His own greatness misunderstood, Dr. Fazal takes a vow.
Monday morning and Dr. Fazal was ready for a productive week. Dr. Fazal, to be clear, did not have a PhD, nor was he a medical doctor, but his colleagues called him “Doctor” because he was full of “timeless philosophical wisdoms,” as he said himself. He’d made the suggestion at an HR meeting in jest when he realized he was always being consulted when there were serious problems to be solved, and the name had stuck. One time, many years ago, he had the feeling that his colleagues were making fun of him, but that was a forgotten memory. When he did remember, he told his wife, “Being wrong is just as powerful as being right. Sometimes even more so.” He’d been at Amber Investments for ten years working as the Deputy Human Resources of HR Manager. He was not in any doubt that a man of his talent and superior intellect was destined for higher places. His favorite saying was, “In six simple words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It starts and stops with me.”
He stopped Khalid, the tea boy, as they exited the lift together.
“Good morning, Khalid.” He lowered his voice. “Did you take my trousers to Sir Gangaram’s to get altered?” It was against company policy to use support staff to run personal errands, but Dr. Fazal felt as Deputy he should allow himself some exemptions.
“Yes, sir,” Khalid said. “I took them to Liberty Market.”
“Did you explain to the tailor to open the waist and shorten the trousers?”
“Yes, they’ll be ready tomorrow.”
“Good, then bring them straight to me. I don’t want them getting lost. They’re for my new suit.”
They walked down the corridor.
“My father told me, there’s no rice without small broken pieces,” Khalid said. “It’s true even for your trousers, not so? But after they’re repaired, I’m sure they’ll be first class.”
Khalid talked too much, and every interaction was peppered with his father’s sayings. Dr. Fazal suspected he often made up the quotes and said it was his father just to give them weight. He unlocked the door to his office. Khalid stood waiting with an expectant expression. Of course, the tip. Dr. Fazal gave him fifty rupees. “Thanks for your help.”
“Sir, Ms. Zafar said I should be informing her if anyone in the department asks for favors.” Alia Zafar was the Head of HR.
Dr. Fazal had been trying for a promotion for several years, but she kept saying he wasn’t ready.
“Ms. Zafar needs to stop being so petty.” He gave Khalid another fifty. “And keep this between us.”
“Thanks, sir.” Khalid pocketed the notes. “I almost forgot this.”
He took the bulky envelope from Khalid. Inside were a document and note.
I’ve been trying to reach you by phone, but you haven’t been picking up. I’ve just realized that the dates of the Standard Chartered Golf Tournament clashes with the International Transparency Conference which is in the UK later this week. I’ve already confirmed my name to play. Do you mind going to the UK instead of me? You’ll have to travel on Friday. Here are the papers and my speech. Remember, you’ll be representing Amber — we must make the right impression.
The opportunity to travel abroad was not something that happened often. He went into his office, sat down on his swivel chair and excitedly dialed her number. “Hello Alia, I’ve just seen your message.”
“Doctor, please go through my speech carefully,” she said, “Remember this is an important meeting about corporate transparency. You must emphasize that Amber’s policy is that: Employees must act visibly, predictably and understandably. If you’re asked a question and you don’t know the answer, just keep quiet. The less said, the better.”
“Of course.” He played with the stapler on his desk.
“In such situations Doctor, remember, silence is golden.”
“You can count on me to be Amber’s ambassador.”
“Keep me posted. I’ll be on the golf course, but checking my phone.” She hung up.
He’d known sooner or later his chance to shine on a global stage would come. His gaze shifted to the wall lined with rows of books which he’d been collecting to read when he retired: How to Win Friends and Influence People, The Art of War, The Magic of Thinking Big, Teach Yourself HR in Three Easy Steps. He hadn’t read any of them, of course, because, at his level, he knew exactly what he needed to know. He selected The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, dusted the cover, and turned the pages without registering any of the words. Yes, he thought, yes, Dr. Fazal, you have finally arrived.
He stood by the window looking down at the cramped car park with overflowing dustbins. One day, instead of Alia, he would occupy the office on the top floor, with the garden view. He typed up a message for Salma.
I have to leave for London for an important meeting on Friday. Please pack my things, including my new suit. I’ll explain everything later.
She responded straight away. May I come?
