Why would a dour, taciturn and, apparently, emotionless Scotsman grow red in the face when handing over a shiny cup to the owner of the winning horse in a prestigious race?
And why would he stomp away from the dais immediately afterwards?
And why was the owner of the horse openly laughing and his wife (and co-owner) sniggering when they accepted the cup?
I was visiting Calcutta when on leave and had been invited to the year’s mega horse-racing event at the race-course. The star event was the XYZ Bank Cup, sponsored for many years by my bank.
The glitterati of Calcutta, all the people who mattered, were present. After the race came the prize-giving ceremony where this strange incident happened.
Out of curiosity, I sought an answer from a colleague.
Before I tell you the story, I must give you a bit of background.
Malcolm Frazer DSO (distinguished service order) was the then operations head for Calcutta area and his office was in the banking hall of our main branch. Mr Frazer was a superbly fit man in his mid-30s.
After school, he had joined the British Army, where his outstanding physical prowess, fearlessness and total obedience to authority caught the eye of his superior officers. He was promoted to Sergeant way ahead of his time. Upon finding routine regimental duties in peacetime too boring, he applied for induction into the Special Air Service (SAS), the legendary British commando branch.
Mr Frazer not only survived the gruelling training, during which the instructors did not try to train you, but they try to kill you. He ranked near the top of his batch and joined the SAS.
A year later, Mr Frazer, a young Lieutenant by now, was sent to Al-Mazynah in southern Oman, where a contingent of the British Army was helping the young Sultan repel communist guerillas from across the border.
Encounters were bloody and fierce and in one such affair, young Mr Frazer took a bullet in one knee while fighting off a horde of armed attackers, thus saving himself and four of his men.
As a result, he was decorated with the DSO and given an honourable discharge – his game knee made him unfit for future military service.
Mr Frazer joined our bank as an international officer. His most considerable qualifications were his Scottish ancestry and his DSO.
Our bank chairman at the time was Scottish, too, and he had been decorated in World War II when he was just a wee lad of nineteen.
A Scotsman with a DSO was just right for the bank.
The other protagonist in this story (or should I say ‘antagonist’?) is Jasmine Bharucha, Mr Frazer’s secretary.
Jasmine was an extremely pretty Parsi girl from a middle-class family, who had learnt shorthand and typing, rather than going for 'dubious' professions such as fashion model or air-hostess, and had got herself a job in our bank in the good old 'gora' days.
Young Rustom Bharucha, the scion of an old Parsi family, who had made a fortune stevedoring in the days of the East India Company (handling opium, jute, indigo and cotton), had fallen in love with Jasmine at first sight when he had come to the bank to get some cash (no ATMs in those days).
Love was returned and they got married.
Now the Company was gone, and Calcutta Port was a mere shadow of its former self. Still, Rustom’s ancestors had invested their wealth wisely in shares, land and the like, and he had ample moolah to live in luxury, hobnob with the rich and famous, and indulge in his passion – racehorses.
Obviously, Jasmine did not need to work, but she liked her position at the bank (No 2 in the pecking order of secretaries), and so she had continued working. Naturally, soon, she was into racehorses, too.
Things went just fine until one faithful day when the manager’s head peon presented Mr Frazer with an urgent telex, which the manager wanted to be sent – jaldi.
He turned to look at the glass-walled telex room, which adjoined his office and found it empty because the telex operator had gone for lunch.
The telex had to go – Boss’s order – so he summoned Jasmine and told her (not 'requested' or even 'asked', mind you) to send the telex.
Not that Jasmine-bai did not know how to send a telex. If asked politely, she could oblige and had indeed done so in the past for her previous bosses.
But the way Mr Frazer had commanded her put her back up.
“I am a secretary, not a telex operator. It is not my job to send telexes. I won’t do it.”
Mr Frazer was astounded.
Disobeying a direct order from a superior officer? Unheard of! Unacceptable!! A Court Martial offence!!!
To make sure he had heard her right, he commanded again, “Go and send this telex, right now.”
Jasmine dug in her heels, drew up every inch of her 5-foot nothing frame and announced, “No, I won’t.”
To hell with the telex, insubordination could not be tolerated.
Mr Frazer stomped out of his office, went straight to the personnel officer, got him to make a termination letter for Jasmine Bharucha while he stood glaring, signed it, and personally handed it over to her.
“Tum military, to hum bhi military” (you are military, then I am also military) – this was Rustom Bharucha’s reaction when his sobbing wife came home mid-afternoon with the termination letter in her hand.
Rustom’s second cousin, once removed, was the head of a leading law firm. He agreed with Rustom that this high-handedness, this insult, could not be tolerated. The bank had to be sued for wrongful dismissal. This bloody gora needed to be taught a lesson.
The case was heard in the labour court.
After multiple hearings, the judge opined that a secretary was a 'workman' and hence protected by every law that applied to workmen, in particular, one that said that a workman could not be asked to carry out a task that was not a part of his/her regular duties.
The bank lost the case and had to agree to reinstate Jasmine Bharucha and pay her a hefty compensation.
Jasmine had no desire to return to work, especially for that gora.
She spurned the reinstatement offer and adopted the role of a society lady, full time. She took the compensation, however. Moolah was moolah, right?
In the meantime, Mr Frazer was getting hammered from all sides.
The Bank Workers’ Union was delighted to add the position of 'secretary' to its fold and began to flex its muscles against a (perceived) weak management.
The manager, Mr Frazer’s boss, was extremely annoyed at having to swallow defeat in court after paying huge sums of money to lawyers. Head office was distinctly displeased.
The worst was – at the bars of Bengal Club whispers could be heard circulating amongst the gora sahebs: “Jolly poor show, what?”, “Chap took it too far”, “Trouble with these Army types – they think they are still in the bloody Army” and such like.
Mr Frazer had to abandon the Bengal Club and imbibe his sun-downers in the lower echelons such as Saturday Club and Tolly Club.
Malcolm Frazer DSO was a frustrated and dejected man.
The date for the annual bank race arrived. The manager was 'home' on furlough, and Mr Frazer had to give the cup to the winner’s owner.
And it was – Rustom and Jasmine Bharucha, co-owners of 'Buttercup', the winning horse!!
Now you know why Malcolm Frazer appeared upset at the prize-giving ceremony.
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world (until Covid, that is), playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)