This is an old old story of mine. I am rather fond of it, as, in my mind, it recreates the Delhi of my youth, of the 80’s. It deals with a rather unsavoury period of time in politics. I wasn’t sure then (and still am not) as to whether a fictionalised account of the time could possibly be libellous. Therefore, I chose to mask/blot out/conceal the name of the scandal and the principle characters involved in it. However, anyone who either lived through those times, or has a passing acquaintance with history will probably know what/who I am referring to.
It was another hot, sticky day of July.The fan spun lazily above our heads,making no noticeable difference to the humidity. Summer was loath to give up its stranglehold over Delhi; while Monsoon hovered threateningly on the outskirts. So we perspired into our usual uniform of safari suits and waited patiently for the inevitable.
Our department wasn’t that big. There was Bhambri, Kulbhushan, Lata, Jagannath (Jaggu) and I. Lata,being the only woman amongst us, would charm us into doing her share of the work, while she sipped her cups of chai, and exclaimed over the love lives of the film stars in Stardust magazine.
We were a happy family of sorts. Each of our roles defined. Who would get the samosas today? Who would order the chai?? There was always enough gossip to occupy us. The other departments were larger and had a cross section of characters we loved dissecting.
Life had been smooth sailing till Narang had arrived. Tall, very thin and very young.His turban would sometimes sit askew on his head, undermining all the authority he wanted to project.
“Arré yaar! Kahaan se aa jaate hai yeh kal ke chhokre! Teaching us our jobs,eh??”, Bhambri said through his paan stained mouth.
I laughed, of course. Kal ka chhokra. Born yesterday? Appropriate.
We were having our usual morning moan about Narang.
It had barely been a month since Narang had arrived as the Manager. He had made his intentions clear at the very outset. He was going to tighten the screws on this department. No more corruption. No more laziness. No more endless cups of chai and gossip. Oh no, Sirree! This was going to be a very tight ship indeed; with a very wet behind the ears Captain at the helm.
We’d sniggered into our cups. They all started out that way. New brooms and all. How soon it petered out depended on how much passive resistance we put up and the moral fibre of the individual in question.
“A month, tops”,muttered Lata.
Well, that month was nearly over, and Narang showed no signs of backing off.
“Hitler has nothing on this guy!”, said Jaggu. “Day after day, noses to the grindstone. He looks at each and every tender, man.”
“Let him look”, said Kulbhushan. “Physically impossible long term. Kab tak karega?How long will it last? He’ll have to start relying on us soon enough. Then the dry spell is over.”
Yes, the dry spell was wreaking havoc on our finances. Our basic salaries had always been supplemented with the kickbacks that we received from our clients. What in our Delhi parlance was known as “chai-paani”. It was custom. No one questioned it. Each time a tender was submitted, it came with a box of sweetmeats. Inside the box was an envelope stuffed with sufficient (or insufficient) Rs 500 notes. Depending on the merits of the box, and the tender (but naturally), the contract would be awarded to the highest bidder. There were losers, of course. But, in my opinion, there were more winners.
Jaggu perched a tea cosy on his head, and adopting Narang’s giraffe like gait, started pacing up and down the room. He frowned at us, and in a deep voice intoned,
“There is no place for corruption in this office. We are all paid a salary to do our jobs. We must do it honestly and to the best of our abilities…”
At this point, the tea cosy slipped off Jaggu’s head, and we all fell about laughing.
I was the first one to catch his eye. I stood up hastily.
“Good Morning Sir”
“Good Morning”, he said quietly. “I hope you are all having a very good one.”
Lata blushed and started re organizing her files. Bhambri chewed on his paan thoughtfully. Only Jaggu, the halfwit, still stood grinning, tea cosy in hand.
“There is a very large tender coming in today. An Italian company. I’d like you to have a look at it.” He looked at me. “Once you’ve checked out the details, I want a report in my office. 4 pm sharp.”
He turned and left as silently as he had come in.
“Bloody Narang!”, Jaggu exploded. “At least he could have the good grace to be a bit noisy. Your day is a write off, man. Chal, better get to work. Lataji, forget about the samosas and Sridevi. Get to work madam…”
Lata gave him a withering look and took out her nail varnish and planted it with a thwack on the table.
My day was spent poring over the fine print.The heat had dulled my senses, and several times, I had to go back and reread the previous page. My armpits were wet and my brow dripped sweat. I worked out the numbers in my head. I had always been good at numbers.
Something didn’t add up. I worked it out again. Then I looked for my underused calculator. It still didn’t add up.
“Bhambri?”, He looked up at me questioningly. “There’s something amiss with this tender, yaar. Figures aren’t adding up. Will you have a look for me?”
He waddled over obligingly. Ten minutes later, he looked up, his eyes gleaming.
“What? What? Did you figure it out?”
He smiled and took out another paan from the little box he carried with him. Excruciatingly slowly, he placed it in his mouth. Then he grinned, revealing his blackened incisors.
“This is it, Chopra. This is our meal ticket.”
He said it so softly, that at first, I nearly didn’t catch it. It was obvious that he didn’t want the other three to hear.
“Meal ticket? What do you mean??”
“Look at the names”
I did. Nobody I knew. There were a few Non Resident Indians in there, and some Italians. Quattrochi, Gattuccio, Farfaglia. They all sounded like pasta to me anyway.
He wiggled his eyebrows at me. “This goes right to the top, Chopra. Right to the top. Narang doesn’t know it yet, but the shit’s going to hit the proverbial.” He looked up, contemplating the fan.
My mind darted around putting the facts together. He caught my startled look with a smug one of his own.
“And the figures?”
