The Bureaucrat and the Supplicant’s Wheedle

In a couple of posts a month or so ago, I had written about bureaucrats and the torture they subject their clients to. (As I noted then, growing up in India I was one such client and then later, as an international student in the US, I dealt with the US Immigration and Naturalization Service.) Then too, I wrote of the difficulties encountered while applying for a visa to travel to India. Well, I got that visa and I traveled. While doing so, I met more bureaucrats and learned a little more about myself and my relationship with them.

In India some minor banking work remained to be taken care of. (Yes, even long-term immigrants leave behind traces). These included: closing an old bank account; activating a dormant one; cashing some old savings bonds; applying for a new checkbook; you get the picture. My attempts to sort out these older, unresolved issues met with mixed success. Where I was successful, I learned that I had unconsciously or subconsciously adopted a very distinct style of speaking and body language when dealing with bureaucrats. I term this the ‘supplicant’s wheedle.’

In this little piece of performance art, the bureaucrat’s client, the aforementioned supplicant, starts a series of grovels and does not relent till his task is accomplished. What I noticed with a certain alarm–or was it pride?–was that a very old set of mannerisms and language, which I had perfected over years of practice during my teen years made its reappearance without any conscious bidding on my part.

To wit, I began speaking in a plaintive tone of voice; I used a more formal mode of address; I indicated in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that helping me would be a grand thing to do, one definitely within the apparently boundless capacities of the person in charge of my ‘issue.’ I wish I could have made an audio and video recording of myself engaging in this shameless bit of theater.

But perhaps terming my ‘performance’ as ‘theater’ would be misleading. I wasn’t acting; I was merely doing what felt the most natural to me given the circumstances and the task at hand. I was relying on an old survival strategy that had worked for me in the past when interacting with members of the bureaucrat’s species: abnegate yourself, raise up the bureaucrat, flatter his or her sense of self-importance and power. Engage in an old-fashioned Master and Slave dance.

The language I employed was crucial too. Most of those I interacted with would have spoken English fluently, but I relied on the vernacular. I was able to call on friendly colloquialisms,  crack a joke or two to pass the time while a form was being signed by some other officer, and on one occasion even talk about cricket as a way to ingratiate myself.

That word ‘ingratiate’, I think, is crucial. These maneuvers of mine, very similar to those adopted by many others like me, and in all probability copied from those I had witnessed in the past, were, and are, designed for the bureaucrats’ subject to make himself one worthy of being helped. Its success ensured that it would be repeated, adopted and handed down for further use. 

Our verbal and physical language bears the marks of many scars; the supplicant’s wheedle is revelatory in its own peculiar way.

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