“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.


29 responses to “peons

  1. I recently joined a small-setup company. Here for the first time I met a three peons that have job description you wrote.

    Thankfully no one here orders them for water. But yes, he does run errands to get breakfast and lunch from nearby restaurants or joints that do not deliver food. And you know what, sometimes he is too busy to run those errands for all employees. You are lucky if could bring Maggi for you and cook it and give it to you by your meal time. 🙂

  2. I had that same dilemma you describe in South Africa in Durban – my partner’s sister has a long time servant called Christine, she’s part of the family….When visiting I started washing my own dishes until it became obvious by her protestations and looks that I was doing her job for her – one she is paid to do – and that wasn’t right…undermining her.

    So I had to put my liberal self on the shelf and accept it. I still was not happy though – but while I was in her house I had to live by her employer’s rules 😉

  3. that is a great observation and it’s very true. having lived in the states for 10 years and being 28, when i went back to India last year, it was the first time that i went out to clubs and bars over there. I was shocked that each time I pulled a cigarette out of my pack, 3 to 4 peons came at me from different directions in an effort to light it..this was not isolated happenned many places many times. I felt bad but realized they felt worse if i didn’t let them do it…cos as you say thats their job. When in rome..

  4. Quirky Indian

    It’s a difficult thing to reconcile to, but most of us have done it based on the same logic you have used. I would rather – until the day comes when they can move on to better jobs – they were employed doing this than unemployed, begging or worse.

    Quirky Indian

  5. Peons in India are well paid. They are integral part of office, filling the gap between skilled and unskilled manpower, coz. they are party skilled.

    I have come across many Peons at hardware vendors who can assemble computers and repair printers etc, along with whatever work they are hired to do (serving water, tea , food etc).

  6. You mean you never came across this species before – the one who does menial tasks for low to no money? runs errands that could be more optimally done by the person asking them to do it? or allowing themselves to be lorded over by people who otherwise may never get a chance to lord over anyone?

    I believe in the US and Western Europe, they are called “interns” – those desperate-to-please, underpaid underlings that infest offices every summer to go back to their Uni holes in autumn..

    At least peons take the job knowingly and for all you know, many of them are secretly taking evening classes to better their lot. This bit of Hidden India, where most want to work and want to improve their lot, is the bit I miss most living amid the European welfare economy..

  7. Jenny and Dave,

    I honestly think you both should go back to your country.

    You may think you have an adventurous spirit, but after reading your derogatory blog on my country, I don’t think you both are fit for it.

    As an Indian, I find your blog extremely insulting. An earnest open minded traveler would not insult another country and culture the way you guys have in this blog.

    You are a guest in my country, but somehow I sense this ‘oh, we come from a modern civilised western society, so that gives us the right to put another culture down’

    Please don’t respond by saying that your blog is just a discussion. Its not, its a blatant mockery of my beautiful country and its people.

    You guys aren’t equipped or open minded enough to live there as you just don’t seem to be getting any aspect of our culture.

    Your not the only ones, most Americans behave in exactly the same manner.

    Please go back to your cocooned sheltered boring lives.

  8. 1. Your friend said ““In America, wealth is measured by what you own,”?? Trust me when I say in India too wealth is measured by what you own.
    2. Anshul: where in the world are u? Peon’s are paid petty wages…scraps…and treated mostly crap too. What’s paid well to u? Rs1000/2000 a month? Or is it Rs.100,000 a month? Your response is typical of india’s inequality and classism.
    3.Shaklely: really u miss it so much huh? India welcomes u back to take up a job as a peon n live on measely wages….u can’t afford to surf the net then…
    4.Pooj: Get over it! Like you don’t go to western countries benefit of their economy and then talk crap about the culture and attitudes while sipping martini’s and watching sex in the city. Commonnn if u are so patriotic about india…change it for the better…change the classism, the inequality, the human rights abuse and down right arrogance and oppression of women/religions/races/castes, the devastation of the environment and the corruption everywhere.
    Do u think abusing people like Jenny and Dave who are making a difference and doing what u and I should be doing is really gonna help?
    Please seriously get off your butt and go make a difference…u can start by treating your “peon” better with dignity and asking your boss to give him a massive pay rise.
    peace 🙂
    One of your own.

