Vishal got up from the wooden stool, and stretched his back. Even after five years of sitting on it, it hurt and every few hours he used to get up and walk around. During office hours, he had to be within calling distance of the sahib. The sahib, his boss, was the executive engineer and could call for him at any time. If there was a delay in his response, then the EE would immediately follow it up with an earful of abuses.
‘Eh, Vishal, get me a cup of tea,’ the voice from inside the room, shouted. Maybe the EE had seen his shadow against the window.
‘He has already had three cups since morning. Doesn’t he get anything to eat at home before coming?’ Vishal grumbled.
‘Ji, sahib, yes sir!’ Vishal shouted and ran off towards the canteen.
The Public Works Department or PWD handled the construction and maintenance of roads, bridges, and government buildings. Private contractors, government officials and common people, everyone came there. While for some, it would be to close out a construction contract while for others, it would be just a signature and an official seal which would start the construction of a septic tank.
There was a lot of money to be made in this department, you just had to know, how to make it and more importantly how not to get caught making it. Sitting outside Vishal, had seen and heard a lot and it upset him that he was missing out on all the action.
He joined the PWD department as a peon, five years back. His job required him to sit throughout the day outside the office of the PWD’s Executive Engineer. Every morning he would reach the office at eight thirty sharp. Putting his cycle in a corner near the canteen, he would unlock the doors of the engineer’s office. First with a broom he would sweep the floor and then with a moist cloth wipe the dust from the cupboards and desk. Next he would arrange the files on his boss’s desk and finally switch on the fan or the room heater depending on the climate. At last satisfied that everything was in order, he would sit on the wooden stool placed right outside the door and wait for the engineer to come in.
His boss, the engineer like all good government employees used to come in late. Office timings were from nine to five and he would come in by eleven. By then the queue of people waiting for him would be almost half a kilometer long. He seemed to enjoy seeing the long lines and knowing how important he was in that office. For Vishal, the whole day was spent running errands – fetching files and endless cups of teas. He was also expected to manage the people coming in to meet the engineer.
There were two types of people who came to the office. The first group and the larger group composed of people who had to wait in line and hope that someday their turn would come and they would be able to get their work done. Petitions and official documents in hand which in most cases required only a signature or a seal from someone in that office, they would stand patiently for hours.
The second group of people included those who had the clout and the money to get things done. They never stood in the line, rather were escorted directly into the office. There within the office, sitting with the E.E., over whispered conversations, deals would be struck and finally all smiles they would come out of the office. This group carefully avoiding coming in contact with those standing in the queues, would get into their air-conditioned cars and leave in trail of dust. Vishal hated his job.
He was an average student in school. More interested in cricket then in his studies, he was the star of his school cricket team. Growing up in his village, near Delhi, there was a time in his life when he had dreams of playing in the national team and becoming a famous international star. His father’s sudden death put the brakes on his dreams. His father had been a retired policeman, who had somehow managed to support their family of four, on his pension. Vishal, had a younger sister, Sarla, who was good in her studies and had always topped her class, at school.
‘One day, my daughter will become a doctor,’ his father used to say, beaming with pride every year when Sarla would bring home her report card. Sarla, would smile and feel proud that she had made her father happy. Both father and daughter knew that it was an impossible dream, but then why be stingy with your dreams.
At the time of his father’s death, Vishal had just completed his twelfth standard, and was planning on joining college. Now those plans had to be scrapped as the burden of running the family came on to his shoulders. Along with his mother, he had met the local legislator and pleaded with him. The job at the PWD office was a result of that meeting. Vishal was eighteen then, just the right age to get a government job. Now every month in addition to the pension of his father, his family had this additional source of income.
Each month on payday, he used to hand over his entire salary to his mother.
‘Keep it, it is your salary. I can manage with what we have from your fathers’ pension,’ his mother would say.
‘No, you keep it and give me only what I need,’ Vishal would reply.
This same dialog was repeated every payday, but would still bring tears to both.
‘Another cup of tea?’ the canteen owner’s question brought Vishal back to the present.
‘Han, yes, one more cup,’ Vishal sighed.
‘How many cups, does your sahib drink in a day,’ the canteen owner asked as he filled up another glass.
‘Do I care? Why do you worry, as long as you are getting your money?’ Vishal replied.
‘That is right. He is good for business. Next time, ask him if he wants any snacks along with his tea. I have a packet of biscuits lying around since last week,’ the owner smiled.
As Vishal returned to the office, he could see that the table was again a mess. There were files all over the table, some even lying on the floor. Individual pages were flying around in the blast of air coming from the ceiling fan. He put the cup of tea on one side, and began arranging the papers. The papers were petitions from poor people, people who could not pay the fat bribes that the engineer asked for. Their files would remain there in the office for years gathering dust.
