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Showing the door to ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’

“Panchayat in Kerala bans ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’ in its office,” said a recent headline. People seeking services from the said panchayat could address the officials by their names or designations. The report further said the local body had asked the Official Language Department to suggest alternatives to ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’. It viewed the use of those salutations as a dark reminder of a regressive colonial past.

While completely understanding the basis of the ban, I was left wondering how a person having interacted with a certain panchayat official could start addressing the latter by name or designation all of a sudden.

As a way out of the possible embarrassment or awkwardness that may arise, the panchayat has suggested the usage of the popular cheta (elder brother) or chechi (elder sister). What if a septuagenarian is seeking a service from a thirty-something official? Does he still address the official as cheta or chechi?

The Official Language Department, I guess, will find a way out of this quagmire, though I have no idea how or what it will do.

While the panchayat was seeking to “decolonise” the mode of address by people seeking services from its officials, I remember a variant of this with regard to the mode of address while I was in service. An officer known for his pompous attitude once insisted that a certain subordinate officer address him as “Sir”. While this “command” would have been complied with immediately, with even an apology to boot, by most, the subordinate in this case was made of sterner stuff or possibly he had a bad start to his day or it was a case of both.

Having already had a few run-ins with his boss earlier, he was having none of this and told his boss that he might do what he wanted but would never have the “pleasure” of hearing the word “Sir” from him!

Brutal response

Confronted by what must surely have appeared to him as a brutal response, the poor boss was left nonplussed and shaken! The triumphant subordinate, elated by his response, made sure that everyone in the office knew how he had “steamrollered” his boss! I think that was also the last time the boss ever insisted on being addressed as “Sir” by anyone. The subordinate became an instant hero!

As I write this, yet another panchayat has followed suit to ban “Sir” and “Madam”.

In some of the western countries I served in, I had often noticed junior officers addressing seniors by their first name, though such a mode has quite a lot of “catching up” to do in the Indian subcontinent, especially in the civil services.

In more formal and impersonal settings, the mode of address is often prefixed by “Mister” or “Miss”. While vestiges of the colonial past are being given a quiet burial in the panchayats of Kerala and perhaps elsewhere too, it will be interesting to watch and note what comes up in that place!

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 4:22:52 PM |

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