My tryst with dignity – Ishwarya Thyagarajan

The author presenting her research on Islam and organ donation at India’s premier management institute, IIM Ahmedabad.

The author presenting her research on Islam and organ donation at India’s premier management institute, IIM Ahmedabad.


In the last few months, in attempting to understand what dignity means to others, I have repeatedly asked myself what dignity means to me. I have realised there is not and will never be a singular response to this. While being acknowledged and respected is foremost when it comes to being treated with dignity, there are many shades and multifaceted layers beyond this. I realized this recently when I conducted fieldwork on a research project in Tiruppur and Chennai with garment and software industry professionals, respectively.


Though an essential part of my bread and butter, fieldwork has always made me slightly uncomfortable, mainly when it involves interactions with the economically weaker section. And discussing something as sensitive as dignity with this group added another layer of complexity. I distinctly remember repeatedly going over the set of suggestive questions we were to use for our research, wondering how I would feel if someone were to ask me these questions. I had yet to realize that dignity explicitly had a role to play in my productivity, working hours or my health at the workplace and the collective impact on my personal life. While specific questions revealed aspects of dignity that I had never bothered to think of, the rest helped me relate to personal experiences, such as where I come from and what I do. 


I was a pariah in a family of engineers and scientists, most of whom migrated to the West. I chose to pursue hospitality management and later quit a prestigious consulting firm after engaging in CSR activities that were more fulfilling than my desk job to become a social worker; the fancier ‘development practitioner’ tag did not make it any better. I still was the black sheep in the family. My passion, what I did, and what I was good at were never ambitious enough; there simply was no respect where there was no money. 


Things were not any better in my professional life, with continued experiences of disrespect. A few years later, in my career in the social sector, I got to work with someone who was greatly popular and respected in the field of medicine. I considered myself lucky to have the opportunity and was excited to learn from this individual. For three years, I worked diligently on every task assigned, no matter how trivial it was, and on many occasions, I went far beyond what was expected of me. Nevertheless, I was constantly put down at conferences and meetings, was never given credit where it was due, denied opportunities for personal growth, and was highly underpaid and overworked. Every working day began with the thought of how unfairly I was being treated, leading to disinterest in work and eventually quitting. 


However, during my research in Tiruppur, I understood that my expectations and definitions of dignity differed vastly from those I interacted with. Gradually, I became acutely aware of the privileges my upper-caste, upper-middle-class background had offered and realised this defined dignity for me. This also made me wonder if my entitled upbringing had made me a tad too arrogant and egoistic. While it was ingrained in me that I should be treated respectfully no matter what and assumed that it was the same for others, I was in for a rude shock to know this was not universally true. I had been blind to people around me for whom basic dignity was still a luxury that could only be availed if several conditions were met. It meant that you had to belong to a certain gender, caste, community, religion, and region, to name a few.


I frequently heard the adage ‘give respect, take respect’ during my interviews, which I firmly believe is heavily conditional for many. Dignity should always be intrinsic and never transactional; it surpasses all other characteristics and emotions. As Miguel Angel Ruiz beautifully pens, perfectly resonating with my thoughts, “respect is one of the greatest expressions of love.” No individual should be expected to meet certain criteria to be treated with dignity. While how you are treated is undoubtedly vital, what is equally and even more important is how you treat others. And this is precisely why one should start reflecting more on dignity.


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