  9. @Durga: If we are talking about peons in office, I find them well paid. They get paid something about 4.5k+ or so, also depending on their tenure in the company. And they get paid for what they are hired for.

    I don’t think peons in their current job profiles are eligible for earning 1 lac a month unless we are talking in Somali Shillings. 🙂

    Also, Many of these peons gradually turn into chauffeurs and enterprising ones in them become cab owners cum drivers etc.. I think thats what is meant by the term “improvising”.

  10. Dave,

    The term office boys probably comes from the british colonialism/legacy in India. We have the same thing in Kenya: “house-boys”, house-girls, peons in offices to bring you tea, carry your briefcase, etc, etc…

    What you need to do (if you feel guilty) is tip them on the side. If they do a good job for you, slip a $5 dollar bill (or whatever) in their pocket.

    RE: to tim: who calls people “servants” in this day and age?

  11. @ Dave n Jen: other than the “rags to pads” initiative of yours which is noble and beautiful, I think that the coverage you give of India is quite negative. We have a problem of excessive population but somehow we learn to live by ourselves and with each other. I agree it’s messy mucky and all that but we do it without hurting people. By showcasing the poorer side of life repeatedly, you are pulling down things quite a bit.

  12. You said it Durga.

    Your one of my own. You and I have every right to criticise our country.

    Not outsiders.

    And I probably agree with everything you say about moving my butt and making a difference.

    I have lived across 3 countries in the world and I never remember criticising any aspect of their culture. I don’t think I have the right to.

    Infact, I tried to take it all in and understand it to the best of my abilities, even if it did not make sense to me.

  13. Pingback: The Boss and the Other « A Year In India

  14. @Pooj and Durga,
    Why are u guys so quick to take offense at this blog? You sound as though Dave and Jenny have deliberately set out to ‘insult’ India.
    When people move to another country and culture, things that local people take for granted would definitely be a cause for wonder. If I were to go to the US tomorrow, I’d also marvel at the fact that people don’t jump traffic signals or have to pay bribes to get things done. I would also be shocked at the prohibitive cost of healthcare and at the utterly primitive mobile market (where you pay for INCOMING calls and SMSes for starters).

    Just because you (and I and any other Indian here who actually can access the internet and have this discussion) have grown up here and are accustomed to seeing and ignoring whatever they’ve highlighted doesn’t make it a crime for them to point it out.
    Manual labor is pretty expensive in America-we take it for granted that we can employ domestic help for cooking, cleaning, driving our cars, doing the laundry and a hundred other small jobs here.
    If you went to the US tomorrow-you’d have to do everything on your own.
    It’s called culture shock.

    Get over it, grow a thicker skin and stop finding ‘insults’ where none were intended.

    Personally, I love this blog- they provide a fresh perspective on day to day things that we’ve taken for granted for so long.

  15. Interns do their job as training to teach them their future jobs, which have the possibility of promotions. Is this really the same as a peon?

    Yeah, Dave! How DARE you make observations about where you’re living???? It’s not like you’re trying to make a difference or anything. Oh wait. Nevermind.

    You go Dave.

  16. As I was getting ready to send in my contribution to the pads to rags program( very noble in my opinion), one question came to mind: Are there any health/ regulatory issues you need to be aware of? Is there a liability if someone gets sick using these pads?

  17. jenny and dave

    Hi Boston123,
    Good question, I seriously doubt it. If that were the case, the sidewalks would be in much better condition!

    But I’ll forward on to Renuka at PP and see if she has a better answer for you.

