Status is important to most Indians. Although the Indian Constitution made caste-based employment illegal except for certain “schedule classes and tribal groups,” most Indians can pick up a person’s caste after a series of questions. Despite politicians in the world’s largest democracy giving speeches on “all are equal before the law,” Indian voters know that equality isn’t the case. Status associated with hierarchy and power is alive and well in India.
At Ratan Vilas, our hotel in Jodhpur, we have had a wonderful stay. During our stay, we talk with the current owners Mr. Brij Raj Singh and Mrs. Namarta Singh. In a proud and dignified manner, they describe the house built by their grandfather Raj Singh in 1920. Namarta says without complaining and more as a statement of fact “All our income goes to maintain and improve these old buildings. Yet we love meeting our various guests.” Although his father has had Parkinson’s disease for the last five years, Brij and others still care for him on the property. Why would he want to leave this relaxing small hotel?
Along with others at the Ratan Vilas, the manager Jitendra has been kind and made our stay among the best during my months of traveling around India. When we check out, I ask him to write the name of the family who still lives and manages the property, (the owners Singhs who are not related to him.) At the top of a small memo sheet, he writes the owners names without hesitation. However, when I ask him spontaneously to write down his own name on the same sheet of paper, he surprises me: “Oh, I can’t write my name on the same page.” Somewhat taken aback, I pull out the Ratan Vilas card. He writes his name on the top of that card.
Status is so important in India, that Jitendra immediately hesitated, making it clear to me how deeply rooted caste awareness is for Indians. Jitendra is not worthy to put his own name on the same sheet of paper that includes his employers’ names. Their statuses aren’t comparable. They inhabit different worlds of the social hierarchy.
Contrast this scene with the following event: we are at the Delhi airport onboard a bus taking us to our Spicejet (a bargain airline) plane bound for Jodhpur. Before disembarking from the bus and boarding the jet, we pass an Execujet. There are a dozen men and women, airport employees and security guards outside the Execujet exhibiting either alertness or boredom.
We board our jet. We wait. Our doors are closed. The ramp has been moved away. We simply sit. Nothing happens. However, at the Execujet, people have jumped into movement. I see five SUVs with blue lights racing to that jet. Before any of the SUVs stop, two quasi-officials jump out of one of the SUVs. A 50-year-old, bald man stumbles and barely manages to avoid falling on his face on the tarmac. Another two cars pull alongside the plane. As if they are protecting Prime Minister Modi, four SWAT team looking police run to form a defensive perimeter around the plane. I think: “Of course, if it were Prime Minister Modi departing, then he would require a hundred-member SWAT team.” From one of the other cars, a team of officials steps out of their SUV and quickly moves to the last car. After an appropriate pause, the last SUV’s doors open and out step three men. The men and women greeting these three men give deep bows with folded hands. I’m sure deferential and excessively flattering words are spoken. Very quickly, the three men board the plane. Only after their plane departs, does our Spicejet taxi toward take-off.
Concerning the importance of status, Pavan K Varmas in Being Indian writes the following: “To be an Indian, the projection of power and the recognition of status are intimately related. When a person’s entire worth is dependent on the position he occupies on a hierarchical scale, the assertions of status (and its recognition by others) becomes of crucial importance.” In many situations, the status, or worth, of the other can be easily deduced. Important politicians, wealthy CEO’s, famous Bollywood actors and actresses, cricket super-stars are examples of individuals whose status is clear.
There are other encounters where Indians may not know the status of the other person. “When two Indians meet as strangers, the encounter is often a dual to ascertain the auqat of the other…. If a person has to be asked what his auqat is, the question is already an insult (Varmas, 23).” When some Indians meet me, they begin to ask this constant set of increasingly intrusive questions. “Where are you from?” “What do you do?” “What did your father do?” “How much money do you make?” “How large is your house?”
While Varmas pursues several other themes associated with status, I find one theme which resonates with the scene I witnessed outside the Execujet. Many Indians love to flaunt their status; many Indians love to flatter. To reinforce the importance of flattery, Varmas notes that the Vedic poets sing about “the gods cannot resist praise (Varmas, 35).” When two Indians recognize a different status and that the “inferior” is beholden to the power of the “superior,” then the “inferior” must engage in flattery, the more excessive the better. The one flaunting status expects to be flattered even though the person will pretend that it is not necessary. If the airport officials had not provided a police escort and had not deeply bowed, then I suspect both they and the three “superior” officials would have sensed something was wrong.
Varmas interestingly asserts, however, that this relation of giving and accepting flattery is based fundamentally on an attitude of distrust. The flatterer, the airport officials, act to assure that some “goods” will come their way; the ones flaunting their status, the three “superior” officials know that only by exaggerating their status will the other be willing to give what is deserved. Both know that the basis of the status, their place in the hierarchy of power, may only be temporary.
Indians still live in a status conscious, hierarchical society. In contemporary Indian society, the hierarchy shifts resulting in different degrees of status. Despite these changes, it seems that a concern for status will not disappear. Most Indians sense status; most Indians seem to be masters at adapting to others’ status and power. Sometimes the adaption is very public, as in the airport scene. At other times, the recognition of status is very private, as in the Ratan Vilas’ manager’s office. This moment of hesitation by the hotel manager shows that he has internalized a distinction of the different statuses between the owners and himself.