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Case Study: Lajja: A Blur Of Boundaries

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Samanta Lowe watched the TV news with a sense of alarm.The politician was making disparaging remarks about three women and his audience was not disturbed. Weren’t there boundaries for what could be said in public and what not? Some sense of shame, hesitation, restraint…? Inhibition maybe? What sense of safety, progress, growth and justice could be expected from such a candidate who nurtured biased views about women? Above all, she thought, why aren’t the people protesting?

Yet, ‘limits’ and ‘boundaries’ had come up again and again in many meetings with Abhay Kaul, CEO of Camfor India, who engaged them to think about it.

Samanta who had been posted to India last year as Camfor India’s marketing head, had been watching the political scene unfurl, understanding little, gleaning a lot about respect, culture — more its absence, as Kaul put it.

In six months, Samanta had begun to notice a complete lack of boundaries, the absence of a defined personal space in India and had quickly learnt to back off when she felt intruded. The politician’s comment was that very same intrusion of personal space. At work she heard murmurs of protest from some managers over what they believed was excessive ‘disrespect’. Respect, Kaul said, was in fact about boundaries.

At Camfora they had been grappling with two distinct issues. But for Kaul, they were both about respect. The first was the case of Jai Raman, a colleague in customer care. Jai realised that his date of birth (DOB) was wrongly stated on one document in the office records, which created dissonance with other documents that bore his right date. Consequently, he was facing grief with the municipal authority and the sub registrar as he was transferring some land to his sister. So when he wrote to HR’s Aseem Paulose seeking to make the change, Paulose “regretted inability”, and said, “The company does not entertain any changes to dates once recorded.”

Jai was surprised. Recalling the General V.K. Singh and Government of India episode, he wondered if Paulose feared that Jai would seek an extended tenure. But that did not make sense because the period of change was just three months. He said to Paulose, “Boss, there are various documents in court right now that are based on my passport, which has my correct date. I don’t want unnecessary difficulty with the law; they will reject so many of those documents because those are based on the company document with the old date. It is so much easier for you to make the change...”

But Paulose refused, saying “these had tax implications”. As Jai struggled, all proceedings on the transfer of property got derailed over the matter of his DOB. After this, Paulose stopped answering calls from Jai.

Paulose sat in Bangalore, where the corporate office was, while Jai sat in Mumbai, which was termed key region. Jai’s attention was needed in the market, but his property transfer got rejected over the variation in his DOB, his sister accused him of reluctance to part with the ancestral property, families collided, and it was messy. His daughter’s Board exams were at hand, Jai could not travel for three weeks and Paulose would not take his calls.

Jai took up the issue with Kaul finally. “I find this completely absurd that a three-month correction which is requested in order to help property matters, is being rejected?”

Kaul too wondered why it was so complex. When he asked, Paulose mumbled something about the imminent change in Camfor’s pension plan. Paulose ‘felt’ that this would give Jai unfair advantage in the proposed revision. But there were wheels within wheels; it seems Paulose was nursing a grouse and had used the opportunity to trouble Jai.

This is what happened: HR wanted Alisha Reuben to be promoted. Jai, under whom she worked, had stopped it because she had not made up for the extra time she took for her maternity. “Same old story,” Jai explained. “She wanted 6 months, I granted it; She came back after a year, did not offer to work out of home during the extra period, and still demanded her promotion. I said work this whole year, pull your scores up and take the promotion. Paulose was upset. He said this was going against our gender diversity programme...”

Jai clarified, “Gender diversity is a noble initiative, but I cannot be hasty about it. Finally the cause is Camfor’s business, not Reuben. Reuben knows the rules; she will deliver the scores and she can take her promotion. Others before her have done so happily. And we have made it so easy to deliver that.”

It disturbed Kaul that the person with whom he had vested people management responsibility, had breached boundaries. “Law or the rule book is not to be wielded like a shield. You need to go beyond and examine its fibre!” he told him.

Today, as Samantha watched the Indian news unfurl grief after grief, scam after scam, posture after posture, the dichotomy amazed her: the intelligence to engage with state-of-the-art technology combined with a waning inclination to engage with its own cultural supremacy, where its heritage values did not permeate everyday life. This was fascinating – exactly like the man with the caste marks on his forehead, who worshipped a female goddess, aspired to lead and govern but whose ambition did not include respect for humans.

Where did the country make the breach with its culture, wondered Samanta. Where did Paulose lose touch with HR management tenets?

Then there was the case of Shannu Guha, the senior accountant who had been asked to go in that same appraisal year. Shannu was a very nice person, worked hard more because it took him longer to deliver, but as Kaul said, “The point is he delivers!” But Chintan Dave, the chief of accounts had disagreed and Guha was asked to go.

