Himmat Singh had been a pahalwan (wrestler) in his youth, and even now nobody could beat him at panja (one arm wrestling). His 6 foot plus frame, 42-inch chest and walrus moustache lent credence to his claim to fame as a strongman.
Himmat-ji was the king of the nether world, in more senses than one. He was the head peon in the branch at Dalhousie Square, Kolkata, the boss of the subordinate staff like peons, cleaners, and sweepers. His personal domain was the cavernous basement of the branch building where he lived with his coterie of underlings.
Incidentally, the area had been renamed B-B-D Bagh many years ago (detractors called it ‘bibadi’ bagh – ‘bibad’ meaning conflict in Bengali). But the Brits in head office (HO) refused to eulogise the freedom fighters (Brits called them terrorists) Binoy, Badal and Dinesh, from whose names BBD had been coined, and our bank had stuck to the old acronym, DAL.
Himmat Singh was the custodian of tradition. Having served in the bank for nearly 40 years, from the time of the gora-saabs, he believed in parampara, guarded it with heart and soul and abided by the time-honoured rituals. Every morning, he bathed in the Ganga-mata, served bhang on a holi day and revered Lord Shiva with a few chillums every Saturday.
The branch had another boss, the cook, whose domain was the officers’ mess. A small mezzanine floor housed his empire, accessible only to the manager and the five ‘management’ officers (called ‘covenanted officers’ in the days of the Raj).
The heart of this sanctuary was a small room that housed an easy chair (the old type where you pulled out two extensions from under the arms to provide a resting place for your legs while you slept) and a small bar cabinet. The only decoration was a (circa 1953) photograph of Queen Elizabeth II on the wall.
It had been customary for the manager (then always a Brit) to have a couple of G&Ts (the raison d’etre of the bar) before lunch and take a snooze in the easy chair afterwards.
The cook was an elderly Goan of crusty temperament. He used to be the manager’s cook in the glory days when the manager was always British; but, with the entry of Indians into this hallowed post, he had given up in disgust and retreated to his current niche. Now he was the lord and master of the mezzanine and no one, not even the manager (another trumped-up desi, you know), could tell him what to do or not do. He was the boss of the officers’ mess.
A time-honoured menu prevailed for lunch, unaltered for decades (tradition, old boy, tradition!!)…
Monday - Roast chicken with baked potatoes and mashed green peas
Tuesday – Shepherd’s pie
Wednesday – Roast mutton with mint sauce and seasonal greens
Thursday – Fish and Chips (always bekti) with tartar sauce
Friday – Curry, accompanied by roasted peanuts, chopped onions, fried garlic, sweet chutney and potato fries
Twice a year, a special lunch was presented – on Christmas Eve and The Queen’s birthday.
Our internal auditor Ramamurthy had once ventured to ask if sambar could be served occasionally. The cook placed his stern and perhaps contemptuous eye on him and said, “This is the officers’ mess”.
To return to our main hero – Himmat Singh-ji…
Quite early in my stint as manager of the branch, I had the temerity one day to arrive at the office on my beloved Jawa, an old motorcycle that had been my trusted companion for many years and which I had not abandoned, despite having had a bank car and driver for quite some years.
Long ago, I had removed the inner tubes from the twin silencers of my Jawa, due to which it produced a loud ‘broooom boom boom’ sound which my little daughters loved and the street dogs hated.
Himmat Singh had been standing just inside the back door. When he heard the loud racket of a motorbike entering the parking area, he came out to investigate which piece of riff-raff had dared to desecrate the hallowed parking area reserved for the manager and senior staff.
When he saw the rider take off his helmet, he realised it was the manager-saab himself.
He waited, hands on hips, while I put my bike on the stand and walked to the entrance. He barred my path and said “Yeh phatphati hamara manager-saab ko shobha nahi deta. Ahinda ispe mat aiyega.” (This pop-pop does not befit our branch manager. In future, do not arrive on it.)
Then he walked off, leaving me wondering whether to get angry, laugh, or feel ashamed.
Another time, he confronted me with tradition and won.
The custom of the branch was that twice a day, when cash was moved between the vault and the safe behind the cash counters, the doors of the branch would be locked. Himmat Singh personally locked both doors and stood guard until the 'all clear' was sounded by the head cashier.
One afternoon, having returned from a customer meeting, I found myself stopped by the collapsible gate, behind which stood Himmat Singh in all his splendour.
“Please open the gate,” I said.
Himmat shook his head.
“I am the manager. Open the gate!!”
Himmat replied “Aap manager ho, ya koi bhi ho. Cash chalte samay yeh darwaza khola nahi jata. Aap ko intezar karna hoga.” (You may be the manager or whoever else. When cash is moving, this gate is not to be opened. You will have to wait.)
And wait, I did, all of 13 minutes. After all, tradition is tradition and rules are rules.
Who is a mere manager (a desi, that too) to change these revered institutions?
Ah well, the boss doesn’t always sit at the top of the hierarchy!
(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.)