1956 - 1959
AS A CLERK IN MADRAS GPO
I was made a quasi-permanent clerk in Madras GPO in the year 1956, five years after I had been appointed as a temporary clerk. I was now eligible to appear for the Inspector of Post Offices examination and the P&T Accountants’ Service Examinations.
In 1957 my parents, my wife and I visited our village along with our son who was now around 1 year and a few months. We stayed with my uncle’s family in the West Village. Many of my classmates, barring a few exceptions, had already left the village and had landed jobs as stenographers or personal assistants to corporate executives. After completing SSLC they had acquired and honed their skills in typing and shorthand. As we walked through the village we could sense the eyes of the villagers peering at us. Many recognised and greeted us and enquired after our welfare. We prayed at all the four temples in the village. We also visited the village of my mother. None of mother’s parents or relatives was in the village. Her parents had died long back and her elder sister had shifted residence to Palani where her sons had established a thriving hotel business. There were only a handful of people in the village who could remember my mother. When I was born in that village my mother had vowed that she would break 108 coconuts in the Ganesha temple. That vow was redeemed by her during that visit to her village when I was 26 years old. We bought 108 coconuts and one of the priests threw them vertically, one after the other, on the floor in front of the temple. The powerful impact on the granite of the floor resulted in each coconut being shattered into small pieces. The broken pieces were collected and distributed to the children gathered there. They formed a long queue and each one collected his share when his or her turn came.
A few months after our visit to the village my mother and I visited our maternal uncle at Melur near Madurai. Mother brought my son with her for this trip. My wife did not come as she had to look after the household and attend to the needs of my father and brother. My uncle was teaching Sanskrit in a High School at Melur. From Melur we traveled to Madurai and visited the famous Meenakshi temple. The aayiramkaal mandapam ( the hall with thousand pillars) at the temple was a marvel of architecture and sculpture. Certain pillars of granite in the temple could produce melodious notes when struck with a metal rod. We returned to Madras after spending a week with the uncle and the aunt. Throughout this trip my son, barely two years old, was comfortable with his grandma and never once asked for his mother.
In 1957 I wrote the IPO examination but I failed to make the grade. The reason was clear. My aim was to clear the P&T Accountants’ Service Examinations Part I and Part II. My preparation for the IPO examination was perfunctory and I really did not expect to make the grade. Therefore I was not disappointed when the results came. Now I concentrated my attention on Part I of the P&T Accountants’ Service Examinations. The examination was tough and the syllabus was vast comprising Fundamental Rules and Supplementary Rules, Financial Handbooks I and II, Introduction to Government of India Accounts and Audit, P&T Manuals Volumes I to VI, Budget heads for P&T and sundry other subjects. On each subject two papers were there - Theory paper without books and Practical Paper with Books. There was also a paper on précis writing in which the examinee was to write a summary of a given passage in English. Each year the number of students clearing the examination used to be less than 15 in the whole of India. I availed of 60 days earned leave so that I could prepare myself as thoroughly as possible.
Those days my youngest brother was working as Manager of the Khadi showroom at Triplicane in Madras. The place where we were staying was far away from the showroom and it was difficult for my brother to commute the distance by bus. The frequency of bus service between Triplicane and Tondiarpet where we stayed was such that the waiting time to get the bus used to be almost 45 minutes to one hour. After closing the showroom, my brother invariably used to come home only by about 9.30 PM. It was therefore decided that mother and my brother would shift residence to a rented house at Triplicane near the Khadi showroom. The rest of the family consisting of my father, myself, my wife and our son continued to live in the old place.
By this time my wife had conceived again and I was to leave her and my first son with her parents in Bombay. I had already reserved the tickets and we had to board the train at the Madras Central Station. My parents also had come along to see us off. Suddenly I realised my pocket had been picked. I had lost all the money and the tickets which were reserved. We got into the coach and sat on our reserved seats. When the ticket examiner came we explained the position to him. But he was powerless to help. He had to collect the fare from us. Seeing our plight, someone in the coach volunteered to advance the money for the tickets and for other necessary expenses until we reached Bombay. I was pleasantly surprised by such unusual generosity. I gratefully accepted the offer and noted his address in Bombay. Soon after reaching Bombay I sought out his address and returned the amount, thanking him profusely.
