don’t need to find things to do when there is nothing to be done.
Now you’re telling me about your family and I am wondering why. I guess I should share something personal too. Maybe it will forge a special bond between us. Maybe you will become a long-term client. You tell me about your nephew and I’ll tell you about my plans to take a sabbatical next year. The good ol’ Indian professional relationship.
Ok, I can read the contract your nephew has with his tenant in Civil Lines and see if an eviction is possible. I can talk to the agent trying to sell health insurance to you and make sure it sounds right. But you know my LL.M. cost me a kidney right? I also suffered a string of unpaid internships and under-paid jobs to get this far. And the struggle continues: three years in court and low self-esteem only get one as far as minimum wages. Just an idea, I could stick to giving you professional advice and getting paid for it.
Not to press the issue but I haven’t taken on a new matter since yours. There is simply no time. The arbitration is complicated as it is. Then there are your urgent emails, and urgent phone calls, and messages, and personal requests to think about.
It may not have crossed your mind but I haven’t had one completely free weekend in about four months. My parents are a two-hour flight away but I haven’t made it home for their birthdays. I have a dim memory of what my friends look like. Just an idea, maybe you can hold off some steam if I don’t reply to every roving inquiry within half a day. I am not actively avoiding you or busy smelling the flowers at India gate in the middle of the day. No need to message the boss, or send me multiple reminders, or call me five times.
Ok, maybe I need to take a break, go on a holiday. Come back and re-assess. Smother my insecurities and get someone else to chip in with your arbitration, take up a smaller matter on the side. You would get twice the attention that way and I would get half my life back. Just an idea, you could be open-minded about having a different point of contact every now and then.
What? You told the boss that I was thinking of a sabbatical! Why would you do that? I thought we shared a special bond! I went all the way for you, and you didn’t take a minute to shrug me off!!
I wish I had never been so enthusiastic about your matter, or you. Honestly, I’d rather do anything else than deal with you. I mutter under my breath when you call but what can I say? You are Miss. Star Client and you pay the bills, or promise to (they are stacking up). Just an idea, maybe you should consider a different counsel.
No. Wait! Scrap that last idea. What will I do without you? Here, here, I’ve got my best smile on and I am going to do my job.
(picture courtesy: The New York Times)
I always imagined that one day I would eventually (read: by the age of 40) retreat from the world (read: run away from people after renouncing the practice of law) to some faraway mountain for eternal ‘quality me-time’ (read: stare into an abyss from a house on the edge of a cliff). Live by Franz Kafka’s advice:
“Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
Because Kafka said it, my imagination took flights of the most naturesque (if that’s a word), poetic, sort. I pictured waking up to the chirrups of birds in the morning, watching my dog laze belly-up in the sun all day, fussing about the dark colouration over my elbows at night, then fixing it with an exotic oil from a wild plant outside my window.
Two months into the lately self-imposed (some tired administrator somewhere is having the last laugh) house-arrest courtesy COVID-19, I have retreated from the world alright. Only to make the scintillating discovery that ‘quality me-time’ is a myth.
In fact, there is no time at all! It is as if all the clocks have conspired to cut short the entirety of summer. An hour is no longer taking an hour.
As a prelude to this grand conspiracy, the clocks move faster by half an hour every time I resolve late-night to wake up early the next morning. Then, without explanation, the morning ritual of bed-tea, newspaper, shower and breakfast, which took 90 minutes in the reign of ‘Your Lordships’ and office timings, lingers until noon. By the time I get to my inbox and scan through the list of ‘to dos’ I am already tired, partly by the exertion of the morning ritual, partly at the sight of the ever-expanding list of ‘to dos’.
At this point, my phone begins to buzz incessantly. A painful reminder of the chicken-soup-for-the-corona-soul revolution underway on social media.
According to Instagram, my sister is growing yellow daffodils on the terrace of her London apartment. My best friend can do fifty push-ups in uncomfortable but camera-worthy gym outfits. And this girl from god-knows-where can knead her own pizza bread with one hand while cradling her angelic toddler in the other. My sense of wonder oscillates between their ‘survivor’ spirit and my complete lack of inclination to do anything. I fidget through my box of excuses and invariably settle on the only one: I have no time. Just then, so as not to go unnoticed for their pivotal performance in this scheme of things, the clocks do their trick once again! Apparently, hours have passed in my self-deprecating insta-stalking, although it felt like a few minutes.
The compulsive doer is probably rolling his eyes by now. One never ‘has’ the time, one has to ‘make’ the time. I couldn’t agree more. As a matter of fact, I regularly make time to add to cart some physical manifestation of my intended hobbies. I am the professor of a very precise science: product description, online reviews, size and colour and shipment period and payment options. It is not for everyone. If I spend too much time buying things on Amazon and waiting for them to deliver, it is because one can never start anything without the right paraphernalia. There will be time enough to use it later. It can sit beside the door until then, like the rest of the dumbbells and yoga mats and dry yeast for pizza bread.
Ok, alright, maybe I am the sedentary sort. Let me just say that it comes from being a real professional. I have one sentence for Mr. Compulsive Doer: the practice of law is a real job. Subtext: since my career is not a title I gave to my only hobby and actually requires me to do things within deadlines given by other people, excuse me for having no stamina left to discover my inner goddess.
That’s a really good point, Mr Doer would say, except that it doesn’t explain the ‘to dos’ bursting out of your inbox or your inactivity on Linkedin.
He would be right. Linkedin is experiencing its own version of the Instagram revolution. The explosion of webinars, papers, and drastic career decisions overtaking my home page is no laughing matter. These are lawyers finding things to do when there is, quite frankly, nothing to do. They are the true professionals. The ones with the real real jobs. The ones who are sure to make something of their lives while I sit around moping about silly things like the clocks.
Ah, the clocks! I lost track of them. They seem to have pirouetted petulantly on by several hours, as if upset at not being taken for serious conspirators. It is dinner time already.
It is unbelievable that I should have spent the entirety of my day figuring out how to use my day. Between tea cups and posted stories and proceed-to-pays and who-has-viewed-my-profile and right swipes and blue ticks. That would be an absurd waste of time. Like mindlessly turning radio stations in a car for just one feel-good song, except to proportions gone horribly wrong. It can’t be. I am now convinced that this is all a sinister plot to beguile me to my wit’s end.
That, or Kafka had no imagination. He was talking about the unmasking of a virtual world, in all its rolling ecstasy, to an insecure, distracted, status-hungry, 21st century consumer. That dull slob.
It’s only been a year since she left law school, but you wouldn’t know it if you saw her. She flits around the room with ease. Making new acquaintances, fortifying old ones, talking to 30-somethings in high places with the same even eye and steady voice she uses with her contemporaries. No starry eyes. They must find it annoying to be hounded by those at conferences like these.
Little does she know of the struggles of 30-somethings. They have ploughed through years of soul-wrenching personal sacrifice, office politics and tasteless dip-dip tea to get to whatever senior-ish position they now hold. On the one hand, they don’t want to fall prey to too much attention because there are miles between them and the greats. On the other, they crave attention. Because, by unanimous resolution of the world-wide federation of young lawyers there is only one metric of success: visibility. No amount of expertise, money or job-satisfaction can trump ‘the next big thing’ title.
