By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Traditional Travails And Tribulations Of The Total Vegetarian

It was as an essayist that I had embarked on my great adventure as a journalist 50 years ago;  and it was THE HINDU, one of the finest newspapers in the world then and now, which had encouraged me to develop my own silky style of writing English.  Since then, till today, the newspaper has assigned several different roles to me as an amateur all-round writer. 

My very first contribution was an essay titled The Vegetarian, which was published in the Sunday Magazine in December, 1962.  Compared to a series of essays which followed (including those on The Marker, The Liftman and The Railwayman, .which I have featured in this blog earlier), it was a rather insubstantial piece of writing, and I never thought it would survive the test of time.  But somehow it seems to be still readable, so please do read on!  


December, 1962
The Vegetarian

 THE vegetarian is a specialist.  He specializes in facing problems.  Society seems to frown on him, especially that stratum of it which consists of waiters, headwaiters and stewards.  Whether in this country or elsewhere, whether in a hotel or in a ship, not a few tough problems beset the man who would insist on being shown a meatless menu.

 Merely telling them what he wants is a nerve-racking ordeal for the vegetarian in any sophisticated place where the business of eating is going on. A disgusted waiter breathes fire over his shoulders, a suave but critical headwaiter looks at him askance from a distance, and inquisitive neighbors cast furtive glances at him as the poor vegetarian fumbles with his carte and struggles to select something. 
Pot au Feu, Grilled Liver & Onion, Chicken a la Strangano, Prawn Mayonnaise,  Lobster au Gratin, Kofta Kashmiri. . .  the vegetarian's head reels.  He thinks feebly of the rapture with which the heroes of P.G. Wodehouse have gone through similar compilations, but that doesn't help him in the least.  Finally, after he has timidly asked for and eaten the odd item in the list, he notices that not even the disproportionately fat tip  he leaves on the saucer is able to produce a look of satisfaction on the waiter's face.

This, after all, is just one of those things a man can afford to laugh away, even if he does happen to have a couple of friends watching his performance;  but the vegetarian often finds himself in far more sinister predicaments.

He dreads in particular those dinners which his crazy friends and colleagues seem to be bent on arranging on every trivial occasion.  When they're all still in the lounge sipping their apertifs, the vegetarian has been betrayed by the busybodies to the headwaiter, who has an ugly head like a villain's. 
The minute you have sat down at the table, the villain lunges towards you  --  and, fixing you with a pulverizing stare, bellows at you:  "Vegetarian, SIR?"  Heads turn towards you, knowing smiles are exchanged between friends, and you find yourself nodding under a cloud of sweat and apprehension.  Separate dishes are brought over specially for you;  you are deliberately forced to dislocate the pace of the dinner.  By the time the others are starting their second course you have already finished yours, and the waiters are all glaring at you.  You dare not ask for a second helping;  none is offered, presumably because the villain thinks you couldn't eat more. The chaps on either side of you talk to each other merrily over your head.  You try to smile weakly at their jokes, and feel like a fool.  They're all hacking and chewing ferociously, while you fiddle with your useless assortment of knives and forks.  And through all this terrible nightmare you are being harassed spitefully by the villain. He keeps on looking at you menacingly  --  and, pouncing every now and then on careless (or maybe callous) waiters, reminds them in his stentorian voice:  "VEGETARIAN! VEGETARIAN!"

Hotels, after all, have never been as progressive as airline companies in the matter of customer-handling.  Vegetarians all over the world have now started feeling a certain pride on seeing the airline companies vying with each other to glorify him.  Vegetarian meals on board airliners are no longer concessions, but a legitimate feature.  The vegetarian feels confident at last!


PostScript, 2013

Fifty years are a long span of time even in the life of a nation or the whole world, leave alone the life of an individual;  and there has been a remarkable upgrading world-wide in the status of vegetarians during the past half-century.  And yet they continue to face serious problems too now and then, as they did in a dinner organized for an Indian soiree at the recent Cannes film festival. 

