On-the-job training at Neemuch
After about eight months of training in various offices I was asked to proceed to Neemuch, a town in western Madhya Pradesh. Neemuch used to be in Gwalior State before the state of Madhya Bharat was formed and later was merged in 1956 into Madhya Pradesh, a much bigger entity. I had to go to Neemuch for on-the-job training as a head postmaster. It was supposed to be a smaller head office with around ten sub offices and about twenty-odd clerks and telegraphists. It was what was known as a Combined Office as it also accepted, transmitted and delivered telegrams. It was in effect a Central Telegraph Office (CTO) for the townsfolk as the telegraph traffic was insufficient to justify an independent CTO. It was in true sense a post & telegraph office of the Post & Telegraph Department.
It was a British era building that saw some extensions on its two flanks. In one of the flanks the telegraph branch was accommodated and in the other there were three rooms that were vacant and were given to me to live out my two-month tenure.
Neemuch was a peculiar town with a cantonment (chhavni), a bazaar area and the area around the railway station. Each was located away from the other two in three different directions. In the middle of them all was the Post & Telegraph Office and a very ancient looking club house. It was quite a formidable building and must have seen better days decades ago when the British were around. To me it looked haunted, more so at night when everything would quieten down with an occasional distant bark of a dog. At night it was frightening indeed with hardly any soul for some miles around except a lone telegraphist at the other end of the building. The two structures were literally in “splendid isolation” but during the day time the P&T office would see a lot of hustle and bustle.
With opium growing in abundance in the district Neemuch is stated to have Asia’s largest Opium Alkaloid factory. Actually Neemuch today is a district town but back then it was a tahsil of Mandsaur District. Mandsaur was always known for opium that was grown all around in the district. Neemuch has another distinction. It was the place where Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) came into being. Today it is a formidable force being used against militants of Kashmir and the Naxals in Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
My Neemuch office mostly had young boys with a smattering of over-forty men. All of them were generally nice and were, perhaps, extra nice to me as I too was young. They also were aware that I was superior in rank to their superintendent who was based at Ujjain. They were helpful and were eager to pass on their knowledge ungrudgingly to me.
They also took care I didn't feel bored. Two of them one evening took me out for a movie in which Shashi Kapoor, now dead and gone, was introduced. Its name doesn't readily come to my mind. On a Sunday they organised a trip to Chittorgarh in Rajasthan. It was two hours away by the metre gauge train that ran up to Ajmer. They carried with them delicious home-cooked food with them. Chittorgarh Fort is of huge proportions and moving around on foot made us all very tired. We sat inside a temple and consumed the delicious stuff that they had brought On our way back we saw the descendents of those who had left Chittorgarh after the legendary Rana Pratap was defeated by Emperor Akbar, vowing never to return until the principality came back to its rightful owner. It was Pandit Nehru who had them rounded up and brought them to their own Chittorgarh Fort, homeless as they were.
There was another outing when Mr. Munshi, the superintendent based at Ujjain, arrived for a routine visit. I had known him for some time when he used to be superintendent at Bhopal. That must have been in 1959 or 1960. A very amiable person, he used to be fond of good things of life. On a Sunday he asked me to join him for a picnic a little away from Neemuch on a river bank. It was beautiful place, lush green with the gurgling river flowing by. The person who took us to the site was known to Munshi. He was carrying a 12 bore gun. The idea, apparently, was that this person, who was an expert in shooting the fish as they surfaced, would catch some this way and cook them over a fire raised with dry twigs. As it turned out the breeze gathered in strength forcing the fish to avoid the surface. This also forced our fishing expert to put aside his gun and use, instead, his fishing line and baits etc. which he had thoughtfully brought with him. He did catch enough small-sized fish for the requirements of three of us. The way he cooked the spiced-up fish over the fire was fantastic. He brought all his Muslim culinary expertise into play and provided us with a delectable repast out in the midst of nature.
Before expiry of my two months term I was asked to report to the Postal Training Centre at Saharanpur near Dehra Dun. The night I was to catch the train the entire office staff said they would accompany me to the railway station. I sent my luggage on a tonga and walked about three kilometres to the station with the staff. It was quite a crowd that walked up to the station. Two of the boys said they would accompany me to Ratlam, the junction from where I was to catch the Dehra Dun mail for Saharanpur at dead of the night. They did that with alacrity and that was a big relief for me. I couldn’t thank them enough for their voluntary effort.
The word dead reminds me of the question one of the staff members, Raman Lal Gor (yes, I still remember the name after 56 years), asked me whether I had any unusual experience in the room that I used to stay in. I told him I did feel a presence in the room soon after I occupied it - a kind of noise one makes when he breathes heavily. The night I heard it for the first time it was strong or so loud that it woke me up. I got up and looked out of the window, even went out on the street to check whether there was anybody or a stray dog sleeping around. I went to the untenanted portion and the dark area where the dry toilet was located but there was nobody around. The place was as usual deathly quiet. Finding nothing unusual I came back and switched off the light, went off to sleep. I was again woken up by the same noise. This time I checked under the cot but there was nothing. When the same thing repeated the third time finding it rather eerie I switched on the light and tried to sleep.
Thereafter I would keep the light on right through the night. I narrated this to Raman Lal and then only he told me that the apparition of one earlier postmaster who had died in that room was seen by post office workers one evening when they were still at work. That I escaped without harm, I thought, was quite fortuitous. Raman Lal added that till then none had come to any harm.
Neemuch was my first experience of working in an office. And it was good and I felt good, more so because of the unreserved love and affection extended to me so generously by the members of the staff. It was such an auspicious beginning that somehow persisted right through my career during which I collected a tremendous lot of love and affection especially from the staff at the places that were reckoned as my field postings.