Kottayam to Kolkata is a long way. I had just finished my stint at Mahatma Gandhi University as its First Finance Officer and was repatriated to the Department of Telecommunications, Government of India who charitably posted me as Director (Finance) of Calcutta Telephones, an unappetizing concoction for any civil servant. The year was 1986 and the month December. Calcutta telephone system was one of the worst in the country then and adding to its woes, the city was cut open through its heart to facilitate the upcoming metro. Cholbe na and gherao were generously used as effective weapons by trade unions. Those were days when one had to wait for years to get a phone connection and months to get their faulty phone repaired. “Cable pair’’ was the rarest thing. In The Telegraph there was a daily column with a customer’s photograph and his phone number under the caption “My telephone is not working”, a free public service by the city’s most popular English daily.
Coromandel Express reaches Calcutta (as it was called then) by mid morning and on my way to the guest house I reported to the General Manager J.Basu at Telephone Bhavan, BBD Bag. But alas there was a legal impediment to my joining. The incumbent Mr.Chakraborty, an officer of the Indian Postal Service, sat tight on his seat with a stay order from the Calcutta High court allowing “staus quo till further orders”. Gleefully I welcomed the situation, now that Delhi has to give an alternate posting and there was no slot beyond Calcutta to accommodate me making any change in my favor. But this momentary sanguinity was short lived as Swaminathan, the all powerful minion from Sanchar Bhavan informed me to stay back as they are trying to vacate the stay through the Supreme Court. Thus even without any desire of my own, I had the rare privilege of becoming a party in an appeal case in the highest court of the land.
I decided to take it lying down literally. The guest room, euphemistically called Inspection Quarters, at Tiretti Bazar Telephone Exchange was cozy enough and the Calcutta Winter was not angry like Delhi. I was in no great hurry to take on the job and started enjoying the paid holiday thanks to the great Indian judiciary. Every morning I used to go to Telephone Bhawan dutifully and spend some time with Mr. Gopalan the General Manager (Operations), a humourous old gentleman with an unending stock of hilarious anecdotes.
Chakraborty, my adversary in the Court, also was extremely friendly with such an opponent least interested in winning his case. He was an interesting character who was leading some kind of an inter-religious group propagating universal love and brotherhood, a la Din-I Ilahi of Akbar the Great. St. Johns Church, the imposing grand old cathedral on Council House Street, close to the Raj Bhawan, used to open its gates for his meetings every Saturday where I was also invited. That group of people from different faiths gathered in this grand structure built by the English East India Company, talking about peace, love and brotherhood raised admiration in me about Bengalees in general and Chakraborty in particular. The proceedings were more or less similar to a Christian cottage prayer meeting with songs, prayer, a short message and a final benediction. I was highly impressed by the enlightenment of Bengalees with a very civilized mindset evolved under the influence of great reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Iswar Chand Vidyasagar, Kesub Chandra Sen etc. and intellectual giants like Tagore and Satyajit Ray. To my surprise I found that their version of Hinduism is that of Universal religion of impersonal monotheism distinct from the pluralistic and multifaceted way Hinduism is practiced elsewhere.
Gopalan’s jokes and Chakraborty’s Din i Ilahi could not take me too far. It was already three weeks for me without any job. Exploring the city was a good way to kill time. The Chinese food market at Sunyet Sen Street close to the exchange building was a real treat in the morning, perhaps the best possible way to start the day with some outstanding refreshing and authentic homemade Chinese food. From momos, and spring rolls to sticky rice and even chicken pies, the place served amazingly sumptuous foods. The Chinese vendors, mostly women, cooked these foods at home and brought to the market early morning. Wonder whether those Chinese women are still there selling dimsums and sui mais in the China Town at Tiretti Bazar.
Later in the day I would be making my day trips in trams slowly chugging through the busy streets enjoying the old world charm of the city of joy gulping down thick sweet tea from thimble sized clay pots (bhanr) and eating lip smacking street food. On return from one of those day trips the caretaker of the Inspection Quarters informed me that the General Manager Mr.Gopalan would like me to contact him for something urgent. I rushed to meet him and with a sly smile he requested me to undertake an urgent journey along with the Welfare Officer to a far off village in 24 Parganas District beyond Diamond Harbour. The mission was simple enough of handing over the compensation payments to the families of two labourers who were asphyxiated in a cable duct the previous day. The bodies were already taken to their villages and the cremations were also over. I could never even think saying no in associating with such a pious duty but the enigmatic smile on the face of Mr. Gopalan left me puzzled. I could read a sense of guilt in the corner of his eyes.
The jeep driver Mahto was a sturdy tribal from Jharkhand who thought it his birth right to overtake all the vehicles with the strength of “Government of India” on the number plate. With the help of some local officers we could locate the houses and hand over the money to the parents of the deceased. Trouble started when we were about to leave. The small group of onlookers and neighbors soon swelled to a boisterous crowd. The Welfare Officer who had accompanied me and the alert driver smelt trouble and both of them jumped to the vehicle. I was still staying back in sympathy for the bereaved families concerned about their ramshackle houses and the poverty stricken circumstances. Without any regard for my caring sentiments Mahto pushed me inside the jeep and drove off like a race car driver.
No sooner we set off than a crowd with sticks and lathis started chasing us. After a safe distance we picked up courage to look back and lo and behold there was a tempo van full of villagers behind us baying for our blood. Fortunately their rickety vehicle was no match for Mahto and his brand new Mahendra jeep. Suddenly it dawned on me that crowd violence comes natural to rural Bengal and our escape is providential. But for the rustic common sense and the impressive driving skills of Mahato we would have been referred in the past tense now.
The next morning Mr. Gopalan the wily south Indian was all apologies as he had foreseen far worse with his long years of experience in Calcutta. For me it was a life’s lesson on many counts, a reassurance of psalms 91 “for he shall give his angels charge over thee to keep thee in all thy ways” and a caution note on taking the people you trust for granted. The incident also proved that all the sophistication, enlightenment and the universal brotherhood of Bengalees stop on the borders of Calcutta city.