I don’t know if it matters to Subroto Roy, the head honcho of the increasingly high-profile Sahara group here in India, but I’ve just decided I’m never going to travel on Air Sahara. Nor will I buy his magazine (Rashtriya Sahara), nor watch his channel, nor even follow the sportsmen he sponsors. Hmm, did I really say that? That last one will be hard, given that India’s cricket and hockey teams wear “Sahara” on their many chests. Still, I’m going to give it a shot. Really.
Okay, it’s not a Rs 1 billion loss he’s going to suffer on my account, so it’s unlikely Roy will even notice. But I’m going to do it anyway. In fact, I’m inspired in this by Roy himself. Specifically, his withdrawal of a major contract worth that much from a publicity firm owned by one Morani. And why did that happen? Because this Morani, we’re told, showed utter “disrespect” to two “icons” of Indian public life: Amitabh Bachchan and the Samajwadi Party politician Amar Singh. And how did Morani show this disrespect? By seating the two icons in the 11th row at a function in Dubai. The 11th row. If you can believe it.
Disrespect on this scale must never be tolerated. Which is why I’m announcing my decision about Sahara. I cannot tolerate the disrespect done to me by the implication that respect lies in row numbers. Because my feeling is, if “icons”—whether they are called Bachchan, Singh, O’Toole, Jordan, or anything else—if icons need to find status according to which row they are seated in, they are hardly icons in the first place, and it insults my intelligence to pretend they are. And I’d rather take my business to a tycoon whose view of the world around him is less empty, less fickle, than this.
What is it about respect? The morning I wrote this, there was a great to-do in the lobby of my building: one of the residents had slapped Joga, our rather frail old watchman. Now, in the past, this very resident has insisted that we call him “Captain” and not “Mister;” in our minutes book, he scratches out “Mr” and scribbles “Capt.” All this because of a stint he did in the merchant navy. “Captain,” he seems to believe, carries the respect “Mr” doesn’t, the respect he thinks he deserves. (I wonder, do First Mates insist on being called that? Admirals?) I suppose it has never struck him that his scratching and scribbling get him, not respect, but scorn and laughter. Such is the caliber, I suppose, of men who believe they can slap old men.
Anyway, when I went down to try to make some peace, the resident told me that he and Joga were involved in some impossible-to-understand argument over washing his car, at the end of which he had merely “pushed” Joga. I replied that whatever their argument might have been, he had no right to lay a hand on Joga. That was a line he could not cross. At this, the man said: “It was just a push, not a slap! Are you going to believe me or a watchman?” Implying, “I, being a Captain, being a higher-class individual, deserve more respect than a mere watchman.”
I still kick myself for not saying what I really wanted to tell him, which was this: Indeed, I do believe Joga the watchman and not you, precisely because of the respect I have for him and not for you. People who think respect lies in titles don’t deserve respect in the first place.
People who think respect lies in row numbers don’t deserve it either. Respect is like that. We’ve all heard it before, but we can certainly stand to hear it again: it’s earned, always and period. Not demanded. And if it’s demanded, it has a way of vanishing swiftly, nearly impossible to find again. Who, apart from fawning hangers-on, truly has respect for Bachchan and Singh any more? Who, for their fulminating friend Roy of Sahara? Who, for a small-minded once-Captain?
And yet, the really galling thing about the Dubai episode and Roy’s subsequent vengeance, as various letters to editors pointed out, was Bachchan’s near-silence over it all. This is a man we Indians have grown up to believe, who has that elusive thing called “class,” and in abundance. A learned family and a distinguished film career will do that for you.
So, about the 11th row fiasco, he wrote to Mid-Day (March 15) that he really didn’t care where he was seated. “My conduct,” he wrote, “[is] guided by what [my father] taught me—‘whenever you go to a public function, sit on the last row, because if you are shifted from there, you will only be sent to a seat ahead of you.’”
Fine advice indeed. But then Bachchan tells us that “a remark from one of the organisers incensed Mr. Amar Singh.” And what was this remark? “Do you want to sit in front? I can arrange it for you.”
A more innocuous utterance would be hard to imagine. Yet Bachchan writes: “Addressed to a person of Amar Singh’s stature, this was humiliating.” It “incensed” him, don’t forget.
But why? What on earth is so offensive here? Besides, instead of going along with this pretense of “humiliation” to the hollow “stature” of a politician, why didn’t Bachchan offer his father’s wise advice to Singh, tell the man to behave like an adult and sit down?
And about the Morani cancellation, Bachchan has said nothing. Zero, zip. That’s right: a Rs 1 billion deal is written off over a triviality, and the man at the heart of the triviality keeps mum.
This man we call an “icon.”
Consider, on the other hand, the people who do command respect over years and across peoples. One M.K. Gandhi comes to mind, as does one N. Mandela. A fellow called A. Einstein, a lady by name M.S. Subbulakshmi, a superb basketball player called L. Bird. I know you can think of many more. To my knowledge, not once did any of these people insist on seats commensurate with their status, or yearn for empty titles appended to their names. In fact, they were generally indifferent to these things. They preferred instead just to go about their lives, pursue their passions. And the excellence they achieved by just doing that brought them the enduring respect of millions.
Respect is like that too. It’s the only way it can be. And because it is, and even if it hardly matters to them, I do my best to stay far from icons.
A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.