Saturday, January 10, 2015

Mister H


On confirmation as a Probationary Officer in SBI, I was posted in a small village called “Umaria” in a backward district of Madhya Pradesh. Despite being a native of MP, I had to search for the place on the large map of the state hanging in the cabin of the Planning Manager in the Local Head Office of SBI at Bhopal. Being a callow idealist at that time, I went against the advice of almost everyone and decided not to ask for a change of posting. My logic was simple. This was my first posting, the place was only 180 kms away from my native place Jabalpur; and our first born, a bonny daughter, who was only 2 months old, would not be going to school for the next 3 years.  Hence, there was no valid reason for asking for a change. In addition, I would also get to complete my mandatory rural posting.
            I almost regretted my quixotic decision when I landed at the place. I had gone ahead alone to join and a fix up a house for our small family of three. The place was a one street town. The town ended before I realised that I had arrived. My heart sank when I got down at the dusty bus stand. It comprised an uneven plot of land surrounded by a paan shop, a rickety hut which was a restaurant of sorts, a lifeline for the bachelors; and some stray dogs and grazing cows.
            There was no hotel or lodge where one could stay. So, when I joined at the branch, the BM, Mr. Satish Chandra Sharma, who appeared to be a fine gentleman to me (only goes to show what a poor judge of men I am), promptly told one Mr. Shrikhande, a bachelor who was staying alone, that I was going to stay with him till I found a house. Shri, that’s what everyone called him, made no secret of the fact that he was not overjoyed with the arrangement. But he was gracious enough not to refuse point blank to accommodate me. I was thoroughly embarrassed but kept my counsel as I had Hobson’s choice in the matter.
            Shri had a two room kitchen house. i.e. two small rooms and a kitchen of sorts, all in one row. Beyond the kitchen was a communal open well shared by everyone living in that compound. The bathroom was an open area surrounded by chest high tarpaulin sheets and the latrine was in one corner of the common back yard. Shri went with me to the market to help me in buying a folding cot made of steel pipes and nylon strips (called Niwar in local parlance). After adding a plastic bucket and a mug to it, I was all set to begin my life in room two of Shri palace. Shri slept in room 1 which was more spacious and airy. I learnt to draw water from an open well without the luxury of having an axle and pulley mechanism. Shri’s kitchen had a kerosene stove on which we made our morning tea. I found a convenient position for my blue folding mirror in the window where I could shave in a standing position and I was all set to start my innings in SBI.
            House hunting was no big deal as the three peons in the branch had up to date info on the entire village. There was one kutcha house, a lime and clay affair, which was readily available, probably because nobody else wanted it. There was one row of 12 pucca houses, owned by one Mr. Ibrahim, which were in great demand because it had flush latrines, a great luxury in those days and in that place. The who’s who of Umaria stayed there. There was a waiting list in which I promptly enrolled my name. The next vacancy was not coming up anytime soon. So I decided to take up the aforementioned kutcha house as a stop gap arrangement. It was a two storey 5 room affair with an open toilet on the side and a common well in the backyard. The landlady was a very affectionate old Muslim lady who soon taught my daughter her first words which were Alla alla. My wife arrived to join me, with our daughter and our precious household goods packed in two large steel trunks. My younger brother Chhotu and cousin Rajoo (now Padmashri awardee Pandit Vijay Ghate) came with her to help setting up the house. As was the usual state of affairs, there was no power when they landed up at midnight and everyone was suitably disappointed with the place. We soon settled down to a blissful domestic life and our daughter, who was a constant source of joy and wonder, was the main reason for it. Like all parents, we thought she was the most beautiful and precocious child in the world and forgot all about the tedium and minor discomforts of the humdrum life of a bank officer in a dull village.
            As this piece is about Shri Satish Chandra Sharma my first boss, I shall not delve into the other aspects of our life in Umaria. We have a saying in SBI that howsoever bad your current boss may be, the Bank never ceases to surprise you and the next boss would soon make you realise what a great human being the earlier one was, who seemed such a horrible monster at that time. Mister Sharma was, however, an exception to this rule. As I soon realised, he was the most horrible boss one could have. He was a bad leader who ran the branch with the help of a small clique which consisted of three rotten characters; Suresh, a peon, Mr J K Gupta, the head cashier and Mr Borkar the VLW (village level worker) who was on deputation from the state government to assist in agri-business. Suresh was very powerful because he alone knew where all the blank loan documents were kept. The main business of the branch was giving gold loans. Hence, Suresh’s palms had to be suitably greased by anyone and everyone wanting to avail a gold loan from the branch. Mr Gupta certified the purity of gold, so he had to be fed a large meal of two samosas and four gulab jamuns by every gold loan applicant. Mr Sharma sanctioned the loan and took his cut in cash. Mr Borkar performed two important functions. One, he took care of all the agriculture borrowers, their loan documents, recovery etc; two, he lined up sex workers from nearby areas, for Mr Sharma. Every Saturday afternoon, the entire branch witnessed the spectacle of Messrs Borkar and Sharma driving away on Bank’s official motorbike, reportedly for loan recovery; but their body language was akin to that of two boisterous and naughty teenagers going to the village fair. They also furtively carried a spare set of underwear rolled in an old newspaper which was disdainfully pointed out to me by Shri several times till I started believing him. Mr Sharma’s lecherousness did not stop there. He shamelessly flirted with every lady who entered the branch. We, sitting in the banking hall, could easily predict his rounds (the BM is expected to take rounds of the banking hall at regular intervals to make sure that the customers are being served promptly) which accidentally coincided with the occasions whenever a lady entered the branch. He also had this extremely annoying habit of inviting himself for tea at the homes of married staff members, especially those with good looking wives. We soon learned to dodge his unscheduled visits adroitly by inventing all kinds of excuses.
            Mr Sharma brazenly took bribes on every conceivable transaction. One could see him negotiating openly with all kinds of shady loan seekers. His famous, oft repeated motto was “you are at risk only for the split second when you are actually taking the money. After that nobody can touch you.”
            Mr Sharma was a compulsive gambler. Every day he went to a local club, where he played teen patti (a variation of three card poker popular in India) with the rogues’ gallery of the town; a corrupt police inspector,  a slimy civil contractor, SBI’s good for nothing landlord, some local politicians and sundry government officials. These worthies, when they were not gambling with their ill gotten money, were trying to drink each other under the table. For all his wild living, Mr Sharma was a fine athletic looking man who kept himself in shape by playing badminton every morning. Only catch being the matches were played at high bets. He was quite a character. All these things I learned slowly and reluctantly as I was naïve and refused to believe everything that was whispered about him in the branch. I was, however, soon disabused of all my innocence.
The clerical staff of the branch comprised young boys who were always joking and teasing each other while working. Some standard jokes were referring to the Head Cashier Mr Gupta’s moustache which had a habit of drooping suddenly at weird angles, in terms of the time of the day. On some day he was “quarter to three”, i.e. moustache parallel to the ground; sometimes it was “seven fifteen” i.e. left side drooping and right side parallel; and so on. Mr Sharma was always referred to as ‘Mister H’ in his absence, by everyone in the branch including his cronies Suresh, Mr Gupta and Borkar. I was curious to know the reason/story behind this strange sobriquet and asked everyone in the branch what it meant. Initially, my queries were met with chuckles, snickers and guffaws but no explanation. Gradually, one thing was pointed out to me that Mr Sharma had to take a dump 4-5 times during the day. The reason given by a sheepish Mr Sharma himself one day was chronic amoebiosis. One welcome fallout of this habit of Mr Sharma was the cleanliness of the branch rest room. He saw to it that it was always kept Swachh (clean). In Hindi, the verb Hagna means taking a dump. So I deducted that this had something to do with the nick name ‘Mr H’. When I shared my discovery with Shri, he smiled indulgently and mysteriously. It appeared there was more to ‘Mister H’ than the frequent trips to the toilet. The mystery was finally accidentally solved by me when the administrative officer from our regional office Mr Sonecha visited the branch. He was an elderly wizened man with a wry sense of humour. He was a compulsive gossip and a chatterbox and had an interesting anecdote for every occasion/person. “So! How do you find Mr H?” was the first question he asked me with a twinkle in his eye. After that I became his shadow and kept pestering him at every opportunity with persistent questions about the story behind the name ‘Mr H’.  At last, in the evening, over a chilled beer, he relented and narrated the entire story of ‘Mr H’.

