The semantics of change

I’m regularly called (often by myself) a pedant.  I’m criticised of nitpicking too much about the way words are used, when they’re used, and even about the words themselves

Some of this is partly due to the editorial habits ingrained in me by my work, partly due to the years of debating and other vocabulary competitions, and partly due to the general bawa nature of having some things just right.

Mostly, however, it’s because of an appreciation for the power of words.  More precisely, the power of a correctly – or incorrectly – used word.  And the power unleashed by simply replacing one word with another.  One teensy, weensy word, all on its own.

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There’s an alley that runs along the length of the building I currently live in.  Just wide enough for two cars, and connecting to another lane in this neighbourhood, it is used as a parking lot (the opposite side) and a thoroughfare (my side).  It’s not busy, but there’s always some activity going on – maids stopping briefly for a quick round of gossip, some hawker taking advantage of the shade provided by the buildings to arrange the wares on his cart, drivers lounging around waiting for their next assignment.

From my kitchen, if you look from just such an angle, you will occasionally spot men scrunch in between a car and the opposite wall, and begin spraying it with their personal blend of uric acid.

The first time I noticed this, I yelled at the person to shoo them away.  And then I realised it was one of the guys who drives a car for my neighbours.

And then it struck me.

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n., a person usually employed to perform domestic duties, or as a personal attendant.

In India, people still have servants.
Singular: Cook, maid, cleaner, gardener, chauffeur.
Collective: Servant.

In India, people still have servants. They may be employed to perform specific tasks, but they’re still servants.  Not domestic help, not house staff, servants.

But that’s ok, right?  It’s not as if it’s a bad word.  It’s not as if it’s derogatory or insulting. I mean, now you’re just talking political correctness.

Except it is. Because the real meaning of the word is ‘one who serves’.  Not one who works for you, or is employed by you, but one who serves.  Serves you.  While you receive their services.  Like some feudal lord whose only claim to being fair and decent is waving their top hat in the direction of some plebs.

So what? It’s not like I’m mistreating them. I pay them a wage, and they do the work, and that’s that. So what’s with all this title business?

Uh huh.  So why don’t we take this nice shiny Assistant Vice President title away from you and call you a servant of whichever company you happen to be working for, ok?  No?  Really no?  Even with puppy eyes and cherry on cake?  Oh, because you’re an employee?


… it’s the small things.  Yes, terming your cook ‘house help’ instead of ‘servant’ may seem as the epitome of political correctness gone wrong, but what it really is the refusal to give such workers the dignity they deserve.

Because this is what leads to employers giving them tea, but in a cup that’s always kept separately.   Because this is what leads to employers to letting them watch TV with them, but always ensuring it’s a channel of the former’s choice.  Because this is what leads to employers never ever letting such a worker sitting on the same chair or couch as they do, but instead letting them sit on the floor or at best, on a stool.   Because this is what leads to people saying sentences like “They even eat the same food as we do”. Even.

And because this is what leads to employers not caring where their permanent, on-duty-daily-for-10-hours chauffeur goes when the call of nature beckons, despite knowing that the entire neighbourhood they live in has no public toilet.

Because they’re servants, right? Who cares about what they think as long as they do the work.  After all, there are thousands more where they came from right? And they should be thankful (thankful!) to even have this job with the economy in the state it is, right?  And it’s not like this is a business and besides, they’re being paid, right?


If somebody works in your house, they are your cooks, your gardeners, your maids, your chauffeurs, your kids’ nannies, your major domo, your assistant, your cleaner.

They are your employees, not your servants.  And you are not their master.  And this isn’t the 1800s.

Say it and say it and correct those who don’t, because the word changes the perception changes the thought changes the world.

And maybe, maybe, one day I will not have to hold my nose while walking down this alley outside my house, because some employers might offer to let their staff use the toilets in their house.


Don’t Panic

How good intentions in India often remain just that

Take Delhi.  A city with one of the most notorious reputations for women’s safety.  And where auto-rickshaws have for years harried and hassled passengers by overcharging, taking the long and wrong way round, or simply abducting them.