But the whole theme seems to call for a fresh commentary now, so let me continue this exercise tomorrow!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Life-views And Day-dreams Of The Drowsy Liftman

AT LAST the time has come when my earliest contributions to THE HINDU  -- which were in the form of reflective essays cast in the mould of the insightful classical essays in modern English literature --  have started turning 50 years old one by one, since the beginning of this year. 

Thus, four months ago I fished out my 1963 essay on the billiards marker, and featured it in this blog (Fifty Years Later, The Marker Lives On!14 Feb. 2013).  And a few weeks ago, during the Railway Week in India, I had dug out a 1965 essay on the human element of the Indian Railways  (The Railwayman : Still A Romantic And Familiar Hero!, 13 April 2013). 

And now, here's my character sketch of the familiar figure of the liftman in the business districts of any major Indian city in the mid-20th century, published by THE HINDU in June 1963.  A significant aspect of these reflections is that even 50 years after they were captured in this text, they are substantially true of the average liftman in urban India today, in spite of the remarkable changes which have materialized in recent decades in the whole environment of business houses and office buildings.  Moreover, although I never went abroad till more than 15 years after I wrote this essay, I have since obtained the recurring impression that operators of elevators in many parts of the world bear a fairly close resemblance to my liftman.  

But then, that kind of longevity and universality seem to be true of almost all the characters I had sketched in my visionary debut days as a literary journalist!


2 June 1963
The Liftman

PROMPTLY at nine the liftman turns up to start his work.  He's seldom late for his work, for he usually lives in the basement of the same building, and his whole world begins and ends there.  In fact, you might almost say the lift is his living room  --  and that, perhaps, is the reason why he's so apt to fall asleep while waiting for someone to ring for the lift, and has often to be woken up with a determined pressing of the button.

Though he's cooped up all day long within the four narrow walls of his lift, the liftman sees a great deal of life indeed.  Hundreds of people brush past him day in and day out, year after year.  You might think he sees far too many faces every day for him to remember them all;  but you'd be quite wrong there.  The liftman has a prodigious memory for faces:  not merely for those who turn up regularly or frequently, but for all the others too.  Dale Carnegie couldn't teach him anything on the art.  Once you've been inside his lift, he's never likely to forget you.  He might have given you the impression that he was half asleep when he took you up to your destination just a couple of floors above;  but that casual glance he had given you, while pushing aside the collapsible door to let you in, was enough to fix you in his mind for ever.  You'll notice a faint gleam of recognition in his eyes when you next meet him, no matter how long afterwards it is;  and he's bound to remember the floor you went to on the previous occasion.

Naturally, however, the liftman has a special regard for the regular faces.  These, of course, belong mostly to the executives and other employees of the various institutions housed in the building.  But there are a few regular visitors too,  In fact, these the liftman knows even better, since mostly they arrive and depart individually and not with the peak-hour tides, and sometimes they actually get into conversation with him.  The liftman, as a rule, is no great conversationalist, and it costs him a great effort to come out of his long spells of silence and talk to a friendly guest.  But being essentially good-natured, he seldom shows any resentment at being talked to, and tries to be as communicative as possible, even if the passer-by is unduly inquisitive about his monotonous existence.

Not that the liftman's life is as monotonous as it may appear to be on the surface.  In fact, there could be no better position than his for observing human emotions and fortunes in all their varied shades.  He knows the regular faces in all their kaleidoscopic moods, the regular figures in all their transient shapes.  He has watched with interest the gradual transformation in the appearance of many a junior clerk turned executive.  He has known the big bosses at their dynamic best;  he has watched them ageing and slowly losing their poise;  and he has missed them after their exile from his territory.  He has been an eye-witness to the tragic transformation of the flamboyant young secretary into a drab, colorless person.  He  has read many a tale of glorious achievement and of frustrating failure in the galaxy of faces which tirelessly orbit around him.  If only he had the talent, what a moving saga of human affairs he could write!  If only he were an accomplished artist, what telling pictures of human drama he could depict in paint!  Under the constant bombardment of such vivid impressions of life upon him, the liftman unconsciously acquires, in spite his artlessness, a serenity of bearing which one might well envy.  