            Before being posted to Umaria as a branch manager, Mr Sharma was a head cashier in one of the big branches in Jabalpur, the zonal headquarters of the Bank. Everyone was familiar with his lecherous ways and his 5 dumps a day toilet routine. The entire female population of the branch staff detested him for his leering manners and his double-entendres. The male members of the staff were also annoyed with him for his roving eye and his shady behaviour in cash transactions. In short, he would not have won any popularity contest in the branch. Power outages were a common occurrence during the sweltering summer months. One day, during a longish power outage, the branch ran out of water supply and the toilets had gone dry. Knowing his daily routine, everyone was curious to see how Mr Sharma would conclude his noon visit to the loo (in India, unlike the western world, water is used in place of toilet paper after doing the deed. So without water, the act cannot be completed. Also, one has to wash the hands with soap afterwards. Hence, water is an essential ingredient for a visit to the loo.) Mr Sharma was smart enough to carry a bottle of water to the loo. But, when he came out, he started looking for some water to wash his hands. Unknown to him, many of his well-wishers were watching him surreptitiously. Since he had no other option, Mr Sharma went to the large steel drum in which drinking was stored for the entire branch staff of over 200 people. The moment he opened the tap of the drinking water tank, all hell broke loose.  People started shouting that he had contaminated the drinking water of the entire branch. Mr Sharma, usually a very quick witted and resourceful person, was caught like a hyena in full glare of the headlights of a truck (you obviously cannot call him a deer or a hare) and was not in a position to defend himself adequately. With an empty water bottle in one hand and with his sacred thread wound around his right ear (old fashioned Brahmins are required to do this every time they go the toilet), he was caught with his pants down. Soon, the chants of Hagda! Hagda!  (Pejorative for a man who craps a lot) were reverberating in the branch premises. All the customers were asking about the reason for the commotion. Chanting of slogans by union activists was not uncommon those days. The branch managers had sweeping powers to deal with local disturbances. Mr Rathnam, a very tough administrator, was the branch manager then. But against the constant roar of staff outrage, for a reason over which he had little control, he had to sanction half a day’s leave and some overtime to the entire branch staff to quell the uprising that day. From that day Mr Sharma became a laughing stock of the entire branch, entire city rather. Wherever he went, the H word was hurled at him. Finally he asked for a transfer to a distant place and was sent as Branch Manager of Umaria branch. By the time Mr Sonecha finished his narrative, in his inimitable style, interspersed with many choice unprintable adjectives, I was literally rolling on the floor. After that day, I could not look at Mr Sharma without remembering the story and smiling a little. From that day, he was Mr H for me also. 

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