“Gopal!” shouted my boss. “Water!”
Across the office – way across, for my boss has quite a set of lungs – Gopal looked up. My boss and I were far closer to the water cooler than he was, but he quickly walked back past us and into the kitchen. He emerged and came to my boss’s side, patiently holding the glass out as my boss ignored him for a moment, for two moments, for a third moment, and then took the glass of water.
Gopal is a peon. Before I came to India I could think of few more derogatory terms to describe a low man on the totem pole; but I once looked my company’s employee handbook, and that’s exactly the word in official use. Also known as “office boys”, you find them in every business doing every unskilled task: washing dishes, fetching tea, making copies, moving tables, emptying trash, cleaning desks, couriering documents, putting your food on a plate, handing out napkins for cake when an office birthday is celebrated, and going down the street to buy cigarettes whenever anyone runs out.
This is how an economy responds to a glut of unskilled labor: supply pushes wages down the point where it’s cheaper to hire someone to get water for employees than it is for employees to spend thirty seconds getting it themselves.
I resisted when I first got here. How could I ask another human being to do something so trivial? Something I was perfectly capable of doing myself? When I needed water, or a pen, or a photocopy of my passport, I would try to make a statement: to show them that I saw myself as their equal. That I didn’t think myself above a little manual labor.
But they didn’t like it. They eyeballed me as I waved them away and worked the copier by myself. I smiled broadly, hoping that my egalitarian intentions were clear.
But they clearly didn’t like it. And why should they? It was like I had flown in from America to take their jobs. If I made my own copies and got my own water, and everyone else did the same, what would be left for them to do? Why would the company need them at all?
“In America, wealth is measured by what you own,” an Indian friend told us. He’d lived in America for four decades before returning to Delhi. “In India, it’s different: wealth is measured by what you can get people to do for you.”
I better understand the role peons play—and the opportunity this role provides. Fetching staplers and picking wrappers off our desks is a hell of a lot better than guarding an ATM or carrying bricks on your head. I’m still uncomfortable shouting my demands across the room. But I no longer wash out my own coffee cup. And when I need a pen, I know whom to ask. The supply closet isn’t my domain, it’s theirs. And it’s not just their domain – it’s their livelihood.