Finding The Real Me

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A tiny young lizard makes its way across the pebbles, gravel, and sand on the banks of Pangyong Tso in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir; Photo: Suresh Narayanan.

The first time I saw this photograph by Suresh Narayanan, I immediately recognised myself in it.

Let me explain.

Once upon a time, long long ago, I found myself a job as the manager of a restaurant. So I put on a suit over formal clothes and tie, and went to work the first day. There I found 17 people segregated as follows: one accountant cum cashier, seven waiters, two captains, one bus-boy, one kitchen supervisor, one chef (he preferred being called a cook), three cooks, one bouncer (for the attached pub), and two cleaners. The Consultant and the Owner had both assured me that the staff would be thrilled to see a qualified and experienced manager, and that I just needed to focus on growing the business and increasing clientele. So I spent the first couple of weeks being the suit: planning, projecting, looking at the revenue trends, thinking of ways to increase clientele and revenue. I maintained cordial and back-slapping terms with the supervisors, chef, and cashier; and cordial communication with the staff. Once, the bus-boy sneaked up to me and asked to be trained as a waiter. Naturally, I pointed him to the captains and asked them to consider his request. Another time, the senior-most waiter came grubbing about not getting bigger tables which meant more tips, and how he had to run a family of 4 children. I nodded sympathetically, and spoke to the cashier and the senior captain and asked them to address his genuine challenges. In short, I smoothly slipped into the role of manager as defined by the people who hired me, because I figured that’s where they and the staff wanted me to belong.

On the third Tuesday, it all fell apart … and came together. Tuesdays were the day the restaurant ran on 30% staff since it was the traditional low-turnout day of the week (vegetarians stayed away initial work week, and so on). That Tuesday, the 200-seater restaurant did two turnovers for lunch, and one full turnover for dinner. Long story short, I promoted the bus-boy to Waiter, the senior-most waiter took on additional charge of order-taking (which gave him captain tips), the lone captain on that day quit because he couldn’t take the pressure, the cashier doubled as captain and customer manager, and I stood and cooked all orders for Chinese food alongside the chef who ran the Indian and Continental orders. From that day, the suit stayed in the cashier’s cupboard except during dinner sittings, and staff meetings included the entire restaurant. In short, I became the manager the staff needed, shedding my camouflage and they in turn, shed theirs and turned the restaurant around in the next three months, coming up with simple new ideas (e.g.: catch-of-the-day fish sold at higher prices, on-demand off-the-menu preparations at higher prices) and raising customer satisfaction levels, which in turn led to more customers and more spend per customer per visitor.

The camouflage cost me and them four months. But if I had stayed with the camouflage, it would have saved my job in the long run – I eventually got into conflict with the management because they did not want changes, and I walked away.

I kept donning facades and external personalities in many subsequent jobs because it was the easiest thing to do but it never improved anything. It took quite some time to muster up the courage to be myself first time, every time, in every situation. And even then, I still had to put on camouflage, this time for employees: because I learned that managements, managers, and employees are all wanting a great environment and amiable work atmosphere, but all three parties act on the assumption that the other parties don’t care and won’t change.

The Oxford English dictionary (am currently using the Eleventh edition from 2013) defines the noun “camouflage” as: “the natural colouring or form of an animal which allows it to blend in with its surroundings”. But this is the third meaning it defines. The primary meaning (more relevant to human behaviour) goes as: “The painting or covering of soldiers and military equipment to make them blend in with their surroundings”; additionally: “”clothing or materials used for this purpose”. If you are interested in history, this delightful article might engage you: A Brief History of Camouflage.

I believe I first came across this English word in secondary school, in the context of science studies, in relation to animals and their survival mechanisms. At about the same time, I was reading Commando, a series of comic books that illustrated specific events and situations and individual stories during the World Wars, and the Commando books introduced me to the nitty-gritty’s of camouflage in a much more accessible, albeit visual, manner. (Later, during graduation studies on history, I had occasion to think more deeply about camouflage). But it wasn’t until I started working as a journalist in my late-20s (when I was formally studying people, social behaviour and writing about various aspects of culture), that I started looking at the deeper interpretation of camouflage in everyday human behaviour. Later, exposure to different corporate environments led me to marvel at the extent of camouflage used by all of us, and the inherent, deep-rooted lessons on survival that we are all hard-wired with.

Of course, even after all the learning, I spent many years believing that camouflage is what other people do. Naturally, in my mind, I was transparent and a you-get-what-you-see kind of a person. Today, I know otherwise and here’s what I have learnt so far:

The most-frequent instance of camouflage that I come across is my Conditioned Behaviour when I am thinking of interaction with other people or when I am with other people (including family); This is probably as frequent as once every waking hour.

The second most-frequent instance of camouflage I come across is the Conditioned Behaviour of the people I meet. This is probably as frequent as once in every 4-5 hours a day. Which means, I am hiding myself four times more frequently.

The third most-frequent instance of camouflage I come across is the spotting of a grasshopper in our terrace garden (this is maybe once in a week or two).

The grasshoppers I see are usually bright green in colour, a finger to half-a-hand-palm in size, and yet it takes great concentration to spot them among the plants.

I can not, in all honesty, describe how difficult it is to spot the real intent of human beings from layers of social camouflage. Which is why I now focus only on spotting my own camouflage and dismantling it.

PS: Did you know that there are something called Tettigoniidae (leafhopper), which are very much like grasshoppers except that their antennae are much longer (at times, the antennae may be longer than their body length)?