It was a strange day at the little store I managed. We were buzzing with the excitement of the big boss who was coming to visit us. He rarely did. We had heard about Bhaskar anna. We had heard that he was very busy, very important and very shrewd. In fact, he had a chain of stores all over the city, spreading the goodness of buying knick knacks at a price lower than that of the slightly bigger super-market-type enterprise. We have our loyal customers – the little kids who buy like one biscuit with their coins, the older men who buy like one cigarette and then the usual crowd of grocery, urgently-needing-washing- powder people and so on. I always thought that the bigger malls were a tad bit impersonal and tedious – but I shall save my opinions on the FDI in retail for another day. We didn’t have time for such pontifications that day. We were busy tidying up.
We had a bunch of people doing various little jobs – a book keeper (calling that accounting would be stretching it), cleaner, counter person and two boys. (Yes, two boys. In case you haven’t read our amazing hiring brochures, we say “wanted – two boys” (“Hudugaru”). For doing all the heavy unloading, loading, shelving and other buying us tea from the local bakery, we always need two boys.) Ramya was our book keeper. She was very young, just about twenty years old. We generally need people who are have finished their pre university and are literate, with particularly good skills of handling simple arithmetic with a calculator for the book keeping position. It also helps if they are good at the local language and Hindi – a criterion most people in this city can easily meet. Ramya more than easily met these conditions. As far as I knew her, she was quiet and mouse-like. She always wore her dupatta. On Fridays, she wore the little garland of fragrant jasmines on her plait. She once told me that she would try to do a degree with the Open University in correspondence-mode, but I have no idea if she had already started on it. She had two younger sisters who studied in the school nearby and I think that she supported her family by paying their tuition. I rarely saw her do anything extravagant like order those hot bajjis with tea, even. One could tell that she was grateful for this job and the money it gave her – she was hard working, timid and extremely sincere. If anyone were to ask me about her, I’d give her glowing references. She was extra busy that day – looking up all the accounts, giving it the once-over.
Bhaskar anna lived up to his stature. He wore a grey suit, just ten sizes bigger than needed. He spoke with that arrogance that we’re all used to taking from “big guys”. The two boys did all the work faster and just said “yes anna” to every instruction that Bhaskar dished out. If I weren’t such a skeptic, cynic or so full of my own self, I might have been intimidated as well. But I was certainly impressed. I was also very glad to see the two boys do work and not give any lip. I generally get a lot of excuses and laziness from them, if not just plain wise cracks.
He walked past the book shelf, where Ramya had neatly stacked her books. “Why is this not arranged according to month?” he growled. It was a fair point. I told Ramya to take note of that improvement we could make. He flung one book open and growled, “such shabby writing”. Ramya was frightened, I could see. Her frame was smaller than usual, more shrunken and her glassy eyes were really big and fearful. “Look at the monthly sales for April, it is incorrect”. Ramya swallowed and said, “sorry Anna. Will change now”. I had a look at the report and it was a valid error. So even though I wanted to jump in and defend Ramya, I kept my calm.
The day ended with us feeling a little like minions who work for the king, with us taking orders and apologizing. I told Ramya not to worry and that these errors were minor. We are after all human and it happens sometimes. But she seemed very flustered. “Akka”, she said, “I take my work very seriously. And there was nothing wrong in what Anna said. That was a mistake”. “We have to be accountable Ramya, but we don’t have to be slavish”, I explained. “Don’t be afraid”, I said. Ramya smiled at me calmly and said, “I know, Akka. I’ll try to be brave tomorrow”, she said, before packing up. Bhaskar was going to come back tomorrow again.
The next day started with all of us coming in earlier than our usual time. Nobody asked us to, of course. Even the two boys showed up with cleaner shirts. Ramya was looking through the books, arranging them in order and seemed very busy. We tried to get all our feedback from yesterday incorporated for today.
Bhaskar Anna came in at around ten in the morning. The two boys scurried to get him hot tea from the bakery nearby. I spent the whole morning in the godown, inspecting the supplies. When I went up for the tea break, Ramya looked very scared. I asked her what was wrong. She said that Bhaskar told her that the April month sales of the spices was 40 cartons, when in reality it was 20. I calmed her down and said that it was fair that there are questions asked and that all we had to do was to answer them. There was no need to get emotional about these things, I said. I told her to find the receipt. She said that they were made out at various times and not at one-shot. I asked her to rummage through all that she has and find them all.
We found all the receipts by about lunch time. Ramya was right, it was 20 cartons that we had the receipts for. We looked at each other, me trying to see what Ramya wants to do and Ramya seeking validation for her impending decision. “I will tell anna”, she said almost questioningly rather than saying. Bhaskar anna was walking up and down the stairs, working with the two boys and seemed rather busy. “Should I go now?” she asked. I told her to wait a bit, till maybe Bhaskar was less busy. Clutching the receipts in her hand, she said, “I always wanted to have a job. It helps pay bills. Why should I annoy anna? It’s not my business, I don’t have to do this. Maybe he knows something that I don’t. If he says its 40, its 40.” I looked at Ramya and said, “Hey, sure. You can decide to not bring this up and do as told. But many forms of Bhaskar anna exist in this world. We have to stand up for what we think – no one else can do it for us”. But even I was afraid of the consequences. Bhaskar anna has unceremoniously fired people before, or so said the rumours. I told Ramya that she could put it in a way that it sounds like HIS idea. Personal integrity and respect are important, I told her. If truth is on our side, what can possibly go wrong, right? “We need to stand up for ourselves Ramya”, I said.
When I went back into the godown, I feared that I had done the wrong thing. What if Ramya lost her job over this? Bhaskar would be responsible for the numbers, not Ramya. So if he said something, we should do it. Is pride and integrity in our work, really worth it at every situation?
I went back up to tell Ramya that she should really think about this one. But before I could do that, Ramya was standing with the receipts in front of Bhaskar. “Yes?”, he barked. “Anna, I have receipts from April” she said. He looked at her blankly. “The April spice sales..” she weakly continued. He thundered, “Oh my god! Are we still debating that?”. “The receipts… they say only 20 cartons….”, Ramya said. He took the receipts from her and said, “Don’t you understand? I said 40” and then he got up and swarmed out of the room, muttering to himself.
Ramya went back to her desk, slightly satisfied that she had found the courage but also a little bewildered by response. She took out the accounts book to change the numbers as Bhaskar said. I was called in by Bhaskar in the evening, after everyone had left. He looked tired and weary. He pointed to a chair, signaling me to sit down. “Times are tough”, he said. “We have to close this outlet down. I am thinking of migrating as many people as possible to the other branches, but obviously we can’t take everyone.” I found the April’s account book lying on the table next to him. “I have thought about this”, he said. “This book keeper has to go. I’ve told her many times that it was 40.. and she still hasn’t changed it. Its errors like this that come back to bite us”, he said. “Do we have the receipts for them?” I asked. He said, “the client called me and asked me for additional orders”, he said. “These are busy times.. and also pretty unfortunate ones. I am sure she will find a job elsewhere, she is a clever girl. I am happy to recommend her. Please take care of this”, he said. And I stood up to say something, he picked up his phone to have a conversation with someone else.
I took the April sales book from his table. As I sat looking at it, I saw a smudge on the page we were all looking at, almost as if a tear drop had smudged the ink.
Nakkeerar is an ancient Tamil poet, of the fabled fame of having stood up to even Lord Shiva in order to defend his views. The poet, it is said, did not shy away from his convictions even when Lord Shiva threatened to burn him down by opening his third eye.