ROOTS – 7
An excellent custom obtained at the Sachivalaya (Secretariat) in Ahmedabad, after the state of Gujarat was formed in May 1960. Every Friday evening, at a fixed hour, the officers gathered to take tea, with the Chief Secretary presiding. It was an informal meeting, at which someone might relate a funny or a strange experience he had had in the course of that week’s official work. From one of these Secretaries’ teas, her father brought home an account heard from a junior colleague who, as it happened, lived with his family in the flat (at the Government Quarters) above theirs, and who, with his wife and children, had become good family friends. This story is a retelling of his account.
TALE OF A TUMBLER
Babubhai was a clerk in the PWD. During breaks he partook of tea and gossip; gossip from his cronies, tea out of a glass tumbler. It was not an unusual specimen; one would not have thought it likely that this tumbler’s history would be enshrined in a government’s archives, but appearances they say. . . Babubhai had inherited it from his predecessor. He intended passing it on likewise.
However, there’s many a slip ‘twixt the tumbler and the lip. It slipped out of Babubhai’s grasp and took its last tumble. Babubhai thought over his predicament. The tumbler had come to him along with a well-furnished desk, almirah, waste-paper basket and clay water pot, on his promotion to the rank of UDC (Upper Division Clerk). Ergo, it was government property.
Babubhai put up an indent for a glass tumbler. That deceptively simple request travelled through the department like the Flying Dutchman, to and fro. It acquired adjuncts and soon reposed in a burgeoning file. Keener intelligences than the average person’s, worked on it and came up with queries of surpassing shrewdness.
To begin with, who had sanctioned the original purchase, and when? This proved, after much investigation, to be as hard to trace as direct descent from Adam. A query about the tumbler’s original cost met with a similar response – in due course. Then arose the question, had it outlived its useful life. Which in turn brought up the problem of how one could establish the length of ‘useful life’ in the case of a glass tumbler. This byway was extensively explored and abandoned reluctantly when progress became impossible.
Someone then inquired how the tumbler came to need replacing. Much paper-work later, came the inevitable question: how had Babubhai contrived to drink during the year and odd months since the aforesaid tumbler was broken? Babubhai, now justifiably incensed, replied that he used improvised paper cups. Back came the query, what paper did he use? It was a promising line of inquiry, shedding light on the subject of what constitutes ‘government paper’: used envelopes, from non-government sources were adjudged not ‘government paper’.
Meanwhile, one ministry fell and another took over, resulting in a change of Secretary for Public Works etc. The file came his way when the point was reached of asking Babubhai to show cause why the cost of the tumbler should not be recovered from him. The Secretary carried the file home on a long weekend.
Come Monday morning, he asked some questions: what was the current price of a glass tumbler; what was the estimated cost (to the taxpayer) of paper and man hours expended on this exercise; could he write finis to the saga if he paid for the tumbler himself? After this, sanction came rapidly for the purchase of a five-anna glass tumbler whose actual cost by then, at a moderate estimate, amounted to Rs 500.
As was said at the outset, Babubhai was a clerk in the Public Waste Department.