Life with Lions
Kochi, March 30, 2014
Sher, Singh, Babbar, Cheetah etc were the first, middle or family names of many of my colleagues while I was posted in New Delhi many years ago.
These names meant lion. Well, Cheetah may not exactly mean lion but it also belonged to a similar species. There were a number of them in the office like Ram Singh, Sher Singh, Kushal Singh, Darshan Singh Arora, Kuldip Singh Kapur, Bikram Singh Cheetah, Satish Babbar and so on. In addition, we also had a South Indian gentleman- Narasimhan or “Human Lion”. I was, thus, virtually surrounded by lions in the office.
As is normal with all human beings, these people also were different from one another in many ways. One was a do-gooder while another, a nasty schemer. One was taciturn and reserved while another was a wind-bag. One was gentlemanly and polished while another was crude and boorish. Some were good workers while quite a few others, shirkers.
One was a master of vulgar expletives, especially those two nasty ones in Hindi and Punjabi which if hurled at a person accused him of having illicit affinity with his mother or sister, as the case may be. If he was happy or unhappy he would let out one; if he was angry or pleased, one would come out of his mouth. I found that he could not utter a single sentence without the prefix and suffix of expletives. To my utter surprise I found that an expletive was a must for him even while referring to himself!
Another person was looked at with awe by all. This chap carried very expensive foreign cigarettes with him always. Smuggled foreign brands like State Express 555 or Dunhill were available at some places in Delhi those days in the early 1970s but these were very costly and hence only the very affluent could afford them. But here was a clerk in possession of these all the time It was a mystery for all as to how he could afford these as he was known to hail from a very modest background.
The secret was out one day - the office sweeper got a stub from his ash tray and it was of the cheap Charminar! Only the packets were foreign in which he stuffed the local ones!!
Mr. Cheetah would never come to office on time. Our office started at 10 am and this guy would land up only around 10.20 or 10.30 everyday. All sorts of methods like persuasion, friendly advice, warnings and threat of disciplinary action were tried to make him punctual. Nothing worked and the office was in a dilemma as he was a very good and responsible worker. His output was almost double that of others even after the late arrivals and the quality of work, excellent. As a result, there was tremendous goodwill for him and nobody wanted to take any extreme step.
Then a proposal came up that, in the summer months of April to June when the heat becomes unbearable in Delhi, the office timings may be changed from 0800 to 1500 hours so that people can reach early before the high heat and they could leave early for rest. It was welcomed by most of the people and then came the issue of Mr. Cheetah. How can this fellow who cannot reach even by 1000 hours be made to come by 0800 hours? The senior managers called him and told him about the proposal and they thought he would express his difficulty. To their utter surprise he readily agreed and said “By all means you change the timing to 0800 hours sirs - I shall reach by 0830 hours"!
Life in the company of these people had many interesting asides and experiences. One day a customer walked into our office and the receptionist asked him to meet Ram Singh for his work. Ram Singh, after listening to him directed him to Cheetah. Cheetah heard him carefully and told him that the job has to be done by Bubber who in turn sent him to Narasimhan. He told him to go to Sher Singh. By now the customer, totally exasperated, yelled “Hey Bhagwan! Mein kis jungle me gus gaya?” (Oh God! In which jungle have I landed up!)
My seat was the second one from the main entrance to our office and the first table was occupied by another “lion” Prem Singh. He was quite polished and had good manners. Like me, he also used to come at least half an hour before the start of office hours. No wonder we started developing a friendship. Noticing this, another colleague privately warned me. “Be very careful and wary of this fellow. He may look polished and sophisticated but he is a crook. He can fool anybody and one cannot comprehend what he schemes. You just keep a watch on how he deals with his visitors. As soon as someone comes he will yell out to the canteen boy to bring tea urgently. The visitor would be waiting for the tea and in between he will repeat his orders. Finally, after waiting for long, the visitor would leave in disgust, without the tea. This fellow has a code with the canteen boy- if he asks for urgent tea, it was not to be brought at all! The poor visitor would never know it! If he really wanted tea to be brought, the adjective ‘Urgent’ would not be used.”
I noticed that he dealt with most of the visitors this way but even then I was not prepared to believe that there was any diabolic scheme in this as I was impressed by his manners. If he did not want to spend his money on some strangers, what is wrong with that after all, I thought. Then one morning I realised the significance of the warning I got.
We had one senior colleague Mr. Pritam Singh, who was very honest and straightforward but strict with everyone. He would not tolerate any nonsense from anybody, especially on work matters. Earning his ire was easy and he was quite rough with people. As a result he had more detractors than friends in the office.
One morning, as usual Prem Singh and I were in the office early and a visitor turned up for him. He narrated the purpose of his visit - he had received a marriage proposal for his son with the daughter of Mr. Pritam Singh. The visitor had a friend who knew Prem Singh well. He had advised the person to meet Prem Singh to enquire about Mr. Pritam Singh and his standing in society, before proceeding further with the proposal.
Prem Singh was all sweetness as he offered the visitor a chair. He then eulogised their common friend and as usual, ordered “urgent tea” and then pretended to be a little busy. By then other colleagues started slowly walking into the office. Prem Singh stopped a known denigrator of Mr. Pritam Singh and asked in the sweetest manner “Do you know what time Pritam Sahib is coming to office today?”- he uttered “Pritam Sahib” in the most deferential manner.
“Whose name have you taken early in the morning?! You have spoiled my day by uttering the name of this wretch as I enter the office," was the angry retort he got.
People were still walking in and Prem Singh saw to it that he picked and chose the worst slanderers of Pritam Singh to put some such innocuous questions about him and get nasty retorts. In between the canteen boy was regularly reminded about the “urgent tea” which remained as elusive as ever.
Then walked in the expletive master. Prem Singh put a similar question to him and what followed was an explosion of obscenities of all varieties- ancient and modern, rustic and refined, out-dated and latest, in Hindi, Punjabi and English! The visitor, who was already feeling quite uncomfortable listening to the categorical castigations the name Pritam Singh would attract, had enough with the last round. He made a quick exit and there ended the marriage proposal. I could now realise how cunning Prem Singh was. He did not say anything ill of Pritam Singh - in fact he was all reverence when uttering the name. Yet he could totally demolish this honest, upright man before his prospective in-law. I became very careful with him thereafter.
Now, almost 45 years later, when I look back or rather ruminate, life those days was very enjoyable. I have had the occasion to work in many places but life with these lions was the most interesting for the sheer mirth, fun and variety of experiences.
J Chacko served in different parts of India and abroad for 33 years as an executive in the general insurance industry. He took voluntary retirement in 2004 and has settled down in Kochi, Kerala, where he spends time reading, writing, watching films, travelling and so on. Interested in history, finance and humour. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org