Take for instance this 30-something yawning beside the coffee counter outside the conference hall. He’d rather be making mimosas in his balcony on this spring Saturday morning. Yet here he is, waiting for people to notice him, talk to him, discover his prodigious achievements. It is making him anxious that no one seems interested: the seniors have an elite club of their own, his peers are busy suppressing their own yawns in lonely corners, and the juniors…well, the less said the better.
They have none of the starry-eyed reverence he feels entitled to. Juniors in his day were much more sincere: they had an eagerness to please, to learn from their seniors. Not like the new generation. Raised in the familial and social echo-chamber that each one is profusely special – a snow flake – these kids have no tenacity for discomfort. If a partner works odd-hours or a senior isn’t open to discussion, they just quit and try something else!
Were it ever suggested to him that ‘these kids’ might be better equipped to service a new-age, digitised, specialised, clientele and can’t be faulted for being impatient with the unnecessary hierarchies of the legal profession, he would have dismissed the argument outright. He would have rolled his eyes at the first signs of successful independent practices run by the 25-year-olds. They know nothing like Jon Snow, he would have scoffed; they are bound to fail.
The conference doesn’t muster his attention. He has done what networking he could during the coffee break. As he eyes the closest door to make a discreet exit, the floor opens to questions and one surprisingly well-articulated query surges through the din of ill-informed chatter. He sits straighter to see who it is. Oh! That young girl from the morning. What was her name again?
On his escape from the conference hall, he finds her walking past.
“I liked your question. It was well-researched… well done!”, he says.
“Oh, thank you! Such a big compliment, coming from you. I actually wrote it down beforehand – didn’t want to get nervous and blurt out gibberish”, she smiles at him.
He is impressed. She thought it through, something as simple as a question at a conference.
“Where do you work again?”, he asks.
“This online legal publication…but I am on the lookout”, she hands him her card (again), “I want to get into arbitration”.
“Why don’t you get in touch with me in July for our Delhi office?”, he hands out his card (for the first time). “Let’s see if we can work out an internship”.
“Sure, thank you”, she doesn’t want to sound overwhelmed. She can’t believe this has landed on her lap! Word is that he is the next big thing in arbitration. But they are in April. What if he finds someone else by July? No, no, she can’t take that chance. She must think of something to hold his attention.
“Actually, I was hoping to talk to you as well…”, she steps up to block his egress in a moment of inspiration. “The publication I work for is putting together a reference book on international arbitration. A sort of comprehensive guide for teaching at law schools… if you like, I could put your name forward as a contributor”.
He pauses. The publication she works for is huge. Getting his name in a good print could bring him closer to the current love of his life: visibility.
She quickly offers details about the project. She’ll have to figure out a way to get him on the list of authors now. Shouldn’t be tough. He is well-known in these circles. The right suggestion at the right time will do it.
She concludes with a subtle quid pro quo, “if I eventually end up working for you, of course, it will become easier for us to coordinate this…I’ll be happy to liaise with the editors… probably even secure other projects where I can assist you. I mean – ”
He cuts her short, “You can write to my secretary with the details. The valet’s brought my car around, I should get going”.
He is stumped. Did she just try to buy her way into working with him? It can’t be. He holds all the cards. He has worked ten years for those cards! She is crazy if she thinks this is even a negotiation!!!
She doesn’t miss a beat. “Of course. We can discuss it via email. Looking forward to keeping in touch”, and steps back.
He walks out in wonder, shaky in his grasp on the world. A novice, ten years his junior, figured out what would lure him and did not hesitate to use it to her advantage. He is at once in fear and awe of this new, uninhibited, creature. Not a care for what he might think, no fear of failure!
A strange idea comes to him like a whisper – what if he has been wrong all this while? What if Gen Zen succeeds? If the kids figure out a way to get things done without being reverential to the past… where will that leave his generation and those before him?
Shake it off. Shake it off. You are a counsel in a top-tier law firm. You don’t have to do anything to suit a fledgling 23 year-old-nobody. Get in the car, drive home, have a mimosa.
And he does.
A month later, he hires her.
Card out. Bag down. Body Scanner. Metal detector. Don’t rush. Take a minute. Scan the scene. Open and green. Court buildings afar. Lots of people. Black and white. Spotted colours. Rushing about.
With an hour to go? Why are they rushed? Why are you rushed? What’s bothering you?
Court outcomes? Not quite. Dismiss the notion, relax a little. It is just nervous anticipation. Only one case really matters today. That troublesome one dumped on you. You are appearing by yourself. Too many interim-applications, snail-speed procedure. But you know it inside out. You’ve ingested the file each hearing. Of which there have been too many. You can recite the ‘List of Dates’ on cue. With soapy eyes under a shower. Between the first two bites of weekend Maggie. Anytime and absolutely anywhere. Doubtless, you pray all goes well. But experience has made you a monk. Anything could happen, or nothing could happen. You won’t take it personally. You’ll live to fight another day. What matters is the appearance. Mental agility, structure, restraint. You want to get better each time.
The rest does not bother you. Not the outcome, not the judge, not the other counsel. You let go of what you can’t control. What else is there to worry about?
Let’s straighten up a little at the thought. Resume walking to court in more sedate strides. A familiar face catches your eye en route. That friend from college you haven’t met recently. You mutter amiable pleasantries and walk on. Best not to think about him right now. Likely you will circle back later. Unwinding over a cup of tea after court. The last you heard of his soaring practice. The client he bagged, the gem he married. But now is not the time for that. Such insecure musings could be unsettling. You can’t afford them before a court appearance. Something else is nagging at you anyway. Never mind that you can’t figure out what. Feels oddly familiar from the morning before. And the morning before that? And the morning before that?
But it isn’t the competition. You won’t let it to dent your composure. What else is there to worry about?
One foot through the doorway and they come rushing forward. Almost as if they have been waiting in ambush. But seeing your clients doesn’t sway your mood. Of course, it would be great to hand them a good order. For starters, because they have a pretty good case. For the main course, because you’d hate to lose them. For dessert, because they could send other clients your way. Unfortunately, it is impossible to meet all their expectations. They begin before the can’t-promise-anything appetizer. And end in the cups despite the this-is-the-best-we-can-do mignardise. You know better than to agonize over placating them. Frankly answer their frenzied questions and leave it at that.
You are good at tolerating them. And they are good at tolerating you. Clients don’t cause you lingering anxiety. You have the upper hand and they know it. What else is there to worry about?
Your senior! How strange that he hasn’t crossed your mind as the culpable party. You nudge past your clients and trace your way to his prep corner. He will be reading one of the case files and he will have a pop-quiz waiting for you. Better to take it head on now: later could be in a full court, with a seemingly patient bench, and an obviously impatient senior. A bullet spray of questions greets you as you approach him under the cover of things you remember off-hand. You don’t have the case-files yet and these are impossible odds.
