Etiquette means behaving yourself a little better than is absolutely essential.

                                          William Jacob Cuppy, (1884-1949), American Humorist and Journalist

Etiquette refers to the cultural guidelines for what is appropriate or inappropriate and polite or impolite. It gives culture a structure, integrity, grace, and finesse—all of which are uniquely adapted from one culture to another.

Having spent all my life in Bangalore since my birth (73+) except for three years, I got exposed to variety of personalities from a very young age, both within my family circles as well as outside. My father’s only sister, Kanakam’s husband A.V. Ramasawmi was very different from many of the elders that I had come across in my younger years. He was an ardent follower of British culture in his work ethics and life-style practices. He was not only tall, fair and well-built like British, but equally matched them in his attire and manners. As a young boy, I was very much scared to speak to him, but over time understood him much better as I grew up.

Alapakkam Varadhachari Ramasawmi (1899-1980) was the only child, not only to his parents, but for the entire joint family of three brothers. Alapakkam is a tiny village situated at a distance of about forty miles from Chennai. As there was no high school in the village, he was sent to Chennai and stayed there in the house rented out by Narayana Iyengar (my paternal grand-mother’s brother) as their families were known to one another.

Ramasawmi mama (as I used to call him) after completing his Intermediate (equivalent of today’s twelfth standard / Pre-University Course) joined an engineering company managed by British. Looking at the immaculate way he was maintaining the boiler in the plant, the manager- a British, one day asked him, whether he will be interested in furthering his studies in engineering if he were to be sent to a college. Based on his agreeing, Ramasawmi mama was deputed to Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore to study electrical engineering.

While he was studying at IISc, Ramasawmi mama was visiting Narayana Iyengar during his spare time. By then Narayana Iyengar, having secured a job as a lecturer in Central College after his post-graduation in mathematics was married and well settled in Malleswaram, a locality very close to IISc. It was at Narayana Iyengar’s house that Ramasawmi mama met Kanakam, cute little daughter of Kaveriammal, elder sister of Narayana Iyengar. Kanakam, who was then living at Ulsoor with her parents, used to visit her maternal uncle’s family along with paternal grand-mother during some weekends. Her main interest perhaps was to meet her cousin who got married to Narayana Iyengar, as they had lived together for a while during their childhood years. As he had met Kanakam a few times, Ramasawmi mama expressed his interest in marrying Kanakam to Narayana Iyengar and in turn he conveyed this information to his sister. Once all the elders of the family agreed to the proposal, sometime during 1925 my aunt Kanakam got married to Ramasawmi mama.

After completing his engineering at IISc, Ramasawmi mama joined Octavious Steel, a British company which was into several areas of business, including distribution of electricity. In a short span of time he rose in the hierarchy, from Assistant engineer to Chief engineer, during which time he was posted to different locations in India – Shajahannpur in Uttar Pradesh, Salem in Tamilnadu, Dacca in East Bengal  (presently Bangladesh), Patna in Bihar, Mangalore in Karnataka and just before retirement Calcutta in West Bengal.

As I recall, it was during summer of 1955 that I had first met Ramasawmi mama when he was Chief engineer of Mangalore Electric Supply as well as Erode Electric Supply. He had come to our house with my aunt in a big car. While returning, my elder sister went with them to Mangalore for summer vacation. I too very much wanted to go with them, but was left behind because my parents felt that it’d be too big a burden for my aunt to manage two kids. I had the opportunity to spend more time when Ramasawmi mama was at Salem during 1958 and subsequently at Coonoor during 1959, by which time he had retired from his job. It was during this period, I observed closely the way Ramasawmi mama managed his daily life.

Ramasawmi mama was a highly organised person in his day-to-day life and maintained a strict routine from 5.00 AM to 9.30 PM throughout. He was a stickler for hygiene and giving respect to elders. He insisted that even a day older, we cannot call a person by name and this included even servants. He always wished all his relatives and friends on the occasion of their birthdays / wedding anniversaries through a post-card, hand-written in his favourite violet ink. I learnt eating by fork and knife by observing him eating Masala dosa (a popular Karnataka dish) with them.

After his retirement from the British company in July 1959, Ramasawmi mama served as a member of Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) to select officers for Indian Engineering Services during 1960-65. Even after completing his term of five years, on and off he continued to be in the interview panel of UPSC till 1973. As part of our Industries tour across India during my final year engineering, I happened to visit Delhi in 1972 and hence, stayed with him. Amidst his work he ensured to take me to the houses of two of my maternal uncles who were working in Delhi at that time.

In his seventies, he spent a couple of months with us during 1974 and 1977. Even during those years, he maintained his routine and I had picked up a few of his practices. This helped me in my later years, as I travelled to Europe often as part of my business during 1980s. Although etiquette styles and fads may come and go, the fundamentals of global etiquette remain essentially the same.

  • Showing respect – The most important of the global etiquette is to show respect for what is important to another person and his or her culture. This includes respecting the various cultural distinctions that make us all unique and individual. Although cultural conditioning has deep roots, respect is universally understood—and is an essential step in bridging the cultural gap.
  • Showing that you care – we have to be proactive and learn about what’s important to the cultures that we visit or interact with. This will help in winning friendships / develop business.

But etiquette also expresses something more, which can be called as the principles of etiquette. Those are consideration, respect and honesty. These principles are the three qualities that stand behind all the manners we have. Such principles got well etched in my memory in the younger years of my life through observing the way Ramasawmi mama lived!


December 30th, 2023 | Ravi 69