Thoughts & Ideas

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Kursela Days 10 – Dress Codes

I find the pyjama-kurta combo to be one of the most comfortable clothes to wear. It is not very expensive, is easy to maintain, covers you well, goes well in casual, informal, and formal settings too, and the most important aspect is that it is very comfortable for Indian weather conditions – in summer, monsoon, or winter.

However, I had been subtly conditioned to believe that while the pyjama-kurta combo is acceptable attire for home or traditional gatherings, for formal or informal occasions the correct dress code is trousers and shirt (preferably full sleeves). And of course the standard uniform for bankers around the world is a dark pinstriped suit with a while shirt and a red or yellow tie. Though in India some concession was made in the form of a Safari Suit.

I attended school and college wearing western clothes - shorts (we called it half-pants) and half sleeved shirts till say Class 5 and after that trousers and half sleeved shirts. Full sleeved shirts were reserved for very formal occasions or winters. T shirts were expensive and a rarity. As such, whenever I went out of the house, I changed from kurta-pyjama to trousers and shirt. This was normal part and parcel of conventional wisdom to which one never gave a second thought.

For my rural assignment in State Bank of India, I was posted to Kursela, a village in north Bihar, sometime in February 1988. The weather was lovely, and for about a month, I commuted daily to Kursela from Purnea, a small town which was about 50 kms away. The travelling was irksome and time consuming and, to fulfil the spirit of rural assignments, I decided to shift base to Kursela in about a month’s time. By April the weather started getting quite warm and it was also very humid. Electric supply used to be very erratic and not something one could rely on. And without fans in that kind of prickly heat conditions, life started becoming a nightmare. By mid April the thought of changing from a kurta-pyjama to trousers and shirt to go to office everyday became extremely hurtful. But I had no option and kept torturing myself into wearing trousers and shirt to go to office. While plain simple common sense kept on telling me that I should wear a kurta-pyjama to office, the 25 years of brain-washing prevented me from following my common sense. No wonder, common sense is said to be very uncommonly found sense!

After wresting with this profound dilemma for nearly two weeks, I decided to go to office in a pyjama-kurta because of the simple reason that even the thought of changing into trousers and shirt was killing.  It was a Wednesday, which was non-public working day (no customers – only internal housekeeping work), so I psyched myself that I was not really breaching time honoured traditions. And what a relief it was! I could think and work comfortably in office all day long, and no one, repeat no one, gave me even a second glance. For the next one-and-a- half years I attended office nearly every day in hand-washed, unironed khadi pyjama-kurta and felt immensely glad that I had made this transition.

On being transferred to Patna after completing my rural and semi-urban assignments I once mentioned to my boss my inclination of wearing a pyjama-kurta to office. With an extremely withering look he told me, “You can come to office, but you are not entering it”!

Dress codes in every society are essentially a function of local living conditions and available material for making apparel. I fail to understand as to why we, in India, still keep worshiping European apparel standards.

When I moved to the Middle East to earn my living in 2006, one of the first things that struck me was that wearing the local dress (Thobe – the flowing white gown worn by men) to office and at other formal occasions was accepted practice. Some of these men were very senior executives with degrees from some of the best universities in the world. They controlled large banks and trading houses and were quite sophisticated in the views and mannerisms. On reflecting on this culture, I realised that our dress codes in India had more to do with our mental slavery on account of 150 odd years of imperial rule and continued mind set of aping the west, than due to any rational thought processes.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Kursela Days 9 – My House & Landlord

Within a month of being posted to Kursela, I took the decision to start living there instead of commuting daily from Purnea. Very few people built houses in those areas with the intention of giving it out for rent and so it was difficult finding accommodation. With some help from local friends and bank officials, I finally managed to coax a retired school teacher to give one room in his house to me for a princely rent of Rs.150 a month. And that was home for the next 1 ½ years.

Diwali at the House I Lived in Kursela 
The Bench and long chair was used to given tutions to kids. 
The room behind the closed window is where I lived.
It was a nice house, well built and airy but living in it had some minor constraints. There was a verandah in front of the house and just behind it was the room in which I stayed. Mandalji, my landlord, used to give tuitions in English, Mathematics, Geography, and Sanskrit simultaneously to about 10 kids from 5 in the morning till about 9 am. So my alarm clock used to be the chattering of kids every day. Now since the kids were supposed to be studying, I was forbidden to play music in the mornings. The second round of tuitions used to held between 5 pm to 8 pm. So, on my return from office, I used to be again greeted with a bunch of chattering, screaming kids and, naturally, I was not expected to play the small transistor or portable cassette player as it would disturb the children’s studies. By 8.30 pm my landlord used to retire for the night therefore, once again, I was expected not to disturb him by playing my transistor or cassette player. Those were the days when the no one had heard of the Taliban. But I, the lucky chosen one, was given a preview.