  18. Rex…
    I was defending Jenny and Dave. I wasn’t taking offence. Please go back and read what I was saying to Pooj.

  19. I noticed now- sorry for including you in my reply there.

  20. I’ve had the same experience of being an American in India. It killed me to have someone serve me chai, wash my windows, or take out my trash… but as with many things in India… you learn to accept it.

    And, as you get to know and/or learn about these “boys” you understand that, for now, this is a good thing — better that they are employed, than not. There are certianly worse jobs in India!

    Just being in an office environment gives them a growth opportunity (to learn some English if nothing else) they likely wouldn’t have if they were a day laborer. or worse.

    Our house helper can afford to send her daughter to school because we pay her well (though it’s pennies to us), and she really does like cooking for us — we can see the disappointment on her face when we don’t have her cook. She is grateful for her job (and we are grateful for her) — no question about it.

  21. Rex,

    That’s the problem with us Indians. Too open for criticism from anyone.

    On the contrary, the western culture will not accept criticism from outsiders at all. (even though their society has their fair share of screw ups!)

    Trust me, I’ve lived and worked in London and as a non Londoner (forget non Britisher!!!), I dare have criticised or point out faults in their culture. Same is true of the Americans. They are too proud of even their faults to let anyone point a finger at them.

    My point is, why do we allow that?

    Every article in this blog, be it, peons, the dog story blah blah, subtly mocks our incapabilities as a country. I am sorry it does not point out the unusual. It points out only the negative.

    You’re too nice Rex. Thats the problem with us Indians, we are too nice and humble.

    We need to learn to be proud of even our faults. It really is nobody else’s business.

  22. There is NOTHING wrong with being too nice or humble. This something to be cherished. I’d rather be known for being nice and humble than be known as a racist egotistical maniac.
    Pride has got Indians or anyone…no where.

  23. @Pooj,
    You still don’t get it, do you?
    For starters, this is just a blog about an outsider’s experience in India. You’re talking as though they created it only to piss off Indians or that they’re out to just point out flaws.
    Who’s pointing fingers here? In what way does the language of the blog indicate that they’re insulting us in any way?
    Secondly-have you ever come across any Indian blog highlighting our faults in this manner(whether the intent was to do so, or just describe ones’ experience is another matter) ?

    The one thing that hits all foreigners who come here is the glaring contrast between the rich and the poor. Probably the second thing would be our apathy towards it.
    Take a look at the rags to pads initiative on this site. How many indian bloggers go and do stuff like that?
    Lastly, why the hell are we so insecure that we perceive an insult where none was intended?

    If there is one thing all of us urban Indians with internet access and a college education posting here, (myself included) it is our collective apathy. We look through the beggars that tap our car windows at traffic signals,
    we take for granted and ignore the servants who come to work at our place. The truth hurts, especially when someone unintentionally holds up a mirror to us.

  24. @Pooj

    Time to get your head out of your a@@

    You seem to think that only Indians have a right to criticize Indian {society|people|culture|whatever}. You say “indians are too humble, too nice”, whatever that means.

    I see no reason why only indians should be allowed to critique them. Most of western society is based on free exchange of thought. Do as you please, and let others do as they please.

    I’d say one thing: you are too sensitive. Grow up.

  25. All you guys still have the so called ‘gora hangover’.

    Get over it! And develop some integrity.

  26. Am glad, you now understand their roles and the kind of work they can do. It is better to have an office boy, than to see them out on the road.

    Even though the work doesn’t seem HIGH enough, it’s still work, and as such commands respect.

  27. @Pooj: Took me quite a while through your posts. Life isn’t as serious and dirty as you are making it seem, and there was nothing insulting in the post.

    If someone states a fact or shares their perspective of things, then discuss it, don’t feel insulted.

    I doubt they would be in India, if all they felt was contempt for the place.

    World is big, tons of people and cultures we haven’t detailed yet. I hope you can read their post again and understand what they were trying to communicate.

    That’s it for now.

  28. Pingback: their New York struggle, part III: not-so-cheap labor | Our Delhi Struggle

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