Servants of their Sahibs

 These-days the Galwan valley of Laddakh is finding a mention in the headline news of all media outlets owing to Indo-Sino ’ standoff at LAC in Laddakh. The word “Galwan” in the Galwan valley & its Galwan River has caught immediate attention of social media users who began trolling for origin of the name, Galwan, in the said Valley-River since this word finds good use in common Kashmiri parlance for describing & denoting a particular kind of an individual who is loud-mouthed, or vociferous shouter at others, like horse-keepers in olden days of Kashmir. So, the etymological origin of the name: Galwan. Yes, the Galwan valley-cum-river is named after Ghulam Rassul Galwan, a native Laddakhi Muslim traveler, adventurer & explorer, who in his short span of 47 year life, from 1887 to 1913, “intermittently” accompanied & worked in service of some famous English, Scottish, Italian & American “travelers”, of their times, during their expeditions of the Himalaya, Central Asia, Karakuram & Tibet.  However, it was Robert Barrett, an American adventurer traveler, to whom he was chiefly devoted, who encouraged him to write down his experiences of various trips & having served his “Sahibs”: English, Scottish, Italian & American “Masters”. It was under the guidance of Robert Barrett that he wrote a small book titled “Servant of Sahibs” in his “faulty English”, writes Francis Younghusband, a reputed British Army officer, traveler & author of his days, who has written an introduction to this book which was first published in 1923. One can Google out all related trivia about the Galwan-story from the internet for one’s academic quest & media posts. 

But, what interests me here is not the Galwan-story, or the Galwan-valley-river, as such, nor the founder thereof, Ghulam Rassul Galwan, though his small work has made him a name to be reckoned with till times to come. Honestly, it is the title “Servant of Sahibs“ of that book that specifically fascinates me to pause & ponder – doesn’t it smack of master-servant relationship. It looks archaic way of looking and thinking about the things. But, in his time of 19th & early 20th century, Galwan was definitely a servant of his masters. It was the time when master-servant-relationship was used for any kind of labour hired by the employers mostly in private domain. But then, Wage, Industrial & Labor Laws, growth of the industry, from 18th century onwards, the relationship came to be called employer-employee relationship which is based on defined terms of contract of employment, although critics still call it wage-slavery less than involuntary servitude. In organised sector, wage slavery does not have much role to play as the employees work voluntarily for the good wage under the protection of institutionalized-employment. But the main problem lies with “unorganized sector” where 80% of total workforce in India is still working for extremely low daily or monthly wages with no job security at all, mostly as “non-unionized workers”. It is generally the underprivileged members of our societies with their personal & domestic compulsions who work for pittance with private individuals, contractors, shop-owners, small scale & cottage industries, small private firms, media channels & multiple other private bodies & associations, and have to work literally as “servants of their sahibs”.  The “servants of their sahibs” should not be confused with “civil or public servants”, who are the “career bureaucrats” in the State hierarchy of all countries.  

 The word “sahib” is an Arabic word which has found its place in multiple languages of Indian sub-continent & Central Asian States. Its short form is “saab” which is invariably used in Bollywood movies, TV dramas, offices, businesses & everywhere else in the sub-continental life.  The “servants of their sahibs” are a commonplace of our societies & times since long. They owe their origin to the colonial period of British India.  According to Collins Online Dictionary, the word “Sahib” is a polite form of addressing a man “in a position of authority. Sahib was used especially of white government officials in the period of British rule” of India. Hence, British Sahibs & Memsahibs.  To enliven the discussion, let me tell you something interesting. Till recent past, whenever a tourist-gora-couple walked on Srinagar streets, the little children of the mohalla would assemble & tread on their heels all around & sing an old Kashmiri-distich like a chorus with hand-clapping: Memsahib- Sahib Salaam, Pate Pate Ghulam” [Welcome Memsahib- Sahib, your servants follow you] The happy and smiling Memsahib-Sahib would then stop walking for a while, look behind and give some toffees to the singing-children. The toffees were all that for which the little children followed them and sung Kashmiri-distich. The little children, those days, must have memorized this Kashmiri-couplet on their lips from their elders-parents’ teaching. The colonial tradition did not end.  With growth of businesses & expansion of employment sector in Kashmir, you will find, not children now, but big adults treading on heels of their bosses all around their offices, hurling loads of praises on their shoulders, for big toffees of undue favours. This is the area of flattery, a vicious mental-slavery, which abounds in innumerable examples around.  In a banking organisation, I have seen, subordinates in presence of their bosses, responding & shushing their “Salam”-offering-colleagues, with finger- wagging & index on lips. Some would turn red & stammer “Sa, sa, sa, sa, …Sir” before their bosses.