Rebuke after rebuke and then a blinding explosion…as you wipe the debris off your face… and practically assess the damage… a stunning realisation makes itself known… you are not as devastated as you expected to be….in fact, you are practically unphased… repeated explosions have made you immune… *this will pass sooner or later*… *I should get something to eat* … *I should go over the file for that troublesome one*…
The case files! Where are the case files??!! Anxiety comes bursting back like a volcano. With it, the clarity of what – or who – you have been missing.
‘Haanji, madam-ji’, his voice tugs at your ear, ‘saari files court-rooms ke saamne rakh deen hain. Aap check kar lena’.
You hear those words and see that face and tears of relief well up inside you. He could be efficient but brazen, well-intentioned but clueless, clever but distracted by a greater calling. Regardless, your clerk is at the heart of the onion that is your anxiety.
You have so many things to run past him – which court will he go to first? is that case compendium ready? Did he speak to that court master? He replies in a deliberately busy-body tone. You should know he has other things to do.
Because – here’s the catch – you’d like him to be afraid of disappointing you, but secretly you are as afraid of disappointing him. The filing defects you should have cleared, the document you should have told him to copy in three. You are always scrambling to make amends. He simply is the central piece of the puzzle that is your practice. If he doesn’t sit right, the practice will crumble. Hearings will scatter, contemporaries will whiz past, clients will lose faith and seniors will lose temper.
He brings the inquisition to a close, ‘mein registry jaaoon? Woh Airport waale matter mein Section 9 daalni hai’.
You nod your head. Far be it from you to interfere with his aur-kya-haal-hai social routine at the registry. Plus, today’s soul-searching has led you to discover that the sun shines from his oil-smacked brow.
Before he turns to go, you offer him tea. He eyes you suspiciously. Where is the trap in this unusually kind overture? Mumbling something about things to do, he retreats in bewilderment.
You watch his back with all the love that quarantined folks feel for Zomato delivery boys.
*I was in such good form today*, I press buttons on the coffee machine and head back to my cubicle with a cup of espresso. Seated in the comfortable privacy of the foot-high enclosure, I curl a lock of hair on my index finger and relish the coffee. *The judge looked impressed… if he gives a good order, I’ll take it to The Man myself*.
A quizzical pair of eyebrows creeps up from the other side of the cubicle partition, disrupting my grand plans.
‘Listen, did you give The Man the draft Response to the Trehan Sharma writ? The matter is coming up next week, we should file it tomorrow’. It is the office favourite. He has decided to take a break from whatever he was doing and re-state his importance to the world.
Why am I first in his line of fire? Well, I am the newest member of the firm – barely a month old – and he can sense that I am as yet a non-believer in his God-gifts.
Don’t get me wrong, I know he is the chosen one and I can’t compete. He is an old hand at the firm, I am the awkward new lateral hire. He is the young scion of a well-known family of lawyers, I hand out business-cards at office parties so that people remember my name. He sacrifices endless evenings chatting up The Man after work, I go get myself a life. For all that, I have whole-heartedly accepted his supernatural rights of access to The Man’s office, to the choicest cases, to the least boss-junior distance-of-deference on a ride in The Man’s car.
Only, I am not convinced of his special skills as a lawyer which, I sense, is what really bothers him. I mean it is swell that he knows how The Man likes to do things, what makes files move faster past registries and court masters – technical nit-bits. I just don’t see that as some sort of unattainable legal nirvana to be marvelled at. You won’t catch me swooning every time he ‘will have you know’ a filing technicality.
Of course nobody cares what I think, least of all the still attentive pair of eyebrows on the other side of the partition, their stiffness hinged on the the-way-things-work-around-here.
‘I placed the file on his desk yesterday. Waiting to discuss it with him once he gets back from court’, I answer.
‘Great’, he says. The eyebrows betray disappointment.
‘Would you like to come for the discussion? You already know most of the case from our coffee breaks…it is coming up before Muralidhar’, I extend the olive branch, knowing he is a Justice Muralidhar-fan. (Don’t judge. Between an ‘equal world’ and ‘convenient peace’ we all know which pursuit is more likely to help us survive).
He considers this a moment, ‘yea, sure. This is probably your first discussion with him, always good to have someone back you up…just email me the version you sent him, I’ll have a look’.
Aww, that’s sweet. Nice of him to offer. ‘I could use a second pair of eyes, thanks! I have spent a week going over and over the same draft….’ I beam at him, and email the draft right away.
The eyebrows disappear below the cubicle partition for a while and I wonder if I have been too quick to judge The Favourite. Maybe he is not so bad after all. He does seem to really care about the practice. What other reason could he have to take time out for my case – keep a track on timelines, proof-read the draft? Maybe that’s why The Man likes him.
He resurfaces minutes later.
‘Well, what do you think?’, I ask, ‘did I miss anything?’.
‘No no, looks good!’, he smiles and walks over to enquire after another newbie a few cubicles away. What a kind and generous soul?! A feeling of warmth and gratitude spreads over me.
Just then the office-boy announces that The Man is back from court and has asked for me. I call out to The Favourite.
The Man doesn’t wait for us to knock. ‘Come in’, he says in an orotund voice. We comply and sit down at his expansive mahogany desk. He is a stout man, with dwindling white hair and reserved mannerisms. There is an air of restlessness about him, as if he’d rather do anything other than labour under the compulsion of human conversation.
‘Where are we on Trehan Sharma?’ he asks without preamble, ‘I have fifteen minutes before my next call’.
‘I placed the draft Response here yesterday’, I point to the file at the edge of his desk.
He reaches for it and flips the pages slowly as I quell my nerves, wanting him to be impressed.
After what seems like hours, he looks up, ‘it’s ok, I think’, hands me the file, ‘a few grammatical edits should do it. We can finalize and file tomorrow’.
‘Sorry…. don’t you think we need to make a proper challenge to locus standi? Two generic sentences may not suffice. I think I mentioned this to her over coffee a few days ago…don’t know why it was kept out of the draft”, the voice beside me pipes up.
What locus standi issue? I turn to look at The Favourite. Why didn’t he tell me about this when he saw the final version?? He is looking at my boss, deliberately avoiding my stare. My mind is racing through our past conversations. The Man is looking at me now. The harder I try to remember, the more my memory fails me.
*Stop freaking out!*, an inner-voice interjects, *Trehan Sharma owns the house the Municipal Corporation of Delhi wants to demolish. His writ challenges the demolition notice. He has all the standing in the world!*
I fume silently and weigh my options. I could keep quiet and look incompetent, or contradict The Favourite and look insubordinate.
Taking the plunge, ‘the MCD’s notice of demolition is against the house Trehan Sharma – the petitioner – owns, and resides in…’, I tell The Man, ‘but if you would like me to add more on locus standi, I’d be happy to’.
‘I didn’t see any supporting documents in the file. Better safe than sorry, just saying’, Mr-dirty-tricks persists.
I flip through the file hurriedly – was it in the petitioner’s affidavit? some other document?
