Monday, December 14, 2009

Upgrading with Grace

I often look skeptically at types who always talk about flying somewhere and how they got an upgrade to some business class or whatever. Of course , those who routinely travel business class , and get upgrades to first, are out of my league.

None of my relatives are employed by airlines. I don't belong to big industrial houses that are special customers and frequent fliers. Though , I should think, that I stand a decent chance of a rare upgrade , if they allow standees in Business Class. Given the rare occasions when I condescend to fly, that is.

My considerable experience in Mumbai's buses should stand me in good stead, handling all the subsequent turbulence. In the air . And in the seats.

Its not as my travelling life never had upgrades.

I have had the pleasure of being bodily lifted and pushed into the door of a suburban train ladies compartment, which was really a very surprising upgrade. And a trifle alarming. Such upgrades often indicate a complete downgrade in the contents of your handbag, thanks to some nimble fingers in the crowd.

Another time, after 3 unsuccessful attempts to get into a bus door, fighting with about 15 terribly agile folks, a bus inspector in blue who saw this state of war, quietly signalled that I should enter the next bus from the front door. Meant for senior citizens. Quite an upgrade , that.

Sometimes, though, upgrades have nothing to do with space.

They have, a lot to do with grace.

A few years ago, at the fag end of my working life (I took voluntary retirement out of concern for my employer), along with many others in my category, I qualified for a bonus . Payment, that is.

It is one of the supreme ironies of governmental rules, that one may get one's salary by cheque, but one must line up at a counter to receive the bonus, in cash. The bonus is often a certain factor of your salary, and the exalted officer category above a certain level of basic salary, and no recordable working hours, is deemed not to require a bonus. The proletariat category, who actually has working hours, and signing in procedures, then spends long hours standing in queues for such payments.

I was the last one to find out about this bonus stuff, and it happened to be the last day for receiving it. I went looking for the counter in question, and found a long line of sweeper/janitorial staff ahead of me. I got in line.

A few moments later, the elderly sweeper ahead of me, turned to call out to someone, and was flabbergasted to see me there. He occasionally cleaned our lab, and there was much smiling and nodding whenever we stood up to leave our PC's to stand outside the room, while he cleaned the premises. A totally uneducated chap, he had somehow developed an expertise for recognising papers of value. Whenever he emptied the huge trash can in the lab, he would glance to see if there were any receipts and stuff that could have inadvertently thrown there along with useless paper. He would come show these to us, and confirm before classifying them as trash.

" Ma'am , how come you're here ?" Loudly. A few fellows and ladies ahead of him turned.

"Like you. To collect my bonus." Me.

"Ma'am, you need not wait. Please go ahead. You can get your payment immediately." And the folks ahead of him sort of nodded all around. Gesturing to me to move.

"No. No. So many people have lined up much before me. I will await my turn. Really, don't worry, its OK". Me.

A look on the old man's face . Something disturbed him.

This was getting embarrassing. I was prepared to await my turn. There was nothing that said that my time was more valuable than theirs or that my needs were more important. This whole thing was gathering attention from passers by in the corridors of the administration building. People off to the canteen for chai. People just walking around. Ladies on a post tea, trip to the loo, leisurely chatting aboou just expiring saree sales somewhere. Someone rushing to some office after getting a summons.

I knew some of the ladies, having trained them in some software usage. And they stopped by to ask what I was doing there. Full well knowing the answer. Standing in line with the sweepers was not done, by anyone addressable as Ma'am.

"Ayya, you're here ? Didnt think it was you ! " , this from someone who was in a permanently upgraded state, regardless of work, which was often non existent.

"What the hell ! Just go to the front of the queue." she said, and gave all the sweepers a look.

I just shrugged and continued to shuffle ahead with the crowd. Mumbai trains you for such eventualities. Queueing. I grew up in the non-IT age. Nothing was done on-line. You stood in snaking queues for everything, your eyes and ears attuned to sudden gate crashers, who were loudly berated with words like "Oye, do you think we are stupid to stand in queues like this ? " or "If its so urgent, why don't you fly?", often causing them to quietly get in line.

