My first posting as the head of a bank branch was in 1977. Kannur branch was located in the district headquarters. My home was in a village in the same district. Though it was just about fifteen kilometers away from the town where my branch was situated and it was possible to commute to work, I decided to take up residence in the town.
It turned out to be a luxury because the house was barely 200 meters from the branch and I could walk down home for lunch! The landlord, a retired civil servant, lived in the house in the next plot. His presence was a source of comfort and his graceful wife was good company for the young bride my wife was then.
On Saturday evenings, we would make off to my village and return only on Sunday evenings. That way we had the best of both worlds: urban life on working days and rural in weekends.
Hamza, a stocky ex-serviceman, was a customer of mine. His pension would arrive every month with unerring regularity on the first working day and he would withdraw the whole of it on the same day. Given the demands on his financial resources, the modest fixed deposit he had that represented his terminal benefits were under threat of doing a vanishing trick any moment.
One day I suggested to him that he should try his hand at supplementing his income – maybe he could buy a taxi car. He was still young. Those were the days when India made only two brands of cars and any intending purchaser had to register his intent and wait for, at times, as long as three years. A brand new Ambassador car cost Rs 50,000, and one had to pay Rs 2,500 for registration. Even though he could rustle up that sum, Hamza could not wait that long. His need was more urgent.
One day he came up with the idea of setting up a small scale industry. He would make pickles. Would I give a loan? I helped him with the formalities – registration and some clearances in the District Industries that would entitle him to a subsidy, exemption from sales tax and concessionary interest on loans. I sanctioned a loan of Rs 5,000 and thus was born ‘Perfect Pickles’.
The next Saturday, Bhawani and I locked up the house as usual and boarded the bus to my village. We returned the next evening. A little later, there was a knock at the door. It was Hamza, tired and drenched in sweat, with a bottle of pickle in either hand. They were old Horlicks bottles, with red plastic caps in place of the original the metallic ones. The bottles sported crude-looking but colourful labels with the word ‘Perfect’ spelt as ‘Prefect’!
‘This is from the first batch of pickles from my factory,’ he explained. ‘This is for you, Sir.’
Clause 29 Sub clause (iii) of the Officers’ Service Regulations flashed through my mind: ‘No officer shall demand or accept gifts of any nature, whether in cash or in kind, from a customer of the Bank, whether a depositor or borrower, or any person otherwise associated or has dealings with the Bank.’
I did not want to hurt this simpleton and told him, ‘I don’t care too much for pickles, that too ones where vinegar is an ingredient.’
His face fell. ‘But, sir, there might be someone in the family who would like it …’ he pleaded.
It was then that I recalled proviso (b) to Clause 29 Sub clause (iii) of the Officers’ Service Regulations which read, ‘Nothing contained in Clause 29 Sub clause (iii) supra will prohibit an Officer from receiving gifts of flowers and fruits and articles costing less than Rs 10.’ Glad that I had a straw to clutch at, I relaxed my standards of probity and accepted the jars.
Later in the day, as my wife and I were watering the plants in the garden, my landlord ambled along and told me, ‘This morning, someone had come looking for you.’ A balding, stocky man with a thick moustache. Description of the visitor’s appearance pointed to the fact that it was Hamza. ‘He said that he makes pickles, that you had sanctioned him a loan and that he was carrying a gift for you.’
My landlord was being polite. He was suggesting, without saying so, that the gist Hamza had carried for me was in fact a gratification for the loan I had sanctioned. I had nowhere to hide.
‘I told him you had gone to your village and were expected back only in the evening. He wanted to know where your home was and I told him. Koodali is where you live, right?’
‘That is my where my tarwad (ancestral home) is and several of my relatives live. We have built our home in Chalode, a few kilometers away.’
During our visit the next weekend, my grandmother told me, ‘Soon after you left last Sunday afternoon, someone had come looking for you. He said he was a pickle-maker to whom you had granted a loan. He wanted to gift you two jars of his product. I sent him back to Kannur.’ There was nothing I could do. Even my grandmother had come to know I was a party to the graft!
But then, if my landlord had told Hamza that I lived in Koodali, how did he reach Chalode? Obviously, he had first gone to Koodali, briefed everyone he had met there of his mission before being told that my home was in Chalode. The damage was complete: my reputation as a scamster had spread to the villages of Koodali and Chalode!
I was conspicuous by my absence at the Theyyam in our tarwad that year because I was afraid everyone I would meet there would tell me that they had seen a balding, stocky man with a thick moustache carrying two jars of pickles for me.