Sorry dear, it’s strictly business.
He had met Salma at a boring ten-day accounting course for non-finance executives five years ago. They’d made a connection over the lunch breaks. Salma had been supportive of his ambitions at Amber, and enthusiastic about his accomplishments. After they’d been on several dates, he’d proposed to her. The only problem was that Salma was forever trying out new diets and exercises. He wouldn’t have minded if she didn’t inflict them on him. She’d recently forced him on a no wheat and sugar diet, which meant no gulab jamuns or kheer. And many others, equally torturous. But nothing seemed to have worked. He was as plump as ever.
Dr. Fazal messaged Salma.
Hi dear, landed safely at Heathrow. In-flight food delicious. Watched horror film. How are you?
She replied, Finished an hour at the gym. First day of juice diet going well.
He responded: Checked into the President Hotel, Russell Square. Going for shower. Conference in an hour.
Thank goodness he wasn’t there. The juice diet sounded ghastly.
He attended the morning session, listened carefully and took notes. The mood was serious and he felt gratified to be representing Amber. His first international assignment. And many more to come. At lunchtime, the conference organizers assigned a journalist to interview him. All the delegates were being asked for their thoughts, which would be combined in a conference booklet. Dr. Fazal found the young woman, Ruth, very pleasant. He approved of the cut and style of her long tweed skirt and jacket, and neatly combed, short hair. Very professional, he thought. She seemed to be quite in awe of him, because she kept smiling and even coughed a couple of times as he was talking, which he put it down to her obvious nervousness.
“Based on your experience in the HR sector, Dr. Fazal,” Ruth said, “what would you say were your three principles for transparent leadership?”
“Three rules are too few.” He put on a thoughtful expression, then remembering the bookshelf in his office said, “Even Steven Covey, the guru, has seven.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but we have a word count print restriction.”
He frowned. “Now let me see. Rule one is this: Transparent leadership starts from the inside out. Not the other way around.” He moved his plate to the side and propped his elbows on the table and made a steeple with his hands as he had seen politicians do on television. “It is really not something that one shouts about, but based on a person’s core values.”
Ruth took some notes then placed her phone on the table, “Do you mind if I record our conversation?”
“Not at all, Ruth, please do. You must make the most of this opportunity.”
“Thank you. Returning to the question of core values, what might they be?”
He tapped the tips of his fingers. “It depends, it all depends.”
“One must use one’s imagination, Ruth. One must never be literal.”
“I see. How about rule number two?”
“Ah yes, rule two is this: Transparent leaders are products of what they think, not circumstances. They should always keep the central thing, the central thing.”
“What do you mean by that, Dr. Fazal?”
“The central thing is not an absolute, but a contingent.” He picked up a fork and spoon and lay them side by side on the table to emphasize his point. “Whatever is critical should always stay the focus.”
“Could you explain, please?” She was looking at the cutlery, bemused.
“It’s quite simple really; a true leader must be ready to accept smaller defeats, in order to win the bigger battle.”
“It is what, it is, of course,” he said. “I can’t speak for all leaders. I can only speak for myself.”
“I see.” Ruth nodded, but he could read confusion in her eyes.
His precious pearls of wisdom were going over her head, it was obvious. She was struggling with his profundity. He really would have to speak to the organizers about allocating him such a junior journalist. It was too bad. He needed a more seasoned interviewer who really appreciated the finer points he was making. “Which brings me to rule number three,” he said. “All transparent leaders must strive to leave a worthwhile legacy.”
“And what will yours be, sir?”
“It will be what it will be.”
“Could you please clarify?”
“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” he said. “Any leader will know what I mean.”
Ruth jotted something on her writing pad. “And what motivated you to work in HR?”
“I knew from a young age I was destined for great things.”
He looked her straight in the eye. “A leader never forgets, Ruth, that when one is in a high place, one has a bird’s eye view.” He framed his hands in a square. “One sees the bigger picture.”
“Could you give me an example, please?”
“Take this interview. What I say may not mean much to you, Ruth, but it will to those who understand me.”
“Absolutely, sir. That’s an excellent point. Any final thoughts?”
“The hallmark of a true leader is that he can’t predict the spheres of his influence.” He gave a modest nod. “So I shall leave it to posterity to show what I have done.”