The liftman, I am inclined to believe though, is compelled to kill a great deal of his time with reverie.  No doubt his day begins hectically, with group after endless group of people to be transported swiftly, efficiently, courteously.  So does his day end;  and during the lunch-hour too the traffic is heavy enough to keep his mind pinned down to terra firma.  But between the peak hours he has to sit on his lonely stool at the lift door, crushed by the overpowering dullness of the moment, staring at the bleak wall in front of him  --  or, if he is lucky enough, at a small strip of traffic in the street across the main gate.  Being no intellectual, he finds no pleasure in reading;  nor can he often afford the luxury of strolling up to the gate and having a brief chat with the watchman.  So what else would he do, I wonder, except let his fancy take uncharted flights above the clouds?

But what is it that he dreams about?  Is he merely thinking about that better-paid job in that other building for which he had applied not so long ago?  Or does he see himself as one or another of the many vigorous tycoons who cross his path every day?  Could it be his secret ambition to arrive elegantly at the building, wearing an impeccable suit, cigarette dangling from his lips  --  to walk up to the lift, and casually press the button?  Or would it be that he wants to own this building, and several others besides, and sit in a high leather-topped chair, interviewing candidates for liftmen's posts?  Or is his imagination so rich really that it stretches far beyond such trivial things, and makes him dream of conquering the whole world, or of spreading the message of peace and love across the oceans?  Who can tell?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Buronautics : Worker Found Guilty Of An Act Of Work!

By the early 1970's, I had spent 15 years as a civil servant, and I had discovered that although in Government offices and public-sector organizations there was a tradition of lethargy and lack of initiative governing the voluminous flow of routine work, there was also enormous scope for introducing superior techniques of work and achieving excellence.  Usually the main obstacles faced by the exceptional and creative worker were the jealous attitude of the peers as well as the hostility and resistance of the bosses. 

Rather a dangerous topic for a buronaut to write about in a newspaper or magazine!  But the prestigious Shankar's Weekly, published in New Delhi and circulated all over India, was like a circus arena where I could perform a trapeze act now and then  --  with the blessings of my own exceptionally benevolent bosses, to be sure!


Glossary(in same order as in text

20-11-72  --  In India, dates are usually written as day-month-year.

Shri  --  In Hindi, Shri is 'Mr.', Shrimati is 'Mrs.', and Kumari is 'Miss'.  There's no separate concept of 'Ms.' in any  Indian language, and it's also translated as Shrimati.  By the way, what precisely is the English expression which is shortened as 'Ms.', and when did it creep intoi the English language?  I have no idea! --  though I think it's also pronounced Miss.

Varkey  --  A common name in Kerala State, on the  West coast of India.  Please see PostScript below.

UDC  --  Upper Division Clerk

PUC  -- Paper  Under Consideration


Shankar's Weekly19 August 1973
A black sheep

Memo from the Manager (Arrears)

No. AR-III/Wrk/499  --  20-11-72

It has been brought to the notice of the undersigned that Shri R.S. Varkey of Arrears-III Unit was engaged in the act of working on the afternoon of Friday, 17-11-72.

He is directed to show cause within three days of the receipt of this letter why disciplinary action should not be taken against him.  He should submit his explanation through the Assistant Manager and Deputy Manager in charge of the Unit.

SignedManager (Arrears)20-11-1972





Reply of Shri R.S. Varkey

To the Manager (Arrears)


With reference to your memo No. AR-III/Wrk/499 dated 20-11-72, I have to submit that it was not my intention to indulge in any work on the afternoon of Friday, 17-11-72.  I had no fresh arrears to accumulate that day, so I merely sorted out some of the papers already in arrears.

This act was misconstrued by AM(A), and was erroneously reported to DM(A) and your good self as an act of work.

I may, however, be kindly excused if my action is not approved.  I shall refrain from handling any pending papers in future.

