Sunday, July 26, 2009

Wooster and Jeeves

In my career, I have had several bosses – some benevolent, some nasty, some stiff upper lip, some informal to a fault – but there is one that remains indelibly etched in my memory.

I had been sent on deputation from my parent organization to one headquartered a couple of thousand kilometers away. It was with some trepidation that I proceeded, for my boss there had the ‘reputation’ of being highly irascible and prone to flying off the handle at the drop of a hat – er, turban, for my posting was in Patiala, in the heartland of Punjab.

It was well-known that he was a man of rigid views and spoke his mind, regardless of circumstances or consequences. This was true of me too. This was a dangerous cocktail if there was one. I was painfully aware that at the best of times, an even temper is not my strong point. If my inability to stand such nonsense manifested in a retort (which I was sure it would) my career would go kaput!

The day I reported there, I greeted my boss in his office in the forenoon, presented the letter relieving me from my earlier assignment, gently pulled a chair and sat. He had no time for such formalities. He pushed aside my credentials and asked me how I liked the new place. He asked the peon to get a cup of tea and continued the small talk.

Suddenly, he thought of something called his secretary. As soon as he came in, the boss started giving a series of instructions. The secretary nodded regularly, punctuating them with a ‘Yes, Sir’ or a ‘Haan, ji’ or a hybrid ‘Sir, ji’.

Suddenly, the boss flared up. ‘Jaswant, I know you are a very intelligent person and can remember all that I tell you, but I expect you come with a pad and a pencil to jot down what I say.’ The secretary promptly withdrew, presumably to fetch his wherewithal.

That was when another officer came in and said, ‘Good morning, Sir.’

The boss snapped, ‘What is so good about the morning?’

To say that I was shocked at this behaviour would be an understatement. My immediate urge was to scram. It was beyond me to imagine how I would put up with working under such a brute.

How wrong I was! And what a surprise it was to discover the man within the man! I was more than fascinated by his colourful vocabulary and refreshingly different approach towards things. What made him stand out in a world where most of his ilk were uni-dimensional men whose interests were limited to the job and the crumbs it brought, was the variety of subjects he dabbled in. He was widely read and it showed. He has a subtle sense of humour, as I found out in time.

Contrary to my expectations, for some reason, he developed an instant liking for me. With the passage time, we discovered that we shared several common interests. Soon, got along famously, thick as thieves.

Around 11:30, Lacchman Singh, his peon, would peep through my door and whisper, ‘Sirji, sa’ab yaad karr rahe hain.’ As if on cue, I would arrange the papers lying on my table in a neat pile and amble to my boss.

There he would be waiting for me, his table clear of all paper. We would discuss the progress in the work, the day’s plans, the state of the nation, anything under the sun. In quarter of an hour, I would be back in my room. Meanwhile, Lacchman Singh would bring a tray with a steaming pot of tea, two gleaming teacups, napkins and a plate with a few biscuits. Though not much of a tea-drinker, I enjoyed those sessions. Little did I realize then that it was a daily review of my work.

On certain days, uninvited, I would go to him for discussing some point. After sharing his views, as I got up to leave, he would say, ‘Sit, sit … She’s coming…’ Perplexed, I’d ask, ‘She? Who’s she?’ The boss, with a glint in his eyes, would say, ‘Wait and see…’ I would look expectantly as the door creaked open to admit Lacchman Singh with his tray. My boss would say, ‘I told you, she’s coming… chai aa rahee hai.’

Which brings us to the perfect understanding between the Wooster and the Jeeves. During a normal working day, he would have an average of twenty visitors. As soon as a visitor came in, Lacchman would peep in. If the boss said, ‘Garma-garam chai lao, Lacchman!’ it meant that the boss wanted the guest to stay and did not want any disturbance.’ On the contrary, if the boss had told him, ‘Arey Lacchman, ‘Saab ko kucchh thanda-vanda pilao’, it meant that he would not like to spend too much time with the guest. If he over-stayed, Lacchman would make his appearance at an appropriate time and announce, ‘Saab, Sirji yaad kar rahe hain.’ Whereupon, the boss would get up with an ‘I would have liked to spend more time with you, but excuse me, my boss wants me.’

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Yaadein about a Summons

Pardon me, but, for want of a better expression, I have to use a cliché. It was with what is generally known as ‘mixed feelings’ that the news of my transfer to Punjab was received. The elation because of the out-of-turn promotion it came with was consumed by apprehension: my destination was noted for terrorists spraying bullets even on unsuspecting wayfarers.

Our office was an impressive white building adjoining the Kali Temple on The Mall in Patiala. Constructed in the early 20th century by the Maharaja, it was an immaculate structure whose high-dome and minarets caught one’s eyes. The winding stairs with broad wooden steps and polished banisters led to the first floor where my boss sat.

With expansion, the main building had proved inadequate to accommodate all the departments. Annexes were added from time to time, but not much planning seemed to have gone into these appendages which marred the symmetry of the original structure. If there could be a medley of architecture, this was it! My office was in an annexe made of concrete, glass and chrome.

The posting transported me to another world: different language, costumes, food and culture. In Kerala where I belong to, people are so matter-of-fact that when you meet an acquaintance, instead of greeting with a cheery ‘Good morning’, both of you look away. You are lucky if you can manage to extract a smile out of him. The case is not very different even if he is your friend, boss or father-in-law.

Not so in Punjab, as I discovered soon. If it is your boss (or an older person), you bow down to touch his feet; the recipient of such obeisance gently motions you to stop and so you just reach his knees. If it is a friend, you hug him and say ‘ki gull hai, pappe?’ or words to that effect. If it is a junior (in age or position), you do what your boss would do to you – after he demonstrates his intention to touch your feet.

