Thursday, October 6, 2016

Sycophancy or Chamchagiri in the Indian Context

Chamchagiri as a tool to win undue favours, has been in existence for a very long time in every society. A sycophant or chamcha is a person who tries to win favor from wealthy or influential people by flattering them. Chamchagiri is not selective and is found to be operating successfully in every type of profession or trade. There are no social restrictions placed on people wanting to become a ‘Chamcha’. Colour, creed, caste, gender, age is no bar. Chamchagiri is a very serious profession involving intelligence and hard work. To do it well, one really needs an aptitude for this kind of thing. All and sundry cannot aspire to become a chamcha – it is an art form, specialized by a very select few.


                                     School for Chamchas

My recollection of Chamchagiri is mostly related to my own profession, which is the navy; however readers will easily find similar instances of sycophancy in their own sphere of activity.

I was busy attending to a file in a dusty corner of a room in Naval Headquarters in New Delhi, when my PA Mr Trehan walked in to take a dictation. Even though the dictation was over, he continued to sit, which prompted me to ask, ‘Anything else?’ He promptly said, “Nothing in particular sir, but I wanted you to know that you give the best dictation in the entire directorate. In your case, I do not type any draft – it is typed fair for signature. In my twenty years of experience, I have not come across anyone who gives such flawless dictation – no grammatical errors – no repetition”. I was indeed soaked in his admiration and started feeling extraordinarily good. He broke my stupor when he said, “Sir, it’s going to be a cold weekend, can you kindly give me a bottle of rum?”

Once, flights from Hyderabad to Vizag were cancelled and we were forced to travel by train instead. We were a group of six officers and for some unknown reason I was accommodated with the Commander – in – Chief in a coup√©. Before boarding a senior officer came to me and said, “Pubs, do you mind if I travel in the coup√©?” Seeing the pleading look on his face, I said, “By all means”. The rest did not miss the hidden agenda. A packed dinner for the journey was provided by a very dynamic local liaison officer. Our dinner put to shame any business class airline dinner. After a few hours the train stopped and all of us got down to shake a leg. In the ensuing banter the same gentleman started praising the dinner endlessly and finally told the C in C, ‘Sir, all was well, but the liaison officer forgot to provide a spoon in the dinner box”. My dear friend ‘Chintamatkar’ without batting an eyelid said, “Sir, navy mein chamchas kee koee kamee nahin hai’( there is no shortage of chamchas in the navy).The C in C laughed out loud at hearing this.

This officer would agree with everything the admiral said, right or wrong. Laugh at all his jokes, as if Bob Hope was narrating them. He was not subtle and always ended up embarrassing everyone around. He had a long way to go in fine tuning his Chamchagiri. On one occasion, after completion of a ship’s inspection, all of us gathered in the ward room for a glass of beer. On ships, events are announced through a pipe call or the bugle is sounded (a long forgotten art). We heard the bugle melodiously ordering all the sailors to proceed for lunch. This extremely complicated bugling was known only to the ‘Fleet Bugler” Petty Officer Peter, a man whom the admiral knew well and was very fond of. The topic changed to Peter and our friend Commander Flattery was on the back foot - he did not know the bugler. He asked this very mischievous colleague about Peter. Amongst other things, this colleague informed him that Peter was a very fair, tall and handsome person of Anglo Indian origin with music in his veins. Armed with this crucial information he joined the admiral in praising Peter and at an appropriate time shared this vital intelligence. Probably the admiral was totally exasperated and decided to put an end to all this sycophancy. He sent for Peter, lo and behold a very short man with a deep ebony complexion of Tamil origin made an appearance.

Whilst exercising this art one has to be extremely alert and do his homework well. A friend of mine learnt this the hard way. The admiral had just arrived to take up his new appointment. The luggage had not yet arrived and naturally the kitchen had not been set up. This officer had cajoled his wife to prepare an exotic non vegetarian lunch full of poultry, red meat, and prawns. He intended to surprise the admiral with this gastronomical wonder. He entered the admiral’s house armed with this masterpiece only to find him already feasting on a delicious South Indian vegetarian meal brought by another admirer. He was totally devastated by the sudden turn of events. Pouring hot sambhar on his wound, Commander Golden Spoon said, “How come you didn’t know that the admiral is a pure vegetarian?”

A friend of mine once told me a very outlandish story. Senior army officers coming for work in Jaipur normally take a day off and visit the nearby ‘Sariska Tiger Reserve’. Tiger sighting is not assured, like in any other game reserve. When we went in 1993 we were not lucky and came back very disappointed. Colonel Tiger Singh’s regiment was to be inspected and the team arrived over the weekend. Not to waste an opportunity, Tiger organized a trip to Sariska for the General and his staff. Tiger did not want to leave anything to chance. He was hell bent on ensuring a tiger sighting for the general so that he would be in a good mood for the inspection. The safari proceeded slowly and there was a silence filled only with anticipation and hope. Time elapsed and no tiger was sighted. Then their luck changed and the Subedar shouted, “Sir ‘tiger, tiger over there!” There was a surge of adrenalin. The general took his binoculars and saw a tiger at a distance. He was thrilled beyond words – finally he had sighted one in the wild. All would have ended well, had it not been for the tiger enthusiastically dancing on its hind legs. He was completely flummoxed. Later, it emerged that it was a sepoy who was dressed as a tiger and controlled by the Subedar through a ‘walkie talkie’!

Viewer friendly tiger

While carrying out exercises at sea the admiral used to give a series of orders to one staff officer or the other depending on the nature of the drill. Commander Yasser on being addressed would immediately click his heals, jump to attention, give a smart salute, begin with a loud ‘Yes Saaar’ and end it with another ‘Yes Saaar’. In between there would be as many ‘yes saaaars’ as the number of orders and instructions. He would then immediately turn around and urgently whisper to his colleague ‘Shree, what did the admiral say?’   

I remember attending a meeting in the Fleet Office wherein the admiral referred to an important letter he had sent to all the Commanding Officers and hoped all had read it. There were more than twenty officers attending the meeting. Some said yes, few nodded their head in agreement and a very small number remained silent. One officer seized this opportunity and went on to extol the letter, claiming that his ship’s efficiency had improved after he had implemented admiral’s instructions. Standing bravely against the popular tide this lone officer stood up and did the unthinkable. He said, ‘Sorry sir, I have not read the letter’. There was a pin drop silence and the admiral looked at his secretary, who in turn said, ‘I am sorry sir, I have not yet posted the letter’.

Admiral Ruffal Nadal took over as the C-In - C and in no time tennis became the most popular sport in the command. The admiral was very amused at the sudden surge of interest in tennis exhibited by his officers. This down-to-earth man is supposed to have remarked, ‘Imagine the plight of these people if I had taken up wrestling instead’.

There are many more such stories to narrate, may be another time.
Until then, cheers.