Rajdeep Rai, another senior manager, had been unhappy with this. He had said, “Should we be assuming more responsibility when it comes to asking someone to leave?”

And here they were all on a late evening, after a huge presentation to a bank, exhausted. Now they all lounged in Kaul’s office polishing off his collection of dry fruits and chocolates. Samanta was in the ante room watching news, listening to another politician's tweet that downright insulted an artist. One more disparaging remark about women, she mused. What dichotomy! Here were companies like Camfor bringing in gender diversity, and here too were people with archaic, feudal views about women... India, she was coming to see, was divided by literacy — the educated and the illiterate, kept apart by a ruling class. That had been Jai’s interpretation and she saw now he was right.

As she entered with her coffee, Rajdeep was saying, “But who is giving you the boundaries? The law? No... the law is the essential edifice upon which you construct your life, but you must question it, ponder on it... that is the birth of the thinking human. It is not enough to simply receive the law or rule book and adapt to it. What my ex-employers, the cigarette-maker did, corroborates my thoughts on Shannu Guha’s exit — that it is mediocre to just follow law.”

And Rajdeep began to explain.

“The excise was levied on the length of a cigarette. What did my company do? They cut the length of the cigarette by a certain millimetre measure. That pushed them to a different slab for excising, brought the levy down and hence the cost as well, which helped them not take a price hit! Now, so that the consumer does not notice the reduced length of the cigarette, they increased the length of the filter! This did not add to cost, because tobacco is more expensive than the filter. And there is a tape that is wound where the filter meets the paper. That was adjusted so that the filter also did not look longer! All we did was play with the size of the cigarette to save costs at the same price to the consumer!”

Samanta: But is there not a duty towards the consumer to let him know that he is getting less now? Consumers don’t like information to be withheld, just as they don’t like hidden risks such as chemicals in their food. Or animal bone in their sugar. More than the law, your employer played with rights, with faith, with belief!

Rajdeep: Exactly! Law is a guide. Yes, you must work within its tenets, but I believe you can work within the law yet be supremely dishonest! One, you gave the consumer less tobacco than he was paying for; two, you tricked the government of revenue, rubbishing its intent to deter the habit.

There is a word that was eluding me; the word is lajja. Traditionally, lajja is a social construct that defines soft boundaries for people. It is also linked with a person’s sense of right and wrong; creating a boundary that a person decides for himself. And when everyone has lajja, societies become predictable and integrated, provided the boundaries are in congruence with shared values of the majority. The individual boundaries collectively create the aura for the collective lajja. So when individual lajja boundaries begin to blur, there isseen a change in the collective lajja, that is, social behaviours.

Rajdeep: So when we see widespread corruption, we can understand that it began with individual corrupt minds that went unchecked?

Abhay: Yes. It takes two to do that. One to be corrupt and another to condone it. Is a man wrong to take government favours or was a government wrong to let him take those favours?

Rajdeep: What my cigarette company did was therefore a breach of boundaries. Now I see it.

Jai: Then lajja is the unspoken social contract that people make with each other — either as citizens or as leaders, which includes organisations – offering to abide by mutually acceptable behaviours rooted in simple honesty, so that... any breach is seen as shameful?

Samanta: So we have social lajja, corporate lajja... personal lajja?

Abhay: Lajja is lajja. It applies to individuals who create it and abide by it. They will bring it to bear at home, in society, country, workplace. So, logically yes, organisations are a collective of individuals and lajja will apply where humans relate to the each other and the external world.

Samanta: So, gracefulness in the workplace is the equivalent of adherence to norms, boundaries and respect for each one’s personal space? Non-intrusion? Isn’t that why we also build boundaries with respect to performance and conduct? And these inform individuals whether they are performing within the boundaries (desirable) or outside the boundaries (undesirable).

Abhay: It is perceptions of being judged by others as being in the ‘undesirable’ zone that may invoke lajja. But as the composition of the collective changes, boundaries will blur... bodyline bowling shocked people in the 1930s. Today match fixing angers, but does not shock.

Jai: Also, I feel, boundaries ensure turf respect... but more workable in formal environments like the workplace, not at home. Abhay: That is because at home we invest in relationships; in the workplace you work around relationships clinically, with a view to protecting resources, with a view to ensuring profits!

When there is power inequity — boss–subordinate, parent-child — we allow grace to drop. Think Shannu Guha. We will see that the one with power can afford to drop grace and even get away without loss of status. Indian marriages see a lot of that. And that will also explain why bosses can shout at subordinates; husbands at wives; and master at servant. The sacking of Shannu Guha was less about his incapability and more about his boss’s inability to tend to him, respect him.