“Who cares about the figures? So they don’t add up. Arré, we are small fry. The big kickbacks happen at the very top. What we get is chicken feed”
I knew this was true. But this time, could it be? After all, we were talking about the Prime Minister of the country. The same idealistic young man, who’d come into power on a tidal wave of sympathy after the assassination of his mother, the former PM.The one whose foreign wife had adopted India and its customs as her own.
But the figures told a different story.
“What should I do?”
“You must do your job. You must do it honestly, and to the best of your ability….,” he deadpanned.
I sat there, file in hand,mind spinning through the permutations of consequences this could unleash.
Was Narang involved? I doubted it. He would hardly have handed a file of such importance to me so nonchalantly. If I took the facts to him as they were, he would have to take action. Either way, my responsibility ended there.He was my superior. Whatever happened next, it would be his head on the chopping block, not mine. Sometimes it was a comfort being at the bottom of the food chain.
Bhambri watched me with a sly smile on his face. “You’ve worked it out, my friend. Either Narang joins the club, or gets thrown out of it. Win win. ”
4 pm arrived too soon for my liking. I shut the door to Narang’s office and waited inside patiently. The air conditioning whirred quietly in the background. Narang looked up from his desk coolly.
“Have a seat, Mr Chopra. You have looked over the figures?”
My forehead broke out in beads of sweat. I sat myself down reluctantly. The next half hour was spent explaining what I felt was so out of whack with this tender. Narang watched me steadily, his face betraying nothing.
When I had finished, he leaned forward, and gently took the file out of my hands. He flipped through it, pausing at several points. My palms were sweaty. I couldn’t wait to get out of his office. To get home and ask Asha, my happy, pretty wife of two years, to get me a tall Johnnie Walker on ice.
He finally placed the file on the desk and looked at me.
“What do you think we should do, Mr Chopra?”
I shook my head to clear it. This wasn’t part of the script. I should have been absolved of all responsibility when I handed the file over. Why was he asking me? Wasn’t he paid to make the decisions around here?
“Sir….I….I….really can’t say.”
“You know, Mr Chopra. I have always wondered about you. I didn’t think you were like the others”, he flicked his head distastefully. “You are the worker bee of the lot, aren’t you? You’ve just had the misfortune to be lumped with them.”
I sat there staring back at him. He looked at me contemplatively.
“Keep this between the two of us. Leave it with me to handle.”
I stood up gratefully. This was not the best moment to tell him that Bhambri already knew.
Life was routine for the next few weeks.The workload was heavy, and the rains, although threatening, never actually came. The air got muggier and our tempers got shorter.
Thud! The files landed on the floor. Jaggu stood up in a rage.
“Saalé, Kutté!! Bloody Dogs! Can’t even provide an air conditioner for us. One bloody fan that is stuck at some prehistoric speed!!”
He attacked the regulator with an alarming ferocity.
“Jaggu! What are you doing?”, screamed Lata. “You’ll break it – and then we’ll have no fan at all!”
Kulbhushan looked over at him and laughed. “You should have asked for vacation, Jaggu. I am going tomorrow to Nainital. Myself, the wife and our three children. Ahhh….cool mountain air. Boating on the Naini lake. Who wants to be stuck in a stuffy office?”
“Alright for some”, muttered Jaggu, picking up the files off the floor.
Narang walked in and gestured to me. I could feel Bhambri’s eyes on my back as I walked out.
The last few weeks hadn’t been kind to Narang. Lines had sprung up on his previously unlined face. He looked weary, and some might have said, he looked afraid.
He didn’t ask me to sit this time. Instead, he poured himself a cup of tea and then absently handed it to me.Toying with his pen, he scratched his nose and then cast around the room, as if he couldn’t quite decide how to start this off.
“They’ve asked me to quash it.”
I knew what he was talking about. Of course I did. I still pretended.
“Mr Chopra- that tender!”, he twitched nervously,”Those figures….. They’ve asked me… No, told me… to turn a blind eye. Suppress the file. Sort out the figures… that sort of thing….”
I looked at him measuredly. Almost wearily, he shook his head. “I can’t do it.”
“Why not sir?” In spite of myself, I had grown to like him.
“My conscience doesn’t permit it, Mr Chopra. I have been brought up to believe in certain values. My family has followed the Gandhian ideology…”, Here he smiled, catching my eye, “Yes, the irony doesn’t escape me…”
“But sir, these are powerful people. People at the top. What could you possibly do?”
“I don’t know. At this point, I honestly don’t”
The air conditioner hummed contentedly. Jaggu would have had a field day in this office, I noted pointlessly, to myself.
“What I am trying to say to you, Mr Chopra, is, that as far as those above me are concerned, only I came across the discrepancies. No one else was involved.”
“Thank you, sir.” I backed out of his office gratefully .This worker bee had work to do.
By Monday morning he was gone. His replacement was a dour old man named Chatterjee. Much to the relief of my colleagues, Chatterjee cared more about his home packed lunches than any work that did or didn’t go on in the office.
Pleasant and humdrum. Life was simple again.
Narang’s name never figured in the articles. But when The Indian Express and The Hindu blew the lid off the entire sordid B****s scandal, I knew who the whistleblower had been.
The fallout was long and hard. The Ruling Party lost the the public’s faith, and the subsequent elections. The Prime Minister, image tarnished, desperately tried to prove his innocence. It was not to be. He was assassinated a couple of years later on his campaign trail. The case dragged on and on for two decades. The body count of winners and losers piled up. Was Justice ever served? Who knows. And who cares? Two generations down, B****s is a mere blot on India’s inky history.
As for Narang, we never heard from him again. I often wondered how his principles were holding up in our brutal, relentless world.
Several years down the line, I did gather that Narang had migrated to America.
America? His incorruptible soul would do well there.