If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Republic and an Ordinary Indian

Of the handful of men who have inspired me in life, one was my driver when I was a bank manager. Let me tell you why he is special.

But before that, a few words to set the scene. My office hired a car from a transport company for my official use. Let me confess that as a banker, my honesty was like 22 carat gold. The two carats of impurities were: I misused the office car and telephone without the faintest trace of compunction. B, a strapping young man with a ready smile, came in as a driver of the hired car. He earned a monthly salary of Rs.1,500 plus some overtime wages. How he made ends meet with that kind of fortune, even in 1995, remains a mystery to me, particularly because he wouldn’t filch diesel or fudge bills. But B never complained and was always ready to drive his boss around at any time of the day or night. In three years, he was never late by a minute and was never seen without a smile. That he was a super driver was a bonus.

Once, my wife and I went to Kalamandir for a music show. Because of traffic restrictions, B had to park far away from the theatre. When the show ended, a torrential rain was lashing Kolkata. It was long before cellphones and everyone among the audience was waiting in the foyer when a lone white Ambassador pulled up in front. In that deluge, we couldn’t even see the car clearly, but in a moment, B came out with two umbrellas and a beaming smile. I do not know how he found out when the show had ended. It is possible he had been waiting in the rain. 

Frankly, I haven’t worked with another Bengali who was more hard-working or one who did his job better. And all that wasn’t entirely wasted. 

When our contract with the transport company was about to end, I offered B a bank loan to buy a vehicle and rent it out to the bank. But he couldn’t beg, borrow, or steal the few thousand rupees required to be put in as “margin money” for the loan. He didn’t ask me, but I gladly gave him the amount. He repaid it in no time. 

This brought about a qualitative change in B's life and I wish I could end the story here with, “and since then, he has never looked back.” But life in the Republic that is celebrating its 64th birthday today isn’t quite that simple.

Over the last twenty years, B has been blessed with decent men and third-rate scoundrels as his boss more or less alternately. There were bosses who helped him, and thanks to one of them, B has a tiny flat in Kolkata now. But there have also been managers who exploited him ruthlessly. Some wouldn’t even pay him legitimate overtime wages, but leave him after midnight and ask him to report for duty within hours to send their kids to school; some wouldn’t think twice before asking him to do extra duty on Sundays …. One rogue manager even reduced his contractual pay! And almost every one of them made him work for as many hours as they fancied, with no consideration for how much his aging body could take. The power equation between managers and B being highly asymmetric, he has suffered in silence. And it shows. 

Now he has a slight stoop and looks much older than his age. The man who once was always chirpy and smiling has an air of defeat about him now. He hardly smiles. And he has had his usual quota of personal problems.

If you are a poor Indian and if you contract cancer, you would be fortunate if your malady remains undiagnosed. Unfortunately, B’s older brother’s cancer got detected early. The poor man lived and fought the disease for four years and by the time he died, all his farmlands had been sold to pay for his treatment. 

His daughter, that is B’s niece, is getting married next month and B came this morning to ask me for a loan to help him organize the wedding. It struck me that in the 20 years that I have known him, this was only the second time he has approached me for help, only in extreme emergencies, although all these years, he has lived from one crisis to another. 

So, what is the moral of the story? You may be finest practitioner of your trade and the most honest person in town, you may be prepared to work fourteen hours a day for years at a stretch without a holiday, but unless you belong to a privileged minority, this bloody Republic will not give you a fair deal. Period. 

Kolkata / 26 Jan 2014

PS: I  posted this story on Facebook too. Two of my colleagues, Shubhromoy Mukherjee, who was working in London then, and Ravichandran Aswin, who happened have had the benefited from Bachchu's services, read this story and chipped in with fairly large sums of money for his niece's wedding. So together, we did our small bit to support an orphan girl. Long live Facebook!