Yours faithfully

Signed, 22-11-72R. S. Varkey





Notes in Arrears Group file

The PUC may kindly be seen. 

The facts of the case as stated by Shri Varkey are not true.  The correct position is as follows:

At about 4 p.m. on 17-11-72, when all the other persons in the Unit were busy piling up arrears, I actually received an attempted disposal from Shri Varkey, who had been observed to be engrossed in work from 2 p.m. onwards. . . .   He analysed in an elaborate note the full extent of the existing arrears in his seat, and atttached a tabular chart showing the pending cases source-wise and age-wise.  He also suggested methods and target dates for their disposal. . . . 

It will be seen from the above that Shri Varkey is not prepard to take a responsible attitude.  It is for M(A)'s kind consideration whether it is not desirable to get him transferred to some other group.

Signed,  23-11-72Assistant Manager
Arrears-III Unit



AM(A)'s note above may kindly be seen.  I fully endorse it. 

Of late Shri R.S. Varkey has been tending to be argumentative, and attempting to indulge in work.  He is having a bad influence on the other workers in the Unit.

It is requested that he may kindly be got transferred to some other group.


Signed, 25-11-72
Deputy Manager (Arrears)


I am inclined to agree.  I shall talk to Manager (Personnel) about his transfer.

Meanwhile, Shri Varkey may be informed in writing that his explanation is not accepted, and warned that he should be more careful in future.

Signed, 27-11-72Manager (Arrears)

Sunday, June 16, 2013

When Al Capone Jr., Rocky Marijuano And Other Tough Guys Surrendered!

A few days ago there was a report in Indian newspapers that more than a couple of dozen aggressive persons belonging to certain extremely hostile and militant political elements had surrendered to the police in response to the latter's earnest appeals, and that they had promised to give up their violent approach and tactics. Which reminds me of a similar stunt pulled off 40 years ago by Jayaprakash Narayan, a venerable Indian freedom fighter against the British Empire, who negotiated a deal with certain legendary dacoits who infested the forests of Central India, and actually made them surrender to the police in response to his appeal for peace and harmony.

I don't remember what exactly happened afterwards, but I wrote a hilarious article about the intriguing episode in my column in Shankar's Weekly.  In that context, I couldn't resist inventing a place called East Dacoita --  and since that sounded so much like North Dakota or South Dakota in the USA, I had to create an authentic American scenario.  And what better way of doing it was there than imitating Peter Cheyney, whose sparkling crime fiction novels were so popular worldwide in the mid-20th century?  I hope senior citizens in America and elsewhere who were Peter Cheyney fans in the good old days will give me full marks for the exercise!


Glossary (in same order as in text)

Maharashtra --  A major State on the West coast of India, whose capital is Bombay (now officially called Mumbai).

Navjeevan  --   'New life' in Hindi, prime language of multi-lingual India, where the twin official languages at the National level are Hindi and  --  yes, you're hearing me right! --  English.

Naxals  --  Extreme, far-left-oriented political elements in several Indian States, inclined towards violent tactics and terrorism.

Chattisgarh  --  An inland State adjoining Maharashtra.

Manmilan  --  In Hindi, man is 'mind' or 'heart', and milan is 'meeting'.

Rocky Marijuano  --  One of my earliest and best attempts at name-twisting, obviously derived from Rocky Marciano, the world heavy-weight boxing champion, who had knocked out the legendary Joe Louis.  By the way, Rocky's original name was Marcheggiano, which is pronounced Markejjano in Italian, while 'marijuano' is pronounced 'marihuano' in Spanish. 



The Hindu13 June 2013
Maharashtra State

Campaign Navjeevan helps 28 Naxals to surrender

Twenty-eight extremists from different Naxal [sources] here and Chhattisgarh border areas have surrendered before Gadchiroli police due to its initiative called ‘Campaign Navjeevan’.....  [under which] senior police officers visited families of Naxals belonging to the State and appealed to them to surrender, assuring them of fair treatment.

