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|by Kumud Biswas|
Original in Bengali by Tarasankar Bandopadhyay
The mess of the employees of a firebricks factory in the district of Manbhum was a long barrack like structure with pantile roofing. In front it had a long open veranda supported by brick-built posts. On a winter morning sitting in that veranda all its inmates were getting ready for office. The reporting time is at half past six when the signaling whistle is given. Aswini doesn’t take tea, he was taking his last sip from a pot of milk; Bhikari is on outdoor duty, he had put on his blue shorts and was looking for his socks; Tarun was half way through his freehand exercise finishing the eleventh push-up of his usual daily quota of twenty-five; old Sashi Mistry was gobbling up the last night’s leftover gravy of meat curry when the whistle went off.
It was the final whistle without any doubt, for it was blasting with breaks in between. All ran in great haste in whichever states they were. The manager is new and is a strict disciplinarian. He has laid down a new rule – all have to report within five minutes of the whistle – those who will be late even by a minute will lose half day’s salary. Finishing his eleventh push up Tarun got up and exclaimed, ‘What slavery!’ Hurriedly he put on a shirt and left for office.
Reaching office he found that a full-fledged war had started. The surveyor was asking the Khajanchi (Cashier), ‘Who are you? What right you have to blow the whistle? Who has given you that right?’
Tarun looked at his wristwatch and found that it was five minutes to six. That means the whistle has been blown ten minutes earlier. All his blood seemed to rush to his head. He brought his fist near the nose of the Khajanchi and shouted,
‘You damn fool!’
‘What is the matter with you?’ – it was the voice of the new manager. It made all silent. The old Khajanchibabu heaved a sigh of relief. In a somewhat agitated manner he said, ‘Sir, a lot of work has been pending since yesterday – loading of the truck is yet to be finished, then the kiln number ten – ‘
Stopping him short the manager said, ‘I didn’t ask for these explanations. I wanted to know what was the cause of so much hubbub.’
The Khajanchi was quite taken aback. He kept on staring blankly. Among them the surveyor was superior to all in status, he came forward and told, ‘Sir, you have ordered that from yesterday all have to attend office strictly at half past six, those failing to report within five minutes will lose half day’s salary for the day. In this winter morning the Khajanchibabu has ordered to blow the whistle at twenty minutes past six, that is ten minutes earlier. None of us got the time to take our breakfast, we even left our morning cup of tea untouched.’
The manager looked at the office clock and it was still two minutes to six thirty. His own wristwatch gave the same reading. He said, ‘Well, leave after half an hour and come back after taking your breakfast. You may take your time off from seven to seven thirty.’
Within minutes all of them left and the Khajachi went back to his seat.
‘Did you ask to blow the whistle ten minutes earlier?’ asked the manager.
‘Since yesterday a lot of work has been pending and the number ten –‘ replied the Khajanchi. Annoyed the manager told, ‘All these I know, but you have not replied my question.’ The Khajanchi blankly looked at the face of the manager and replied, ‘Yes sir.’
‘But why? It’s not your duty.’
‘Since yesterday a lot of work has been pending, the truck has to be loaded and number ten kiln –‘
‘Are you the owner of this factory?’
‘This time I am letting you off, but please see that there is no repetition.’ The manager left in a huff leaving the Khajanchi sweating profusely even on a cold winter day. The hapless fellow rubbed off the sweat from his forehead and got down to his work. He first saluted the cashbox and then opened his cashbook.
‘Why, this is a big sum.’
‘Yes, we need it to buy some straw.’
‘All right, but let me first ask the manager.’ With the voucher in his hand the khajanchi stood at the door of the manager’s room. He was afraid to push aside the curtain and enter and went back to his room. He again came back and from outside called out, ‘Sir!’
‘Yes, come in.’
‘The money on account of this voucher – ‘
‘Why, are you short of fund?’ Scratching his head the khajanchi replied, ‘No sir, still- ‘
‘What then, do you have to make any large payment today?’
‘No sir, yet I thought I should ask for your permission.’
‘What do you mean? As soon as I signed the voucher I gave my orders to make the payment’, said the manager astonished. Saluting him the khajanchi left the room. ‘The idiot!’ exclaimed the manager.
Opening the cashbox he counted the money carefully. Handing it over to the peon he asked him to sign the voucher. When the peon was leaving with the money the khajanchi called him back, ‘Wait a minute.’
‘Let me re-count to see I have made no mistake.’
He verified the amount several times and debited it in his cashbook as expenditure under the stores head. Thereafter he left for the manager’s room.
‘Come in. What is it?’
‘I have paid the money on account of the straw.’
Extremely amazed the manager looked at the face of the khajanchi who saluted him and left.
At 12 there was one and a half hour’s lunch break. Returning to the mess as usual the khajanchibabu kept his shoes right in the middle of his room. He then took off his shirt and with his water pot and napkin sat down near the third pillar of the veranda to oil his body. From the other side the store-keeper, who was also oiling his body, asked, ‘How do you find the new manager?’ The khajanchibabu replied, ‘He is good, seems to be an efficient man. I saw him writing a letter, his pen ran so smoothly, like flowing water!’ With his bucket and water pot the khajanchi stood up. In front of each room by the side of the veranda barrels were kept to store water. He went to every barrel, took two potfuls of water from each to fill his bucket, went to the fallow land lying nearby in the south-western corner and sitting on a piece of stone slab he took his bath.
