Politically Incorrect

As a 35-year old, I sat across the interview panel at an organization. A stint that would later go on to change my life in more ways than one.

Background blurb: I was already changing my career path once too many for people’s liking. But I saw it as where my heart was taking me. I was following my passion alright but the question of whether it would serve me well was always lurking around.

Back to the interview panel: There were 5 men on the panel. It was designed to intimidate you (by setting). The poker faces of the panelists was making it more intimidating. For some reason, none of it intimidated me. I was at my coolest. That zone sometimes you enter where there is literally nothing. Blankness. I was there in my head. It was, and has been the best my mind has cooperated with what I have wanted badly. It wasn’t like I was indifferent to the job I was interviewing for. I would have killed to get in.

The interview started off and I don’t remember most of it now except that I was going with the flow of thoughts that came as a natural response to the questions being asked. There was one man who repeatedly harped on the point (whatever be the question, he would drag the answer to get to this point): “Why was I moving to the social sector?”. It was his single-minded focus to understand that from my answers. And I don’t think I ever succeeded in convincing him as he kept asking me that question even after becoming my boss at the organization. (Yes, I made it through the interview)

This man looked like an oddly-groomed teddy bear with small eyes behind smaller spectacles backed up mostly by a wide grin with a heavily creased and balding forehead cleverly covered by combing hair to make himself look presentable. It didn’t always occur to you that he was concerned by how he presented himself. He had an XXL sized potbelly. And pretty much shuffled his feet instead of walking which was amongst his most hated activity (walking). You could hear the sound of his chappals (rarely wore shoes, by the way) rubbing on the floor. And it was the only activity he ever physically executed. And that wasn’t by choice. He didn’t know how to drive. Never wanted to own an automobile. He would use autos utmost to get from point A to point B. But he had an exceptional ability to stay socially connected which helped him avoid taking autos as people would ‘offer’ to drop him wherever he wanted to go!

Jerome with a boy in the park who he made friends with because he liked the T-shirt the kid was wearing. In Chennai.

Jerome D’Souza was without doubt the funniest, most well-read, articulate, socially sensitive and yet almost always politically incorrect person I have had the privilege of knowing for a short while in my life. But in that short while he had a big impact on me. He had a tendency to take people under his wings. And he would do so by generously sprinkling advice at you while constantly criticizing your thought process yet never be condescending or rude. He had the gift of saying things as he saw them (and hence the political incorrectness most of the times). He saw things beyond as they were because of his social awareness. He could analyse a situation and immediately uncover the dark undertones and state it as a matter of fact. This would offend people more often than not because most people would let the unsaid remain under the covers. But Jerome believed in calling out. And call out he did.
He was knowledgeable and read a lot. He also wrote very well. His language was impeccable. Combined with all this he would usually say something very simple encompassing all this. Look at this article on IDR. He wanted to write more.

Jerome knew people. Yes. Don’t ask me more. I don’t have anything to say. He knew Ram Puniyani to Teesta Setalvad to Xavier Dias. And he wouldn’t even blink before name dropping. It was what Jerome did. If he wasn’t name dropping in front of you, then either you weren’t listening or he was asleep.

Jerome would plan his day around meals. And that planning was impeccable. He will have his breakfast at home, lunch at a colleague’s home, tea at office, and dinner with a friend. And the day would look like the schedule of a President in his own head. He knew who would pick him up from home for office. He would have struck a deal with the colleague to take him along to his home for lunch and bring him back to office. Tea would be an elaborately planned affair at the office canteen with 2-3 of his junior colleagues (like me) to recount stories of how it used to be when he worked for one of his earlier international organizations. And it would be the same stories that we would have heard a million times earlier. So, we would be pulling his leg by almost completing the story for him and he would respond with a “Shut up, Adi. Don’t be a spoilsport. These (pointing to the other colleagues) people don’t know about it. And it is important to share these things. People learn from other people’s experiences”.

One famous story (oft repeated) of his was how he spent time with street children in a particular Mumbai slum. And he ate what they ate. The children ate by picking out bread from the dust bin by the railway track. And once they had a bite, they shared the rest with others which included him also. To be a part of them, he had to eat it without hesitation. Else they wouldn’t trust him. So, Jerome ate that piece of bread.

Jerome was banter. He would even turn a funeral into a playground for banter. Did I say politically incorrect earlier? Well, there you go.

Jerome passed away in his sleep due to a cardiac arrest. Let’s assume he had survived it. He would have someone sit in front of him or called someone and told them this near death experience a million times.

Jerome would lie through his teeth. He once told all of us that he was offered the next position in the organization and that he had refused the offer as a matter of principle. Later, we were told that apart from those who were at the new positions, nobody else was offered the post. So, we confronted Jerome with the new information we had. His answer was a wide grin and his usual, “Adi, you bitch. You should let people have their two seconds of fame”. And thank god, he left soon after this incident, else he might have told us that he was offered the CEO position and we would be running around in circles trying to find the truth. He clearly took pleasure in making us look like deer in the headlights!