The Man sighs and looks at his watch, visibly impatient at having to waste time over a non-final draft. ‘Please go over the file once more’, he says to me, ‘if there are any issues about his standing, we have to cover them… come back after you have discussed it amongst yourselves’.
‘But we did discuss…’ I trail off as he picks up the buzzing phone on his desk.
Done. My first impression, ruined.
We get up and leave the room in silence. I want to slam the cabin door and hold The Favourite by his collar and drag him to the cubicle section and tell everyone what he just did.
The only trouble is, I can’t articulate what he just did, even in my own head. He attended the meeting on my invitation and commented on the draft Response, which I circulated to him. He didn’t jump into my meeting, or surreptitiously procure a copy of the Response, or say anything obnoxiously critical of me. If I cry foul, I will look like the crazy one.
*Maybe he does have a special skill after all*, my mind shrugs in defeat, *undercutting people imperceptibly after gaining their confidence is an art… *
He seems smug as I slip into my cubicle, which is abruptly small and stuffy. All the light-heartedness of a good day wiped out by one flap of a butterfly’s wings. What can you do?
Well… there is one thing.
I head over to the coffee machine, punch the life out of it and get myself another shot of black.
It struck me as odd that so many popular movie stars who came out in support of the 5 pm, thali / clap, solidarity show against coronavirus wore white. The entire Bachchan clan, Deepika Padukone and husband, Hritik Roshan, Jahanvi Kapoor, Kriti Sanon, Karishma Kapoor, Vicky Kaushal… the phenomenon was too ubiquitous to escape notice, particularly for a newly independent lawyer overcome with a feeling of déjà vu. After all, I have spent quality time in recent years doing the exact same thing: hanging about the house, in a white shirt, devising idle distractions.
The state of mind of a newly-independent type deserves meticulous deciphering. You are suddenly inundated with free time, up until then a mythical construct aimed at surviving years of toil in someone else’s office. Now that you have it you can’t make anything of it, because you are also inundated with a crippling dose of anxious anticipation. Should you focus on enjoyment? But all forms of enjoyment – travel, restaurants, Salsa classes – are suddenly too expensive and you have to watch your pocket now more than ever. Should you focus on upgrading your skills as a professional? But it is not entirely clear which is more important: reading up on case-law, observing court proceedings or meeting people to get work? Should you not stress so much and simply relax while there is still time, before things get busy again? But then, you might forever carry the guilt of not making the most of this time!
In the end, you get exhausted from weighing the options and resign yourself to doing absolutely nothing until the universe gives you an answer. In other words, you procrastinate. As such, it is entirely unremarkable to find a newly independent type sitting at home or in a cost-pooled office, dressed for court, playing card games on a computer or staring blankly at a pile of books on a desk or watering plants in a balcony.
By the fourth month of my ‘independence’ the balcony plants passed away from a water overdose, visibly undermining the hypothesised merits of procrastination. In a last ditch attempt to salvage the situation, I brought Kakaji home. A black miniature dachshund, 45 days old, drastically more responsive than the dead inanimates in my balcony and comfortably less responsive than the invariably opinionated species I belong to.
One would have thought that a dog barely bigger than a rodent would go through life trying to be congenial, but then one would not have known Kakaji. He feigned some initial interest in my ruminations – the admirable resilience of an office swivel chair in the face of an unfamiliar heavy bottom, the often wasted potential of post-its as temporary placeholders without any regard for their utility for systematic tagging by colour and size, the negative Vastu behind the tragic events of the balcony – but quickly ran out of patience.
Through persistent snout-butts, whines and wriggles out of my arms it was made clear to me that he had no interest in moping about my office-by-day-bedroom-by-night. The loss of this final alibi left me with no option but to accept the pointlessness of the space-time-anxiety continuum borne out of my decision to go independent, and do something about it.
I began by setting targets for every week: one person, at least, to be sought out for work; one day, at least, to be spent as audience in court; five cases, at least, to be read. Over successive weeks, the targets became more exacting. I didn’t always meet them but it gave me a sense of purpose to step out of the house. That was enough, and oddly therapeutic. More and more with each passing day, as unassuming email inquiries turned into full-fledged instructions and unlikely contacts turned into trepid clients.
On some days, I ran out of balance in my bank account and kicked myself for not prioritising money recovery alongside other professional goals. On other days, I was just happy to have work to do. Ultimately, I wasn’t quite sure which way the wheel was turning: was I practicing to make money, or was I making just enough money to continue to practice?
A reasonable third party could be forgiven for dismissing this quandary outright: of course, they are in it for the money! They would have to be crazy to take on the tribulations of lawyer-hood simply to occupy themselves if they could afford to be on a yacht in the Caribbean instead!
The facts thrown up by the on-going nation-wide quarantine may however compel this party to reconsider. It is, for one, becoming increasingly clear that lawyers are experiencing a unique kind of anxiety these days, not necessarily related to pending work, or loss of business, or mounting bills, like everybody else. Instead, they seem to have a particular itch to sip that first cup of morning coffee in their office chair, to discuss matters with their least agreeable office peon, and – don’t we know it – to put on a white shirt for a reason more compelling than looking austere-but-glam while clanking thalis from a balcony.
Why? Because every self-reliant lawyer regardless of his / her station is acutely, unusually, uncomfortable about having to sit at home. S/he remembers all too clearly the frustration of those early days of his/ her ‘independence’, and values all too dearly the simple routine of stepping out of his / her house with something to do.
For Kakaji and me, we are busy re-negotiating the terms of our enduring togetherness. I am back to wooing his company for my monologues and he is back to feigning interest. I know he desperately wishes he could send me packing off to work every morning and reclaim his lazy afternoons in the sun. This time around I want the same thing. Probably more than he does.
“True story! There is a fat fish called the Anglerfish that pretends to be a worm so that it can lure other predator fish and eat them!”, my friend carries on. I slap his arm, breathless with laughter, “what nonsense, how can a fat fish mimic a worm??!!”.
We are standing outside Court 14 of the Delhi High Court waiting for our matter to come up. Well, my matter, but I have solicited his support today because a big band of bullies represents the other side. They always come in large numbers: two senior counsel and a train of about ten juniors swaying under a mountain of casefiles and glued to their phones. Their preoccupied expressions and busy-body strut could mislead a bystander into fancying they had matters of immense national importance at hand: Your Lordship, we need permission to detonate Missile NUCL*random symbols*. As the sole counsel for the other side however I am unenthused, privy to the mundane reality of my client’s simple execution petition to recover a modest sum of money from the Bullies’ client under a decree. The Bullies had successfully evaded payment for several months thanks to their well-practiced charade: the matter would come up, I’d state they owed such and such and had not complied with such and such, they would nit-pick some inconsequential technicality in my written or spoken submissions and never let me finish. What is she talking about and she needs to read her civil procedure and this is not the way to do things, please Your Lordship, and let her come back with the proper application for this and let us respond to her request in writing for that.