So on to 2012.  When the authorities decide enough is enough, and instruct all auto-rickshaws to install meters that incorporate a GPS facility and a panic button.  This will help track the vehicle, they said.  It will offer customers printouts that will help them confirm that the route taken had been the correct one, they said.  And most importantly, it will offer an emergency signalling system, they said.

Criticisms that the tender process was flawed and that the meters were subsequently over-priced?
No worries.
Criticisms that nobody was actually printing out these maps?
No worries.
Investigations which had found that nobody was actually monitoring the vehicles?
No worries.

Of course, in their wisdom, the authorities insisted that the meters be facing the customer.  Y’know, so they could monitor the fare and also have instant access to the panic button. Which meant instant paranoia on the part of the drives, kyun ki aisa hain saab, koi log itne haraami hain ki fare ka button reset kar dete hain, aur bacche-kucche jo hain na, woh button ke saath khelne lagte hain.

Which is why today if you sit in an auto-rickshaw in Delhi, you will see meters like this.  All secure and locked up behind a metal cage.  Which includes the panic button, which is meant to be instantly accessible.

… this is what they call ghelchodia-level fuckwittery.

don't panic

Kitab Khana. Na na.

A new bookstore in the heart of Bombay’s historic area.  In one of the old Victorian buildings.  With claims of offering more than just the latest bestseller.  Inviting you to just sit and read for a while.  With a cosy little cafe to boot.  What more could one want?

As it turns out, a lot.

First, if you’re going for a ‘period’ look, do it properly.  Don’t mix carved columns and exposed ceiling beams with ‘warm’ wooden tones that look like an Ikea rip-off.  Get those bookshelves and staircases polished a nice, deep old-world style brown.  You know, Irani-cafe and Walkeshwar bungalow and Fort reading room brown.  The brown that’s so dark it’s almost black, that you think would feel intimidating but actually is comforting, the brown that screams old Bombay class.  That brown.  Go ahead, and don’t listen to those interior designers.  It won’t make the place look stuffy and claustrophobic – for crying out loud, you have 20-foot high ceilings and white floors, it can’t get claustrophobic.

Next, please put up big signs all over the place reminding your customers and your staff that this is a Kitab Khana, not an Awaaz Khana.  Y’know, books, not noise?  People want to go in there listen to the words in the books, not have to endure some phoren-jaunting SoBabe calling Villoo Aaaauntie to discuss her Kerala trip and how it was so green and yes it’s marketing but it is truly is godsowncountry and did she get the card and wasn’t it just hai-lair-ious.  Seriously, if you can’t instruct your staff to walk upto someone who’s bleating away on their phone in a bookshop, then put an ad out – there’s lots of cranky bawas who’ll happily donate their hours to slap such idiots silly with a mawa cake.

Oh, and while you’re at it, remind your staff that they work in a bookshop, and that while helpfulness and all is good, customers would prefer to be able to browse books without having to listen to five of them fluttering around one computer and arguing about the invoicing system or having them take calls and wander round the store loudly informing the person at the other end what books are and aren’t in stock.  There’s really no point inviting people to come and read for a while when there’s too much noise to do so peacefully.

And while we’re talking of seating space, a few more stools wouldn’t go amiss in each section, since the books are stacked all the way to the bottom and not every customer is a yogic gymnast.

And while we’re talking about stacking books, can you try not to have piles and piles of unsorted books lying in the middle of the floor?  Just because it’s on the mezzanine doesn’t mean people don’t go there. And if you just don’t have the place out-of-sight, then at least stack them tidily and put up a warning or something.

And while we’re on the mezzanine, can you please label all your sections?  Your store’s been open nearly eight months, surely you can have sorted this by now.  And if you’re reshuffling them, do your customers the courtesy of putting up a sign that says so, so that they don’t find sports books in areas marked as ‘Classics’.

And while we’re talking of sections, where’s your SF&F section?  You have a three whole shelves full of young adult stuff like Percy Jackson and Artemis Fowl, but nothing for adult readers?  Oh, it’s there, but just been mislabelled and I should ask the staff?  Again, eight months! Get it labelled already so I don’t have to keep asking people (which means more talking in a bookshop!).

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While a new bookshop is always welcome, and one that has a dedicated space for events and launches more so, right now the place feels just too pseudo-SoBo-touristy.  Just a little too … frou-frou.  Much mehness.