Reframing social stereotypes — Brands Wanted..
There are many societies that exist amongst us; divided by powerful, invisible walls. Educated vs. uneducated, those who belong to one religion, race or gender vs. another, those who speak English vs. those who don’t, those who work in organized businesses vs. those who don’t, those who are wealthy vs. those who are not and so on. The societies among these that are in positions of power exclude those who are not, in many obvious and subtle ways.
The possessions one owns and what they represent, the connections one has, the place of stay, what one wears, the gait, the language one speaks, even the inflection used while speaking are some of the subtle clues used in this social gerrymandering. Careful use of language helps frame this gerrymandering in acceptable, even aspirational terms — cultured, uncouth, refined, boorish, raw, polished, to name a few. Words that apparently define a more elevated state of being.
Truck drivers, cleaners and truck owners are one such socially excluded group. This is the story of Kempaiah, the son of a farmer hailing from a village, 50 kms from Bangalore. When Kempaiah ran away from his village in his early teens, very few knew or even cared. He left his village with little idea of what to do and where to go. A few months later through some coalition of circumstances, he found work in a quarry on the outskirts of the city, one that involved endless hours of toiling away in the hot sun. At the end of every day, the workers in the quarry nursed their bodies, maybe even numbed their souls with alcohol so they could carry on. At the edges of survival, pressures ran high and fights broke out often. The scars of those times are visible on Kempaiah’s face and his back even to this day. But no one knew and no one cared. He was a nobody.
It would seem that most people who go through such trials would at some point snap and slip into a world of anger, hatred, petty crimes and even big crimes. Why and how Kempaiah sidestepped this, no one knows. Years of working under such harsh conditions, if anything, seemed to have only toughened his spirit and cultivated hope. A hope of buying a truck and becoming a truck owner.
There were samaritans along the way. One of them was a kind quarry owner who decided to help and without any reason in particular. It was in the form of a small loan to buy a second-hand truck. Maybe the reason was a similar experience from his past.
As Kempaiah reminisced, I could feel him re-living his relief and pride when he spoke of buying his first truck. Relief from having escaped the quarry and the pride that came from recognizing his resilience. I remember, his face breaking into a smile. It was a smile that was a dozen years or more in the making. We can only begin to guess what a second-hand truck means to a person who is a nobody and has nothing. Kempaiah had become a truck owner against all odds.
Some business came in. Some legal, some not so legal. I also came to realize during my conversation that ethics are often the preserve of those whose survival is not at stake. He spoke of having to deal with corrupt cops and government officials, greedy money lenders and local financiers, highway robbers among others. But between the long nights of endless driving on dark lonely roads, a few accidents, some brawls and even losing goods to highway thieves, Kempaiah bought his second truck soon the third and then the fourth. All in 10 years. He was now a fleet owner. A businessman.
The cultured, dignified world started to notice this ‘somebody’. A manager from a truck company and a finance company came visiting. They arrived with their fake throaty laughter and awkward attempts at camaraderie. They told him about a grander future that awaited him as if he needed telling. Kempaiah was now a fleet owner sought by businesses from the elite world, some hawking their loans, some their trucks, others their lubricants and oils. He had earned attention, inclusion and a comfortable livelihood. He was the owner of a large fleet of trucks. A large house and a car as well.
Things seemed far better for him, but as he spoke there was sadness and anger in his voice. Something was unfair. He decreed, no one should ever become a truck driver and he would never allow his sons to become one. Even if all they could manage as an alternative, was to run a petty shop. He narrated this story. One of his drivers was involved in an accident recently and it seemed like he was not at fault. The other person involved in the accident was a rich kid who was driving his swank new car. A crowd collected and no one even tried to enquire who was at fault. Everyone already seemed to know that it was the truck driver’s fault. In the melee, someone hurled a stone at the truck’s windshield and broke it. The driver had lost the freedom to protect himself or retaliate, lest they further damage his truck, potentially incurring expenses that would take a year to pay off. He narrated another story, one of his own children was ashamed of the fact that his father was a truck owner. He wanted to grow up to be something else, maybe a software engineer. There was another story of a customer who casually remarked in a conversation with him if he had contracted HIV. There was a news report that said that truck drivers are holding the country to ransom by their frequent strikes.
After long years of fighting and winning against all odds, he had moved from being a nobody to an ‘undesirable somebody’. An identity theft by a world that manufactures and controls his narrative. Kempaiah on his part has reconciled to this theft, even as he helps a couple of his truck drivers graduate to becoming truck owners.
Corporations from the cultured world need a small dose of the courage that Kempaiah has. Courage to restore his stolen identity. Courage to be inclusive. Courage to restore his pride back to him — one that he truly deserves. Courage to recognize him as a hero. An unsung one at least. Brands can play a role in reframing and even destroying societal stereotypes, such as this. Brands can become the voice of such hidden or maligned heroes within their worlds. The trucks, the lubricants, the tyres and the finance schemes will anyhow be bought as a consequence of such courage.