“My colleagues don’t call me Doctor for nothing, you know.”
“Of course. If you don’t mind, Dr. Fazal, could we have a snap of you to accompany the article?”
“Not at all. Where would you like to take it? How about over there, under the photo of the King?” He stood up, tucked his tie into his trousers, dusted down his jacket, and patted down his hair. He struck his most dignified pose. “How is this?”
“Perfect, sir.” Ruth held up her phone and the flash went off.
“I look forward to seeing my interview in the conference magazine,” he said, beaming. “Thank you.”
At lunchtime, he sent Alia an email.
Date: Tuesday, December 6, 1:08
Subject: A & T Conference
This morning, I heard many eminent men and women at the lectern. The theory proposed by a distinguished gray-haired gentleman from Not Only Transparent (NOT) was the highlight. He argued that the lack of transparency and accountability in institutions was the fault of bureaucracy and not individuals. He concluded that we are facing a global crisis.
Sent from my iPhone
Wednesday, December 7, 16:09
Re: A & T Conference
The NOT delegate relied on the Transparency Index and the Corruptions Perceptions Catalogue. Everyone agreed the evidence was incontrovertible. We finished the day on this consensus: Man is but a product of his environment. Tomorrow’s deliberations will focus on examples of best practice and policy frameworks. I’ve been allocated five minutes to present the case study of Amber.
We’re now going for a tour of Bloomsbury. But first we’ll have tea at a café named after a famous Roman emperor. They certainly know how to treat important delegates here.
Good luck with the tournament!
Sent from my iPhone
A few hours later. Dr. Fazal returned to his hotel room, his arms full of packages. The group had walked around Russell Square and then gone to Covent Garden for some retail therapy. At Marks & Spencer’s he’d discovered a pair of stripy gray fleece pajamas on sale. The sales assistant said it was his lucky day as it was the last pair left in his size. She had also helped him choose a smart jogging suit, for Salma. He put on his new pajamas, settled down on the bed, and sent Salma a text message.
Hello dear. Been busy meeting important people. Went shopping. Hope you are okay.
She responded: Hope you bought my gym things. Day two of juice diet.
He replied, Yes, dear.
He typed an email to Alia.
Wednesday, December 7, 22:09
Re: A & T Conference
This afternoon was quite disappointing. The tour began at Café Nero in Bloomsbury. All I can say is that it is a prime example of false marketing. How misleading to have the grand name of an emperor for a high street café! Instead of scones with cream and jam, we were offered wilted almond croissants and tea in paper cups. If you ask me, it should be Café Zero.
After that we went to the British Museum to visit the Ancient Rome Room, where we looked at ancient artefacts, including coins, sculptures and papyri. The names on many of the items had been erased and some of the portraits had been defaced. The guide explained this was, “damnatio memoriae” which is the term used when a symbol of power is attacked to condemn the memory of a deceased leader or undermine the influence of a living one.
I’m all set for tomorrow. An important day for Amber, and for me.
Sent from my iPhone
The next morning Dr. Fazal awoke early. He spent time in the shower practicing his vowels, and doing facial exercises in the mirror. He could imagine the audience clapping, saying, Dr. Fazal, what a great orator you are. He would make a speech they would never forget. He stood in front of the bathroom mirror, a towel tied around his waist, rehearsing his speech. He posed this way and that, trying to gauge from which angle he looked most flattering. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “I stand here before you this morning as the Pakistani delegate from Amber Investments. My name is Dr. Fazal and I am the Deputy HR Manager …” He paused, looked at the bathtub, the toilet, and the bidet. He put on his most distinguished air, glancing up from his notes, to make brief, but intimate eye contact with the imagined audience in front of him. He cleared his throat and repeated his lines. Damn the word “Deputy,” he thought. He wished he could omit it. He brushed his teeth again and gargled with a mint flavored mouthwash. Humming softly, he opened the wardrobe, and took out his neatly pressed brown suit. Everyone would soon be saying he was not only a brilliant speaker, but he also had charm, and charisma. And then, they’d be all over him asking him for his expert advice, as usual.