‘Don’t fool around with the papers, they are all important. Put them on the desk and leave,’ the engineer shouted and returned to the newspaper he was reading. Vishal, quietly arranged the papers, put a glass paper-weight on them and left.
‘He keeps his desk like a pig and then shouts at me,’ he grumbled.
‘How does someone like him become an engineer while I stand here and wait on him? ‘Bring me a cup of tea’, ‘Fetch me a glass of water’, ‘Pick up that paper’. What does he think I am his, his servant?’ thought Vishal and kicked the wall in frustration. He looked at the people waiting in the queue, the line snaking its way around the office corridors and down the steps and out on the ground. The sun was now right on top.
‘Has the sahib come in?’ some of the people asked.
Vishal nodded his head.
‘I have been coming for the last one week, but nothing has happened. I only need a signature of his. When will he be available?’ asked another person. Vishal shrugged his shoulder and avoided looking at them.
The office had two sections, one where the clerks used to sit and besides it, this office of the engineer. The clerks and office staff came by ten. To get any work done in the office, palms had to be greased. Money was the only medium that could speed up the government machinery. Everyone got a ‘cut’, a share from the bribe. The amount you got depended on your seniority. Not that all the employees were corrupt, for example, there was Ram Babu, the head clerk who never took a paisa, but then he was a stickler for rules and would find problems and issues with the forms that could delay the files for months. No one went to him. It was easier to pay a few rupees to the other clerks and get the files moving rather than go to him and get pulled into a never-ending loop of approvals and attestations.
October the month of festivals came. While for the Muslims, there was Eid to look forward to, for the Hindus, it was Diwali the festival of lights, just waiting around the corner. For some communities, it was also the start of the new year, so everyone was in a hurry to close out existing deals and celebrate the festivals in a grand way. This was the time when a lot of money changed hands. The easiest thing in the world was to disguise the bribes in the shape of sweets and gifts. Daily, the PWD engineer’s desk used to overflow with colorfully wrapped boxes, and it was up to Vishal to ensure that each of these boxes was loaded into the office jeep in which the engineer traveled from home. One day, while loading the boxes into the jeep, Vishal accidentally dropped one of the boxes. The cover on the top tore a bit and what he saw inside took his breath away for a few seconds. There were wads of hundred rupee notes inside the box. There was more than he could ever hope to earn in a year. His hands trembled as he adjusted the paper cover back on the box and put it on the back seat of the jeep.
‘Have you still not put everything in? How long are you planning to take? I don’t have the whole day to waste, like you,’ the engineer had come up and was standing behind him watching his efforts.
‘Hogaya, It is done, Saheb,’ Vishal jumped as his boss brushed past him and entered the Jeep and drove off in a trail of dust.
‘Has he left for the day?’ It was an old man with a white beard, holding a bundle of papers in his hand.
‘I think so,’ said Vishal spitting out some of the dust that had entered his mouth.
‘How can he go away so early? It is not yet lunch hour. I have some papers that require his signature. I have been coming to this office for the last one week,’ the old man grumbled. ‘Do you know when he will come back?’ he asked Vishal.
‘Baba, do you think he tells me when he goes out? He may come if there is work. I think it is better that you come back tomorrow,’ Vishal said. The image of the box full of currency notes kept coming back to his mind.
‘Maybe some of the other boxes also have currency notes in them,’ Vishal thought. There must have been at least three bundles inside.
‘He must be making thousands daily. The corrupt rascal, he makes money while we have to struggle for a living,’ he closed the office in a huff and came out.
‘So you are now free to go home,’ it was one of the clerks in the office.
‘Hmm, the engineer went home early,’ Vishal mumbled. ‘Just because he left ahead of time, it doesn’t mean I can also leave. I will have to sit here till five’.
The people who were waiting in the line for the engineer stood there for an hour and then one by one left, grumbling and muttering.
‘Will he come back tomorrow?’ it was the same-old man who had spoken to Vishal earlier.
‘Look didn’t I tell you that he doesn’t inform me when he would be back. I am just a peon here. He is the executive engineer. I report in to him, and it is not the other way around.’
‘I traveled twenty kilometers by bus and bullock cart to reach here. Now I have to return and come back again tomorrow. What kind of man is he, who doesn’t care for the people who he is supposed to serve?’
‘He is a …,’ Vishal stopped himself just in time. He was just a peon in the office, any silly comments, and he would be out of a job.
’ Why don’t you pay some money? That will close this issue faster,’ Vishal whispered.
‘How much do I have to pay?’ the man asked. ‘I am a poor man, have two daughters to marry of. What will I have left if I pay all these government people,’ the man replied.
