Last week, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan expressed serious disapproval of Rahul Gandhi during a hectic campaign tour in the state. At an eatery in Indore, Rahul apparently remarked to the senior Congress leader accompanying him, “Kamal, ice-cream acchi hai, tum bhi kha lo”. At this, Chauhan, alarmed at what he considered a sign of shocking disrespect, said: “Kamal (Nath) has worked with Rahul’s father, Rajiv. Is this Indian culture to address a man of 70-75 years of age by his name?” (www.ndtv.com) In the images printed with the story, Nath is smiling, and certainly doesn’t look like he objects to being addressed by his name.
Half the world’s problems would probably vanish the day people stopped dictating to other adults how they should live, and behave. One has to wonder what kind of person someone has to be — hopelessly self-absorbed presumably — to actually want to be treated with reverence just because of their age. I remember stories of a newspaper editor, whose team of 25-year-olds would stand up and say “good morning, ma’am” everyday, like obedient schoolchildren. Needless to say, they disliked her intensely. Once, while I was having dinner with the erstwhile royal family of Jodhpur, I noticed the two grown-up sons would stand up every time their mother entered the room and sit, only once she was seated. I remember being very impressed at the time, especially, since it was in such sharp contrast with my own life. My son also stands up when I enter a room, but it’s usually to leave.
It’s one of the pitfalls of old age that people expect to be addressed by a tedious, geriatric title — maybe because their youth was full of humiliating indignities. So in their dotage, Indians feel they are entitled to special status. To question this nostalgic notion of propriety, that grey hair needs to be revered because, of course, the aged are wiser than us all is to shake the very foundation of everything you’ve been taught. Even if you instinctively doubt whether there’s any truth in this at all, you can’t renounce it, because too much of your life’s beliefs rest on that ground. However, the rise of under-40 superstars like Mark Zuckerburg or Binny Bansal of Flipkart has done a lot to dispel the rhetoric around age as a measure for experience or success. And alas, there are enough of us who don’t think “Indian culture” is the last word on social protocol.
In Swedish schools, titles like “sir” “ma’am” and “miss” have been consigned to history. Repeated studies have shown students of all ages are more likely to engage with teachers when there is no status disparity, which a title like “ma’am” immediately confers. Toddlers are anyway intimidated by the mere size of their teachers. Titles distance them further. These schools have also rejected old fashioned expectations of deference to age with the flawless logic that everyone deserves respect. Having lived a few extra years doesn’t entitle you to more. Besides, if you think about it, “sir” traces its origins to 16th-century classrooms in Britain when knights still existed. Surely, four centuries later, it needs updating.
More pertinently, informality doesn’t equal bad manners. You can be courteous without diminishing yourself. Society is actually getting less rude, though, because of social media it doesn’t appear that way. People are more careful in how they describe sexual minorities and those with learning difficulties. Recently, Chauhan, dressed immaculately in pristine white, was carried by three police officers in a flooded district of MP, lest his trousers get muddy. In deference, perhaps, to his age and stature. It was an unfortunate image that reinforced the futility of discussing Indian culture, when our traditional etiquettes are not aimed at ensuring respect for all.