Guest Speaks : Myth Of The Aam Aadmi by Ashok Malhotra

Whenever I come across the term Aam Aadmi( Common Man) I begin to wonder as to who this creature is. I look for him amongst people that I encounter(including myself), but never seem to find him; though in a sense, he ia all pervasive.

This of course is understandable because Aam Aadmi is only a archetype which is not supposed to have a one to one correspondence with any specific individual. Thus we can only talk about him  in a symbolic sort of way ….  as an image which is sought to be communicated by people who claim to talk on his behalf and/or act in his interest.

Admittedly, I have not done any great research on the subject but the picture which has gotten formed in my mind of the Aam Aadmi is some thing like this — He is a middle aged householder whose life is confined to his immediate surroundings.  He is simple, sincere and reasonably hard working.  His primary motivations are survival, looking after his near and dear ones and improving his lot in a socio-economic sense. He is a creature of routine, he gets up in the morning at a reasonably fixed time, goes to work and spends his leisure time with family/friends, watching T.V., reading, listening to music etc.  Now and then he takes a holiday where he tries to balance luxury with economy. Though he is generally helpful, he minds his own business. He neither creates any problem nor does he go out of his way to deal with issues which do not directly affect him.  In other worde, he is neither a hero nor a villain, perhaps not even a significant part of the supporting cast but a mere EXTRA – a faceless entity which can be spotted standing in a queue or milling around in a crowded public place.  As a distinctive individual he is invisible, insignificant,a passive spectator,a helpless victim and a mere pawn in the hands of “powers that be” .  The only time his “active agency” comes alive is when he ceases to be a distinctive individual and becomes a number in a large collective e.g. by participating in elections,opinion polls,demonstration and rallies etc.

On the other hand the Khaas Aadmi(special person) experiences his “agency” through his distinctiveness- he is different from others- he is visible and significant and can determine (or atleast influence) the course of events. He is either a hero or a villain but never an EXTRA. He can be an oppressive tyrant or a benevolent patron, a champion of the underdog or a street smart bully; but he is always Somebody and never is a  Nobody.

While the Aam Aadmi derives his potency by diffusing his distinctiveness, the Khaas Aadmi must retain and preserve his distinctiveness in order to feel potent. Just as the Aam Aadmi can not afford to seperate himself from others, the Khaas Aadmi can not afford to identify with others.

It may seem that the split between Aam and Khaas is essentially determined by social heirarchies of class, caste, position and status etc.  But this is not completly so.  Several other factors including physical appearance and personal attributes play a significant role. Thus even amongst a group of peers, it is not uncommom to find that some become Aam and some Khaas.  Similarly, it is not uncommon to find people in very significant and powerful positions look at themselves essentially as Aam Aadmi.  For instance, I will not be surprised if our current PM inspite of holding arguably the most powerful position in the country, looks at himself as more Aam than Khaas. On the other hand toddlers of a particular dynasty may learn to see themselves as very Khaas even before they learn to walk and talk.

Thus the split between Aam and Khaas is both contextual and personal. The same individual may feel Aam in some situations and Khaas in others. Similarly in an identical position some of us may experience ourselves as Aam while others may feel Khaas. However, the split has a significant psychological pay off, i.e. it enables us to become Aam or Khaas as convenient to us.  Since most of us need both the safety of anonymity and identification, as also the privileges of visibilty and distinctiveness; we can become Aam or Khaas depending upon which need is at play. Thus when we dont wish to confront, we can become Aam (after all what can an Aam Aadmi like me do in such a situation?) and when we wish to impose our will we can become Khaas (dont you know who I am, and how dare you defy me?)

We all know that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  What we often don’t acknowledge is that powerlessness corrodes and absolute powerlessness corrodes absolutely. Yet the fact of the matter is that power both in its presence and in its absence is never absolute. None of us is a complete master of his destiny just as none of us is completly a victim of the situation. Similarly none of us is so unique that he has nothing in common with others just as none of us is so Aam that there is nothing Khaas in him.

This split of Aam and Khaas only perpetuates the myth of their absoluteness.

Ashok Malhotra

Ashok Malhotra is a management consultant who has nearly four decades of experience of working with individuals, groups and organizations in the areas of personal growth and organization.  He is one of the founders of “Sumedhas Academy for Human Context” and has published several articles in professional journals and presented papers in many national and international conferences.

The latest feather in his crown is his first book called “The Child Man – The Selfless Narcissist” published by Routledge Publications in June 2010. Through the stories such mythological figures as Balarama, Duryodhana and Bhima, the “Child Man” explores the potent but deeply ambivalent aspect of the human psyche that neither listens to the voice of reason, nor easily submits to social and moral conventions.  Like a child, it relentlessly pursues whatever catches its fancy and keeps playing with fire. This energy can, equally help us actualize our heroic potential or set us on the path to self destruction.  The key to making this energy positive lies in what we do with the emotional and psychic wounds which are a necessary part of our growth.

Ashok calls himself a compulsive gambler and has often departed from the straight and the narrow.

