Pots and kettles

A customer and I had just completed a long discussion in his factory. Since it was our first meeting, he insisted that he would treat me to lunch. As we were walking towards his car, the talk turned to the building collapse in Thane in which over 70 persons died, and the reports of a nexus between builders, officials, police and politicians.

Very passionately, my customer said, “These scoundrels should be hanged! They know these buildings will collapse and kill the occupants, but all they are interested in is making money! If a person can be hanged for killing one victim, why shouldn’t these guys be hanged for killing dozens of people?”

“Who, in your opinion, is most guilty?” I asked.

Without any hesitation, my customer replied, “The builders, of course! They increase their profits by making concrete with more sand and less cement. They know it’s dangerous, but why will they bother? Their lives are not at stake. Only the people who buy their flats risk their lives. These builders are mass-murderers!”

To change the subject, I said, “Let’s not talk about them. Tell me, what kind of food are you treating me to today?”

He laughed and replied, “Sir, I am not a sophisticated person like you. I am a pure vegetarian, teetotaller and non-smoker. So, please forgive this simpleton for making you suffer an ordinary vegetarian meal without any drinks or hookah. Is a Rajasthani Thali OK for you? Or would you prefer something else?”

“Rajasthani Thali would be great! Have you never tried non-vegetarian food, alcohol or tobacco, even when you were young?” I asked.

Clearly enjoying the attention, he replied, “Never! Sir, these are our family values. We are very principled people. Apart from our simple lifestyle, we have a tradition of contributing at least 10% of our profits to charity. We are very grateful to God for his kindness, and we try to do something for society. We are not like these useless builders who only want to make money, even if it means their sub-standard construction leads to so many deaths!”

Again wanting to change the subject, I asked, “I remember you told me that you were the first person in your family to venture into the engineering industry. So, what business has your family been in before that?”

“We are in the chewing tobacco industry,” he declared, and proudly told me the name of the brand owned by his family.

This guy had been ranting about “useless builders who only want to make money”, and had labelled them as “mass-murderers”! But he had no qualms about enjoying the profits made by his family by selling carcinogenic chewing tobacco, which also leads to a large number of deaths. On the contrary, he was claiming to be virtuous on account of contributing 10% of these profits to charity!

A classic case of the pot calling the kettle black!

I wanted to ask him many questions, but I thought it would be an exercise in futility. Hence, I did not react.

Later, I wondered: Did I do the right thing by keeping quiet? Would it really have been an exercise in futility? Or did I keep quiet only to avoid antagonising my customer?

Whatever the real reason for my keeping quiet that day, I think I should have spoken up. If not anything, I would have poked his self-righteousness!

I am reminded of these words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

(This post was originally published on Dec 17, 2013.)

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Putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes

In the book Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch, author Arindam Chaudhuri describes an incident which he read in Tagore’s biography: One day, when Tagore rebuked his long-time servant for reporting a few hours late for work, the servant apologetically explained to Tagore that he was late because he had had to cremate his son who had died the same morning.

Chaudhuri states that after reading about this incident, he makes it a point to find out things from the other person’s point of view before passing any judgement. He states, “While dealing with people I never forget one very important principle – of trying to put myself in the other person’s shoes and understanding his part of the bargain. There are times when you feel that the other person has committed the biggest mistake of his life and he should not be spared. But, before blasting him, do try to find out his point of view.”

I had described a somewhat similar incident in my post Benefit of doubt.

Most of us do give the benefit of doubt to others, but do we give everybody this benefit of doubt? Or do we give immense amounts of benefit of doubt to people who are wealthier and/or more powerful and/or better connected than us, and little or no benefit of doubt to people if we are wealthier and/or more powerful and/or better connected than them and we are definitely unlikely to need their help in any way in the foreseeable future?

No more hypocrisy!

Many years back, my uncle’s colleague was in tears when he described the unreasonable demands made by his daughter’s parents-in-law before, during and immediately after the wedding. My uncle felt really bad that all he could do was to offer his colleague a shoulder to cry on. I remember my uncle giving us a detailed description of the unreasonable demands and telling us how the bride was shocked and disgusted by the behaviour of her parents-in-law.

A few months later, my uncle attended the wedding of the same colleague’s son. My uncle was dismayed to observe his colleague torturing his daughter-in-law’s parents, making almost exactly the same unreasonable demands that his daughter’s parents-in-law had made. What pained my uncle, and all of us, was the fact that his colleague’s daughter, who had been shocked and disgusted by the behaviour of her parents-in-law, seemed to enjoy the spectacle of her parents doing the same things that her parents-in-law had done. Her shock and disgust seemed to have vanished into thin air!

This kind of thing happens all the time.

We are shocked and disgusted when we, or our loved ones, are victims of any form of discrimination.

But how do we react when we, or our loved ones, are perpetrators of the same form of discrimination?

Does our attitude towards any sort of discrimination depend on whether we gain or lose by such discrimination?

At the workplace, all of us like our seniors to treat us as equals, but don’t many of us love to boss over our juniors?

How many parents can claim that they genuinely try to treat their daughters-in-law just like they treat their daughters?

Women belonging to ‘upper caste’ families may complain about gender discrimination, but do they speak out against caste discrimination?