Exposing them for the first time on Tuesday in a programme called Manomilan (meeting of hearts) at Gadchiroli police headquarters, Superintendent of Police (SP) Mohammad Suvez Haque said:  ". . . . . “The answer of bullet will be given with bullets.  But those who want to give up the path of violence and come to the mainstream, here is an alternative for them.” 

Family members of the surrendered Naxals were present on the occasion, along with family members of Naxals who have not yet surrendered. 



Shankar's Weekly6 August 1972
The Surrender

(With apologies to Jayaprakash Narayan and Peter Cheyney)

THE Federal Officer in East Dacoita was surprised to see the slick man in the grey flannel suit who walked into his office.

"Well, I say!"  he exclaimed.  "I could have sworn you are Al Capone Junior!"

"I am Al Capone Junior,"  the visitor said, and sat down.

"Jesus!"  the Federal Officer swore.  "Man, you have some nerve to walk into a Federal office and pull a fast one!  Now tell me who the hell you are, and what's your nice little game?"

"Look, Officer!"  the visitor said.  "I am not tellin' you any story!  I am Al Capone Junior, and I've come to surrender myself."

"Like hell you have!  You're just some phony punk who has made yourself look like Junior.  Now, if you don't tell me what you're up to, I'm gonna blow the hell outa your brains!"

Before the officer could say anything more, a tough-looking six-footer walked in and laid a .22  Colt on the desk. 

"I am Joe Tomato of the Mafia,"  he said.  "I have come to surrender myself, Signore!"

The Officer stood up and looked at the two visitors in utter shock.  Just then, an assistant burst into the room, in an agitated condition. 

"Sir, something fantastic is happening!"  he almost shouted.  "Have you got some visitors today!  Rocky Marijuano and Tony Hashiski are waiting outside to see you!  They don't have any guns with them, and they say they want to surrender.  And there are fifty other tough guys who want to surrender too!"

The Federal Officer sat down, bleary-eyed.  "Jesus!"  he said.  "Do I have some story to tell my grandchildren, or don't I?  Take all these palookas away and put them in the cooler while I get instructions from the Boss!"

"Is that the Boss, Sir?"  he said, as soon as he got on to Headquarters on the long-distance line.  "Sam Davis from East Dacoita, Sir.  There's some funny business going on here, Sir!  Al Capone Junior has suddenly surrendered.  Also Joe Tomato, Rocky Marijuano, Tony Hashiski and fifty other guys want to surrender, Sir."    
"Good!  I'm glad they have all come!  I was wondering if they were really going to keep the promise they made to Dr. Kissinger in the secret meeting he had in Argentina last week.  You don't know anything about it, of course!"

"But how do I deal with all these lousy punks, Sir?  I don't have enough space for all of them here!  Can I just throw them out and tell them to go to hell, Sir?"

"Now wait a minute, Sam!  You are not going to do anything to these gentlemen!  And don't you go about calling them punks, either!  Just put them in a chartered plane and send them to New York pronto!  We will be organizing a public reception and parade in their honor tomorrow."


PostScript, 2013
In the footsteps of the noble dacoits!

 I've just posted the following letter by Air Mail to my old friend and former Federal Officer Sam Davis in America:

From MVR
Senior Citizen
589, Mahatma Gandhi Avenue
Old Madras, INDIA

To Mr. Samuel Davis
Senior Citizen
8190, ExFed Estates
East Dacoita, USA

My dear Sam,

Hope you are in good health and spirits.  How are the grandkids?  Have you got any great-grandkids yet?  Whenever you tell them your old story about those tough guys who surrendered to you once upon a time, hereafter you might also like to add this new story from India (please see the enclosed cutting from The Hindu).

By the way, Sam, have you noticed that the children and grandchildren of Al Capone, Jr., Rocky Marjuano, Tony Hashiski, and Joe Tomato are all back in their respective ancestors' business, and doing extremely well all over the world?  But of course, so far as you and I are concerned, there's no point in worrying about it now, is there?

