Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Curate's Egg

(In order to mask the identity of the people I write about, it has been my practice to use pseudonyms. In this blogpost, I depart from it because only a handful of readers would anyway distinguish him Mr Fullname from Mr F.)

Let me show off how much of a quiz whiz I am: The phrase in the title derives from a cartoon in the British humour magazine Punch on 9 Nov 1895. ‘True Humility’ by George du Maurier pictured a timid-looking curate at breakfast in the bishop’s house. The bishop says, ‘I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr Jones.’ The curate replies, ‘Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!’
The original sense of the expression referred to an objective understanding of the depicted scenario: since an egg that is even partly ‘bad’ is effectively inedible, the supposedly ‘excellent’ parts do not redeem it.
The more modern sense of the expression reflects the point of view the curate is trying to argue: that the ‘excellent’ parts compensate for the ‘rotten’ parts to render complaints – or at least dismissing something as total loss – inappropriate.
The humour, as much now as it was then, is derived from the fact that, given the social situation, the timid curate feels that he dare not complain about the quality of an inedible egg that would ordinarily be immediately rejected.
Mr Borker would certainly rank high among the most unforgettable characters I have ever met.
It was fate that brought us together. He was a Goan, me a Mallu. He was a very senior officer in the bank 'in the evening of my career' as he would put it, and I was a young officer with just about a tenth of his service. He was posted in Bombay, I in Calcutta.
Non-bankers may skip this paragraph and the next. Mr Borker was an officer in the erstwhile 'A' grade. If I recall right, during the restructuring in 1979, ‘A’ grade officers were fitted in Middle Management Grade Scale III, and in the present day’s context, the status of Mr Borker may look humble.
Bear in mind that in those days, the CEO of the bank was a General Manager (deputed from State Bank of India); there was just one Deputy General Manager and below him were just about half a dozen 'A' grade Officers. Mr Borker was one among them.
It is to his credit that despite his not being a Keralite, he rose from the lowly clerk’s position to this level in a bank which had a predominantly South Indian bureaucracy.
Official records stated his academic qualification rather vaguely as 'Studied upto VIII Lyceum of Goa'. His detractors in the Bank, and they were in droves, in their private conversations, used to say that this was equivalent to Class VIII. Drawing a parallel to the British Malabar where Form VI was equivalent to Matriculation, I would like to believe, though I am not sure, that Lyceum VIII must be Intermediate.
Whatever his scholastic attainment, executive qualities were present in him in abundance. Mr Borker spoke well and wrote well. He was one of the few who could 'dictate' a letter to a stenographer, something many of his peers and bosses who prided in their 'higher' academic qualifications could not do. When I say that his 'KT, you write exactly as I would have written' is one of the compliments I treasure - his prowess over the language was such.
And, boy, was he shrewd! One look at a customer, and call it the sixth sense, intuition or gumption, Mr Borker could tell if he could be trusted with the bank’s money. He had his own book of instructions and guidelines. ‘If a customer brings a cheque or a bill for purchase or discounting ten minutes before the close of banking hours,’ he would say, ‘Look at it three times: likelier than not, there is a problem there.’
He would often say that he had joined the bank at the wrong time. The life of his boss was 3 x 3 – three hours in office, three hours at lunch and three hours of golf. By the time Mr Borker became an officer, things had changed and officers had to put in long hours of work. ‘I had to wait for Sundays to see my school-going son awake.’
Mr Borker was business-focused. He had only contempt for the pen-pushers at the Head Office - there were no Regional/Zonal Offices in those days. ‘I do business and even for bona fide mistakes, I get a charge-sheet. They do not know business, but their files have only medical bills and leave applications. So they get all the promotions and boss over me!’
‘If you earn a profit of a lakh of rupees for the bank, they’ll say it is what you are paid for. If a measly hundred rupees has to be written off out of the million from which you earned that lakh, they’ll haul you over the coals,’ Mr Borker would grieve. (Despite the efflux of decades, things haven’t changed much, have they?)
He used to admonish me for my tendency to shoot from the hip and prescribed an antidote to be used when mail from the Head Office would send blood gushing to my head: ‘KT, open all mail in the morning and distribute it to the different sections, but save the mail from the HO for the evening. If you read the stupid mail from those good-for-nothing fellows early in the morning, you will spoil your day. In the evening, you read the HO mail and write - or dictate fitting retorts immediately to the Nair or Thomas or Iyer whoever has signed it.’
After a pause, he added, ‘Do not mail them, though. Come next morning, rewrite them imagining that you are writing to Mr Niyogi (the then MD). The first letter will give you relief from your frustration and indignation; the latter will save your career.’
He groomed the officers under his umbrella. This he did by delegating and monitoring. If I committed a mistake, I could rest assured that he would protect me – something that I cannot say of many bosses I have worked for.
He had managed to stay on in Bombay most of his working life spanning nearly four decades - no mean feat in the bank where one gets transferred at least every three years. According to his own admission, he did it 'more by crook than by hook' and defended himself: ‘If X manipulates to play musical chairs in the Head Office occupying cushy posts, why not me?’
Like any true Goan, Mr Borker loved seafood. He drank like a fish and smoked like a chimney – I have seen him smoke bidis, cigarettes, cigars, cigarillos and often would be seen chewing his briar pipe. He moved rather closely with the borrowers, going out for cocktails and dinner with them. Mr Borker never denied this. He used to say, ‘I use these informal exchanges to know about developments in the market, the client’s own business performance and plans.’
However, the puritans in the Head Office were not amused by the reports about these convivial trysts. ‘Those villagers in Trivandrum do not know how business in done in metros,’ was his response. I guess he had a point there.
Thanks to his ‘customer-friendliness’, speculation was rife that Mr Borker was given to accepting illegal gratification, earning him the nickname ‘Broker’. This is a point I cannot confirm or deny through my year-long close association with him.
Mr Borker was a curate’s egg.
You could love him, you could hate him, but you just could not ignore him.


