English touched post office around the same time as the Englishmen showed
them up in India. That does not mean all in
this ancient institution are expert at handling that glorified language.
Sometimes it is way too obvious that
writing in English is just one of their very many compulsions. And
the result? Well, work performed under compulsion has to end in chaos. And then, in time a funny story is born out of the chaos.
Now I'm going to tell a story in this connection, one that is based on a true incident.
Here, to give an exact introduction of the characters and to remember the name
of the place of occurrence of the incident is well-nigh impossible. So, whereever necessary, I plan to move on with the help of imagination. After
all, what is there in a name?
Mr Prabhakar Jee was the Superintendent of Post Offices of a
division, and as the head of the division he was quite concerned that his units
were in a mess those days. A theft in a post office now and a snatching of a
mail bag then—accidents like that used to occur almost every day. The
Superintendent was very upset yet he did not lose heart. He was determined to overcome
the phase and bring order to his division, even though it would entail a lot of stress. To start with, he worked upon an idea that if he paid more and more
surprise visits to the post offices at different hours, then the situation would
definitely take a turn for the better. He used to say, “It matters little whether
cash is in chest or in drawers, it should ever be kept under lock”, “Do not allow
any outsider to enter the post office, even if the visitor happens to be your relative,” and so on.
One day the Superintendent Mr Prabhakar Jee was returning to his
headquarters after touring his area extensively. On his way he found a post
office where everybody was frantically busy. It was time its front door was
locked, yet it was ajar. Prabhakar Jee was surprised. He wondered, “Shouldn’t I
go there and see for myself what detained them so long? No, I needn’t. Maybe,
the guys are finishing their day’s work."
A moment later he thought it over again, “How am I so sure that
they’re not into some kind of trouble?”
“No, let them do their work. Now I’m really tired,” Mr Prabhakar
Jee tried to sit tight in his jeep resolving in his mind to pay a visit later.
Just two small minutes gone he thought it over again. He found it
difficult to stick to his decision. There must be something here, he thought. Otherwise
why should people keep slugging into the dark hours of the evening?
After all, Mr Prabhakar Jee was the Superintendent of the division.
It was his own division, and the quality of its performance depended much on
his own responsiveness. He could have looked the other way coming across an
accident on the road, but now it was a different situation. He being a superintendent
of post offices could not have gone away from the spot after sensing something
fishy there. So he asked the driver to stop the jeep and reverse.
Mr Prabhakar Jee got down from his jeep. Taking a few quick strides
he entered the post office. And as soon as he got in the staff there sprang to their feet out of respect.
This was not only a mark of etiquette,
rather something that was performed in accordance with the ethos of postal
family. Ordinarily they have a lot of respect to show to their
superiors. All of them working in different units of the department behave very
much like a family. There are occasional quarrels too, but all the while the
scale is just mild. Everybody wants to be heard, and none is ready to rest
until he has made his point. There is a fierce approach to achieving all these but at no point anybody forgets the need for respecting the norm. Respect and respect and more of respect—it’s a kind of respectorate!
On arrival of Mr Prabakar Jee the postmaster was quick to narrate
“Sir, the Postmaster of Maharajpur Branch Post Office has written in his slip that he has remitted 500 rupees in his cash bag, but the bag is
absolutely empty. We’re quite upset. We really don’t know, Sir, if he has sent
the amount, how the whole thing disappeared."
Agreed, the Postmaster was really in distress over the loss of
money. But more than that he was foxed as to how the Superintendent could get a scent of everything happening there. Who could
have reported the matter to him? And so quickly! There were no cell phones
Addressing the Postmaster Mr Prabhakar Jee the Superintendent said,
'Balwantji, let me take a look. Just open the mail bag in front
of me, once again." He had already started the
investigation without making his intention clear in so many words.
He himself upended the mail bag, made it inside out but howsoever he tried, he
could gather no clue about the loss. Then he examined the slip but his reading of it was no different from what the Postmaster
Balwantjii read: ‘Remitted Five Hundred Rupees’.
It took Mr Prabhakar Jee some time to go through the entire procedure of investigation. It was, without doubt, a time-consuming process. Even
taking the written statements from the fellows concerned took two to three hours. Then he was
also to take inventories of cash and
stamps. And in the process it was ten o’clock by the time everything was over.
After finishing all these chores Mr Prabhakar Jee was about to
leave the place. But suddenly it occurred to him that he should interrogate the Branch Postmaster of Maharajpur too.
But the village was located at a distance of 15 kilometers from the spot where
he was at present. The difficulty was that no jeep was in a position to reach Maharajpur.
One should cross at least five kilometers distance by foot to reach the spot.
Despite that Mr Prabhakar Jee the Superintendent
decided to go there. In his heart of hearts he knew that if he concluded his
investigation without proceeding to the venue of incident, it
would just be a half-hearted action. And he ever hated to perform anything
When the Superintendent reached the jeep, he found his driver fast asleep.
