“Saif sir and Shah Rukh sir, I appreciate your question…”
I had turned on the television soon after getting home from work in the hope of wiping out a rough day. The FilmFare awards — Bollywood’s tribute to its own – were on. The speaker was Neil Nitin Mukesh, an up and coming heartthrob in Tinseltown. He was addressing superstars Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan, the comperes for the awards ceremony.
The two Khans, in an attempt to inject humor into the proceedings, were posing questions to other actors in the audience. Those questioned, in turn, were expected to respond with creative insults, tongue-in-cheek, to the two Khans — all in good humor.
Shah Rukh is in his mid-forties and Saif, I suspect, just turned 40. Wikipedia tells me Neil Nitin Mukesh is 28. When I heard Neil speak, it made me stop and wonder why a grown man was addressing the two Khans as “Sir.”
My first thought was that it was the sheer inadequacy of the English language. In Spanish there is usted — a respectful form of you. And of course nearly every Indian language has the Hindi equivalent of aap — a pronoun reserved to demonstrate respect to someone senior, elderly or even, at times, a respected colleague. The use of these forms, from Bhojpur to Chettinad, is rarely about status or inequality but largely about courtesy and culture.
But there remained a niggling feeling: What if this is not a linguistic shortcoming but something deeper?
I shared my theory the next morning with my two business partners, who were actually working instead of wondering about Bollywood’s sociological makeup. I felt that the movie industry was far too hierarchical. Even Shah Rukh, at the same event, referred to Mani-sir (Mani Ratnam, the award-winning director). And, I asserted, this was emblematic of Indian society at large: far too much groveling and far too little respect.
To their credit, my partners argued in reasoned tones that it was language rather than any feudal attitudes or the need for social debasement that lead to the use of the word “Sir” when addressing an industry peer. They went on to propound their own theory — by which time you can be sure all pretense of work was done away with — that this is likely an urban phenomenon.
Did not most Tamil folks in Chennai use “Sir,” abandoning the more archaic (and potentially feudal) “ayya,” they argued. The Tamil movie industry, too, is rife with Rajni-sir and Kamal-sir, though I wasn’t sure if that bolstered their case or not. By that point anyway they had returned to doing real work.
What is my gripe with “Sir,” you ask? Yes, it is perfectly serviceable for class 8 students to use it when addressing their English or even their Hindi teacher. Possibly it works for the maitre d’ at a fancy Euro restaurant since his snooty attitude does away with any illusion of who’s the master.
Any other time, there’s far too much of the servile tone of a colonial job applicant imbued into “Sir,” which 60-odd years of Babudom have only cemented further.
Spend an afternoon sitting in a bank manager’s office, on a manufacturing shop floor or in a police or income tax commissioner’s office and you are likely to encounter “Sir” enunciated in every imaginable accent. If you have been in a hospital, you can’t but help see the doctors get their share of “Sir,” many a times as “Dr.-Sir.” Even within the information technology industry — despite its global exposure and purported performance-based culture -– deference, at times even subservience, follows the “Sir.”
I am by no means advocating the use of first names alone. When my good friend, college buddy and now nearly-50 year old university professor tells my 12-year-old to call him by his first name, I will be the first one to admit that I am not at all comfortable. I’d rather my daughter call him Uncle Jaap. Yet when 25-year-old engineers address me as “Sir,” I squirm. While I choose to think that half the mails I get addressing me as “Sir” have merely misspelled my first name, I know I am fighting a losing battle.
I’d like to imagine that borrowing the good old Hindi suffix “ji” — or for those of you opposed to Hindi dominance, the Japanese suffix “san” — would do away with “Sir.” And create a work culture that’s respectful without having to be deferential or, worse yet, servile. If the central government ran a contest for a Hinglish term to replace “Sir,” I suspect it would find more support and takers than trying to come up with an international symbol for the rupee. And, for sure, it’s likely to do far greater good – for a whole lot more people – than a rupee symbol will.
This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal online as To Sir Without Love.