Ashok Menath said...

glymorWhat an interesting personality! The analogy of a partly rotten egg underlines our puritan dilemma, rightly though.
Things have not changed a bit for 'Sarkaari' bankers in India. As a matter of fact, it is worse.
His contempt for pen pushing 'villagers from Trivandrum' - a wonderfully apt expression- is palpable and right.

Though it is evident that he has 'rightly' earned it, the sobriquet 'Broker', could have been spared for the last paragraph. It ofcourse is a relief to find a colourful egg in a stinking basket of rotten eggs and cabbages.

wannabe said...

Thank you, Ashok.

I have been wanting to write on Mr Borker for years, but had to postpone it every time. Recently, while chatting with a colleague, his name cropped up and that chat triggered the post.

All of us are, in a sense, the proverbial curate's eggs - a mix of good and bad. But for the failings, this world would be such a boring place to live in, populated as it would be with only paragons of virtue.

It is these angularities in the psyche and kinks in the personality that make a man what he is. So must be it with Borker, me and all the rest of us.

There is a lesson - by way of anti-example if not example - for the next generation to learn from each of us. (For instance, my life should teach them that there is a better way than flying off the handle when the boss is cross, though, I am not sure if I would behave differently, given another chance.)

I am not sure I have done justice to Mr Borker, but the post was already getting too long, so I had to stop somewhere.

jojosher said...

Sir, A true account. But then there were people like Borcker during those times to speak out against " pen-pushing villagers from all over". Hope you will continue this about other "TITANS".

A Stoic said...


philip said...

To me ,Borker was one of those Olympian myths. You have shown him as a real person

Thomas said...

As Philip stated, Borker remained a myth though I had also heard a lot about him.This really throws more light on on him in so few words and certainly puts him in a better light.excellent!