Their display of strength and seniority invariably trumped my meek, just-above-the-lectern, protestations. They’d get their adjournment and I’d get afflicted with a week-long sulk, piqued at being taken for a weakling novice and wistful at the prospect of what could have been if I had managed to state my case properly. If the rotund, raucous, male senior counsel could just keep quiet for once, and the beautiful, saree-clad, female one could just avert her piercing gaze. If the juniors could just pause their incessant phone-tapping and pay attention to what I was saying.
Today is different though. I have a plan. My friend is tall with broad shoulders and a deceptively menacing appearance for a harmless goofball. He is going to stand beside me when our matter comes up, flex his muscles nonchalantly and echo all my key submissions. At one point, I will wave documents in the air and accuse the Bullies of siphoning-off funds to evade the execution, at which point my friend is going to shake his head in shock and horror. The optics will be magnificent.
Am I ready? I am so ready.
Am I also hot? I am a little hot. A little more than a little hot. A little less than swimming-in-sweat hot. Early afternoon in late spring, black blazer, robe, neck-band, files, people bumping into Goofball and me on their way in and out of court. It is all getting to me suddenly. Should we quickly run downstairs and get a bottle of water from the canteen? Goofball looks doubtful. Ok, you can go and I can hold fort here? Goofball looks disappointed. Ok, I can go and you can hold fort here? Goofball looks nervous. Oh alright, let’s make a run for it. Down the winding staircase, past corridors, people, around the corner to ‘canteen waale bheyia’ – and back, past people, corridors, up the winding staircase. We reach Court 14 panting. The Bullies are already there, furiously demanding an adjournment. Counsel for the Petitioner is not here and this Court can’t be kept waiting and young counsel really need to show some respect, please, Your Lordship.
I rush forward. “Your Lordship, I beg your pardon”, I wheeze, “we have been standing outside for a long time. The board collapsed suddenly and it escaped our attention that the matter had been called out”.
“Is this the way?? Everybody including Your Lordship is waiting for this young lady to show up and it “escapes her attention” that she has a matter to attend to!”, the rotund one bellows, “it is almost lunch time, Your Lordship, and I have a hearing in Court 1 after lunch. This matter requires more time, we would be grateful if this can be posted to another date”.
“Please Your Lordship, they are siphoning-off funds to sister concerns in order to evade paying us the decretal amount. We have obtained information from the Ministry of Corporate Affairs’ website”, I reconsider the document-waving and quickly bend forward to pass copies to the Judge’s clerk.
“This is too much!”, the beautiful one chides, “first she comes late, and now she is accusing us in open court without any application! We have no idea what documents she is producing. Let her file an application. Your Lordship can hear it on the next date”.
I want to scream – hey! can you back off for just one moment? I have a really good case to argue!
“Young Lady, you were certainly not outside court when the matter came up. You are breathless from running”, the Judge pins me to the spot through his thick-rimmed glasses.
“Anglerfish”, Goofball whispers in my ear.
“Are you calling me fat??!!”, I whisper back angrily, “seriously, Zaf! This is no time!”.
“Don’t be afraid to play the victim they think you are”, he says.
I take a deep breath.
“Your Lordship, I apologise. I was in another court arguing a matter. I am a junior counsel like my able friends keep reminding us. I don’t have a train of subordinates to hold fort while I run between courts. I manage my own diary and carry my own files. I am sorry I am late, but I did the best I could, given my limitations”, I say.
The Judge nods and stretches his hand for the copies I have handed over to his clerk.
I continue, “allow me to explain why the documents are relevant. We don’t have to hear this today if my learned colleagues are not ready. I am happy to file an application. But until the next date, we need an order staying all further transactions by the Respondent company”.
I take him through the documents. Nobody interrupts me. The raucous counsel is quiet, the beautiful one is not looking in my direction anymore, and the juniors are listening in rapt attention.
Minutes later, the Court breaks for lunch. Goofball and I walk out as the court clerk draws up an order to stay all future transactions of the Bullies’ client and adjourns the matter to a far-off date. We pass the Bullies on our way out, huddled up in a corner, sulking.
This is a re-post of a piece that has previously been published by Bar and Bench as part of the series ‘The Obiter Truth’ and is a work of fiction. The author would like to thank the publication for their immense support.
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?
Every day in the court room in the life of a junior lawyer. Losing the battle and loosing the war.
Monday mornings are a busy affair in the Delhi High Court. As a matter of routine, new cases come up for their first hearings on Mondays (and Fridays). Given the angry, ever-offended, disposition of our society these days, the Monday case-list inevitably runs from ceiling to floor. And everything must be dealt with in court-hours because court-hours don’t change for god himself. It will be 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with an hour-long lunch break, thank you very much. May the heavens protect you if you are the counsel standing between a judge and his time off. Net result: you have a case-brief running into 3000 pages, which has taken you all of last week to prepare, and 5 minutes to make your case before a judge. Its either foot through the door or case out the window.
I am in Court early on one such Monday. I just have a small matter to mention to the Judge before he takes up his case-list for the day. This is a common practice in court: lawyers can mention any small issues right after a judge is seated so that nobody wastes unnecessary time once the court gets down to business. I only need an adjournment of my case to another date (yes yes, all the stories you have heard are true and ‘adjournment after adjournment’, or as they famously say in Hindi ‘taariq pe taariq’, is a thing). But I am conscious it’s a Monday – the courtroom will be packed and there could be lots of other lawyers who have matters to mention. So, I am here early, at 9:30 a.m. I am the first one in Court and the first in line to mention my matter.
I stand facing the judge’s bench and listen with disinterest to the rising murmur of conversations behind me as people crowd into the modest court room. Gladiators pour into the arena, waiting for the flag to drop, the beast to rush in and the crowd to swoon. I can hear a little snigger here, a loud guttural laugh there. I imagine that the girls sniggering are interns, talking about a guy they’ve been crushing over at work. I imagine the guttural laugh is from one of the gladiators. He is holding a flock of junior lawyers captive with an anecdote from ‘the old days’. He probably woke up at 6:00 a.m. this morning, dressed himself immaculately in black and white, and was in his office by 7:30 a.m. to be briefed by his juniors for this case. That would be the first time he would have heard of this matter. Somewhere during the briefing, he would have had a eureka moment and made up a whole new argument hinged on three cases which were nowhere in his brief. His underpaid, overworked, juniors have probably been in a flurry ever since, printing new material, re-organising his papers, re-drafting their summary note.
I smile to myself and look across to the spot above the judge’s high, currently empty, straight-back chair. The clock says 10:25 a.m.. 5 more minutes to go.
I decide to revise- for the tenth time – what I am going to say in my 2 seconds of mentioning. I am quite sure I will get the adjournment but I want to make the most of my time in court. I want to use every moment of speaking time to get better at court-craft, make my delivery smooth and clear.
A hand thuds down on my shoulder and that guttural voice is now in my ear, ‘young lady, would you mind taking a seat as I have a matter to mention’.