A couple of incidents I want to recall are when Jerome and I had gone to an organization in Bangalore for due diligence. And I felt like eating the famous mudde saaru oota of Karnataka. So, I had planned the DD visit in such a way that once we were done with the meeting in the morning, we would have lunch at a mess in Majestic which served mudde saaru. He was so impressed with me. And was so grateful to me. He kept repeating, “Thanks for such a lovely meal, Adi” just like he would repeat his stories. Another incident was when he ate at my parents’ home in Mysore. My parents were trying to make conversation with him. Not a tough job because Jerome loves conversations. But for some reason, he would increase the volume of his voice when he had to use words like ‘sexual harassment’ and ‘rape’. Either I wasn’t listening or maybe there really wasn’t any special context for those words to be said in that conversation. However, Jerome would say it and then give a dramatic pause to observe the reaction of my conservative parents in their quiet home. And then on our way back to Bangalore (from Mysore), Jerome would tell me in how many ways patriarchy was practiced at my home in an unconscious manner. For instance, the womenfolk ate after the men. He took it upon himself to observe and point out social transgressions which might be impervious to us. He played the social inspector role wherever he was. Upholding the rights prescribed in the constitution wherever he went. His secular and liberal outlook could only be matched by his bewildering political incorrectness! (Did I already say that?!)

When you went to Jerome’s house (and his door was always open especially to his TISS juniors and all of us who he took under his wings) you had to follow rules. There was a place to eat. A place to read. And a place to talk. The plate has to be kept on the coaster. The juice glass has to be on the left side. And once done eating, he would give you detailed instructions of where the washing soap was and where you are supposed to keep the plate (at what angle too, sometimes!) and the glass for drying. You were given the option of wiping the utensils too if you wanted. His house was maintained so clean and neat that you would wonder if anyone used it at all!

Did I mention he was finicky about his plan for the day? I think I did. But the extent of that was known to me when once during a team meeting (8 of us in the meeting), he projected his calendar on the LCD projector screen. He then looked at each of us and we had to choose which day and time of his we would want to do 1-1’s with him or travel with him. My slot would always be the last one of the day or the first one. That way I would either drop him back home or pick him up from home. His one way logistics headache was sorted. Most of the times, he knew me and my work so well that our 1-1 would get over just in those drives. Jerome stayed a couple of kilometers away from office. So monthly 1-1’s would be over in 5 minutes. Rest of the time we would eat, drink and make merry! 🙂

At work, we used to have these Monday (All Hands On Deck) update meetings first thing in the morning. All of us had to assemble into a room by 8.30AM. Jerome used to manage the biggest team in the organization. He was responsible for giving the updates about the work of those team members who were either late for the meeting or absent. And the way the meeting would run would be via a projected screen on the wall in front. Jerome couldn’t see the damn thing clearly. So he would stand right next to the wall and literally be stuck to the screen. And when the update was required to be given and if Jerome hadn’t heard from the concerned team member, he would say, “I have no update about this!” and this would infuriate our CEO who had a short fuse. You could see the CEO turning red like a tomato and Jerome standing there like he couldn’t care less but glued to that screen! All of us in the background would be giggling at this dynamic. And it would repeat itself week after week. It was amazing how much patience our CEO showed when it came to Jerome. And Jerome knew this. And would play on that. It was hilarious. Jerome was hilarious. Did I say that too?

Jerome would sleep during meetings that were scheduled after lunch. And when I say sleep I don’t mean just close his eyes and let his head drop and jerk and wake up routine. He would sleep like ghode bech kar. With snoring et al. Those sitting next to him could hear him snoring. So, whoever was closest to him would nudge him with our elbows. And Jerome would be very distraught with such interventions. After a couple of hard nudges, he would wake up and tell us that he wasn’t sleeping. Apparently, he was meditating. Yup.

Jerome hated the PoSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment) at the workplace trainings. He despised them with every ounce of his existence. According to him, these laws meant he couldn’t crack jokes anymore. That the office would resemble a court room and nobody could say anything anymore. Did I say Jerome was banter? Did I say Jerome was politically incorrect? Do you see why the PoSH trainings brought out the worst in him? 🙂

Jerome was diagnosed with a kidney problem. I took him to my family doctor – Dr. Shirdi Prasad Tekur (who also passed away recently) who diagnosed the problem accurately. He asked us to go to St. John’s and take an OPD consultation with the nephrology department to figure out exactly what was to be done. Soon after that, Jerome left the organization. He went to Mongolia on some short assignment. Came back to Kolkata to spend time with his family.

I last spoke to him when he lost his father. Jerome was always dignified in such situations. He knew exactly the words to say. And he would make you feel at ease about it. It’s like you thought he had it all figured out. It was his supremely superior communication skills that gave you that feeling. That was Jerome. He knew what to speak and how to communicate about literally anything and everything. He might not have been the most appropriate person I knew, but he certainly was among the most articulate ones. He had a lot of energy to keep talking continuously if he knew he had listeners. However, I think he was done. Done with us. Done with the unnecessary pain and hurt he was undergoing. He lived a fulfilled life. Or so I would like to believe from the little I knew him.

Jerome pushed all of us he came in touch with towards becoming a better version of ourselves. And most of it was by helping us inculcate a sense of listening and sensitivity to the under privileged and the marginalized. He was the easiest person to have a conversation with about any topic under the sun. And he could tell you the worst reality about yourself, that you have been trying to hide from all your life, on your face in a jiffy.

I am sure he is regaling the Gods up there with those stories and all the gyaan that he would dump on his juniors i.e. us!

PS: Towards the end of his life, I wasn’t in touch with him as regularly as he would have wanted. Perhaps, he didn’t quite like me going silent on him like that. But I had my reasons. And I don’t regret not being in touch with him. However, I am sad that he is gone now.