Calling Bernard by his name not sir at City
April 15, 2012 13:26 IST
By Okhla Times
He was an aged Englishman of medium built and believed in Victorian values. A strong votary of multi-culture Britain, Bernard, a Reuters’ journalist, had spent the prime of his youth in India writing on subjects ranging from politics to cricket and knew India like the palm of his hand. He could even speak broken Hindi.
He was my teacher at City University London, England. Polite and friendly with his students like other teachers, he was called by his first name. I was the only one in the class to refer to him as sir. He would be discomfited by the expression. Then one day, he approached me and asked politely: “Why don’t you call me by my name?”
I was gob-smacked. Keeping in mind his age and status and the reverence I held him in, it was not possible. “How could I call you by your name? It would be blasphemous. You are my teacher and in India we are taught to respect teachers, not to call them by their first names,” I said.
He shook his head in disapproval and said: “Dear I am your teacher and don’t call me sir. Please call me Bernard.”
For a second, old memories flashed in. This was not the first request of its kind from a gentleman. Earlier, when I was working with a daily in Delhi on a diddly-squat salary, an expression that I picked up from an American classmate Ian Talley at City, I had come across a senior who would always remind his juniors to call him by his first name.
Ashimda, as the staff used to call him, was quite like Bernard. He was a good soul, whose suggestions helped me hone my journalistic skills. One day, in blistering heat, he walked me to a bookshop in Connaught Place with a list of must-read. There are a few people left like him in the profession. Now a days, most seniors like juniors to address them as sir or madam. And if you don’t, eyebrows are raised.
So, I stood my ground with Bernard. We were locked in an argument for a while. I felt it was the right thing to do. Our discussion was inconclusive. The next week when our reporting class resumed, I once again called him sir. This time around he looked distinctly unhappy. His reaction put me in a quandary. What was I supposed to do? His discomfort was putting me in an awkward situation.
Was I being the quintessential impossible oriental? I realized that I had to relent and with great difficulty began calling him Bernard.
With passage of time, I grew habituated. I stopped flinching before calling my seniors, even people my father’s age, by their first names while in England. I saw my interactions with people grew more meaningful. I was communicating with them as their equal.
But ever since my return to India, though, I find I am reverting to calling my superiors sir. Calling seniors by first name in India can prove suicidal. People think you are cocky. Some time old habits don’t just refuse to die, they get back with a vengeance.
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