Many of you have been asking is this the end of the series. Well, yes; but it is a new beginning. We are starting a new series of Mr Banerjee’s encounters with petty corruption. Please do share your feedback.
In case you are getting the feeling that I have been talking a bit too much about my successes, here are some of my transgressions.
When I was a kid, petty bribery was what the old-timers would call a 'part and parcel' of daily life. Nobody would think twice about slipping a note or two into the right hands to get something done, even if it was just a routine matter. Officials of all description, starting from the lowly peon in a government office, would expect and get a small 'honorarium'.
This has been the culture in the Orient for thousands of years. The Chinese started it and made it into a fine art and we Indians integrated it into our culture. There is even a word for it in China: 'squeeze'. In Indonesia, I am told, it was legal to issue a receipt for a bribe.
Having been brought up in this culture, I had no compunction about giving a bribe, though I was never in a position to accept one, not until much later when it became too late!
Back to the story, then.
I was a student at IIT Kharagpur, when my parents and sisters decided to go to Puri during the Puja holidays, and I was supposed to go with them. Unfortunately, I still had two exams left before the holidays, and so it was decided that they would go to Puri first and I would join them a few days later.
Kharagpur lies on the Calcutta-Puri train route. The daily Puri Express used to leave Howrah station (the rail junction at Calcutta) in the evening, stop at Kharagpur at about 11pm and reach Puri in the morning. The best, i.e., the cheapest, way to travel from Kharagpur to Puri was to sleep on a III class 3-tier sleeper berth on the Puri Express.
Two weeks before the scheduled date, I went to Kharagpur station to book my ticket. I found that Kharagpur had a daily quota of three berths on this train. I joined the queue at the ticket counter.
Just ahead of me, was an elderly gentleman. I heard him book three berths in III class 3-tier on the exact day that I had planned to travel. When I reached the counter, I was told that no berth was available.
Disappointed, I left the counter and wondered what I should do. Take a bus? You may remember that there were no ‘real’ Volvo (or even ‘Indian Volvo’) luxury coaches those days. Every bus was built on a truck chassis and the roads were bumpy. A Kharagpur-Puri ride would mean perching for 12 hours or more on a hard seat while the bus bumped and jolted over the potholes—a very uncomfortable journey, especially at night.
Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to find a seedy-looking chap with a crooked grin on his face. “Tikit chai?’ (Want a ticket?) he asked.
I nodded. Yes, I did want a ticket. I couldn’t face the overnight bus ride.
“Hoye jaabe. Ponero taka extra,” he said. (Will get done. Fifteen rupees extra.)
Instinctively, I haggled (in childhood we were taught never to agree to the very first price quoted) and we settled at Rs12.
Do I see a grin on your face at this pathetic saving of just Rs3?
To put it in context, my pocket money was just Rs30 a month, and a packet of Charu (Char Minar cigarettes) was 38paise. Three rupees was a big amount.
“Ekhane darao, aami ashchi” (Wait here, I am coming) said the man and disappeared. After 10 minutes, he came back with the desired ticket. I was delighted to pay him his money (cost of the ticket + Rs 12) and take the ticket.
I was relieved to have avoided the bus ride. Obviously, the man was a tout, in league with the chap behind the ticket counter. But who cared? This is how things worked—the 'system'. It had worked for me, and I was happy.
I returned to the campus and forgot all about it - exams loomed ahead.
The day of my train trip arrived. I reached the station well before the train was due to appear and loitered on the platform. Then, I saw the elderly gentleman who had bought train tickets before me, two weeks ago. He was sitting on a bench along with a middle-aged lady and a small girl, evidently waiting for the train.
When the train rolled in, I located my berth and turned to see this gentleman right next to me.
The last three berths in the carriage, right next to the door, were the ones reserved for the Kharagpur quota. I had the topmost berth and the lady and child had the middle and lower ones. It appeared that they were travelling to Puri, but the elderly gentleman was not.
He said to me, “Son, you must be going to Puri.” I nodded.
“Please look after my daughter-in-law and grand-daughter, will you? Nothing much. They have everything they need for the journey. But, just in case, if anything happens, just help them, please?”
I readily agreed.
Good-byes were said, the gentleman left and the train started off.
Out of curiosity, I struck up a conversation with the lady while she laid out air pillows and sheets for the night.
“So, you are going to Puri, right?” A redundant question, of course, just a conversation opener.
She seemed to be happy to talk.
“Yes, we are going back home. We live in Puri. My husband works there.”
“Who was that gentleman, then? Your father-in-law?”
“Yes,” she said, and with a sigh, went on to explain.
“He lives alone in Kharagpur. We had come to visit him. He is getting old, you know, and we try to take care of him as much as we can.”
I nodded in understanding.
Then, came the revelation.
“He was supposed to come with us to Puri. He had got three tickets. But, when we came to the station, we found that his ticket had been cancelled. He will try to come later.”
The truth hit me. The ticket I had got through my seemingly innocent bribe was the one that had been assigned to the elderly gentleman. Twelve rupees had sufficed to scratch out his name and put mine instead.
Remorseful though I was, I could not bring myself to confess. Instead, I applied myself to doing whatever little I could for the lady and the girl, bringing them water, adjusting the angle of the fan, and finally helping them get their luggage off the train at Puri and waiting until her husband arrived.
Was that enough atonement, would you say?
(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.)