After I returned from Bombay my father and I shifted to the place where my mother was staying with my brother who was still a bachelor. Not far away from the house was the beach. It was summer and the climate was hot and humid. I used to have early lunch and go to the beach with my books. Sitting in a shady place under a tree, I used to read until it was 5 PM. The sound of waves breaking on the shore provided soothing music to the ears. By evening the place used to be crowded with people who came to enjoy the sea breeze and get some respite from the summer heat. Back home I bathed and visited the Parthasarathi temple during the evening worship there. I used to have early supper and read up on the prescribed subjects until around 10 PM. This routine continued until the examinations in November 1957. I did reasonably well in the examinations but from what I had heard about the low percentage of passes at the all-India level I did not pin my hopes on passing and was prepared to make another attempt. Many had, like King Bruce, made five or six attempts until they got through. Therefore, when the results came in June 1958 I was pleasantly surprised to see that I had passed and my ranking was somewhere above the middle of the list of passed candidates. On passing Part I , one was eligible to be appointed as a Junior Accountant in Telephone Districts, PMG’s office, P& T Directorate, Divisional Engineer’s Office etc. with all-India transfer liability. After passing Part I, we had to undergo training in various offices of the P&T Department which had Posts, Telegraphs and Telephones under its control. We had training in the P&T Audit Offices also where, in addition to auditing functions, accounts of the department were also being compiled.
By this time I had also passed the Praveshika and Rashtrabhasha Visharad examinations of the Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha. Rashtrabhasha Visharad was a graduate level qualification in Hindi literature. I had to pass a paper in the regional language which, for me, was Malayalam. During this period I also got the first prize in an essay competition in Hindi, conducted by the Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha, on the life of Bharatiar the great revolutionary Tamil poet.
About this time I had been transferred to the Customs Examination Department of Madras GPO. This department had the custody of all incoming foreign parcels, addressed to various places in South India. The parcels were held in custody until they were assessed to duty by the Customs appraisers working with the postal staff. At each table there used to be one appraiser and two postal clerks. The parcels to be assessed were taken out from custody and opened by the postal clerks in the presence of the appraiser. After checking the contents they were assessed to duty and repacked and sealed with the Post Office seal. They were then despatched to the destination by the Foreign Parcels Department. The receiving post office delivered the parcels to the addressees after collecting the duty assessed. I was working as assistant to the Strong Room clerk. He was responsible for the custody of all foreign parcels pending assessment by the Customs. Insured parcels were under joint custody of the strong room clerk and the Assistant Presidency Postmaster in charge of foreign parcels department. The ordinary parcels were stacked up to the ceiling on racks with their numbers visible on the front. Insured parcels were kept in joint custody in the safe inside the strong room. My job was to help arrange the parcels, take out parcels wanted by the customs and give them to the table clerks, count the number of parcels arranged on the racks at the close of the day and tally with the book figure and generally keep a watch on the movement of parcels in and out of the strong room.
On one occasion an insured parcel was received from Germany in a damaged condition. In such cases the procedure was to put the contents in a protective bag, tie the bag with a string to which was attached a label, seal the bag with the APPM’s seal and mark the weight of the sealed bag on the label. This bag was kept in the safe in the strong room at the end of the day. One day a complaint was received from the addressee saying that he was expecting a parcel of watches from Germany and he had seen the same brand of watches in one of the shops in Esplanade. Since he was the sole importer in India for those watches, it was strange that the same brand of watches was seen in another shop. He wanted to verify the facts. When the parcel was located in a protected condition, its weight was verified. The weight was much less than what was written on the label. On examination it was found that the seal had been tampered with. Obviously someone was stealing the watches and selling it in the market. The strong room in-charge, class iv officials handling the parcels and many others including me were questioned by the police. Finally suspicion fell on a particular class IV official who had been flaunting expensive clothes of late and lavishly spending money. An FIR was filed and the case came to the Sessions Court. I was one of the witnesses. The investigating officer wanted me to implicate the particular class IV official when I was examined as a witness. I could not possibly agree to this. I told the court that I had not seen him stealing the watches and I was absolutely clueless who had done it. The alleged thief was acquitted by the court for want of evidence. But departmental action was taken against him and he was dismissed. I was given a memo saying I had been negligent in my duties though in point of fact the strong room in-charge was responsible for the custody of parcels and I was only assisting him. I gave my explanation but as usual my explanation was not satisfactory to the authorities. I was given an opportunity to be heard in person. I explained my defence in person but the Dy PPM said that I had played foul with the police, meaning that I had not given evidence in Court as tutored.
Those days I was preparing for the P&T Accountants’ Service Part II examination. One of my colleagues who passed Part I with me suggested that we do combined study. Both of us had availed of earned leave to prepare for the examination. Part II was comparatively easy compared with Part I. The number of volumes to be studied was also less. After early lunch we used to meet at the clinic of a doctor who was a friend of my colleague. The doctor used to close his clinic by 11 AM and it was available for our use up to 5 PM. We had undisturbed hours of combined study. Each of us had something to tell the other. Each one supplemented the other’s knowledge of the subject. I cleared PART II in the first attempt as in the case of Part I. My colleague cleared it after two more attempts. The reason was he had been posted as Junior Accountant in some office where he couldn’t manage sufficient time to revise his subjects.