As the people of the Indian subcontinent were “subjects” of British Rulers, “white Sahibs” were their masters. However, even after their “mastery” ended with fall of their “colonial” rule, the word retained its permanent niche in daily conversations as a distinguishable form of address by subordinates towards their masters in some position of authority over them. So, in post colonial period, we see both “black & white” Sahibs on the heads of “servants” in all walks of life in the Indian subcontinent. The “servants of their sahibs” retain their position & relevance as “literary servants” too, since they are not independent of the social context in which they exist, for the literary men who use them as their prime characters in their fiction & prose. For the idealist German philosopher, George WF Hegel, in his The Phenomenology, the master-servant relationship exists between God & man. Frederick Copestone has explained Hegel’s philosophical thought in these simple words: “Here the master is the one who succeeds in obtaining recognition from the other, in the sense he imposes himself as the other’s value. The slave is the one who sees his own true self in the other”. [VIII: 183]

 But here we may mention of “servants of their sahibs” who live in working class of our Kashmirian community. In view of long agonizing history of Kashmir, the British colonial legacy of slavery-mastery in employer-employee-relationships is deep-rooted in the psyche of many Kashmiris, and as such, it is reflected in all their commercial, business & official  relationships.  The workers, the employees, whatever you call them, work & serve their “sahibs” in businesses, trade, industry & offices , wholeheartedly & devotedly.  So far, so good.  This class of servants know the tricks of the trade either by themselves, their self-ability, or they learn them from their masters, who train & teach them on that. Their masters use their skills of the trade only for augmenting their own business interests, building their own empire of fortune to their misfortune. In one instance, I know, Rafiq & Shafiq, two Zchatebojis (apprentices) worked at home Karkhana (workplace) of a Srinagrian goldsmith who, as Ustad (teacher), had trained & taught them all skills of his trade. But one day, the goldsmith was heard saying to some of his friends that all kinds of defects [Kasr viz, Zchate Kasr, Phrate Kasr, Vate Kasr,] in manufacturing & assembling of his gold jewellery, were tricks of the trade carried out by Rafiq & Shafiq, for which he had no responsibility. What a shame? How that goldsmith was exploiting his poor apprentices? An Ustad imparting all in-genuine tricks of trade to his protégé brazenly denying his liability for the defects in his goods! 

To keep their bosses in good mood, these workers, “servants of their sahibs”, sometimes resort to , or are used to resort to, unfair means with customers in discharging their jobs. Most of the times, their bosses exploit not only their skills of the trade, but their compulsive financial needs & scarcity of jobs in the market, to their own advantage.  Its direct result is that the “servants of their sahibs” internalize the corrupt conduct as a normal in their daily lives. Mama Kul a matriculate domestic-worker, (Gharailo Mulazim), faulty-flaunt English-speaker, was an example to elaborate the idea. He was used by a Pashmina-Shawl merchants’ family of Shar e Khas (old city Srinagar) as their business representative for his two ‘qualities’: First, Kasme Khi’tre [false-wearing]. As he was a well known profane swearer in his life, he always generously swore on every divine & sacred thing in the world for convincing a buyer about finality of the prices, durability & originality of the material used in manufacturing of his master’s goods. Second, his faulty-flaunt English was utilised by “illiterate” merchant-masters for speaking for them in selling their goods to foreign English-speaking customers. 

Tailpiece:

All servants of their sahibs are not lucky enough like Ghulam Rassul Galwan who had found selfless [not native] sahibs under whose tutelage he earned a permanent niche in history.  But, Rafiq & Shafiq , and Mama Kul,  whether consciously or unconsciously, consensually or un-consensually, will continue to serve their selfish-sahibs  who will only  exploit their skills of the trade for their own material good. The exploitation of the servants by their sahibs will go on till the problems of unemployment & compulsive economic needs of the servants persist in our society &, even in this modern age, the relationship between the two will continue to have a semblance of feudal phantom of bondage for ‘necessity’ between them. The servants will go on slavishly subordinating themselves to their sahibs which will turn the whole relationship into an exploitative situation by their sahibs.