Taking from her personal experiences, Sudha Murty, in her new book Three Thousand Stitches, sheds light on some of the prevailing biases in the society. In this extract from the book, the otherwise calm 66-year-old wife of industrialist Narayana Murthy gives fellow traveler a piece of her mind when she was called a 'cattle class person' at the Heathrow airport.
Last year, I was at the Heathrow International Airport in London about to board a flight. Usually, I wear a sari even when I am abroad, but I prefer wearing a salwar kameez while travelling. So there I was—a senior citizen dressed in typical Indian apparel at the terminal gate.
Since the boarding hadn’t started, I sat down and began to observe my surroundings. The flight was bound for Bengaluru and so I could hear people around me chatting in Kannada. I saw many old married couples of my age— they were most likely coming back from the US or UK after helping their children either through childbirth or a new home. I saw some British business executives talking to each other about India’s progress. Some teenagers were busy with the gadgets in their hands while the younger children were crying or running about the gate.
After a few minutes, the boarding announcement was made and I joined the queue. The woman in front of me was a well-groomed lady in an Indo-Western silk outfit, a Gucci handbag and high heels. Every single strand of her hair was in place and a friend stood next to her in an expensive silk sari, pearl necklace, matching earrings and delicate diamond bangles.
I looked at the vending machine nearby and wondered if I should leave the queue to get some water.
Suddenly, the woman in front of me turned sideways and looked at me with what seemed like pity in her eyes. Extending her hand, she asked, ‘May I see your boarding pass, please?’
I was about to hand over my pass to her, but since she didn’t seem like an airline employee, I asked, ‘Why?’
‘Well, this line is meant for business class travellers only,’ she said confidently and pointed her finger towards the economy class queue. ‘You should go and stand there,’ she said.
I was about to tell her that I had a business class ticket but on second thoughts, held back. I wanted to know why she had thought that I wasn’t worthy of being in the business class. So I repeated, ‘Why should I stand there?’
She sighed. ‘Let me explain. There is a big difference in the price of an economy and a business class ticket. The latter costs almost two and a half times more than . . .’
‘I think it is three times more,’ her friend interrupted.
‘Exactly,’ said the woman. ‘So there are certain privileges that are associated with a business class ticket.’
‘Really?’ I decided to be mischievous and pretended not to know. ‘What kind of privileges are you talking about?’
She seemed annoyed. ‘We are allowed to bring two bags but you can only take one. We can board the flight from another, less-crowded queue. We are given better meals and seats. We can extend the seats and lie down flat on them. We always have television screens and there are four washrooms for a small number of passengers.’
Her friend added, ‘A priority check-in facility is available for our bags, which means they will come first upon arrival and we get more frequent flyer miles for the same flight.’
‘Now that you know the difference, you can go to the economy line,’ insisted the woman.
‘But I don’t want to go there.’ I was firm.
The lady turned to her friend. ‘It is hard to argue with these cattle-class people. Let the staff come and instruct her where to go. She isn’t going to listen to us.’
I didn’t get angry. The word ‘cattle class’ was like a blast from the past and reminded me of another incident.
One day, I had gone to an upscale dinner party in my home city of Bengaluru. Plenty of local celebrities and socialites were in attendance. I was speaking to some guests in Kannada, when a man came to me and said very slowly and clearly in English, ‘May I introduce myself? I am . . .’
It was obvious that he thought that I might have a problem understanding the language. I smiled. ‘You can speak to me in English.’
‘Oh,’ he said, slightly flabbergasted. ‘I’m sorry. I thought you weren’t comfortable with English because I heard you speaking in Kannada.’
‘There’s nothing shameful in knowing one’s native language. It is, in fact, my right and my privilege. I only speak in English when somebody can’t understand Kannada.’
The line in front of me at the airport began moving forward and I came out of my reverie. The two women ahead were whispering among themselves, ‘Now she will be sent to the other line. It is so long now! We tried to tell her but she refused to listen to us.’
When it was my turn to show my boarding pass to the attendant, I saw them stop and wait a short distance away, waiting to see what would happen.
The attendant took my boarding pass and said brightly, ‘Welcome back! We met last week, didn’t we?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied. She smiled and moved on to the next traveller.
I walked a few steps ahead of the women intending to let this go, but then I changed my mind and came back. ‘Please tell me—what made you think that I couldn’t afford a business class ticket? Even if I didn’t have one, was it really your prerogative to tell me where I should stand? Did I ask you for help?’
The women stared at me in silence. ‘You refer to the term “cattle class”. Class does not mean possession of a huge amount of money,’ I continued, unable to stop myself from giving them a piece of my mind. ‘There are plenty of wrong ways to earn money in this world. You may be rich enough to buy comfort and luxuries, but the same money doesn’t define class or give you the ability to purchase it. Mother Teresa was a classy woman. So is Manjul Bhargava, a great mathematician of Indian origin. The concept that you automatically gain class by acquiring money is an outdated thought process.’