I was sent to Calcutta for eight weeks’ training. A couple of others were with me. We rented accommodation in a modest hotel. Those days two meals a month cost something like rupees sixty only. We were given training in the office of the Chief Accounts Officer, Stores & Workshops, Esplanade, Calcutta. We used to travel by tram to Esplanade. Hollerith machines using punched cards as input were being used for data processing. Computers were a long way off. We used to spend the evenings on the banks of the lake near the boat club. On holidays we visited Dakshineshwar where Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa worshiped in the temple of Kali. We saw the banyan tree under which he used to sit dispelling the doubts of his visitors and giving them spiritual solace. We also sat in meditation in the room in which Sri Ramakrishna used to meditate.
One of the trainees used to read out to us daily from the ‘Gospel of Ramakrishna’ containing the recorded conversations of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa with his devotees and disciples. I wanted to read his talks in the original Bengali. To this end I bought a book titled ‘Learn Bengali’ by Bibhuti Bhushan Dasgupta. I learned the alphabets quickly and I could slowly read sentences written in Bengali script. I continued my learning of Bengali into later years when I joined, on deputation, HEC at Ranchi where there were a number of Bengalis.
After the training was over I returned to Madras along with one of the trainees who used to read from the ‘Gospel of Ramakrishna’. He was also in Madras but he had to get down somewhere en route. He asked me to carry his trunk also and deliver it to his wife. I got down at Madras and engaged a porter to carry the luggage. At the gate I was stopped and the luggage was weighed. I was carrying more than what was allowed on one second class ticket. I had to pay a heavy fine for the excess baggage. I then realised the consequences of not knowing the rules of the Railways. Had I known the limits of weight probably I would not have acceded to the request of my co-trainee.
My wife had by then given birth to our second son (third, if I count the first one which didn’t survive) in Bombay. My father-in-law’s family had moved to Bombay by that time and they were in Mulund. There was hardly a shop or house on the road from the Mulund railway station to where my father-in-law’s family stayed. There I received the letter censuring me for negligence in the watch theft case narrated above. Censure was the least of the statutory punishments under the Government Servants’ Conduct Rules. I felt sorry that in spite of my sincere work I had been getting warnings and censure now. I was, however, glad that very soon I would be out of operations where people who do not shirk work are more likely to get memos than people who dodge work. I was expecting my posting as junior accountant in the P&T Department.
The day before we were leaving Bombay to Madras, my wife, my mother-in-law and I had been to Dadar for shopping. Being a junction on the suburban railway system in Bombay, Dadar was always crowded. When we were engaged in shopping our first son, who was only three years old, had strayed away and was lost in the crowd. We were frantically searching for him asking every one whether they had seen a three year old child. Some one told us that he had seen a child crying at the police chowkie where a policeman was trying to pacify it with chocolates. We went to the police chowkie and found our son. We thanked the policeman profusely. Some one had found him straying alone and had handed him over at the police chowkie. We mentally thanked him whoever he was. Bombay was notorious for its child-lifters and if our son had got into their hands it would have been a very big tragedy. We could never have forgiven ourselves for being careless about our son. My wife vowed that she would offer the child (symbolically, of course) to the Lord of Guruvayoor.
Mid-1959 my wife and I visited our village along with our son. We stayed with the family of our uncle as usual. Aunt had been widowed in the meantime. When we visited, two of my uncle’s granddaughters had come to the village to visit their grandma. They had lost their mother (my uncle’s daughter) when they were very young. On a Sunday my wife and I took them and our son to the Malampuzha dam. The girls were chattering away throughout the bus journey from our village to the dam. The dam was full almost to capacity and the expanse of water was a real sight to see. On the site of the dam a beautiful park had been developed where different varieties of deer and other harmless animals were allowed to roam freely. The girls and my son enjoyed the visit. We had snacks and drinks at a hotel before we took the bus back to our village. The bus was jam-packed and the journey was tiresome after all the roaming about on the site of the dam and the park. We reached our village by 9 PM. My aunt was anxiously awaiting our return as it was already late in the evening.
It was during this visit that we went to Guruvayoor to redeem the vow my wife had taken when our son was lost in Dadar. We went to Guruvayoor by bus along with our aunt. Our son was three years and six months then. We took off his clothes and he prostrated before the Lord naked. This was symbolically offering the child to the Lord. The priest sprinkled sanctified water on him. Then we put some offering of money into the Hundi and took back our child and thanked the Lord for protecting him and restoring him to us