He lives in Bangalore and can be contacted at ashokmal9@gmail.com


woman, mother, thinker, citizen of the world, curious and hopeful about the world, generous, opinionated, argumentative, insightful, intuitive, psychotherapist, executive coach and organisation consultant

10 thoughts on “Guest Speaks : Myth Of The Aam Aadmi by Ashok Malhotra

  1. The post set me thinking. In my experience, higher education, corporate life and modern living by and large seem to create a pressure to be a “Khaas Aadmi”, subtly sending a msg that being an “Aam Aadmi” equals to being “left behind” and being just another face in the crowd. I personally experience shame at my ordinariness and often refuse to accept what makes me “aam”.

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    • Dear Anuradha,
      Thank you for your response. Your may also like to think about the times when we hide behind the safety of being ‘aam'(ordinary). I believe that irrespective of the messages from the environment, the need to be distinctive is intrinsic to being human, just as the need for safety and intimacy through identification, are.

      I agree with you that the environment over emphasises the need to be ‘khaas’ (special/distinctive) and even more sadly so, defines this distinctiveness in terms of ‘what we have’ rather than ‘who we are’.

      From my point of view, the more significant issue is, can we accept the simultaneity of the two, rather than proclaiming our specialness when we wish to; and running to our ordinariness when it becomes too hot to be special?

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  2. Ashok, the aam admi is easy to find. He is the one who has never spoken in the RKLaxman cartoon. I love the guy, but strangely i have not seen myself as him, though i dress pretty much like him and am often bewildered like him! I wonder if India has a n Aam admi, i wonder if Bharath has an Aam admi either. Every one in India is special starting from the colourless, odourless, faithless, globalised, rootless denizens who create (or believe they are creating) India Shining, all the way down to the members of sub castes seeking reservation! We are all Khas aadmi’s.

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    • Dear Raghu, thank for your response. I think in our effort to super impose a common Indian identity, we have ended up oppressing all sectoral identities of religion, caste, province, etc. It is therefore, not at all surprising that a lot of our ‘khas’ (distinctivenss) gets expressed as a reactive process through proclamation from our sectoral identity.

      R K Laxman’s ‘common man’ may not speak but is an acute observer, and that I believe should give us hope.

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  3. Hi Ashok… does the “aam aadmi” exist at all in the individual mind? I somehow don’t think so. To every individual, the experience of himself or herself is special, isn’t it (consciously or unconsciously?). And the trials and tribulation that self is going through is a unique and distinctive experience. Right? So aren’t terms like “aam aadmi” just groupings used by external parties who want to group and classify people into convenient blocks for their own use? To communicate, to influence, to market to or to manipulate large blocks of people, they need to be able to find common threads, classify them and then tackle them as a “block”?

    I somehow sense the problem is when these external “classifiers” are so powerful and influence our minds so much, that we start buying into their classification of ourselves. And beyond a point the power of suggestion takes over. “you are aam aadmi” …. “oh thats right.. if he says so, I must be” ? 🙂 Scary?

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    • Dear Sandeep,
      thanks for your insightful response. I agree with you that each of us is a distinctive individual. This, however, does not take away the fact that we are also very ordinary and just like anybody else. The difficulty of holding this duality is at the root of exploitation/manipulation that you referred to – “if you wish to be special then do/buy/join x,y,z, etc, etc”.

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  4. ‘absolute powerlessness corrodes absolutely’ – you have hit the nail on the head going straight for a sixer! Without commenting much on the absolute gender bias in the term ‘aam aadmi’ (for no heroin of any ‘socially conscious’ hindi flick ever said ‘main ek aam aurat hun’ !), I feel is such a bloody construction. It is used for being opportunistic about which side of the fence of responsibility you want to be on; to victimise oneself and hand over all agency of ones life to nameless faceless powers that be and retain only the right to complain; to use it as an excuse for complete non action and to find a ‘cover-all’ reason to live without any consciousness of one’s own potential – such a warm and fuzzy feeling of bliss! It has never had any positive refrain – other than being used as a euphemism for political partisanship and an escape route for policy decisions that target a ‘no one’ – the aam aadmi is the kat putli one uses then to justify almost anything. They had taught us something in business schools which still makes sense (one of those few things you dont need to unlearn rapidly) – if you are targeting everyone, you are actually talking to no one – the aam aadmi is a nice juicy convenience for wearing that blanket of ‘no body’. Thank you Ashok for this insightful piece.

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    • Dear Arundhati,

      Thanks for pointing out the gender bias. Language has its own limitations, and is heavily influenced by the gender stereotypes; e.g. some of the expressions of lack of distinctiveness in a woman like “gharelu”, “plain jane” reflect the gender roles and associated stereotypes.
      Glad that you like the post.

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  5. Ashok, I was thinking that I was leading the life of a aam aurath, a faceless woman, inside the four walls of her house, tending to her children, husband and relatives and nothing else. Only recently I realised that I had been feeling special all the time. Your words resonate quite well with my experience.

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