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The Empty Cup    by Anurag Sharma

 

Working in this office is not easy. People don’t try to understand my problems. They should realize that I'm here to learn banking and not to prepare the statutory returns that were supposed to have been completed previous month. The bank spends lot of money and other resources towards on-the-job training program for the Probationary Officers (POs) like me. Professionals at bank’s head office plan things months in advance, identify the best branches where a PO can learn different aspects of banking and then post each PO in one such branch for four months each for two years. In between these postings, there are classroom trainings and workshops besides progress reports every month. Despite of clear instructions from the head office, quite a few smart branch managers succeed in exploiting loopholes in the rules to use these POs for the pending work that they could have never got done from their regular staff due to excuses varying from shortage of staff to uncooperative trade unions. Frankly speaking, it has more to do with their inefficiency to manage the branch than anything else but I am not here to impose my opinion on you.

It seems that I am getting distracted from the main point. Please bear with me if I take a while to get all the facts right. For an old man like me, it is normal to take a little longer to arrange the scattered pieces of his past. Besides, this all happened three decades ago.

Agra was one of the most prestigious branches of our bank in north India. My bank, being one from south India, had to face a tough competition from other well-established national banks based in north India having a distinct advantage over us because of their local staff who as a rule spoke better Hindi than us and had a much better idea of the culture and geography of the region. No doubt that my bank made it a point to post the best of its people in a branch like this. These people had many things in common. All of them were well educated and ambitious. Another thing that was common among them was that none of them appreciated my four-month stay in that branch. Probably these people in thirties, forties and fifties could not gracefully accept the fact that a twenty three-year-old boy would appear from nowhere and would become their senior. Amar Singh Sabbarwal (or Ass in short, as he called himself jovially) was the only exception. He was a skinny Sikh who became friendly with me. He was the one who accompanied me during lunch. He helped me exploring the city of the Taj Mahal.  By nature, I am a curious man. I want to know everything about everything around me. Ass helped me in knowing more about the people around me. He also volunteered himself to type my self-appraisal reports that were due on 1st of every month, as I did not know, how to type.

I got a big table full of forms, ledgers, manuals and all kind of stuff used by a big branch those days. There were no computers; either they did not exist or at least did not penetrate in Indian banking industry at branch level. I had heard that there was a mainframe computer at our head office and I always wondered what it was. Anyway, since we did not have computers, all the banking transactions were to be recorded in huge loose-leaf binders with a very heavy wooden cover and a metal lock to secure the sheets inside.

Ass used to sit on the counter with a few other colleagues and an old man called Neelambakkam. I sometimes wondered what an old man - who seems to have been retired at least a decade ago - was doing in this branch. Ass, as usual, answered my curiosity. Actually, Neelambakkam was not as old as he appeared to be. He was a widower from a small village in Tamilnadu. He was neither highly educated nor he could ever qualify any promotion exams during his thirty years service in the bank as a clerk. During its Platinum jubilee year, the bank came up with a scheme to reward its loyal employees. This scheme gave a chance of promotion to those hard working and honest clerks who had served the bank for thirty years without any bad remarks in their career book. Apparently, Neelambakkam who always wanted to become an officer took advantage of this opportunity and got promoted. He was transferred to Jhandukhera, a remote village notorious for bank robberies. Extremely happy with his newly acquired position, Neelambakkam reported to his branch promptly, leaving his only son in a hostel in Chennai. He could not understand a single word of Hindi nor could he make the innocent customers understand a single word of his highly accented English. Ass once joked that he had to take Tamil classes to understand Neelambakkam's English.

His lack of training in management, coupled with the harsh realities of an underdeveloped north Indian village and the language barrier forced him to get disillusioned with his new life within a week. He spent every weekend with the executives of Agra divisional office for a reversion or a transfer from the branch and finally succeeded in getting transferred to Agra branch. In Agra, he was looked down by most of the branch staff, partly because of his lack of higher education but mainly because of his lack of dress sense. I did not see anybody but Ass talking to him. While exchanging office notes, even Branch Manager bypassed him and limited all his communication to Ass who happened to be Neelambakkam's subordinate according to bank's hierarchy. Neelambakkam did not seem to mind any of this. Probably, he had accepted this discrimination and loneliness as a part of life or a price of his rescue from Jhandukhera.