For bathing, there was a hand pump in front of the house. The water from the pump was refreshingly cool in summers and warm in winters. So lucky me, had round-the-clock running water! However, pumping water was another matter altogether. It involved quite some exercise and, initially, I found it irksome. Later, I got a boy-help who used to keep pumping water while I had a leisurely bath.  I would now call the arrangement feudalistic and feel ashamed, but at that point of my life it was one of my few luxuries and my mind never had any such thoughts.

Govind Singh Rawat having a bath at the hand pump 
where I used to bath and wash my clothes everyday.

There was a toilet in the back of the house which was not available to me from about 8.30 pm (when my landlord went off to sleep) to next morning 5 am, since I was effectively locked out of the house . So if I needed to go to the toilet during those hours, I had to go out into the fields.

Food was the next major necessity, a problem and an opportunity. There were no restaurants in Kursela apart from a small shack where labourers and other itinerant workers ate. The food available here was very basic. Thick rotis made out of coarsely ground wheat or maize along with either some vegetables or daal. The vegetables used to be often just boiled and then mashed along with a seasoning of raw mustard oil, salt, and green chillis. The next alternative, which was much better, was to cycle a couple of kilometers down the highway to a fairly decent Dhaba, known colloquially as a “Line Hotel”. It was geared to provide meals to the truck drivers and others traveling down the Highway. I soon became friends with the owner by helping him open a SB account with the bank and thereafter received VIP treatment with fresh rotis and lots of ghee in my daal every time I went there.

Going to the Line Hotel was not a very practical affair on a regular basis, especially if it was too hot or cold or if was raining. I therefore got myself a kerosene stove, and started my experiments in cooking and was soon able to manage quite well. Sometimes I used to get lucky and be invited for a meal by my local friends and acquaintances – though this was rare.

There was a broad gauge railway line running about 20 meters away from the house where I lived. Whenever, heavy goods trains passed that way, the ground used to shake. It so happened that early one morning, I got up with a start since my bed was shaking. In my dreams I imagined that it must be some particularly major goods train. But it suddenly occurred to my sleep befuddled brain that there was none of the accompanying noise of the train. With a start I realized that my bed was shaking due to an earthquake and I rushed out of the house. There was a lot of loud cries coming from the village, “trah bhagwan, trah bhagwan”, but after a few minutes the shaking stopped and I went off to sleep. It was just about dawn and it was a Sunday. Later, I picked up my motorcycle and went off to Purnea to catch up with friends and spent the day chatting. In the evening, someone had the bright idea of checking the news. It was then we realized that the entire area had been struck by a major earthquake, and there had been a lot of damages and loss of life, though thankfully not in the immediate vicinity. Next morning I left Purnea early to be back at the branch before it opened for business and life continued as usual. Three days later I got a telegram inquiring about my welfare from home. My folks had no news of me and they were worried and I had not even bothered to inform them. Even if I had wanted to get in touch, it would have taken at least 7 – 10 days for a letter to reach Banaras or Patna.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Kursela Days 8 – Newspapers

I had been brought up to believe that one of the “good” habits of civilized, cultured, educated people was to read the newspapers everyday. The Calcutta edition of “The Statesman” used to be my daily fix from schooldays till I reached Kursela, in North Bihar, to do my rural assignment with State Bank of India. Not getting to read my daily newspaper produced withdrawal symptoms in me, similar to what junkies get when they do not get their shots. I used to be grumpy, fidgety, and at a complete loss as to the very meaning of life without reading my personal copy of The Statesman. During probation, as I moved to some far off places such as Bettiah, Madhepura etc, I managed to keep my daily tryst with The Statesman even though, at times, the delivery reached me one day late.

However, living in Kursela was a different ball-game altogether. There seemed to be no way that I could get supply of The Statesman on a daily basis or for that matter any other English language newspaper.  The Indian Nation and The Searchlight used to be leading English language newspapers published from Patna and had wide circulation throughout Bihar, but even these esteemed newspapers were rarely available in Kursela.

Then lady luck (as usual whenever I have been desperately stuck) smiled on me. One of my staff members in Kursela (Gautam Kumar Kanjilal) used to go every weekend to Katihar, where his family lived. Katihar was, incidentally, the only urban centre in the region and had a sizeable Bengali population and I had a hunch that the Calcutta edition of The Statesman would be available there. I requested Kanjilal to make enquiries as to its availability. Monday morning brought Kanjilal with a big grin and a copy of the previous day’s The Statesman, and my life was made. I am sure that Gautam Buddha would have felt the same kind of pleasure on reaching Nirvana, as I did on getting my beloved The Statesman in my hands. Thereafter, I worked out an arrangement with Kanjilal to get the entire previous week’s copies of the newspaper when he went to Katihar on weekends, which I used to merrily devour over the next week.