Suddenly, I saw the old sweeper ahead of me return from somewhere. In all the waving and conversations with people I knew passing in the corridors, I had not realized that he had left his place.

I saw a bunch of ladies exiting the queue.

"Ma'am, please go to the other counter. There is another queue only for ladies there. " he said. And he gestured for me to follow the sweeper ladies who were lining up there, a much much shorter queue.

It seemed sensible to go. I went and awaited my turn. Collected my stuff, and bent to sign the revenue stamp in a huge muster that was turned around so I could sign. After so many years, and associating with them during training them in their systems, I knew most of the staff.

The old gentleman behind the counter smiled at me. Starting and closing extra counters was usual for them.

"He came to us all agitated, saying, there is a ma'am waiting in line with us all, and she won't come ahead. We don't feel nice about it. Do something. " he told me. "And he suggested that we start a "ladies line". I was sure you wouldn't mind joining the queue here. A few more minutes and we will not need to keep this counter open. But a whole bunch of sweeper ladies will get a quicker bonus, and get home in time. "

I walked back to my office, after seeking out the old man, still standing faithfully in his queue, and thanking him with a namaskar.

He had a look on his face, as if he had righted some huge wrong. He was aware that I wouldn't like being singled out and so had resorted to this suggestion of a ladies line. In a life where his bonus would probably be spent paying off some incurred debts, in an increasingly difficult economic situation, he actually worried about me.

I am not sure such things should happen. Preferential treatments for higher earners, and perceived superior status, that is. Public rules for everyone need to be identical. And honest work, regardless of its description and sophistication, must be all regarded the same.

Maybe I shouldn't have agreed to go to the other queue. Maybe I should have stayed put where I was. But slowly , the attention was shifting , to what was observed as my stubbornness, and the emphasis was shifting from orderly procedures to personalities.

It was imperative to find a mean.

And the old man managed that.

In a world, where upgrades often happen as a quid pro quid , the old man had just done something, maybe airlines could learn.

Upgrade with grace.


  1. What a thoughful, old-world courteous gesture! Grace indeed!

  2. What a wondeful account. The old man has perhaps contributed to the bonus in a very unique way. A way that is both sensitive, unique and thoughtful to all concerned.

    The airline staff dont work like this. For there is a commercial interest involved. Calculated by Flying miles and such other terms, basically meaning how much you have contributed to their topline !

    Here, you have impacted somebody far deeper. Than either topline. Or bottom line for that matter.

    Awesome stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Airline upgrading - they could start infact from their customer service. A colleague's mother was bringing her elderly mother home. They got caught in a Mumbai traffic jam for about 2 1/2 hours and reached the airport about 10 mins before the flight and were not allowed to board. Desperate to get her mother home, she approached another airline that had a flight later - and the lady at the counter took one look at her and said, forget it, you will not be able to afford it!
    I think the old gentleman could have done a better job/service at the counter of the airline that refers to its passengers as 'guests'

  4. What a wonderful story and such a kind man! I have to agree with your other readers, he most certainly contributed to your bonus in a very thoughtful and unique way. It seems to me that in today's world we have lost much of our ability to give, to put others ahead of ourselves. Nice to learn it isn't completely dead!

    Have a great week!


  5. Such a heartwarming story! I often find that the people who have the least are the kindest and most considerate!

  6. in this world of impersonal behavior, this is truly a wonderful personal gesture!

  7. Thank you for your warm wishes on my blog. It is always a pleasure to hear from you (and my other Mumbai friend, Kavi!).

    This was a great story--of respect, sensitivity, kindness, and manners that one does not see so much anymore. A class gentleman!

  8. Such a touching post! And a truly courteous gesture from the old man.

  9. You really made his day by accepting the upgrade with grace!

  10. You meant a lot to him. You have touched him by some quality you are unaware of. He reciprocated or else he thought he will be in debt.
    That's amazing!

  11. congrats on your indibloggies win!!!!