Time passed pretty fast. I completed first month of my tenure at Agra. Things changed in the meantime. I had many friends now besides Ass. Khan liked me because I spoke chaste Urdu; very unusual for a non-Muslim while Misra liked me because I was a strict vegetarian and a teetotaler. Others too had some reason or the other to like me. They used to surround my table in their free time and discuss official and personal matters. Some of them wanted me to join their respective trade unions too. Quite a few indicated their willingness to have me as a matrimonial alliance for some of their close or distant cousin. Virtually, everybody but Neelambakkam became my friend. They offered all kind of help, highlighting the fact that being local of this city; they were in a position to solve any of my problems during my stay at Agra.

One fine morning, Neelambakkam turned back from his counter and walked towards my table. He had an empty cup of his just finished tea in one hand and a postcard in other one. For the first time I saw a broad smile on his otherwise gloomy face. "How're you?” I asked. "My son passed his 10th grade exam", he said while waving the post card before me. I took the card from him, read it and returned after congratulating him. We discussed about his son Ashok for a while. Ashok was his only child. He raised Ashok with difficulty as a single parent. Ashok wanted to become a doctor. His marks reflected that he was a bright student and it would not be difficult for him to achieve whatever he wanted. Neelambakkam left my table with his card leaving the empty cup on my table.

It seemed that by then, Neelambakkam had realized that I was actually as harmless as I appeared to be. Slowly, he made it a habit to come to my table to talk for a while whenever possible. Occasionally, he asked my opinion about customers' signatures that looked much different from the specimen lodged with the bank but most of his discussions with me revolved around his son. I realized that his only motivation in life was his son. He wanted to give his son the best education and a wonderful life. Frequency of his visits to me increased and so the number of empty cups on my table.

Everybody believes that I am a cool guy because they don't see me getting angry even in the most difficult situations that can make any average person mad. But I know myself better. I know that I am very short tempered. I accept big challenges gracefully but it’s the small things that irritate me. The empty cup left by a clumsy old man is one such small thing. Every time, Neelambakkam left my table, he left his empty cup of tea behind him to raise my blood pressure. Sometimes I thought of politely telling him to take his cup back. On other occasions, I felt like aiming his head with one of the cups left by him. But I could never do any of the two. I don't know why I spared him. I assume it was a feeling of pity towards a loser that stopped me from saying anything to him.

Four months passed very fast and I was relieved for a small branch in a remote Maharashtra village for on-the-job training in rural banking. All my colleagues said good things about me in my send-off party. They also gave me gifts. Neelambakkam was absent. He was on leave that day. Ass told me that he was sick. His only sweater could not save him from falling ill in harsh winter of Agra. I didn't think much about him as I did not have any feelings for him except sympathy.

My new branch was very good. It was situated in a beautiful valley surrounded by green hills. There was very little office work but a lot of fieldwork. We had only five people and all of them were very friendly, especially Mohini who taught me Marathi. Manager Ghatge was once a PO himself and was younger than everybody else except Mohini. There were parties almost every day and since these people had few vegetarian choices, Mohini used to take me to her home and cook for me. She was very helpful and kind towards me. In fact, at times she was so kind that I was a little scared.

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While in Maharashtra, I had regular correspondence with Ass. One day he called me over phone and told me that during my stay at Agra, one of my checks was wrongly debited to a customer's account. When I closed my account on my relieving day by withdrawing the balance, I actually overdrew the account by a few thousand rupees, the amount of the wrongly debited check. I was worried because an overdrawing in staff account was an extremely serious offence according to the strict banking code. Suddenly, I realized that I had so many friends in the branch to compete with each other to deposit the money on my behalf. I was keen to know about the person who finally succeeded in depositing the money so that I can repay. "Nobody bothered…” Ass said, “In fact some of the staff members insisted that the matter should be reported to the head office immediately so that disciplinary action may be initiated". I was stunned. I never expected that the people who swore by God to prove that they were my biggest well wishers would behave like my enemies in case of need. "So, what should I do now? Am I in trouble?” I asked Ass visualizing the negative remarks in my profile that would spoil my career in this bank. "Nothing. Just pay the money to Neelambakkam who had silently transferred the amount from his account without even my realizing it.” Ass said. He told me that Neelambakkam did not want me to know about this case at all. He said to ass, that a nice person did not deserve worries like these. Only after much persuasion from Ass, he permitted Ass to inform me about the incident on one condition, "He should not pay the money back".

I sent a bank draft to Neelambakkam with an impressive "Thank You" note. I did not receive any acknowledgement from him. I don't know where he is now nor about his son Ashok. My best wishes are always with him and his son. From that day onwards, I took extreme care in judging people and making friends.



© Anurag Sharma