Those Four / Ashok Patel

So deeply were they immersed in conversation that it was Impossible to guess, what the subject matter of their conversation could be. It was a perpetual flow of buzz, with one of the quartet always talking. The conversation never ceased. Sometime one spoke, three silently listened, sometime two spoke and two listened silently, sometimes three spoke and one listened.

I speculated over the subject matter of their conversation. My attempts at guessing failed miserably. They were sitting in a row with the chairs conveniently placed. The person seated on the first chair could easily communicate with the person sitting on the fourth chair. Their conversation would occasionally be punctuated by boisterous laughter.

I was the first person to reach the office. The keys were under my charge. I opened the office cleaned and spruced up the place. Those four also arrived, but they were not on time. They were late by ten, fifteen, twenty or forty odd minutes.

The chatting session began as soon as two had arrived. When all four had assembled, the chatting gained momentum. I served each of them a glass of water. They gulped it down; perhaps, incessant chatting had parched their throats. After a brief moment of silence, the chatting resumed.

I suppose there must have been four different topics of discussion, but they were all incomprehensible to me. I was not even certain whether the topic of discussion was one or four. Two hours had passed since I had come to the office; they had been talking since then, with their vocal chords being more actively employed than their hands.

On some pretext or the other I went near them to find out the subject matter of their endless conversation. After repeated efforts I succeeded.

First person “Yaar my wife is an excellent cook.”

Second person “When are you inviting me for dinner,” followed by a boisterous burst of laughter.

On the other hand the situation outside was bleak ……….

Four serpentine queues at all the four counters, consumers waiting patiently to pay their electricity bills. Were these employees chatting behind the counters, responsible, or was it because it was last date for the bill payment? The queue was inching forward very slowly, yet the chatting continued. When it was time for lunch, they were prompt in shutting down the counters simultaneously. Five minutes before schedule they retired for the lunch. The break was for half an hour but they lunched for 40 minutes chatting incessantly.

When the counters opened up the queue started moving again, so did the hands and mouth of those four. The mouth, for chatting, and the hands, for receiving the bills. But the mouth worked much more efficiently than the hands. It was my first day in the office and I found it all very strange.

Seeing the plight of the people waiting for hours in long queues, I wished, how nice it would be if their hands moved faster, with more efficiency. This would complete the work faster, and the queue would disappear quickly and people would not have to undergo the inconvenience to such an extent. I felt like suggesting to them, ‘Sahib move your hands faster, there are long queues waiting outside.’ But would my suggestion be welcome? Or would it amuse them? Would they burst out laughing?

Hardly twenty minutes after lunch, and they ordered tea. “Peon, go and get four cups of tea.” The one who gave the order was sitting on the first counter. I obeyed his orders and went to perform the task.

On the way I ruminated ‘perhaps, I’m new; they don’t know my name that is why they addressed me in this way. But was it right on their part? Was it not improper! They could have asked my name and then told me to get the tea. Should I talk to them on this matter? Or should I ignore

their rudeness?’

After deliberating over it for long while, I decided to talk to them, or else they would repeat it again. After serving tea to them I said politely, “Sahib(sir) , my name is Dheeraj. Please call me by this name.”

Man on the 1st counter “How does it concern us, whether you are Dheeraj or Neeraj. Make it very clear that you are the peon of this office and we are the sahibs. We will address you as peon and you will address us as sahib.” This was followed by a resounding laughter ….. A laughter that was very queer.

The movements of their hands slowed down still further as they were sipping tea. By now I was well acquainted with their nature. All four of them were very obstinate and lazy, more interested in talking than carrying out their duties. They enjoyed making fun of others and ridiculing them. They were a very queer set of people and I decided to maintain a distance from them, talking to them when required. Dhreej or chaprasi, it hardly mattered. I’ll be courteous and call them sahib all the same. I am neither obstinate nor do I enjoy ridiculing others. Work is my top priority.

People in the queue were getting restless. They were getting sun burnt in the scorching heat outside. Sweating profusely they waited for their turn. Their plight hardly affected the chatter-boxes sitting in the air conditioned rooms. Therefore they failed to understand the suffering of those waiting outside in the sweltering heat.

I felt the urge to tell them ‘Sahib move your hands faster, there is a very long queue outside.” But once again, thrown into doubt, I wondered, would it yield any result? Pondering over the matter deeply, I reached a conclusion that my suggestion would again trigger off prolonged laughter.

Were they not aware of the fact that their inefficiency was creating problems for others? Or that their vocal chords were moving more rapidly than their hands? That they were neglecting their duties? That the people were getting roasted outside? Surely, I thought they must be aware of it all. Yet they would not change their way of working, because they did not want to care about others.

The queue was still long outside, I observed. It took fifteen minutes to pay a bill. Suddenly I noticed an old women waiting in the queue at the first counter. Bent double from the waist, profusely wrinkled, and extremely old aged between sixty five-seventy, my heart went out to her. I approached her and asked, “Why did you take the trouble to come? You should have sent one of the members of your family?”