He pulled up the zipper on his trousers, fastened the buttons on his shirt and tucked it in. The trousers felt snug around the waist. He frowned, they felt uncomfortably tight. He’d eaten only one cream pastry and one croissant the day before at Café Nero. How would he look with a bulging belly in front of such a distinguished audience? He imagined himself standing there in his too tight trousers, and his heart sank. Then he realized with relief, he needn’t worry too much, because the lectern would cover his belly. He sucked in his stomach, pulled on his jacket, shook out the back vents, and smoothed down the front panels. Last of all, he folded the papers with his speech and placed them in the inside pocket of his jacket. He was checking his hair when his phone rang. It was Alia.
“Doctor, have there been any discussions about employee corruption and transparency?”
“No, in fact I got the impression there was a reluctance to talk about it.”
“Just as I thought, these conferences are just big talk.”
Dr. Fazal glanced at his watch. “I better dash, Alia, or I’ll be late.”
“Don’t forget, Doctor, when in doubt, silence is golden.”
He surveyed his reflection in the full-length mirror one last time. He certainly didn’t look like a Deputy HR Manager, but more like a diplomat. He did a double take. His trousers were at least three inches above his ankles. “Damn you, Khalid.” He tossed the jacket onto the bed and pulled off the trousers. He opened one of the Marks & Spencer bags, and pulled on the navy blue suit he’d bought. It was creased, and the trousers were too long. Better long than short. Harassed and irritated, he ran a comb through his hair, and flattened the sides with water. He drank a quick cup of tea and rushed down to the conference room. He was just in time. The other delegates were strolling in after their breakfast. He beamed at them, and reminded whoever he spoke to, that his presentation was later during the day.
The morning session included discussions around employee accountability and Dr. Fazal listened attentively, nodded his head, but did not ask a single question. During the break he helped himself to chocolate biscuits and cucumber sandwiches and gulped down two cups of tea. Refreshed, he mingled with the delegates, praised them for their remarks, and made sure not to say anything controversial. He ought to have been in the foreign office, or an ambassador, he thought. Socializing with important people came so naturally for him. It was too bad that at Amber no one recognized his potential. He even forgot to worry about his suit until he happened to looked down and saw how badly the trousers were sagging around the ankles. He quickly moved behind a table so that his legs wouldn’t show.
In the afternoon he gave his speech, and returned to his seat satisfied. That evening at the delegates’ reception, he dined on grilled chicken with beetroot salad and for dessert, apple crumble and ice cream. Everyone commented on how delicious the food was, but Dr. Fazal found it bland. He asked the waitress for Tabasco, and all she offered him was salt and pepper. He accepted an invitation from the NOT delegate for a night cap at the bar, and after a few drinks, listening to the other delegates, he felt out of his depth. He made the excuse that he was expecting an international phone call, said good night and retired to his room.
He changed into the toweling robe he found behind the bathroom door and sat down at the writing bureau with his phone. The robe fell open as he began to type and he felt cold air around his tummy. After several attempts to secure the belt, he rang housekeeping.
“I’m a delegate attending the Transparency Conference. I’ve just discovered my bathrobe doesn’t fit. Could you please send up a larger one?”
“I’m sorry sir, they come in a standard size. Was there anything else?”
“No, thanks.” Such poor service. London really was very disappointing.
He typed an email to Alia.
Thursday, December 8, 23:40
Re: A & T Conference
It’s been an exciting day at the conference. I knew you’d want to post my speech on the Amber website, so I gave my phone to the delegate from Uganda sitting next to me. But unfortunately, he messed up. He failed to click even a single photograph of me or record my speech. It was very frustrating. But I was, if I may say so, myself, outstanding. Even when everything was going wrong, I saved the day for Amber.
As I was walking to the podium, I almost tripped over a wire and a plug was accidentally pulled out of its socket. But I stayed calm and told myself these things happen. I tapped the mic several times so that the technician knew it wasn’t working and he rectified the problem. It was only when I reached into my pocket for your speech that I realized I’d left it in my other suit. However, I kept my wits, and spoke extempore. I believe I made the best speech of my life.
I made an impassioned plea for transparency: Corruption, I said, cost people their reputation, health, money — and even their lives. It was time to wake up and smell the coffee. Half-baked measures were useless. If anything, they corroded the moral edifice of our institutions. The days of top officials enjoying the gravy train and having their cake and eating it too, were over. I gave them the shining example of Amber and quoted (whatever I could remember) of our Transparency Policy. Only urgent action could put a stop to the rampant corruption. And we needed role models, like myself, and those present in this assembly, to make a change. Indeed, it needed only one committed and courageous individual in every organization to start a revolution.
