The big lawyer, the small lawyer and the crowd

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?’.

‘Yes, actually’.

‘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.

Oh, why must you question?

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.

Chairperson Sir, the Claimant is under-confident

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.

Why I need to get over Kareena Kapoor Khan

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?

The mid-law crisis

The struggles of a 30-something lawyer in a world of instant success

A foreign lawyer I really wanted to work with came down to visit Delhi from Singapore. We had earlier spoken of the possibility of working together and I was willing to break an arm and a leg for it. When he was in Delhi, I organised drinks at the newly renovated Oberoi on Golf links with a few upcoming lawyers in my circuit. It was a great evening: good cocktails, just the right amount of breeze in the air and free-flowing conversation. I was getting a giddying feeling that I was in the right place at the right time: I knew this great bunch and this great bunch knew me. Surely, I was on my way up. If I just kept at it and worked hard for another five years or so, I’d bag a seat at the table of success and all the aces — money, fame, influence — would be mine to hold.

These positive thoughts were coming to me as clear as the crisp autumn breeze that night while the best version of me spoke to the foreigner: I come from Punjab, a well-known family… work can get taxing in India, but I find time for the things I love… I am learning Spanish, my husband and I have recently invested in a hospitality venture together…

I notice he isn’t saying much so I pause. “Why do this then? Seems to me like you can do whatever you want with your life, something really fun… why be a lawyer?” he asks.

Was it my pesky inner-voice again or did he really say those words? It had to be him, because now everyone at the table was looking at me. I recover quickly, “for the love of the law, of course!”.

Approving smiles everywhere. Except the foreigner. He didn’t seem fooled. He was a man in his fifties with more white hair than all the rest of our years combined. He simply nodded. The chatting continued, the evening drew to a close and everyone went home.

You may have guessed — I am a Delhi-based lawyer. I turned 31 this year. Hitting your thirties often has an element of finality to it. By now you are expected to have all the answers: what you want to do, who you want to be with, where you want to live. The profession of law however does not comport to this time-out. If you are a practicing lawyer of thirty-something and you know what you’re doing you most likely inherited your practice from your dad. For the rest of us, we’re putting our time, relationships, entire lives, on the table in the hope that our blind bets will throw up aces when the cards are face up. My contemporaries have different analogies to hearten themselves: ‘think of it as a pyramid. We are at the broad-based bottom right now and there are lots of average competitors. In the next few years the average peeps will fall away and only a handful of the good guys will make it to the top… and it’s all daisies at the top!’ or, ‘look, this is the top of the shit pile. From here on, it doesn’t go up, it only comes down. Keep at it and you will hit the ground. The goo will dry up in no time… and it’s a cake walk after that!’

I thought of the evening on the way home and for days after. The foreigner’s question stuck in my head. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t asked myself this very question a million times over. The trouble was it had never been thrown at me from the outside. That gave credibility to my pesky inner-voice and made it difficult for me to muffle it with distractions. To add to the confusion, the inquirer was someone accomplished and aware of what it felt like to be successful in the way that I wanted to be so badly. I couldn’t help but think that if he thinks there are more ‘fun’ things for me to do out there then there really must be. Maybe I should just ditch this whole legal thing and look for fun things to do. Is the universe giving me a sign?

Daisies? Cakewalk? What is all that, what are we really in it for?

Someone who can afford to do something else and still chooses the legal profession is first and foremost driven by the desire to be an elite professional. In other words, s / he wants to be a smart cookie with a cause. Ever wondered why so many coke-slurping climax scenes in the movies play out in the hallowed halls of a court-house or in the corridors of a hospital? It is because when the lawyer puts the bad guys behind bars or the doctor saves the hero it gives validation to what is right. It reinforces our subconscious belief that, in the end, something greater than ourselves (the legal system, god) will set the record straight. Lawyers, doctors, teachers – the elite professionals – inevitably end up believing that they are messengers of that greater good. The more successful they become, the more they are convinced of their god-like purpose on earth.

But being successful in that way and earning the god-complex takes time. When I get there, I will probably be old and white, having spent the spunk of my 30-year-old-self watching the world go by from a law library’s window. The only ones who will enjoy my success will be my over-entitled kids and they will have no notion of my sacrifices. Maybe I will have influential friends, a train of starry-eyed juniors, lavish parties, all to regain my relevance in the world, but they won’t make up for the time I lost along the way. A trade-off made worse by the fact that instant success would always have been within my reach. In a time of internet sensations and virtual stardom all you need is a small amount of privilege — some money, some good looks, some education — to start your own travel, fashion or food blog and become famous or ‘influential’. I watch the internet starlets and wonder why I couldn’t have just done something simpler with my life. Why not just start a youtube channel or spend my days uploading pictures on Instagram? I can afford the exquisite holidays, good clothes and expensive food that millions of people want to ‘follow’.

But then, what would I bring to the lives of these ‘followers’? It is absurd, quite honestly, to be admired only for looking good and living well. And by who? Those who don’t have the means to do the same? In the end, it all adds up to making yourself feel a little better than the rest and the rest feel a little worse about themselves for no good reason. That can’t be my purpose in life. It can’t be enough to be recognised for something that requires no accomplishment or skill. If I want to add any value to the world and leave it a better place than I found it then I need to stop chasing these frivolous accomplishments. I need to commit vision, execution and time to my career. I need to accept the humdrum-ness of life and trudge through it knowing that there is no instant recognition and no end in sight.

Are these the idealistic rantings of a dull professional with mediocre skills and envy for the rich and famous? Am I trying to justify my irrelevant life? After all, what is a life without recognition: who wants to be part of the toiling, faceless, millions? (The irony is not lost on me that this is a blog, after all!)

All valid questions. Questions which blur my conviction in the choices that I have made and transport me back to the terrace of the Oberoi with that same question hanging in the air… “why are you doing this?” .

Loop 1289183128110924802430492310.

Dilli-waali Diwali

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.

Who I am and what I think

I am a young lawyer turned recent mom living the city life. On the surface my life is cocooned in the comfort of routine- work, family, trips, diets- but I have come to realise that recurring impulses of uncertainty lie underneath. Some days I wonder what I am doing, others I am anxious about the seemingly perfect lives of other people, yet others I want to forget all about it and start over. The cocoon grows thicker with a turning thread-loop of questions.

This blog is an attempt to evaluate the way I see things, not in the ‘wrong v. right’ way but in the ‘think about that v. don’t be obsessed about that’ way. I am putting myself down to the routine of posting something once a month; hoping that if I am compelled to give my thoughts form and structure and expose them to the views of others I will begin to unravel my knot of questions, one thread at a time, come out of my slumber and finally find my wings.

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