Samanta: Fall of grace or breach of boundaries?

Abhay: They are the same. Grace drops when it is a veneer and not an inner quality. Water can wash off make up, but not beauty. So when you don grace like a mask, an accessory, like an accent, it has a role to play. When it is inborn, it pervades all actions. So see, grace was a boundary of behaviour meant to keep me in check... I feel this is where lajja orginates — from notions of right and wrong which we agree are good for us. And we soon come to depend upon them as sturdy, strong barriers to unethical conduct.

Jai thought about Paulose. Honesty was a necessary boundary. Paulose had breached it by using his personal grievance to handle a professional situation. Samanta thought, ‘Paulose was appointed head of HR because Camfor believed he had the grace to manage people. But it turned out to be a mere mask he wore to earn a salary.’

Samanta: ...what is the opposite of lajja?

Abhay: Nirlajja, to be without shame, lose grace. So why do some people become nirlajja and not others? The answer points to shifts in values. Once it was a matter of personal pride to be clean and honest. Not anymore..

Jai (only to Samanta): Wasn’t Paulose being nirlajja? My rejecting Reuben’s promotion was a professional one; his stymieing my birth date issue was a personal response, a breach of organisational boundaries.

Samanta: And what led to Paulose choosing nirlajja-ness? (Then to Abhay) Isn’t losing grip with your values or the boundaries of your role or function, nirlajja?

Abhay: There is an inner humanity or human-ness which is necessary to complete the meaning of ‘Man’. If he has not completed his growth inwardly to become a human, then you will see that when he is boxed in by stresses, he will behave inhumanly — Not necessarily violent, although that holds true too, but also he will be combative and necessarily graceless. All this cutthroat, coveting and cunning is an expression of incomplete evolution into man. Just being nar is not enough; you have to become manushya... English sadly does not have equivalents for these. Let’s say, ‘being man is not enough, but being human is the goal’.

Lajja is not just about boundaries; it also includes an inner feeling of shame when you transgress. Boundaries have meaning as long as people feel they should not be crossed. We should feel shame when we breach rules.

Jai (thinking of Paulose): I think I agree... Breaching rules has become easy because there is no shame felt. So as Rajdeep was saying about law, a government when defining law can think of a law up to a point. The user is allowed to go beyond and he does, applying intelligence. That leads to avoidance or evasion.

Avoidance is about more than law; it is about philosophical intent too. But when you evade the law, you clearly operate in the realms of ignorance, disrespect and intentional dishonesty.

Jai: But the real challenge is when you avoid law. Because you are choosing to do differently than what you should be doing. Which means you have an opportunity to do a thing and you are either choosing to bypass it or do it suiting your own convenience. Or the convenience of your conscience.

Like Paulose, thought Jai.

Did we avoid law or evade it when we asked Shannu Guha to leave? It was felt he was not performing. Should we assume more responsibility when it comes to asking people to leave? If it was moral turpitude, yes, ask him to go. But non-performance is different. He can be given more opportunities or more time.

What is fairness? Is it fair to give him more time to perform? Or is it fair to think that by asking him to go, I am keeping the company operating at a higher level of efficiency and that is better? In fact, is the company really operating better by asking Shannu Guha to go?

That is where my struggle is. I can work around law, but beyond that, into the realms of fairness and justice... there, the thin line is you the operating manager, the minister, the cop.

Rajdeep (Googling...): ‘Lajja is from lajj, to be ashamed. ....of having done an impious act.’ An impious act is one which lacks respect or dutifulness according to

Samanta (under her breath): As the politician did with his remarks against women.

Jai: And as we did in the case of Shannu Guha.

Rajdeep: As my company did with the cigarettes and the consumer..

Abhay: So how do you remain on the right side of piety, lajja? Recall he defined it as a sense of shame arising from doing impious acts. So does it make you feel that sacking Shannu was impious? Jai: What is impious? Sacking? Or not thinking before sacking?

That act is impious which has not been thought out, whose performance was not based on introspection; an act done in haste or for your own benefit, but without considering whether you have done all that you should be doing, whether you have brought to bear upon the act all your learning, skills and potential....

To my mind, the lowest, basic value is law, following law. Doing what is legally pardonable. The highest value is interpreting law. Going beyond it, understanding and probing its essence and deriving a personal law for yourself. I repeat, a personal law should evolve out of common law. That is when you bring your conscience to work. That is piety. That is lajja... right?

Classroom Discussion
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(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 03-12-2012)