When I stopped speaking and looked around, I noticed the delegates smiling, and one or two even looked like they were laughing. I realized it must be because I had embarrassed them and articulated what no one else had been able to. I stood there feverish and excited; ten years of toil and experience at Amber had prepared me for this moment. And in that instant, your words, Alia, came back to me: Silence is golden.
I held up my hand for the audience’s attention and made an announcement: Words were not enough. Action was necessary. Self-restraint was the first step. And I was ready for it. For the sake of transparency, I would take a vow of silence. Every Thursday for six months, I would not utter a single word. My silence was my weapon of resistance. When I left the lectern there were a few claps. I think I must have stunned them with my eloquence. After a few more speeches, the conference ended.
At dinner I waited for someone to come over and tell me they would join me in my pledge of silence, but no one did. I overheard the NOT delegate, who was seated at my table, say, “That joker,” and everyone started to laugh. I missed exactly who he was referring to, but I joined in the good cheer. Everyone was in high spirits and I think that you’ll be delighted to know the seeds of Transparent Silence have been sown.
You were absolutely right, silence is golden.
A moment later his mobile beeped. It was a text message from Alia.
Alia: Don’t be ridiculous, Doctor. Transparent Silence or whatever it is, is only useful if it translates into profits.
Dr. Fazal: Confident it’ll help enhance Amber’s reputation.
Alia: See me the minute you land.
Several weeks after he’d returned from the conference, one lunchtime, Dr. Fazal was in the Amber boardroom slumped in an armchair hidden behind the projector screen. He’d had a busy morning with the auditors. It was a Thursday and as he had vowed, he had not spoken to anyone. He skimmed the pages of The Daily Nation, and not finding anything of interest, covered his face with the newspaper. His nap was disturbed by people talking. He peered from behind the screen. Khalid and Bina, the cleaner, were there clearing up.
“Is it true,” Khalid said, “that sir is still refusing to talk on Thursdays?”
“I’ve heard him bragging about it. He keeps telling people to join him, saying it’s to end corruption. But I don’t understand, what’s the point? When someone’s dishonest you shouldn’t keep quiet, it should be the opposite.”
“You’re very right,” Khalid said. “My father always told me, things are never as they seem. You can’t trust a man who wakes up one day in London and tells the whole world he’s going to keep silent once a week. Why? What’s he trying to say?”
“It’s very confusing,” Bina said. “I used to admire Doctor’s intellect. Now, I’m not sure.”
“Do you think he’s hiding something?”
“Maybe. But sincerely speaking, I didn’t expect him to behave so stupidly. He can’t even ask for a cup of tea on Thursdays, he has to write it down and give you a note.”
“My father always said, the foolish man keeps talking, and the wise man keeps quiet. But here, it’s the opposite.”
They laughed and left the room.
Dr. Fazal sat there, stunned; is that what they thought of him? He went back to his office and shut the door. He’d been wronged. Misunderstood. The irony of it was that he was doing this for transparency and they thought he was corrupt and secretive. What a mess.
That night he did not sleep. He lay on one side, on the other and then on his back. He had heartburn and shooting pains in his chest. Miserable, he waited for morning to come. At breakfast, Salma said, “Your fidgeting kept me up all night, Fazal. I need proper sleep, or my muscles won’t grow.”
“I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
“It’s those M&S pajamas,” she said. “I’ve told you, you shouldn’t wear fleece in this weather.”
“Never mind about the pajamas. When you’re a deep thinker like I am, you don’t get distracted by trivial things. I’ve got more important things on my mind.”
At work Dr. Fazal went straight to Alia’s office. “Good morning. Do you have a minute?” She was dressed in her usual white shirt and black trousers. He always thought it unstylish, more like what a waitress would wear, and not at all suitable for the Head of HR at Amber.
She gestured to a chair for him to sit. “Are you on track with the quarterly HR report?”
“Alia,” he said, “since my trip to London, I’ve completed four silent Thursdays.”