At that very moment the manager entered the mess to inspect the rooms.
Preparations were being made for their repairs and painting. Finishing his bath the Khajanchi entered his room chanting the name of goddess Kali of Kalighat. In his napkins he felt extremely embarrassed, for the manager was now standing in his room. He asked him, ‘Do you live in this room?’
‘Yes, sir; with Govinda, my roommate.’
‘But how have you arranged your seats – one south and north and the other east and west? He ordered an orderly to re-arrange the beds placing both of them south and north. ‘Who has kept these shoes right in the middle of the room?’ The manager himself pushed them to one side and left the room with the staff accompanying him. It was the bed of the khajanchi which was re-arranged. For a few minutes he stood there dumbfound and then went out still in his napkins. The manager was now busy with Sashi Mistry who had ruined his walls with marks of gravy and spices. Even the back of his trouser bore these marks.
The manager looked back and saw that it was the khajanchi. ‘What is it? You have not yet changed your dress? Please go and do it at once.’
‘Sir, for the last fourteen years my bed has been like that.’
The manager was astonished, ‘What do you mean to say?’
‘My bed – ‘
The manager got very annoyed, ‘No, no, others cannot be put to inconvenience because of you.’
The khajanchi came back to his room. He was very upset. His roommate Govinda was combing his hair. He told him to change his dress. The khajanchi asked him to help him replace his bed. Govinda was a simple man. He said, ‘But the manager – ‘
‘My dear boy, since I came here I have had my bed in this very room at that very place, I am not going to change it by any means.’ Govinda raised no further objection and came forward to help him. After repositioning the bed in its former place the khajanchi kept his shoes again in the middle of the room.
In the evening returning from the office he stood transfixed in his room. Extremely upset he said, ‘No, they are not going to allow me to stay here any more! Who has removed my hookah?’ Govinda told him that the manager had again come in the evening and specifically asked not to keep the hookah in that place. He raised no objection about the bed but he was quite firm about the shoes and the hookah. The first thing the khajanchi did was to take off his shoes and keep them in the middle of the room. Then letting off a deep sigh he sat down on his bed with a thump. After some time again he got up to remove the shoes from their usual place.
Next morning when the khajanchi was busy in his office work he found the manager passing by him in a hurry. That day Aswini, the accountant, was showing him the files and ledgers. While going through the cashbook the manager exclaimed, ‘What is this! Can you decipher it? Besides, lines are not straight, each ending two inches below the level where it started.’ Aswini told him, ‘Khajanchibabu’s eyesight is not good, nor will he agree to use glasses, for according to him they will damage his eyes.’ Called through an orderly the khajanchi appeared and saluted the manager.
‘How old are you?’
‘Sixty years, sir. I have been working in this company for forty years now, for the last fourteen years in this factory from its very inception when nothing was in order and people were unwilling to –‘
Very intolerantly the manager said, ‘Please stop, these are irrelevant things. Now you have become old, you cannot see well. Why don’t you use glasses? Have you seen what you have done? Things cannot be allowed to go on like this.’
‘I shall use glasses sir, I am giving you my word.’ Saying this the khajanchi left.
After some time he again came back and asked for half day’s leave so that he could go to Asansol by the company car that was going there and buy his glasses. The manager promptly gave his permission. In the evening he was found to go from room to room wearing his new spectacles telling everybody how clearly he could now see everything. ‘Doesn’t it look nice? One, two, three –‘ he began to count the beams of the roof.
A few days after this the manager called him and told, ‘I am very sorry, khajanchibabu, you are going to be discharged. I mean the company has sent a letter requesting you to retire. From now on accounts are to be kept in English. Besides, you have served for a long time, now you should make room for younger people, isn’t that right? Your replacement has also joined.’ He then gave him the letter sent by the company and asked him to sign his letter of resignation. He was also informed that the company had granted him three month’s salary as bonus.
He handed over the charge. He showed that the cash balance was exactly rupees three thousand and a one-anna, a two-anna and a pice in coins kept in a paper packet. Handing over his dues the manager told him not to feel bad, ‘It will do a lot of good to you if you worship God with the kind of sincerity you have.’
‘As you say, sir – ‘ said the khajanchi.
The employees did not of course allow him to leave so easily – they called a farewell meeting, arranged a farewell feast, gave him a garland and a few even wept.
Next morning some porters from the factory were carrying his belongings to the rail station and the khajanchibabu was walking behind them. He was wearing those new spectacles. Suddenly he said, ‘Why are they not yet blowing the whistle?’ A porter said, ‘It is not yet time babu, it will be after the departure of this train.’ He now remembered that it was not yet half past six, for he was leaving by the half past six train. He looked back and found that smokes were billowing out from the chimneys of the factory. He turned his eyes back, let off a deep sigh and smiling wanly he said, ‘There is God overhead!’ But he could not keep his eyes off from the sky for long. Where was the sky! Even with his spectacles he could not see it. What he saw from end to end was only smoke – behind heaps of smoke coming out from the chimneys of the factory the sky was totally lost!
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