From chauffeurs to tea-boys, their ladder of opportunity is your legacy
Crisp white shirts, shiny black trousers, a polished golden eagle on the shoulder – security guards can be seen scattered all across Dubai. Around posh residences, malls, and office buildings, these young South Asian men, in a city as secure as Dubai, are invariably left roaming around at night with little to do.
Rubbing my eyes as I reach work on a Sunday morning, I find one such man sitting behind the large reception desk. His head sways in a robotic manner as he stares into his lap, his lips moving soundlessly.
In his lap is a creased English newspaper, its stains testament to the spilled tea in the pantry from the day before. The man’s eyes follow the long sentences, his mouth stumbling at unfamiliar words that his brain struggles to decode. Having graduated from a Pakistani government school, where teachers would show up for local council inspections and then on pay day, it is hardly surprising that Abrar can barely read or write English. Underneath the desk, he tightly clutches onto a tattered pocket dictionary. There is a hunger in his eyes – Abrar wants to master English – the gateway to opportunities in a hospitality-driven city like Dubai.
Abrar, it appears, has no plans of staying a security guard all his life.
Growing up in Lahore, I would often quarrel with my father about his rather charitable approach of running his business. He would hire under-qualified people who were hungry for success, map out development plans for them and task them to growing into roles they would never have otherwise dreamt of. He did this, often, in my view, at the expense of the company. Arguing for their dismissal in exchange of more qualified resources, my “business” view would leave a disappointed look on his face, which I took as weakness.
Though I argued that he was running a company that served as a mere training ground for ill-qualified staff, my father believed in giving people the opportunity to succeed in exchange for their unshakable loyalty. His faith in people reflected in his passion for providing opportunities to people to whom life had dealt a tough hand.
Each time we broached this subject, my father would remind me of Majid – now the managing director of my father’s relatively small but thriving business and earning a sizable salary in a country where even petrol stations employ graduates – Majid had never even been to university. Yet he now manages staff of over 40 people across Pakistan and the Far East, including a group of post-graduates and MBAs. In my father’s absence, Majid had managed the company with absolute honesty and loyalty, until one day he decided to leave the company and start his own business as a direct competitor.
Feeling a mixture of both worry at Majid’s departure, and triumph at the opportunity to prove my point through his protégé’s betrayal, I called up my father to console him and to then lay this discussion to rest once and for all. But when he answered the phone, his jubilant voice surprised me. My father exclaimed how proud he was of Majid. Sensing my confusion, he told me his dream of seeing one of his employees become an employer had finally been realised. A man, who had never been to university, was now running an electronics firm of his own – all because of my father’s blind faith in him.
That moment made me question the essence of charity. After all, I had thought I had a charitable streak in me – I volunteered for NGOs and worked with different social initiatives. But the difference between my father’s thinking and mine is what separated our understanding of altruism. For me, this had become compartmentalised in numbers and metrics in glossy project updates, but for my father, his humble beginnings and struggles had made him realise that the way to truly give back was in enabling people to climb the ladder of opportunity.
I always wondered what motivates my philanthropically inclined friends. The desire to leave a lasting legacy as a scholarship endowment shield being presented to an under-privileged student, or a little village school with their name painted on the door? But perhaps, the true ethos of a legacy is not in keeping alive the memory of a man on a shield or a door, but in the hearts of people who devote their prime years to us – the chauffeur who stays with you for 30 years on effectively the same salary, or Majid who managed to employ MBA graduates while having no formal education himself.
I finish writing this piece from the expansive lawns of a prestigious private members’ club in Pakistan where the waiter pouring tea in my cup, proudly boasts his 30 years of service – counting amongst this guests, the country’s rich and powerful. With such proximity to prosperity, one wonders what has changed for him over these decades of service, as he lays out tea for one generation to the next – other than of course, varying shades of rupee tips, dictated by inflation.
The legacy we leave will include not only the distant recipients of our annual charity, but those who serve us daily, from chauffeurs to tea-boys, who spend their youthful days in service, living each day with helplessness to change their destiny. Until we go beyond sympathetic tips to taking personal responsibility in growing this segment of society, extend our company’s talent management system beyond management staff, the rags to riches dream shall remain the story of a few outliers that somehow got through the curse of being born poor.
Teaching your chauffer English while you drive to work or getting a staff member to teach the tea-boy computer literacy for a short period each day are all little efforts we can make in a developing country like Pakistan where chowkidars, maalees, chauffers, chotas and chachas (support staff) are a daily but silent part of our lives.
So the next time you glance at your chowkidar (gatekeeper) from the rear-view mirror as he shuts the gate with that evergreen smile, for a second, picture Abrar in the driving seat. And then, think of the power and responsibility you have in making that dream come to life!
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