She told me that she had no one. It was only last evening that the lineman had given her the bill. It was only then that she came to know that next day was the last day to pay the bill. When she came here, she saw that there were people already waiting in long queues at all the four counters. She had left home in the morning, but old and frail as she was, it took her more than two hours to reach here. She was also suffering from pain in the knee-joints; hence she could not

walk fast. Not deterred by her difficulties and the long queue, she had been waiting for four hours. If the bill was not paid that day, she would have to incur the penalty as well. She was too poor for that. Her connection would be cut off. Once the connection was cut off, she would have to live in the darkness all her life because she would not be able to pay her outstanding bills. She was a domestic servant earning her livelihood by cleaning people’s houses. Her weak and fragile body did not allow her to work in more than 3-4 houses. Hence, it was a paltry sum that she earned. Living in extreme poverty she somehow managed to make the two ends meet.

Her sad story touched my heart and I was moved to tears. I came inside with the intention of telling the sahib to accept her payment first. But to my disappointment, I saw that he was still talking. I felt that my pleading would fall on deaf ears. Their callous apathy astounded me. I had a mind to complain against them to the senior officers, but then I reflected, ‘wouldn’t the senior officers be cognizant of their subordinates laxity. They had been working here for years. Perhaps they too were apathetic, because if they had been vigilant enough, their sub-ordinates would not have dared to neglect their duties so outrageously. They would have talked less and worked more.’

I Was standing at an audible distance from them, so that I could be at their service whenever they called me, after all, they were sahibs and I, a mere peon. Seeing the old women’s plight, bent double, drenched in sweat and fatigued. I could not hold myself any longer. I approached him with a request, “Sahib, there is a very old woman standing in the queue. She is very weak. Please accept her payment first.”

Sahib “If that is so she must have come much earlier. I follow the rules. I cannot break them.” This curt reply was followed by a loud, callous burst of laughter. The other three joined in. They all continued laughing for a long while. It was a queer kind of laughter crude and hideous.

Realizing the futility of my attempt I went and stood back in my place, with my gaze fixed on the old woman. Their chatting continued unabated. Finally I had come to understand the subject-matter of their conversation. It was trivial, frivolous, empty chatter. For instance they discussed what they had eaten the previous day, somebody’s stomach had been upset the previous day, and they talked about it for hours. Sometimes the conversation became obscene. It was foolish to expect good sense from them.

The old woman was still a long way off from the counter. In a sweeping glance I looked at the four chatter-boxes. The talking hadn’t ceased. They talked continually sometimes among themselves, sometimes on their mobile phones. Their mobiles ringing every now and then, very frequently, sometimes this one’s, sometimes the other’s. On phones too, they talked light heartedly. Talking and laughing intermittently, talking on the phone was worse, their hands stopped working completely. If talk they must, it would be far better if they talked among themselves, then at least, their hands would work a bit faster.

Again I looked in the direction of the old woman. She was

almost near the counter. Her turn would come after two people.her facewas suffused by a glow of happiness. Her turn was about to come. It strengthened her morale. The talking continued. If there had been a provision of noble prize for garrulity, they would have surely bagged it. I did not look at them, but I could hear them distinctly as I was all ears. Any moment they could call me, me … a mere peon. I had to be at their beck and call.

But my gaze was fixed on the old woman, who was now at the counter. My eyes filled with tears of joy, in the hope that her ordeal would come to an end. She would be able to pay her bill, wouldn’t have to live in the darkness all her life and wouldn’t have to incur the penalty charges. She was too poor to pay them. She was standing at the counter, holding the bill and money in her frail withered hands. When she extended her hand to pay the bill, the man sitting at the counter removed it and started shutting down the counter.

The old widow pleaded, “I have been waiting in the scorching sun for a long time to pay my bill. Please accept it. I’ll be very grateful to you. But her pleading fell on deaf ears.

The sahib was callously unmoved. He replied, “Time is up, come tomorrow with the penalty.”

All the four counters shut down simultaneously. Picking up their lunch boxes, talking among themselves, they left for home. I was struck dumb by their barbaric complacency. Before leaving he said to me, “Why are you always so quiet yaar. Now you have a government job, then why the tension? Be bindas! Tension free. Talk a little; laugh a little, just like us.”

Locking the office I too went home, but I spent a sleepless night, tossing and turning in my bed restlessly. The old woman’s face full of wrinkles and suffering haunted my memories. Who could be held responsible for her plight? Who could be held responsible for the perpetual darkness of her hut?

The senior officers? Or, those four, whose callous laxity was somewhat barbarous? Or the line man who failed to deliver the bill on tome? It was a chain reaction. The corrupt hierarchical setup had led to this, working under the aegis of such a system they feared none, and cared for none.

Ashok  Patel studied biotechnology at DAVV, Indore, India. His short stories have appeared in Madhya Pradesh State Literature Academy’s magazine Saakshatkar, Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University’s magazine Hindi Discourse and other places. He lives in Indore, India

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