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Vol. XXXI No. 14, November 1-15, 2021

Our Readers Write

Reflections

Upon graduation, I joined the Syndicate Bank as a temporary clerk. I was happy to have been placed in a good company. I went on to complete my masters as well as the bank exam CAIIB, so that I could be eligible for the Officer Promotion Exam. I took the test and secured the All India First Rank, prompting the company to promote me to the post of Asst. Manager. I was posted to a remote village in Andhra Pradesh called Madikkera – this was, of course, some 35 years ago – 9 kms from the busy Guntakal Junction en-route to Bombay.

I got down at Guntakal with high hopes and stars in my eyes – after all, I had just been made an Officer. However, I was shocked to discover that there was no other conveyance available save a bullock cart and a solitary van that appeared every two hours. The van typically serviced 30 passengers along with vegetables, hens and goats all loaded in one, travelling bumpily on the 9 km long muddy road. It took at least one and a half hours to reach the village. There was no telephone, post office, hospital or even houses – the available houses were all mud-made structures with bamboo roofing that leaked heavily during the rains. As an Asst. Manager, I had the privilege of travelling in the “front seat” next to the driver with three others cramped beside me, all reportedly the village headmen.

Like I said, there were no pucca houses or electricity. The farmers used to take a line from the motor pump, using a single bulb for their source of light. Our bank, thankfully, was in an old, unused stone building that was once a rice mill. It had one big room that was partitioned – one portion was allocated to the working staff with the aged manager in one corner. The cash and jewels were kept in an old but strong Laxmi safe, which needed a least 20 persons to lift and move it. The bank had the luxury of a tubelight and a fan, courtesy a line from the nearby motor room.

I cursed my luck that I had been sent to a remote, underdeveloped village from a bustling town like Erode, where I was enjoying a cushy life. I wrote to my father, a retired Colonel of the Army, declaring my intention to resign and return home. He sent a lovely reply. “A soldier fights against the odds, he never runs away from duty,” he wrote. “Stick on and fight the odds. Steel yourself and take the responsibility cheerfully, but do not think of returning, for you will not have place in our home after that.”

That letter gave me the courage to fight on. With no other option, stay I did in a mud hut, with one solitary light. The first night, tired after the van ride and rather depressed by the surroundings, I could not sleep. I got up to switch on the light and drink some water. Out of nowhere, a three foot long snake wrapped itself around my right leg. I shook my leg violently until it fell away; I then ran out shouting, “pambu!” as I did not know a word of Telugu. In response, the watchman calmly asked me to sleep next to him in the open field. In the morning, he showed me a yellow snake that he had killed earlier. Often, I found snakes playing around atop my mosquito net. Once, I took a pair of trousers from the clothesline and a yellow snake dropped to the ground, giving me a good scare.

It wasn’t just snakes. There were also dangerous black scorpions called madragabba, whose bite was fatal. These used to roam around the room freely in the day time. I quickly purchased a bamboo cot so that I could sleep safely outside near the watchman.

The most horrifying creature there, however, was the guinea worm. The village had a lot of stepwells which were hotspots of the guinea worm disease. This disease, which originated from Papua New Guinea in Africa, was rampant in the village. An infected person would develop a high fever and break out in boils. Worms would emerge from these boils like a thin white thread. The village barber doubled as the doctor – he would use a stick to pull out the worm, putting the patient in excruciating pain. He would then apply medicine to the area. The disease had no remedy. The village suffered in silence, with the infection spreading to even the infants.

At the village, a pot of ‘good’ water would cost five rupees and a bullock cart had to fetch it from a distant well, some 4kms away. We had to use this one pot of water for both drinking and bathing. There were no toilets and one had to carry a chombu of water to relieve oneself in the open fields. The women had a single toilet at the outskirts of the village. They had to go all the way there to relieve themselves in the darkness of the night.

I felt miserable at the conditions and resolved to run away. I was prepared to go anywhere but my house – something or the other gave me a terrible shock every day. I restrained myself, however, as I had the one set of keys to bank’s safe. I decided to stay and fight on, to help ameliorate the pitiable condition of the village. I wrote an article in the Indian Express and also sent a petition to the then CM of Andhra Pradesh, Mr. Vengala Rao. The CM acted at once. He sent the district collector of Kurnool to investigate the matter and verify the facts.

The collector visited the village and met me at the bank. I was advised to mind my own business and not involve myself in societal issues. I told him that as an educated person, I would fight for the rights of innocent, illiterate people wherever they are. I also added that I would travel to Hyderabad to meet the CM if he did not take action. That seemed to unnerve him, and he left.