After spending about 6 months in Kursela, all the news and discussions in the newspaper started feeling meaningless and totally out of context to my life in Kursela and I stopped enjoying reading the newspaper. In less than a year, I stopped subscribing to the newspaper and I am thankful that now I have been totally cured of newspaper addiction. I read newspapers if I get one, but it is no more a daily fix.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Kursela Days 7 – Dr. Sitaram Shah

Dr. Sitaram Shah was an ex-BSF short-service commission medical man who had joined the Bihar Government Health Service after retiring from the military and had been posted to man the Kursela Primary Health Centre. My impression of government doctors posted in villages, till then had been limited to the understanding that they mostly lived at the nearest town or sometimes lived and practiced at their home town and visited their place of posting occasionally, say 2 – 3 times a week or less, for a couple of hours each day so as to justify collecting their salaries. The only doctors who I had encountered practicing in rural areas, were essentially quacks.

Dr. Sitaram Shah was the exception to the rule. He lived and practiced in Kursela, visiting his home town Forbesganj only on Sundays which was his weekly off. He used to be invariably clad in a white T Shirt and Shorts and was available in case of emergency on a 24 X 7 basis. In that lawless place (Bihar during late 80s and early 90s) where everything used to shut down once the sun set and night buses or passenger trains did not move without armed police escort, Dr. Sitaram Shah used to move around freely without any armed escort because he had earned the respect of everyone and treated everyone with respect and humanness. He used to examine patients at the PHC in the mornings and, in the evening, go for a walk and visit his patients who could not come to the PHC. His method of collecting his fees was unique. He used to accept virtually anything and everything that was offered; a 1-rupee coin, 2-rupee note, a portion of grain, a couple of live chickens, a bottle of country liquor or, very often, nothing at all. But his approach to all his patients would be equally straightforward. I have witnessed him working at close quarters, since I used to sometimes accompany him on his evening rounds or used to sit with him at the PHC on my free days. I have written about some of his innovative techniques in one of my earlier blogs – A Rural Sojourn.

Dr. Shah was good company and I really enjoyed my association with him. After I left Kursela I met him a couple of times while I was posted in Patna. He used to make it a point to meet up with me on his Patna visits. Thereafter, as I wandered out of Patna I lost touch with him. Recently, after a gap of over 20 years, while reminiscing of the good old days with friend Govind Singh Rawat in Hyderabad, I suddenly had a very strong urge to get in touch with him. I did not have his contact details and so, posted a letter by ordinary post “To, Dr. Sitaram Shah, Forbesganj, Bihar” with a prayer that the letter should reach him. Within a couple of weeks I got a phone call from him. I was glad to hear his cheerful voice and to know that he was hale and hearty and continuing with his good work of administering to the poor and the sick in Kursela and Forbesganj. My respect and confidence in humanity and Indian Post was re-affirmed.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Kursela Days 6 – Bade Babu

R K Prasad, the Head Clerk at the SBI Kursela, and known to everyone, inside or outside the branch as Bade Babu, was one of the most unique and interesting personalities I have met. A soft spoken man with a lot of family responsibilities and associated problems, he commuted daily from his village (Dumar) which was about 5 – 7 kms away. He was a BA in Economics from Bhagalpur University and had refused promotion to the officer cadre so as to avoid being transferred away from his home and family. He was the person from whom I finally learnt the basics of account keeping which used to be considered the be-all and end-all of banking (most if not all of it having been taken over by computers, bankers of my generation and earlier are nearly clueless as to what banking is all about), having frittered away my probation days doing virtually nothing. Accounting was totally manual, and to keep track of the accounts and ensure that all transactions were properly and correctly accounted for, there was a whole range of checks and balances. Things like maintaining day books, progressive books, balancing books, ledgers, and the holy bible of something called the clean cash book and General Ledger had remained deep mysteries to me. It was Bade Babu who patiently and logically explained to me their utility, functions, and how and, more importantly, why they were maintained in a certain way. Within a week all the things which had remained exotic and mysterious for two long years, suddenly became simple and logical.

Bade Babu giving a speech at my farewell
Even in his personal life Bade Babu was somebody one could look-up to. In spite of his numerous personal and financial problems, he was one person who was not just always ready, but went out of his way, to help others – quietly and unobtrusively. He had three sons, whom had named consecutively with a Christian name (Peter), a Muslim name (Jeta) and the youngest had a Hindu name (I forget the kids name now).

Bade Babu had made a number of innovations in the internal functioning of the branch (which had no approval of the management), that not only simplified but also made the functioning more efficient. He had given a brand name to his innovations, “Bhagat & Sons”. So, whenever, we came across any of his innovations we just had to ask him “Bhagat & Sons?”, and he would give one of his slow, shy smiles by way of reply in the affirmative. For example, for authorizing customer transactions we were required to maintain customer’s signatures. This was maintained on security papers, kept in bulky folders which were overnight retained in fire proof cabinets. It was cumbersome and time consuming accessing these folders. Bade Babu started a practice of taking an additional specimen signature in a register, which he used to keep with himself and refer to at the time of confirming payment of cheques and withdrawal forms. There were many such innovations that he implemented.

His ever smiling face with extremely sad eyes is one of those images which always stay with me.