Like every small organization in a small town, this organization too had its own quaint customs and practices. One such was that the intercom in the office was meant only for peer-level communication. It was insubordination tantamount to sacrilege if you picked up the intercom to speak to the boss. And bosses would not use the device for talking to subordinates; they were people to be summoned in person and given directions.

My boss was a very fine gentleman who was as feared as he was respected. The message ‘Boss was looking for you’ was enough to send shivers down the spine of most. He would send for you only if there was something amiss with what you had done. And it was believed that being hauled over the coals was infinitely better than the dressing down you would receive for your mistake.

In the first week on my stint there, there was something which needed a brief report to my boss. As it would take just a moment, I did the natural thing: I reached for the intercom. Before I could say, ‘Sir, the opening of …’ he responded, ‘Come here, we need to discuss it in greater detail.’ A few more such instances, and I got the message loud and clear: I am supposed to physically go to him for discussions.

One forenoon, my boss’ personal peon peeped through the door of my cabin and said, ‘Sirji, sa'ab ne yaad kiya.’ I thought, ‘How nice of the gentleman to have remembered me!’ and nodded.

Ten minutes later, he made his appearance again, and announced, ‘Sirji, sa'ab ne yaad kiya.’ This time I thought I should acknowledge the kind gesture and said, ‘Acchha, thank you!’

Once again, in ten minutes, he came in with the same refrain, ‘Sirji, sa'ab ne yaad kiya.’ I was puzzled: why this sudden volley of fond remembrances?

My puzzlement did not last long. The intercom beeped. At the other end was the boss. ‘Are you too busy to come to me when I summon you?’

Realising that he was getting into a foul mood, I rushed to him.

‘I did not get your message, …’ I explained.

‘Didn’t Lacchhman come to you three times and ask you to?’

‘He did come, but he just told me that you yaad kiya.’ But did not tell me I was wanted by you.’

My boss burst out into a guffaw. When the ripples of the mirth subsided, he said, ‘How would you, not conversant with this language, know that yaad kiya is a euphemism for being summoned?’

Friday, July 03, 2009


During my annual holiday last month, I ran into Ramettan, the village postman. Shrivelled and shrunk, he was still trudging long distances for delivering messages. I had thought he had retired long back, for he was a postman even when I was in school, which makes it about fifty years of service! When I asked him about superannuation, Ramettan shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘A couple of years more to go.’

A genial soul, he was (and still is) Ramettan to everyone, man or woman, old or young, though the suffix ‘ettan’ implies seniority in age. He had started life as a peon in the elementary school and doubled as a postman – quite like his boss Balan master – a school teacher who ‘moonlighted’ as the postmaster. They were part of a large contingent of what was called EDL staff (Extra Departmental … – what does the L stand for?)

He had set his own practices and rules for delivery of mail. The first batch of delivery was at the point of origin – the post office. A small crowd would be waiting at the post office in the evening for the ‘Jayashree bus' to bring the mail bag. Ramettan would open the bag, separate the special mail (registered letters, money orders etc) for scrutiny of the post master. Then thud, thud, he would affix the delivery stamp on each of the remaining items – one thud on the stamp pad and another on the letter.

As the loud thuds resound rhythmically, the expectant crowd outside would swell in size. He would read aloud the names of the addressees of the missives. Among them, those present there would come forward to collect them. People were free to collect letters meant for their neighbours too.

The vigilant observer could notice a pattern he followed while putting away the letters that could not be disposed of at this point: they were sorted into a few heaps – geographically, one presumed.

Ramettan would first head for the banyan tree in front of the Krishna temple where people would assemble in the evening to exchange the hottest gossip, play cards or ambulate. Delivering the first bunch of letters there, he would dispose of half the day’s arrivals.

The peripatetic delivery would start in the morning. Other things being equal, he gave priority to money orders and registered letters. He knew that aged parents might be looking forward to remittances from their employed children and youngsters would be awaiting call letters for interviews and appointment orders. The small tip that recipients of these would grant him was incidental, but incentive enough.

Bookpost and newspapers (Hard to believe, but, yes, they used to arrive by post!) received the lowest priority in Ramettan’s scheme of things. These would be held over till some ‘regular’ mail came for the same addressee – or his neighbour. Many are the days when three or four issues of the Indian Express would be delivered to my uncle in a bunch.

Most of the letters in those days when money was hard to come by were postcards because in the trade-off between privacy and frugality, the latter won hands down. As he walked through the fields and through the lanes, he would glance at the letters. While delivering the letters, he would also announce, ‘Nothing to worry, Karthiyedathi, Raghavettan has reached NEFA safe’ or ‘Kanaetta, your grand-daughter’s milk tooth has fallen off.’ The recipients would not take offence at his having had a sneak preview of the letter before they could read it.

Not many were literate in those days and needed help to decipher the contents. Help was always at hand in the form of Ramettan. At times, his assistance would be sought for writing out replies – something he happily did. This role of reader-cum-scribe made Ramettan privy to the secrets in several families. To give the devil his due, Ramettan would keep all those to himself; he would be the last to cause embarrassment to them by broadcasting these at the village fair.

Ramettan was, to use an overworked cliché, an institution. He had a share in the joys and the sorrows of every family in the village. He rejoiced when Appukkuttan got an appointment order, he was crestfallen when he brought the news that the right leg of Kumaran Nair was blown off when he stepped on a mine in Kargil.

One thing, however, has always been an enigma to me. It is one thing to scan a postcard and be a privy to the contents, but how on earth could he know the contents of inland letters and envelopes which were sealed? I recall that one evening during a summer vacation, he brought an envelope and handed it over to my grandmother, telling her, ‘Santhedathi has missed her periods again. You must ask her to stop, Kalyani Amma. This would be her seventh child, right?’