With regards and best wishes


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Expanding Business Of Exporting And Importing Brains

SHANKAR'S WEEKLY, which was the Indian equivalent of Punch, the classic fun-loving British magazine, was a gold mine of humor, and I was fortunate enough to be one of the productive miners in the early 1970s.  In the sophisticated pages of the prestigious magazine, I was able to stretch my liberty as an articulate layman to the absolute limit.

As a civil servant I was strictly forbidden to discuss in public any serious matter involving Government policies;  but all my bosses right up to the top were my enthusiastic readers, and I felt free to walk on a tight rope.

And so, I could even find a way to relax with a jocular jab at the phenomenon of 'brain drain', which was (and still remains) a highly sensitive issue.  In the following article, the long and lively chat about imported brains was only a camouflage --  the really explosive  issue was the massive export of superior Indian brainpower, which wasn't discussed at all!


Glossary (in same order as in text)


Some of the terms below had been explained in an earlier context (Kicked Upstairs:  Field Marshal Manekshaw, Field Captain Batterji -  28 March 2013), but let me repeat them here for ready reference:

Under-Secretary --  A common designation in the British and Indian Government frameworks, though it's a top post in Britain and a junior rank in India.  

MPs  --   Members of Parliament.  Independent India has a written Constitution (1950),  which is largely based on (and is, in some ways, an improved model of) the unwritten British Constitution. At the National level, there's a lower House called Lok Sabha ('People's Assembly' in Hindi), which is the equivalent of the House of Commons, and an upper House called Rajya Sabha (National Assembly), corresponding to the House of Lords, though certainly not its equivalent! 

Japanese brains  --  This article was written long before Maruti Udyog Ltd., an Indo-Japanese joint venture, materialized in 1981, heralding a remarkable revolution in the automobile industry in India. 

BICI-BECI Bhavan --  'Bhavan' is a Hindi expression which broadly denotes 'institution'.  Various Departmental Headquarters in New Delhi are located in spacious buildings bearing native names like Krishi Bhavan (Agriculture, 'krishi' meaning crops),  Udyog Bhavan (Industry and Commerce),  etc.  For no reason known to me, there's also the hybrid Rail Bhavan, housing the Railway Headquarters, which made my imaginary File Bhavan sound very real!

Chief Minister  --  Corresponding to the Prime Minister at the Centre are the Chief Ministers in the various States in India's federal political structure.


Shankar's Weekly19 December 1972
BICI-BECI Business

NOT many people were present in the retail showroom of the Brains Import Corporation of India in New Delhi when I dropped in there the other day.

The sales manager who greeted me was  extremely cordial, well-informed and communicative.

"Welcome to BICI, Sir!"  he beamed as soon as he spotted me.  "You want to buy a brain, Sir?"

"Well, I am just taking a look, if you don't mind,"  I said.  "What kind of brains do you have?"

"We specialize in imports of brains, Sir,"  he said.  "We have two categories  --  Category-A, purely foreign brains, and Category-B, Indian brains purchased abroad and reimported to India."

"I see!  Tell me something about Category-A, please.  Which countries do you get them from?"

"Mainly from Europe and America, Sir.  We have British brains for Under-Secretaries and MPs, American brains for businessmen and psychiatrists,  Russian brains for scientists and tractor-drivers,  Swiss brains for bankers and hotel managers.  If you want a complete list, I can show you our catalogue, Sir."

"Don't you import any brains from Asian countries?"

"No, Sir.  We used to get Japanese brains for electronic engineers and Hong Kong brains for men's tailors, but we stopped both because we found our customers are generally interested only in Western brains."

"What about Category-B Indian brains?  Where do you get them from?"

"Mainly from America, Sir, but quite often from U.K. and Germany.  Occasionally from Canada and other countries, too."

"What kind of people buy Category-B brains?"

"To tell you the truth, Sir, we are finding it extremely difficult to sell them.  But there's a compulsory quota of twenty per cent for the re-import of Indian brains, and unless we get them we can't import the other eighty per cent foreign brains."

"You must be accumulating heavy stocks of Category-B brains, then?"

