It was on my first trip abroad that I learnt about the dignity of labour as practised by people in the West. In 1976, I was a recipient of a travel grant from Round Table India to visit five countries in five weeks. During my stay with an Apexian in Geelong, Australia, (Apex is a youth organisation like Round Table) I had an interesting experience.
My host, 28-year-old Fred, was working with the local municipality. He had a small independent home and a car in which he took me on a conducted tour of the city. His walkie-talkie suddenly started ringing; it was his boss giving him instructions. He drove the car to a restaurant. After seating me and giving some instructions to the waiter, he asked me to relax, promising to be back soon. He vanished in the rest room and returned wearing a blue overall. After an hour he returned and apologised for the delay saying he had to attend to a complaint of a water pipe burst in a nearby street. I learnt he was a plumber and also a member of the local Apex club.
When I attended the AGM of Apex Australia in Mount Gambier in South Australia later, I was surprised to learn that the huge gathering of Apexians included a mix of millionaire businessmen, top company executives, teachers, plumbers, clerks and truck drivers—white- and blue-collar workers rubbing shoulders as equals.
When I joined Rotary later, a fellow Rotarian who was a former district governor from the club used to share an interesting experience during one of his official trips to the US. He was staying with a former district governor who was a member of the local Rotary Club in a suburb of Chicago. When my friend expressed a desire to have a haircut, the host took him to a well-appointed salon near his home. After seating him in a chair in front of a huge mirror, he vanished for a few minutes. When my friend was waiting for someone to attend on him the host returned wearing a white overall with a comb and scissor in hand. It turned out he was a barber and his classification in Rotary was hair stylist.
Can we ever imagine this in our country? It is not unusual for us to make derogatory references to one’s profession or place of stay when we want to insult somebody. After all, a gramathan or dehati (village bumpkin) or ambattan (barber) are commonly used terms to admonish people. In Delhi at social gatherings, if you say you are from Karol Bagh your company will be avoided whereas if you say you are from Defence Colony you will have an attentive audience. In voluntary organisations like Rotary, Lions or Round Table blue-collar workers will not even be eligible for membership. However, thanks to growing literacy and better education, children of blue-collar or skilled workers are being accepted, albeit grudgingly, as equals by our snobbish society. Education is a great leveller.
And now, with a so-called chaiwalla becoming prime minister, we hope to witness achhe din in terms of appreciation of dignity of labour.