Meanwhile, my article had caught the attention of the WHO officials in New Delhi. They visited the village within ten days and I showed them around. They were shocked at the government’s apathy and the pitiful conditions of the villagers. They met the panchayat President and closed all the step wells, leaving the villagers a big lake outside the village in which to wash clothes, take baths etc.They mobilized WHO funds to give the village clean water from a huge well in Allur, some 9 kms away.

The village President named a street in Maddikera as ‘Asst. Manager Garu street’ in my honour. When I was transferred to another rural branch on a promotion, the villagers gathered outside the bank in protest. The regional manager had to come from Kurnool to ask them to let me go, explaining to them the significance of the promotion for my career. The day I left, the whole village gathered at the maidan and garlanded me. They took me to the nearest railway station atop a decorated tractor and gave me a grand send-off.

I take great satisfaction in my time at Maddikera, which gave me the opportunity to give something back to society. When I went back for a visit in 2019, I saw that there was a high school, hospital, post office and a panchayat building. Even the bank had moved to a new office. I was happy to see the development that had taken place over the years.

By M. Fazal
No. 11, Mosque Street
Hasthinapuram
Chennai 600 064

Inside a Coffee Club

Back in the days when life moved at a slower pace, every town had a vegetarian hotel known as a coffee club, invariably run by an enterprising Udipi cook-turned-entrepreneur. These establishments were found near bus and railway stations, so that passengers could have a quick cup of hot, frothing filter coffee – never tea, for of course it was not served at coffee clubs – as they went to and from the terminals. It goes without saying that instant coffee, the sworn enemy of coffee aficionados, was taboo as well.

On entering a coffee club, a visitor would make a bee line for the showcase, where the day’s specials – freshly made sweets and snacks – were displayed behind glass panels. A black board hung on the wall listed the menu along with the prices; the visitor, having mentally tasted each and every item, would make his choice of the day and proceed to choose a table over which a fan rotated with the least noise possible.

Immaculately groomed servers would appear, looking positively divine with their foreheads sporting a streak of vibhuti and a dot of kumkum. They would be dressed in a four cubit dhoti that was folded an inch or so above the knees; a bill book would sit in the pocket and a pencil would be parked on one ear for easy access.

Visitors would be welcomed with a cheerful vaango anna as if they had just returned unexpectedly after decades from a holy trip to Kasi and Rameswaram. This was, of course, a happy contrast to the service at most high-end hotels where waiters would raise a disapproving eyebrow at customers, hardening the stiff upper lip as if one’s dress or demeanor fell short of the standards at their upscale establishments.

At a coffee club, however, even if one expressed the intention to have just a quick cup of coffee, the waiter would spread a glistening parrot-green banana leaf across the table. “Anna, today’s special is badam halwa – it’s fresh and hot,” he would say. “Our sweet master Kuppana has put it together with his expertise. You must have a taste.” He would then vanish into the kitchen and emerge with a neat cellophane packet through which a light yellow halwa would wink at you. You had no choice but to accept it of course, even if you were a diabetic. You would then proceed to open the packet nervously, thinking about your regimental wife all the while – even if the eatery was miles away from home, it was entirely possible that she could sniff out this flagrant violation of her wifely injunctions.

At western banquets, the port is usually drunk in one go at the end of a meal. But the modus operandi of enjoying a badam halwa is different. Speed is not of the essence here, quite the opposite. One slowly peels off the tissue paper and takes the time to savour the halwa’s aroma much like one would a glass of cognac. The waiter, in the meanwhile, would have merged into the background, allowing you to commune with the halwa in private; he would re-appear like a genie when the ritual ended. “Anna, piping hot idlis are ready. I will bring them with a side of crisp onion vadai,” he would declare. You would reluctantly toe the line of ‘this far and no further,’ and protest. “No, I must eat breakfast with my host. He will kill me if he sees me eating here,” you would say and excuse yourself. You will then order a cup of coffee, double strong and with one and a half spoons of sugar, remembering that your wife is miles away.

The coffee, of course, would not come alone and friendless. It would typically be accompanied by a small leaf cup containing a small quantity of some savoury – karabhoondi, omapodi or mixture. You see, coffee tends to taste bitter if it follows a sweet.

Such service is a thing of the past. Our food today comes in plastic boxes or polythene pouches, delivered by Swiggy, Zomato or Dunzo. Though reasonably punctual and certainly convenient, it is mechanical and impersonal, unlike the charming coffee clubs of the past.

By J.S. Raghavan
jsraghavan@gmail.com

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