I turn to see the gladiator. He has white hair, an upturned nose and a barrel moustache disdainfully drooping down to his jawline. The twenty-five lawyers lined up behind me have clearly been similarly bullied into letting him ahead.
I have been standing here for an hour just to get the first shot at the mentioning and I am not willing to relent just yet. ‘Well…’, I begin in an even voice.
But the space around me quietens down the moment I utter my first word. All I can hear is them thinking: what does this fledging, young, woman have the nerve to say, in that voice, to him?!! My confidence slips away. I move out of his way and slump into an empty seat nearby.
The scene is so pregnant with the injustice of his condescension and the meekness of my submission that it forces him to say something.
‘Oh, did you want to mention a matter as well?’.
‘Oh’, and then he turns away.
That’s it. That’s all the thank you or sorry I get for giving up the spot I have been holding onto for an hour. I am so angry that there is a cloud of yellow orange light in my head and I can’t think straight. I have no words.
But now, the judge has entered the room. All rise. The judge sits. The flag drops. The gladiator is at his best, tearing the air apart with the clean blow of his words. The show goes on. And I am lost in the crowd. I have no energy to stand up and elbow my way through the clamour to get my adjournment. My two seconds of glory never come. I just sit through it all and leave after mentioning time is over.
In today’s ‘post-truth’ world, discussing a social issue is as important as believing in it
‘No means no!’ she exclaims.
A quiet descends over the gathering. Some uneasy shifting. I can feel my beer warming up in my hands. Someone makes an attempt to change the subject but I pursue, ‘yes it does, but how far does that take us? Does that mean that every kind of romantic pursuit must be abandoned at the first sign of rejection?’
My colleague rolls her eyes and goes on to enlighten us: of course, that is what it means! Every woman must know right from the start who she likes and who she doesn’t like. When she knows she doesn’t like someone, she must emphatically say the word ‘no’ and the guy must stop doing whatever he is doing: talking to her, pursuing her, making love to her, whatever, because ‘no means no!’
That’s some circular logic, I wonder. ‘No means no’ because, well, ‘no means no’. I sip my beer and look around me. It’s an airy night on our rooftop. We’re all sitting in a circle with our chosen poisons in hand and listening to music. My husband and I are entertaining some colleagues from his law firm. We’re all lawyers here: educated, practicing, doing well for ourselves. Somehow the conversation had steered to the ‘#metoo’ movement. Someone marvelled at how it had taken everyone by surprise. To which someone asked whether it would survive in this limitless, disorderly, war-path. These musings were brought to an abrupt end by the war cry of our now red-faced companion, ‘no means no!’
I can see that my first attempt to talk about limits has not gone down well. I try a different route. Is every accusation a dead-end conviction? Are we agreed that the moment an artist is called out for being a predator we are to shut him out and discredit everything about him including his art? Does this mean we must stop watching his movies, listening to his music or reading his books?
I am unsuccessful. Nobody responds. My opponent’s face has turned from red to crimson. All the other women in the circle are looking equally annoyed. I know what they are thinking: why must she question a movement that is so important to thousands of women across the world? haven’t we suffered enough already? The men are also annoyed, nobody wants to ruin a good evening with all this talk about social issues.
So weird. On the one hand we are obsessed with sloganeering. On the other we don’t want to ruin a good evening talking about what the slogans represent.
On the one hand we are obsessed with sloganeering. On the other we don’t want to ruin a good evening talking about what the slogans represent.
The word doing the round these days is ‘post-truth’: nobody really knows the truth about anything because information in the public space – media, internet, social media – has uncertain, often not credible, origins. Competing accounts exist in today’s India about almost every event or occurrence with members of the polity free to consume any version of the truth that agrees with them.
We get lost in this maze of information with no roadmap. It is an avalanche that hits us every day and numbs us, leaving us capable of retaining only the loudest or most sensational forms of expression. Screaming news anchors, superlative tag-lines, sexual or violent hashtags. So, when we think of the ‘#metoo’ movement, we remember ‘no means no!’ and since all the rest is a blur we don’t bother to analyse it.
But what is the sense in caring about anything as a society if we don’t care about the same thing in the same sense? If your version of ‘#metoo’ is not my version of ‘#metoo’ then maybe we are actually a ‘#methree’, a ‘#mefour’ and a ‘#me100,000’ and nobody is listening to us because we are all saying different things. Like John G. Saxe’s blind men of ‘Indostan’ who groped different parts of the elephant and couldn’t make head or tail of what the creature was.
If your version of ‘me too’ is not my version of ‘me too’ then maybe we are actually a ‘me three’, a ‘me four’ and a ‘me 100,000’ and nobody is listening to us because we are all saying different things.
Discussions are the only way for us to navigate the elephant of information we are all too small to singly tackle. They are the Robin to the socially upright Batman who slays real-world jokers. It might be a little unpleasant to talk about sticky things in social settings. It might even make us look like idiots for not knowing enough. But how bad is that compared to actually being idiots and not knowing enough about the things we care for? We all read different things, track different sources for our information, follow different influencers. If we compare notes we inch closer towards figuring out what’s actually going on. If we don’t, we cede territory to un-informed self-righteousness. Basically, in today’s world, discussing a social issue is almost as important as believing in it.
Discussions are the only way for us to navigate the elephant of information we are all too small to singly tackle. They are the Robin to the socially upright Batman that slays real-world jokers.
I think these thoughts as I sip my beer and sulk. The conversation has now moved on to Alia Bhatt’s impending wedding and everybody seems pleased. Bollywood, our favourite delusion, our superhero Halloween costume for trick or treat, saves the world yet again.
I look around the room and I am ready for it. Ready to save our client some serious money by getting the Judge to stay the encashment of the client’s bank guarantees until the dispute is decided. The Judge / arbitrator sits languidly at the head of a long narrow table, old and white, with an indifferent expression on his face. The man who has the luxury of coming unprepared to a hearing like this and doling out decisions worth millions of dollars. The counsel on both sides will stop at nothing to please him (and he knows it) but he will keep up pretences of the highest professionalism so that he keeps getting appointed by the parties to resolve other commercial disputes / arbitrations.
The opposing counsel sit facing each other along the length of the table, each watching the other with hawk eyes. My boss and I are on one side and five men – some counsel, some client – on the other. My boss turns to me, ‘I will deal with the legal issues, you take the factual ones’. I nod without expression but my inner self has erupted into the Macarena. Yay! I get to speak! Ofcourse I am up for it. I drafted the 100-page Statement of Claim from scratch, I know each exhibit by the back of my hand, I spent hours putting together the compilation of past cases on the issue involved. I am feeling so grateful to my boss for throwing me this crumb! I know chances like these are hard to come by. Most seniors don’t permit their junior counsel to speak at hearings. You have to wait till you are grey to get a crack at it. I will make sure he will not regret it. I will ace the facts, we will walk out with the order we want, and this story will do the rounds of office till kingdom come. The young girl of thirty who defeated opponents twice her age, impressed a retired Supreme Court Judge and got relief worth millions for her client.
