Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Gained in Translation!

The wrong end of the stick which Shashi Tharoor finds in his hand, thanks to the ‘cattle class’ controversy, reminded me of a similar situation I landed myself in, a decade back. And for very similar reasons.

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It was my first posting in North India. My assignment would involve continuous interaction with the trade unions of the officers and other employees. The job called for good proficiency in the local lingo. Given my RDLS (Regional Language Deficiency Syndrome), I was naturally apprehensive.

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Perhaps sensing my trepidation, he summoned Mr Pradhan, who was in charge of personnel. Introducing me to him, he said, in a bid to allay my fears,: you will be ably supported by Mr Pradhan. He was home-bred and knows how to go about things. I said it was fine and assured him I’d do my best.

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As we walked back to my office, Mr Pradhan told me: the unions are quite strong and militant. An indiscreet move, and they would pounce on you. He told me the story of how the netas had marched a donkey into the office of one of my predecessors and told him that further discussions could be had with the quadruped. They were miffed by the remark ‘Gadhe jaise baat kar rahe ho’ (You’re talking like an ass) and had walked out a little earlier. Though not quite relevant, he added that the animal, nervous in the unfamiliar ambience it was herded into, discharged body fluids and solid waste on the carpet, which stank one whole winter.

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Things went on smoothly for the first six months. No confrontations, no dharnas, no strikes. The honeymoon was short-lived, though.

One day, the Chairman of the employees’ union came to me for some favour. It was beyond the pale of the reasonable and could not be done. I told him so, politely but firmly. He grinned sheepishly and went out, saying, ‘Sorry Sir.’

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That was that, I thought.

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That was not that, I realised the next Friday. At the next formal meeting with the union, after the usual pleasantries, the agenda items were taken up. About an hour into the meeting, something came up which, in my view, was totally unreasonable. ‘No discussion on that,’ I said.

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The neta got up and said, ‘If you are not willing to discuss this matter, I am walking out.’ This sudden and unexpected turn of events baffled even the wise and sedate Mr Pradhan. Before he could smoothen the ruffled feathers, all others got up, as if on cue, and shouted, ‘Hai, Hai!’ (Shame, shame!)

Extending a virtual olive branch to the neta, I told him, ‘Varmaji, my doors are always open for you.’ I am sure the entire retinue had heard me, but they trooped out.

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Well-versed as he was in their ways and strategies, Mr Pradhan knew Varmaji was a seasoned leader who would not stage a walkout on a non-issue like this. To him, it looked like a well-orchestrated drama. He asked me in a hush-hush tone, ‘Did you recently refuse something that Varmaji had requested for?’ I told him ‘Yes’, and mentioned the details.

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Mr Pradhan had not completed saying, ‘Okay, I’ll tackle it, Sir,’ when the intercom buzzed. The boss. ‘Please come over.’ There was a sense of urgency in his voice.

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The entire management team was present. I smelt crisis in the air. The boss was fire and brimstone. ‘I believe you showed the door to Varmaji? You have put all of us in a spot by insulting him. Varmaji is a respected leader and you ask him to get out? You are the last person I expected this from.’

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The others tch-tched as the boss paused to catch breath. I tried to put in a word edgewise, ‘They are misrepresenting matters to you. Mr Pradhan was present there, you can ask him.’

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Mr Pradhan was summoned. Turning to me, the boss said, ‘You don’t say anything. Let him narrate what happened.’

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And he rendered a faithful account of what transpired. He explained the whole sequence of events – in a mix of Punjabi, Hindi and English. Mr Pradhan concluded the narration with, ‘Toh saab ne dassya, Varmaji, darwaza khula hai, and Varmaji was offended.’

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'‘You said that?’ the boss frowned at me.

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I protested: But I said that in English; I said ‘Varmaji, my doors are always open’, indicating that in case he had a rethink, he could always come back to me.

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'Ha Ha ha …’ the boss guffawed. ‘Idhar Punjab mein tumhaari angrezi kisko bujhta hai? Tumne kaha Door is open for coming back, usne samjha, darwaazaa khulaa hai nikal jaane ke liye!’ (Who knows your English? Varmaji thought you were showing him the door!’)

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4 comments:

A Stoic said...

Publish it! Publish it!

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

That was great; some humour in real life! I second the first comment.

wannabe said...

Sorry, what I posted was the 'first cut' - too long, with the names of the persons involved unchanged. (My practice is to write the story as it is and then change the names. By mistake, I posted that version.)

Ritwik Sinha said...

Great piece, very entertaining.