Truth be told, he was even
snoring. Nevertheless the fellow was so accustomed to the body odour of his Superintendent
that he literally got a scent of the advent of his boss just in the nick of
time. And finding him seated next to his seat the driver revved the engine.
As night wore on, darkness got mingled with the dampness of the countryside. Now it was half-past ten. Those days the roads leading to the remote
villages used to get empty by eight in the evening. Otherwise, village roads
were not the hot favourite of automobiles. On a lucky day the villagers used to
get a glance of a jeep or a car on the road; and the kids used to rush near
those speeding vehicles only to inhale the heady scent of burning petrol. But tonight
it was bound to be a night of difference. A jeep was going to Maharajpur at
this ungodly hour and there was none by the roadside to greet it.
On their way to Maharajpur the team came near a stream. The
villagers used to call it “The Broken River”. The water in it was only nominal and
stagnant, and it was full of mud too. So the driver did not venture ahead.
Actually his cautiousness was justified, for had he moved a little he would
have got literally bogged down in the quagmire.
It was not in the list of priorities of Mr Prabhakar Jee to motivate
his driver to handle the challenge professionally. He rather hopped out of the
jeep and marched ahead. It was already eleven o'clock at night and he refused
to be bothered about that. Balwantji the Postmaster giving him company, he was
heading for his destination agog to discover the truth. Both the Superintendent
and the Postmaster were of the same age, say around fifty, yet watching them
moving with long strides, nobody would feel that they were the two frail middle-aged
fellows. In fact, the task of investigation was so demanding…so engrossing was
the call that the two were brimming with extra enthusiasm. At least once on his
way, the Superintendent nearly lost his balance and somehow managed to regain it.
When both the investigators reached the Maharajpur it was two
o'clock in the morning. The house of the Branch Postmaster Malia Manjhi was in
the middle of the village. He was fast asleep. As Balwantji knocked at his
door, Malia woke up immediately, and with him woke up his neighbours.
Thoroughly worked up in anger, Balwantji was thinking what he
should do to teach the Branch Postmaster a lesson, but with his Superintendent standing
nearby, he was not in a position to unleash his anger.
“Maliaji, won’t you tell me the truth? How much money did you send
today to the accounting office?” Superintendent Prabhakar Jee started
questioning the Branch Postmaster without giving him the benefit of knowing the
background. According to him any background information was not necessary here,
for he was confident that, teased a little, a member of the tribal community
would not hesitate to speak his heart out. He would not bother to know the
detail background of the question. But the only condition was the question to
be asked should be straight.
"Money…No sir, I haven’t sent any money today," replied
promptly the Branch Postmaster. He had no counter-question to pose, nor did he
show any eagerness to defend himself.
Balwantji had a sigh of relief.
"If you’ve sent no cash, then why did you write, ‘Remitted Five
"It was only my request to send five hundred rupees. Two
depositors have given me their requisition for withdrawing money from their
accounts. Please see it for yourself, I can produce those two forms they have
filled in,’ saying that Malia went inside and brought in a trice the two
withdrawal forms duly filled in by the depositors.
Prabhakar Jee examined what Malia gave him. Both the forms were genuine.
This implied that the Branch Postmaster had rightfully requisitioned cash from
its accounts office in order to meet the liability and his action was well
within the standard procedure of operation.
"Then where's the issue?"
The Superintendent produced forthwith the accounts paper as Malia
had sent to his accounting office. It was the one Balwantji gave him. Now Malia
Manjhi began to examine the same.
The Branch postmaster Malia was no illiterate. Long ago, he had passed
his matriculation examination. His entire education was in vernacular, yet this
had not diminished his fascination for English in any way. He was not exactly
proficient in English, nevertheless knew how to impress people by speaking his
half-cooked and half-crammed sentences. So while writing a cash requisition slip
to his accounts office why should he have refrained himself from using his
brand of English?
While he decided to write his requisition slip, Malia was sure of
what he should write to get the cash he required. And had he written it as
correctly as he thought his sentence would have been, ‘Remit Five Hundred
Rupees.’ But then, as it inevitably happens, there remained a gap in what was
thought and what flowed out of pen. It is not characteristic of a Branch
Postmaster like Malia only; sometimes the gap makes even the celebrated writers
look just ordinary. Don’t they defensively say, ‘Ah! It’s only a slip of pen’?
It’s no wonder Malia wrote: 'Remitted Five Hundred Rupees'.
Finally the Superintendent Mr Prabhakar Jee and the Postmaster Balwantji
happily returned after a satisfying round of investigation. As they were biding
Malia goodbye, the Postmaster Balwantji gave his sanctimonious piece of advice
to his friend Malia, "Hey, for god’s sake, please take care of your
English, won’t you?"
A N Nanda