I am trying to keep a serious face as we begin arguments. My boss goes first, he speaks crisply and with impeccable clarity about the legal baselessness of threatened encashment. He is just about five sentences in when the judge stops him. The Judge turns to look behind him and for the first time I notice a thin, frail, woman with a notepad seated in the shadows away from the table. She wears a look which says she’d rather let the ground beneath her feet swallow her whole than be subjected to the gaze of the eight lawyers now looking at her. I wasn’t aware the judge had made arrangements to transcribe the hearing (as he should have done but as I simply presumed he had forgotten to do as is common in short hearings of this kind).
The Judge asks her, ‘have you written that down, Seema?’.
‘Writing sir, will take some more time’, she responds.
I roll my eyes. How silly of me to be so quickly impressed. Clearly she is not a professional stenographer but someone from the Judge’s staff who has been roped in at the last minute.
We wait in silence. She takes another minute and with a ‘done sir’ shows him what she’s got.
He sighs, ‘this won’t do…’. He looks around the room and rests his eyes on me.
‘You, can you transcribe while the other counsels speak?’.
I don’t miss a beat, ‘sure sir’.
So what if I am a qualified lawyer in two countries with a double scholarship from Cambridge and top-notch international experience on my CV. I am a young, well-dressed, well-spoken, girl. Nothing about my age, appearance or gender gives credence to my status as a ‘serious professional’. I cannot possibly have anything of substance to add to the hearing. That is for the grown-ups.
These presumptions were carved out for me the moment I became a lawyer and I have internalised them over the years. I am not at all upset about the Judge’s demand. I am in a room full of people of another gender and twice my age. I am feeling that I should justify my presence here with more than just my qualifications and experience. I am happy at being presented with the opportunity to do so by transcribing the proceedings.
‘If I may, Your Lordship, she is a counsel on this case. She will not be in a position to do this’.
What? Who? I turn my head to look at my boss who is seated beside me and is now addressing the Judge. What is the need for this? I wonder. This will just make the Judge unhappy and reduce our chances of getting a favourable order. He turns to me with a look that says, ‘let me handle it’ and I slink into my chair.
The Judge is visibly peeved, ‘I am not asking her for the moon, surely she can do a simple transcription’, he says. Condescending smiles everywhere.
‘Yes, she can, but she is here to represent her client not transcribe the hearing, which I am sure can be done by someone with lesser qualifications’.
The Judge snaps with impatience, ‘unfortunately we don’t have anyone with lesser qualifications’. More smiles. ‘We won’t have any transcription if she doesn’t do it. Are you happy with that?’
My boss pauses, and then, ‘it is not ideal, Your Lordship, but perhaps we could adjourn until tomorrow and find someone to do the job’.
Long, sullen, silence. The Judge looks threateningly at my boss. My boss avoids his gaze and focusses on some object beyond the table. His face bears no expression at all.
After what seems like an eternity, the Judge gives up, ‘alright, lets continue without transcription for now, we will cover some ground and leave the rest of the arguments for tomorrow’.
I can barely believe my ears. Did they really spend five minutes of precious hearing-time discussing me? Did the Judge really give in? Was I, a fledgling junior, worthy of the dignity of a professional?
If I wasn’t there I wouldn’t have believed it. After the hearing was over, my boss and I walked out in silence. I am sure he forgot all about it the moment it was over, but I relayed that short exchange over and over in my mind. This man had risked his rapport with the Judge, the outcome of his case and his relationship with the client to do right by me – a nobody, someone of no consequence in his life, someone he barely knew. And I had done nothing at all to stand up for myself. I was struck by his sense of propriety and shaken at the realisation that I had fallen prey to the very prejudices which were working against me.
Ever since that day, whenever I catch myself giving in to peer pressure or succumbing to societal notions of who I am or who I should be I take a moment to straighten my back. I go back to that hearing room in my mind and it pushes me to do what is right for me. After all, if he could stand up for me then, why can’t I stand up for me now? I am sure he had no inkling that his small resistance to a small injustice would have such a profound impact on my life. Then again, maybe he knew all along.
Our celebrity obsessions are making us less human
My husband and I have been married four years now, we’ve been together for nearly ten. I can safely say that I am past the stage of being overwhelmed by the sentiment of our bond unless something fundamentally displaces my impassive disposition. That something fundamental was happening this morning as I skipped through the pages of our wedding album. I found it on one of my seasonal cleaning rampages, tucked away under a clutter of things with forgotten utilities. As I flipped through its pages, seated cross-legged on the living room floor, I smiled fondly at the silly poses we struck with our friends. I was in love with my wedding lehenga (Indian skirt), it was a beautiful orange and it shone like liquid gold that bright Sunday afternoon – just the way I had planned it. And then there was that sharara (Indian flared pants) that I wore for the sangeet, pink and silver with stripes all along the bottom.
My gaze lingers on the page with the sharara a while … I think I took inspiration (read: copied) the outfit from Kareena Kapoor Khan’s wedding wardrobe. Her wedding shortly preceded mine and I was obsessed with her pictures when I was shopping for my own trousseau. At the first fitting of my sharara, even I was taken aback at how closely it resembled something she wore for one of her wedding functions.
More recently, to-be-weds have taken the trend to the next level. It is a total rage to copy the exact wedding outfits of Bollywood stars and tabloids routinely track the trend. But who are we kidding, this is not even the tip of the iceberg of celebrity obsession. We have all heard stories of fans who tattoo their bodies with the names of their favourite stars, travel great distances to catch a glimpse, run onto football and cricket fields in the middle of active matches, write fan-letters in blood, turn their homes into storehouses of memorabilia, all for their favourite celebrity.
Too many people are obsessed in too many different ways. It is irrational and worrisome, sure, but is it also distracting us from the qualities we should aspire towards as human beings?
We are obsessed for many reasons – the infiltration of celeb gossip in our daily lives like never before thanks to the internet and social media, our urge to escape the increasing inadequacy of our own lives as divisive politics takes over our societies and we realise for the first time that we are amongst the millions being pushed down the social ladder on one metric or another (economic status, race, religion and so on), the artful manipulation of big corporates who invest in creating larger-than-life personas for normal human beings and then commercialize them to sell us things we really don’t want and clearly don’t need – everything under the sun from soap to surgery and foreign holidays to airline travel.
We are obsessed for many reasons …. our urge to escape the increasing inadequacy of our own lives as divisive politics takes over our societies and we realise for the first time that we are amongst the millions being pushed down the social ladder on one metric or another (economic status, race, religion and so on)…
We should be worried for an equal number of reasons– our mental health is taking a hit as we spend hours glued to our screens, our sense of inadequacy is turning into stress and anxiety as we obsess about the lives of those who seem to have everything, we are becoming ideal consumers for corporates (and governments alike) who manipulate what we like and dislike by projecting those choices onto our celebrities.
I know all this and I know you know it too somewhere in your subconscious, even if you haven’t sat down and thought about it.