I left without waiting for a reply.
Approximately eight hours later, I reached my destination. It was a weekday and I rushed to office as soon as I could only to learn that my day was going to be spent in multiple meetings. A few hours later, I requested my program director to handle the last meeting of the day by herself as I was already starting to feel tired and jet lagged.
‘I am really sorry, but your presence is essential for that discussion,’ she replied. ‘Our meeting is with the organization’s CEO and she is keen to meet you in person. She has been following up with me for a few months now and though I have communicated our decision, she feels that a discussion with you will change the outcome. I have already informed her that the decision will not be reversed irrespective of whom she meets, but she refuses to take me at my word. I urge you to meet her and close this chapter.’
I wasn’t new to this situation and reluctantly agreed. Time went by quickly and soon, I had to go in for the last meeting of the day. Just then, I received an emergency call. ‘Go ahead with the meeting,’ I said to the program director. ‘I will join you later.’
When I entered the conference room after fifteen minutes, I saw the same women from the airport in the middle of a presentation. To my surprise, they were simply dressed—one was wearing a simple khadi sari while the other wore an unglamorous salwar kameez. The clothes were a reminder of the stereotype that is still rampant today. Just like one is expected to wear the finest of silks for a wedding, social workers must present themselves in a plain and uninteresting manner.
When they saw me, there was an awkward pause that lasted for only a few seconds before one of them acknowledged my presence and continued the presentation as if nothing had happened.
‘My coffee estate is in this village. All the estate workers’ children go to a government school nearby. Many are sharp and intelligent but the school has no facilities. The building doesn’t even have a roof or clean drinking water. There are no benches, toilets or library. You can see children in the school . . .’
‘…But no teachers,’ I completed the sentence.
She nodded and smiled. ‘We request the foundation to be generous and provide the school with proper facilities, including an auditorium, so that the poor kids can enjoy the essentials of a big school.’
My program director opened her mouth to say something, but I signalled her to stop. ‘How many children are there in the school?’ I asked.
‘How many of them are the children of the estate workers?’
‘All of them. My father got the school sanctioned when he was the MLA,’ she said proudly.
‘Our foundation helps those who don’t have any godfathers or godmothers. Think of the homeless man on the road or the daily-wage worker. Most of them have no one they can run to in times of crisis. We help the children of such people. The estate workers help your business prosper and in return, you can afford to help them. In fact, it is your duty to do so. Helping them also helps you in the long run, but it is the foundation’s internal policy to work for the disadvantaged in projects where all the benefits go directly and solely to the underprivileged alone. Maybe this concept is beyond the understanding of the cattle class.’
Both the women looked at each other, unsure of how to respond.
I looked at my program director and said, ‘Hey, I want to tell you a story.’
I could see from her face that she was feeling awkward. A story in the middle of a serious meeting?
I began, ‘George Bernard Shaw was a great thinker of his times. One day, a dinner was arranged at a British club in his honour. The rules of the club mandated that the men wear a suit and a tie. It was probably the definition of class in those days.
‘Bernard Shaw, being who he was, walked into the club in his usual casual attire. The doorman looked at him and said very politely, “Sorry, sir, I cannot allow you to enter the premises.”
‘“You aren’t following the dress code of the club, sir.”
‘“Well, today’s dinner is in my honour, so it is my words that matter, not what I wear,” replied Bernard, perfectly reasonable in his explanation.
‘“Sir, whatever it may be, I can’t allow you inside in these clothes.”
‘Shaw tried to convince the doorman but he wouldn’t budge from his stance. So he walked all the way back to his house, changed into appropriate clothes and entered the club.
‘A short while later, the room was full, with people sitting in anticipation of his speech. He stood up to address the audience, but first removed his coat and tie and placed it on a chair.
“I am not going to talk today,” he announced.
‘There were surprised murmurs in the audience. Those who knew him personally asked him about the reason for his out-of-character behaviour.
‘Shaw narrated the incident that happened a while ago and said, “When I wore a coat and tie, I was allowed to come inside. My mind is in no way affected by the clothes I wear. This means that to all of you who patronize the club, the clothes are more important than my brain. So let the coat and the tie take my place instead.” ‘Saying thus, he walked out of the room.’
I stood up. ‘The meeting is over,’ I said. We exchanged cursory goodbyes and I walked back to my room.
My program director followed me, ‘Your decision regarding the school was right. But what was that other story all about? And why now? What is this cattle-class business? I didn’t understand a thing!’
I smiled at her obvious confusion. ‘Only the cattle-class folks will understand what happened back there. You don’t worry about it.’
Excerpted from Three Thousand Stitches by Sudha Murty with permission from Penguin
For in-depth, objective and more importantly balanced journalism, Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine