Return of the prodigal son and his encounter with Kashmir’s work culture

It was in the summer of 2014 when I decided to return home. I, like many others of my age had been sent off in search of better education and a better career.

Upon receiving the so-called better education and an insight into the better metaphorical journey of learning, work and other aspects of life, I made the emotional decision of returning home. I remember being told by my superiors to not leave, as this would lead to a waste of both ability and education.

However, I was emotional enough to say “Kashmir may not hold any great prospect of a career, but what it holds for me is the very essence of my life”.

After being greeted by the devastating floods and the painstaking questions of acquaintances and friends as to the reason of my return, I joined my father’s already existing manufacturing unit. This was a paradigm career change. However, being a management professional, I offered myself some hope of making a mark. Keeping in mind that it’s a natural psychological and physiological reaction of an organization as well as humans to resist change, therefore initially my only motive was to learn.

Being a complete alien to the work culture, I knew nothing about the written and unwritten work-place rules prevalent here. My first experience of going to a government office gave me a fair idea.

I, as per my professional etiquette, made a phone call to the concerned clerk’s office and asked for an appointment. On reaching exactly on time, I figured that many people like me were granted the same time. I entered the office and waited for my time to speak. Person after person came and went and I waited.

After hours of painstaking wait, the clerk, finally both irritated and suspicious by my looming presence, asked me the reason for the same. I being low on energy and confidence by that time told him in a squeaky voice that I had an appointment.

The clerk and the other staff after having a hearty laugh told me that if I wait for my turn, the turn will never come. At that very moment it occurred to me that my education and professional experience had put me at a disadvantage.

Incidents like these made me think. However, I realized that I need to navigate the queer angle of the work culture prevalent. I figured that I had to unlearn what I had learned.

The line between the owner and the worker is blurring in the modern era, thus leading to sustainable livelihoods. This has created a new work culture, which is very flat in nature.

Keeping this in mind and interpreting the patterns of economic behavior as a product of cultural environments, I tried motivating my work force by offering better wages. The shape it took and what it taught me can be explained by the following incident.

I was speaking to my team of workers and figured that most of them had money constraints. In order to motivate them, I tried being generous by offering to pay extra for all the extra work done each day, as is the norm for overtime work.

In the coming two weeks, I was happy to see people working extra and taking extra wages. I proudly started boasting about what I had achieved, however what followed in the third week shook my belief in labor economics.

Suddenly my motivated workers started leaving on one pretext or the other. Someone abruptly had an ‘ailing mother’, someone an ‘ailing father’. And if I knew both parents to be hail and hearty, then it was the father-in-law. This made me think. But at times, thinking doesn’t help. One needs to understand the queer angle grappling with most of the Kashmiri work force. If given a chance to earn more, the worker ends up preferring not to work at all. Hence the motivational factor falls flat on its face.

C.E Tyndale Biscoe, the pioneer of modern education in Kashmir, narrates an incident in his book “Character building in Kashmir” published in the year 1920.

Speaking to his class of students about God’s great love to us and the reason to reciprocate the same, he said: “Suppose in your school there are two masters of exactly opposite characters; the one always hates the boys and is always hard on them, the other loves the boys and is always kind to them. Which one would you obey?”

“The former,” all answered at once.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because he would punish us if we did not,” came the reply.

This is right to this day. However, I have come across some brilliant exceptions. If one wishes to keep a worker for long and make him work adequately, then put an effort not be too kind to him. Pay no heed when he is ill or someone in his family is the same. Learn and adapt to ignore all his issues. If you wish to make him work extra, punish him by cutting his wages for some reason or the other. This is how he will love and respect you and follow all your instructions.

I’ve realized in the hour of trouble or need when you look to the workers who you have been kind, they’re the first to abandon the ship. They’re the ones to go around, narrate tales of your trouble and discount you by calling you too naive for being helpful.

I’ve no intention of writing a withering account of my experience. Nor do I wish to be like many of my fellow Kashmiris who end up targeting their own character and provide a solution to everything by saying, “Zulam Parast, Ye Gāye Kashir Khaslat”.

I’ve always observed that while most of us choose to take the high moral ground theoretically, practically we fall flat on our face.

I understand that continued oppression has crushed the life out of us. Kashmir has been conquered and re-conquered by invaders who have murdered, oppressed and enslaved our ancestors. Biscoe in his book Kashmir in Sunlight and Shade suggests, “It is quite possible that if we Britishers had to undergo what the Kashmiris have suffered in the past, we might have lost our manhood”.

At the same time I’ve seen the bravery and honesty revealed by people at the time of the devastating floods. I saw folks working shoulder to shoulder from every strata of the society like one single unit. I saw the privileged helping the underprivileged and saw vice-versa. I believe resilient Kashmiris have fought and struggled very hard for survival.

Sir Walter Lawrence in his book “The Valley of Kashmir” talks about the light side of the Kashmiri – his yearning to be left alone and cultivate his field or to weave his cloth. I believe, we as a society are still yearning to be left alone to develop. We’re yearning for space to see a more prosperous future.

Many prodigal sons like me have returned or are contemplating to return. Some have returned and are already contemplating to go back. So far I’ve tried to steer my boat against the tide, but I’m yet to know whether I’ve done so successfully or unsuccessfully. However, I would take the liberty of saying, at the end of the day its all worth it.


The writer is a Masters of Marketing from University of London and  is a steel fabricator by profession.

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