But a more peculiar question troubles me now. Do our obsessions make us less sensitive to the real world that surrounds us? If I were to split hair, I am not quite sure what it is about Kareena Kapoor Khan that impresses me so much. I could like her for her acting, but acting is her job like lawyering is mine and I am damn good at my job as well. It’s just that my kind of thing doesn’t catch eyeballs in newspapers. Then there is the fact that she looks great- figure, clothes, makeup, hair and all- and seems to have struck the perfect work-life balance. But isn’t that a function of privilege? I mean, if I was rich and in a space where I didn’t have to deal with any bosses or clients at all, I could totally spend time on myself- get the right expert advice for my skin, makeup, hair, outfits and hit the gym every day. I would happily spend all my time between flexible assignments with my husband and hire an expensive caretaker for my kid. All in all, I would be the most wonderful wife and mom, generous with her time, patient, loving, just everything. So, what else… ummm… nothing else. I know nothing else about her. Outside of the regular stuff which all of us deal with everyday within the limitations of what we can afford – work, grooming, fitness, family-time – there is nothing that I admire about her as a person. No personality trait that makes her special. No character-flaw that makes her human. I have no bloody clue. So why am I going crazy about a normal, hum-drum, person with lots of privilege and no personal distinction that I know of? Why is she the Woman of the Year (courtesy, Vogue 2018)?
Outside of the regular stuff which all of us deal with everyday within the limitations of what we can afford – work, grooming, fitness, family-time – there is nothing that I admire about her as a person. No personality trait that makes her special. No character-flaw that makes her human. I have no bloody clue.
In my real life, though, I know quite a few people with spectacular achievements. I know of a girl who opened up her one bedroom shared apartment to stray dogs in need of rescuing and actually saved a near-dead puppy, bitten and mutilated by the bigger dogs. I know of a brother-sister duo who lost their parents in their teens but made themselves into an entrepreneur-lawyer force to reckon with. I know of a mommy-cum-fashion designer who got kicked out of her high-paying job when she got pregnant, then bagged an even bigger gig and went back to sue her first employer, all the while birthing and nurturing her first born. Real stuff that I should be crazy about. I should track these lives, concern myself with the life-choices these people make, be curious to know what they think about politics and social issues. And here I am, falling all over myself for KKK, moving on a conveyer belt of humanoid boxes filled with useless information about people they barely know and have never met- what they eat for lunch, which parties they go to and who made it to the best-dressed list for the week.
There is some pretty amazing stuff going on all around us. Magical acts of generosity, perseverance, defiance – extraordinary choices made by people living ordinary lives. Those are the stories to tell and admire.
This is not to deny that there is an intrinsic awe we feel towards fame. Everyone wants to be recognised for what they do at some level, however misguided that need for external approval might be. It is natural therefore to be drawn to someone who has so much of what we crave (at first blush). But we have to recognise the frivolity of this whimsical, irrational, and uninformed, attraction and choose our real inspirations more carefully. There is some pretty amazing stuff going on all around us. Magical acts of generosity, perseverance, defiance – extraordinary choices made by people living ordinary lives. Those are the stories to tell and admire. If we haven’t noticed them because we have been too distracted chasing a fantasy then have we really lived our lives at all? Have we really understood what it is to be human in our time on this planet and revelled in the knowledge of belonging to this spectacular species? When our time is up and we close our eyes, will we have anything to smile about if not the remarkable people we knew and their remarkable effect on our life’s story?
Delhi’s culture of networking to gain influence and success at its peak
My neighbourhood seamstress is a bundle of nerves this morning. She tumbles towards her chair as she balances her cup of tea and her cell-phone, all the while trying to pacify her agitated client on the other end of the line. Ending the call, she heaves her 55-year old Punjabi bottom into a chair that creaks in protest, wipes the sweat from her brow and says ‘ji, you have to give me some time. I have two lehengas and a sherwani (Indian clothes) to finish by the end of the week. Ohde baad vekhaangi (I’ll look into it after that)’. I nod my head in sympathy, ‘this must be a busy time for you aunty, koi ni (never mind), I’ll wait… but Diwali is around the corner so I need these by next week’, I push her. She sips her tea as I give her details of the three outfits I want her to stitch. We exchange timelines and money and I leave.
That evening over dinner my husband and I talk animatedly of the much-awaited turn of season, the many holidays winter will bring and the travel plans we have for them. ‘Everyone is getting hectic about outfits and things- Meenu aunty was quite hassled today. Should we do something for Diwali?’
‘Do you want to? Don’t we end up hosting people a lot and not getting hosted in return? Either people have just stopped entertaining others or we are not on the guest list,’ he says.
I give him a wide, wicked, grin, ‘maybe we should host the first party, that way we’ll be on everyone’s guest list’ we burst into giggles. Twisted thinking, funny to us, but also easily identifiable with the culture of the city we live in. Once the city of Mughals and English Imperialists, now of India’s biggest Babus: Delhi, the city where influence is everything.
The culture of a city thrives on the aspirations of its people: Paris thrives on cultural refinement, New York on extreme motivations and Singapore on stability (everyone wants to buy a house!). Delhi thrives on influence. Here, everyone wants to wield some kind of authority – political, social, monetary – over others. Two ways of doing it: either come into influence, or be close to someone who has. And thus begins the endless struggle to build networks of influence and show them off as a symbol of success. Live in the right part of town (preferably an exclusive and gated neighbourhood), be invited to the right parties, know the right people, the list is endless.
The million-strong legal fraternity of Delhi is perhaps the best illustration of its citizenry at work. It’s membership includes some of the most powerful families in the country and everyone is obsessed with being proximate to those families. No matter how competent an advocate or how bright a legal mind, s/he will not pass upon a chance to ‘accidentally’ encounter a member from ‘Los Sagrada Familias’ (the holy families) in court or outside of it. The young scions of these families may have never won a case for a client, but they will have a constant stream of business from other lawyers who want to buy their way into select circuits. Clients themselves do not always object to this, knowing fully well that the right family name may carry more weight than the right qualifications in winning a case. The influential grow in influence, all the while preserving their exclusivity and lineage, in a city that refuses to acknowledge the professional merit of an outsider over the social connections of an insider.
It’s not like legal fraternities elsewhere in the world don’t place a premium on connections: ‘networking’ is a commonly accepted part of the professional etiquette and being ‘social’ is looked upon an asset. In fact, they engage in designated ‘networking’ events with the sole purpose of encouraging inter-personal connectivity. But you can’t name-drop your way into success there. Networking is just a fraction of what you really need to make it. It is not good enough just to know someone successful or powerful, much less the son, daughter, aunt, uncle, of such person. You need to be really good at what you do and really capable of adding value to the practice / business of others to be successful.
Back home, there is no rationality behind the frenzy of networking that consumes Delhi’s inhabitants. With Diwali around the corner, the frenzied will be at their socialising best, trying to get invited to parties, shopping for trending outfits, putting money aside for gambling on high-stakes tables – on and on – all to get closer somehow to the centres of power. At the end of it all, someone will win the prize of making that special new acquaintance with a potential invitation to a more close-knit affair in the future. The promise of a seat at the table of success.