Then he looked at Vishal thought for some time and asked,’Do you open the office in the morning?’
‘Yes, I do, why?’
‘Please can you put my file on the top of the bundle, so that it is the first thing, he clears in the morning?’
The request looked harmless. The old man with his white hair reminded Vishal of his father.
‘Ok baba, don’t tell anyone about it. I will keep it on the top of the pile, so that he sees it first thing in the morning. Here, give me the file’. Taking it from the old man, he went inside and placed it on the top of the heap. The old man watching from the door, had a big smile on his face and thanked him profusely as he came out.
The holidays in October were about to start, and Vishal was looking forward to them eagerly. He would spend the whole day playing cricket with the boys in the fields near their house. It was the one time when he forgot the tensions of his life and was reminded of the happier times from his childhood. In keeping with the festival spirit some of the office staff contributed and bought some decorations and buntings. It was while tying the pieces of colorful paper to the pillars outside the office that he felt a tap on his shoulder.
An old man with a w beard was standing there with a big smile on his face.
‘Do you remember me, beta ..son?’ the old man asked
Vishal, tried to remember the face, but could not place him. The man was peering at him through his round soda bottle glasses. It was not one of his relatives. Most of them lived far away and rarely if ever visited them. He shook his head and continued decorating the walls.
‘I had come here some days back, and you had helped me…. remember?’ the old man said. ‘Remember, you put my file on the top of the bundle,’ the man whispered.
Vishal remembered and almost missed a couple of heart beats.
‘Are baba, talk softly, you will get me in trouble,’ he sneered at the man.
‘The sahib cleared my file, and my work was completed on time. Just in time for the festival. Allah, will bless you for this. Here I have brought you a little gift,’ the man said and brought forward a small colorfully wrapped box.
‘Wha..what… what is this?’ Vishal could only stammer.
The man smiled and replied,’ It is a box of sweets. Eid Mubarak.’ the man said, patted Vishal on his back and started walking away. Then he stopped, turned around and said, ‘Ah yes Happy Diwali too!!’
‘I don’t want this. I didn’t do anything,’ Vishal protested, but the man had already walked away, leaving him holding the box in his hand.
Vishal stood there looking as the man disappeared in the distance. Then he felt as if someone was watching him, he turned and saw his boss glaring at him from his cabin window.
‘You come in here this minute,’ the E.E shouted. As Vishal entered the E.E let out a barrage of words, ‘So you dare to arrange the files in my office, so that people who give you gifts are benefited?’ he shouted.
It looked like he had heard the whispered conversation between him and the old man.
‘I didn’t do anything wrong, Sir,’ Vishal tried to protest.
‘I heard everything. You put the old man’s file on the top because of which it got cleared early. That is why you got this box of sweets.
‘I might have accidentally put it on the top… I mean.. I’.
People from the other office were gathering outside the door listening to the shouting. Vishal looked down at his hand the box was there in plain view and there was nothing he could do about it.
‘Are you telling me that he just gave you that box without any reason? You will be punished for this. I will suspend you for this,’ the EE shouted. Vishal was scarred. He was also angry. He looked at the table of the EE and there was the usual pile of boxes there. He looked at the boxes on the desk, and one, in particular, caught his eye, the paper covering it was similar to the one used on his box of sweets, only the one on the desk was slightly torn in a corner.
‘He can get gifts, but I cannot get even one. This is just not fair,’ he thought, but there was nothing he could do about it. A suspension would mean loss of pay and given the condition at his home that meant a lot of problems for him.
‘You are suspended for a week without pay. Get lost and don’t show me your face. Go home and enjoy your sweets,’ the E.E dismissed him with a wave of hand and returned to the magazine he was reading.
Vishal stood there for some time then slowly walked out. He stopped at the door, turned back, looked at the engineer and said,’ Happy Diwali, Sir!’
‘Hmmph…’ the E.E growled as Vishal swiftly left the cabin. The people standing outside the door parted as Vishal made his way through them. He did not stop to speak to anyone, head bent, still holding the gift-wrapped box in his hand, he walked towards his cycle parked near the canteen. He put the box on the carrier behind the seat and slowly made his way out of the office gates.
At a distance from the office, on a deserted street, he stopped his cycle and removed the box from the carrier. In all the shouting and pleading in the office, the Executive Engineer had not noticed as Vishal had replaced his box with the one from the desk. He lifted a corner of the box and saw bundles of currency notes inside, quickly he closed the box and put it back safely in the carrier. The E.E. would most probably not notice the difference, with all his other gifts, and even if he did. Where was he going to complain?
A big smile spread on Vishal’s face as he shouted ‘Happy Diwali,’ and started pedaling home.