How many of us try to ensure that the economically weaker persons in our lives are treated with dignity?

Do we discriminate against certain persons or groups, particularly when we think nobody else will know about it and/or when we think we can get away with it?

Are we shocked and disgusted when we, or our loved ones, are perpetrators of discrimination?

Or are we shocked and disgusted only when we, or our loved ones, are victims of discrimination?

Let us all try to remove all kinds of discrimination, irrespective of whether we, or our loved ones, are victims or perpetrators.

Let us stop being hypocrites.

(This post was originally published on Nov 23, 2013.)

‘Freedom of speech’ only if you agree with me, not otherwise!

The outrage expressed and being expressed by public and private individuals and organizations over the Charlie Hebdo killings and the Perumal Murugan controversy definitely lead one to believe that ours is a liberal and tolerant society.

Most of us love to proclaim: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (Wikipedia reports that these words are “often misattributed to Voltaire.” They were actually written by his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall “as an illustration of Voltaire’s beliefs”.)

Do we practise what we preach? Let me share my experiences as a commenter on a few blogs.

1. On one very popular blog, I found that, while my positive or neutral comments were approved within a short time on various occasions, one comment, which expressed an opinion completely contrary to that of the blogger and other commenters, was not approved for a few hours. During this time, various positive comments posted by others were approved. My comment was finally approved, but only after about 20 hours, and only after the blogger had published the next post. Obviously, readers’ attention was now almost entirely focussed on the latest post. So much for the blogger’s stated commitment to freedom of speech!

2. I had the same experience on another popular blog.

3. On another popular blog, while my positive or neutral comments were approved within a short time on various occasions, one comment, which expressed an opinion completely contrary to that of the blogger and other commenters, was not approved for a long interval. During this time, various positive comments posted by others were approved. My comment was finally approved, but the blogger’s reply was published almost simultaneously! Obviously, the blogger approved my comment only after composing a reply to my comment!! “We both enjoy freedom of speech, but I enjoy more freedom than you!”

4. Please read this one carefully. This incident doesn’t take the cake; it takes the bakery!! A very popular blogger published a post about how the parents of prospective grooms used to make unreasonable demands in arranged marriages, and described the recent trend of the parents of prospective brides now making unreasonable demands. Another blogger posted a comment which applauded this new trend! I posted a comment (not a reply to this comment) stating that all such unreasonable demands were wrong, irrespective of who made them, and lamenting the fact that the recent trend was being applauded. My comment was published immediately since this blog did not have comment moderation. When I checked a few hours later, I found that the blogger had replied to my comment, agreeing that all unreasonable demands were wrong, but stating that none of the commenters had applauded the recent trend. When I tried to re-read the comment applauding the recent trend, I found it had been deleted. Obviously, the ‘evidence’ had been destroyed!!!

I must state that such behaviour is not restricted to bloggers. I have had many such experiences with people who are not connected with blogging. All these experiences have convinced me that very, very few people genuinely believe in freedom of speech. Most of us (by ‘most of us’, I am referring not only to the ‘fringe elements’, but to all cross-sections of society) believe only in our own freedom of speech and the freedom of speech of those who agree with our own thoughts, beliefs, customs and practices. We may not say so in so many words, but most of us do NOT respect the right of our fellowmen to have thoughts, beliefs, customs and practices that are different from our own.

Penny Wise (for others), Pound Foolish (for ourselves)

One evening, when I was with my customer in his office, a peon entered the room and asked for permission to get the office bicycle tyre tube replaced since it got punctured very often, leading to waste of time. He said it would cost Rs. 120. My customer replied, “We’ll see after a few days.” After the peon left the room, my customer spoke about the need to make people realise that money doesn’t grow on trees.
My customer had just received a huge order that morning, so he invited me to join him in a small celebration at an exclusive hotel nearby. After we ordered our drinks, the waiter recommended the Grilled Jumbo Prawns, which my customer accepted. There were 4 prawns, which we polished off in about 2 minutes. When the bill was presented, we realised that the Grilled Jumbo Prawns cost Rs. 750! This time, my customer did not speak about money not growing on trees!

Another day some years earlier, my friend invited me to accompany him and his mother to my neighbour’s jewellery store to buy silver items to be gifted to some of their relatives on their 60th Birthdays, which were coming up in the next few weeks. Within a few minutes, my friend’s mother purchased 4 items for a total of over Rs. 16,000. As we waited for the items to be gift-wrapped, I remarked to my friend that his mother was a very generous person as she had exceeded her stated budget of Rs. 12,000 without any hesitation. My friend winked at me and whispered, “Ha! This morning, Amma was screaming at the maid. I thought the maid had tried to murder Amma, but it turned out she had only asked for a raise of Rs. 50!”

During most visits to restaurants where tipping is expected (but not mandatory), I notice that many persons order food and beverages without thinking too much about the prices, but are quite tight-fisted when it comes to leaving a tip. (In all fairness, I must state that I have also come across generous tippers, though these are much fewer in number.)

Why are we generous or even lavish to ourselves and to our near and dear ones, but overly cost-conscious when we spend on others?

(This post was originally published on July 18, 2013.)