"Quite right, Sir!  In fact, that's why we offer a big discount for them  --  fifty per cent for imports from America, and sixty per cent for imports from any other country."

"What about export of Indian brains to foreign countries?  Do you undertake any business of that kind?"

"No, Sir.  The sole exporters of Indian brains are BECI  --  I mean, the Brains Export Corporation of India."

"Why don't you get your supplies of Indian brains direct from BECI instead of importing them from abroad?"

"We can't do that, Sir.  BECI gets impressive quotations from foreign buyers, and BICI is not authorized to make local purchase of Indian brains at comparable rates."

"But surely you must be paying a good price for the Category-B Indian brains you import against the twenty per-cent quota which is binding on you?"

"You are perfectly right, Sir!  Besides, we are forced to sell them at a heavy discount, as I told you.  If you want any more information, you can ask our Head Office in BICI-BECI Bhavan, Sir."


PostScript, 2013
And now, BECA-BICA Business!

There have been some significant developments in this context during the four decades which have passed since I wrote the above article.   On one hand, the Indian diaspora abroad has expanded exponentially, all over the world.  On the other hand, foreign business concerns have started exploiting Indian brainpower on local soil, through extensive outsourcing of services.   

Moreover, after making half a dozen trips to America, where one of my own children has settled down permanently, I am now able to look at the whole scenario from the viewpoint of the foreign countries also, and am also closely aware of the clash of conflicting interests out there.  Who knows, one of these days I may even be tempted to visit the BECA-BICA Towers in New York, which house the Brains Export Corporation of America and the Brains Import Corporation of America, and write a sequel to my Shankar's Weekly article!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

When The Peter Principle Was Turned Upside Down!

In any organizational set-up where good work at any given level is rewarded with promotion to the next higher level, (1) every worker tends to climb up to the level of his or her incompetence;  (2)  every position is likely to be filled up by an incompetent worker sooner or later;  (3)  all good work is done by workers who haven't yet climbed up to the levels of their incompetence.

That's the sum and substance of the Peter Principle (expressed in my own words), which has dominated the whole world's management thinking throughout and beyond the second half of the 20th century, along with its conceptual twin Parkinson's Law, which asserts that all work expands to fill the time available.

Since all large organizations all over world tend to adopt the policy of promotion as the ultimate reward for good work, the Peter Principle is universally valid.  But I once came across an extremely rare occasion when the axiom was turned upside down by a distortion in the wage structure of a monolithic national organization, arising from extraordinary union pressure  --   and naturally, I pounced on the context for my column in the Punch of India!   


Shankar's Weekly 5 January 1975
Case Of Promotion

ACCORDING to a recent report in the Press, the increase in the emoluments of Class III employees of the Life Insurance Corporation of India has created some serious anomalies.   The report said that while a new Zonal Manager still gets Rs. (Rupees) 2,500 a month, a Superintendent, who is way down below in the hierarchy, would now get Rs. 2,524.  It also said that many Class II officers of the Corporation are not inclined to accept promotion to Class I level, and that some of them are even anxious to be demoted to Class III.

At first I didn't believe all this.  But the other day I happened to see the annual confidential report on a Class II officer of the Corporation, whose case, I understood, was being considered by the Departmental Promotion Committee.  It ran like this:


Remarks of the Reporting Officer

1. Technical ability:   Below average.

2. Application:   Poor.

3. Capacity to control subordinate officers:   Poor.

4. Initiative,  resourcefulness:   Very poor.

5. Clarity of thought, powers of expression:   Poor.

6. Tact:   Below average.

7. Aptitude for any special type of work:   None.

8. Physical fitness:   Satisfactory.

9. General assessment:   A very lethargic officer, who totally lacks initiative.

10. Is he/she fit for demotion to Class III in the normal course?   --   No.

11. Is he/she fit for being considered for out-of-turn demotion to Class III ?  --   No.

[Reporting Officer]


Remarks of the Counter-signing Officer

I fully agree with the Reporting Officer.  I think this is a fit case for promotion to Class I.

[Counter-signing Officer]