She took off her gold-rimmed glasses, and polished them with her scarf. “I want to know about the report.”
“I was wondering if you’d write me a congratulatory message in the newsletter.”
“I’ve never been in favor of your vow of silence, or whatever it is, Doctor. It’s very disruptive. On Thursday, at the meeting with the auditors, is it true you used sign language? The auditors complained that you wasted their time.”
“It’s true the auditors were upset, but there’s something bigger at stake. Until all corruption ends, I will not speak on Thursdays.”
“What does your wife have to say about it?”
“She says she likes the peace.”
“Your silence is spoiling Amber’s reputation.”
“But I was following your instructions, Alia. You told me, didn’t you, silence is golden?”
“Doctor, you take things too literally. Send me that report, I’m waiting.” She turned to her computer.
Dr. Fazal paced his office. Alia had turned her back on him. An endorsement from her in the newsletter would have put an end to all the gossiping. Now he would have to sort it out himself. He sat down at his computer and typed up an article about the conference. As he printed it off, he remembered the incident with his trousers. He’d forgotten all about them. Over the intercom he asked Khalid to come up to his office. He appeared in a few minutes. “Khalid, do you remember you took my trousers to Sir Gangaram’s to get altered?”
Khalid shifted from one foot to the other. “Not exactly. I took them to my wife.”
“Your wife? And why, may I ask?”
“I was promoting her business.”
“This explains why the length was short and the waist was too small.”
“It was a genuine mistake, sir.”
“And it happened on the day I was supposed to make an important speech in front of international delegates.”
“It’s my wife’s fault, I thought she could manage the job. My father always told me, only angels are free from mistakes. I’ll be telling my wife she’s not one of them.”
“Forget about angels, Khalid, I trusted you to handle something important and you let me down.”
“I’ll forgive you, if you do this.” He gave Khalid the document he’d just typed, entitled, Silence Is Golden. “Take this to the Communications Department and tell them to publish it in the newsletter with my photograph. And give them this also, it’ll motivate them.” He gave Khalid a hundred rupees from his wallet. Khalid shifted from one foot to another.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Dr. Fazal said. “Didn’t I say it was urgent?”
“Ms. Alia said I should be informing her if you ask me for personal favors.”
“First you ruin my trousers, and now you’re asking for a bribe? Get out of here, and don’t come back until you’ve finished doing what I told you.”
One morning, a few days later, Dr. Fazal found the Transparency Conference booklet with his interview on his desk. It had finally arrived from London. The timing could not have been better. Together with his article in the Amber newsletter, the record would be set straight, once and for all. Everyone would read his interview and realize his wisdom and acuity. He had many words of inspiration, yet to share. He turned the page until he came to Dr. Fazal: Amber Investments, Lahore; Deputy Head of Human Resources. He scanned the interview, and smiled. Ruth had done a good job. He turned to his photo and almost dropped the booklet. He telephoned Khalid. “Come up immediately.”
Khalid put his head around the door in a few minutes. “Yes, sir?”
“Just look at this,” he said. “Someone’s scribbled all over my photo. They’ve completely blotted out my face.”
“I’m very sorry, sir. This is terrible. Who could’ve done it?”
Dr. Fazal sat back in his chair. He thought of his trip to London. Life had not been easy since the conference. But he had stuck to his guns, and bent over backwards for transparency. Yet, not a single person had appreciated it. “Did you know Khalid, that one must start at the end, to understand the beginning?”
He looped his thumbs under his braces and nodded thoughtfully. “Sometimes it’s not enough to know what things mean, you also have to know what they don’t mean. And it’s all making sense now. This is a case of damnatio memoriae.”
“Excuse me, sir?”
“It happened to all the great Roman emperors. People were jealous of their might and intellect and tried to destroy their legacy by defacing symbols of their power.”
“Now I understand. My father was right,” Khalid said. “To be a great leader, you have to pay a great price, not so?”
“I’m a believer of working hard in silence, and letting my success make the noise. Then you can see, the evidence speaks for itself. There’s nothing to worry about, Khalid.” He opened his tote bag, offered Khalid a samosa from the tiffin, and took one himself. “You see, Khalid, what you don’t know is that success counts just as much as failure.” He took a bite of his samosa. “The main thing is one must have the courage to continue.”