Homo Guiltus

How do faceless organizations make us feel so delinquent just because we take an occasional long lunch, or set aside time to stay in shape?
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First Published: Fri, Feb 15 2013. 06 00 PM IST
It may be too late to work the Victorian malice out of our adult souls. But perhaps there is still time to save our children. Are they hunched over homework? Immediately give them a break and make them see ‘The Burning Train’.
It may be too late to work the Victorian malice out of our adult souls. But perhaps there is still time to save our children. Are they hunched over homework? Immediately give them a break and make them see ‘The Burning Train’.
There are few Hindi films that I find as worthy of repeated viewing as The Burning Train. I’ve probably seen it 20 or 30 times over the years and at least three times in the last 18 months. On Wednesday, it was running on UTV Movies, and so I was left with no option but to watch it again. (It was running in the background while I was working from home. Stop judging.)
There are so many interesting, even unique things about The Burning Train. First of all there is the ensemble cast—basically everybody from the contemporary film industry except Amitabh Bachchan.
Then there is the meticulous attention to detail and the excellent stunt work. Also The Burning Train is one of those few movies which is unabashedly high context. Usually film-makers dumb down films instead of offering audiences the small joys of making a mental leap now and then. So nobody in the film even bothers to explain what a vacuum brake, a proceed signal or an inclined siding is. The viewer is, for a change, expected to work those things out for himself.
On Wednesday, however, I closely noticed Vinod Khanna’s character for the first time. Khanna plays a super-smart railway engineer who constantly chooses work over family. Again, and credit is due to the film-makers, he isn’t portrayed as one of those clichéd, heartless brutish workaholics that populate most films and TV shows. Instead, he seems like a nice enough guy with a mildly flawed set of priorities.
I’ve been meeting a lot of Vinod Khannas lately.
Earlier this week, I met a friend for a working lunch. I arrived at my meeting 15 minutes late to find my friend a single fired nerve-ending away from a nervous breakdown. “Why did you come so late yaar? I have to be back by 2pm. If I get late then what people will think? Already I am feeling guilty for taking such a long lunch break…”
This is not a management trainee on probation or a summer intern. This is someone with nearly a decade of work experience, the last six years of which have been in a senior managerial capacity.
Yet somehow he is still reduced to a nervous, blathering wreck at the very thought of taking a longish lunch break. The guilt oozes from his pores.
Then a few days later I met another Vinod Khanna. We were chatting, meanderingly, about household expenses and how to trim them when he told me how he’d been paying for an expensive gym for months, but hadn’t managed a session since December.
Why not?
Arrey too much to do in office man. I can’t get out before 8pm.”
Surely he could leave a little early? Or work out during his lunch break? Or even start the day a little late, after a workout?
No, no and no were his answers, respectively. Apparently, if he took the time off to work out a little, it would “look bad” to his other over-worked colleagues.
How do companies manage to infuse us with such guilt? How do faceless organizations—often ones we don’t even particularly like—make us feel so delinquent just because we take an occasional long lunch, or set aside time to stay in shape?
I’ve always wondered about this. Usually, I attribute this to a vague mixture of social and professional value systems and upbringing.
While watching The Burning Train on Thursday, however, I was reminded of a research paper a reader sent me a few months ago, that I’d never gotten down to reading. She’d told me it had something to do with how children were seeded with the idea of work.
So I dusted out the PDF file, as it were, and read it.
Titled Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism, the paper was published by renowned British Marxist historian E.P. Thompson in December 1967.
Despite a title that makes it sounds like a bad business school textbook, the paper is an erudite, literary piece of work. In it, Thompson suggests that one of the “non-industrial” institutions that was used to turn people into workers for the industrial age was the school.
He quotes one 18th century educational reformer who wanted children to be sent to work from the age of four: “There is considerable use in their being, somehow or the other, constantly employed at least 12 hours a day, whether they earn their living or not; for by these means we hope that a rising generation will be so habituated to constant employment that it would at length prove agreeable and entertaining to them…”
In other words, send kids to school and keep them there for hours at a time, thus preparing them to quietly slave away in factories.
This thesis, I think, neatly explains our guilt problems at work. The child who is petrified of turning in his homework late today, will go into apoplexy over a PowerPoint presentation tomorrow.
It may be too late to work the Victorian malice out of our adult souls. But perhaps there is still time to save our children. Are they hunched over homework? Immediately give them a break and make them see The Burning Train.
Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at cubiclenama@livemint.com. To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/cubiclenama
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First Published: Fri, Feb 15 2013. 06 00 PM IST
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