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Born To Please

by Rhea Dyuti 5 months ago in Short Story · updated 5 months ago
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He was there for everyone until...

Photo by Parij Borgohain on Unsplash

Andrew Giles sensed a hovering presence next to his office desk and looked up. A set of betel leaf stained teeth, wearing the most amiable smile, greeted him.

“Welcome Sir,” gushed the owner of the smile.

It belonged to a short-statured, scrawny man in a shabby, threadbare office uniform. Myriad lines ran all over his face like the Grand Trunk Railway network. Prematurely aged grey tufts of hair poked out from under his dented cap.

But what drew Andrew in like magnets were the twinkling eyes of this man. They were like dual pools of happiness, sparkling and friendly.

“Myself Kalicharan Kundu Sir. The office peon. Everyone calls me Kundu.” The smile grew even wider as Kundu joined his hands together for a Namaste. “Anything you need, Sir, Kundu at your service. Jeero problem, Sir Ji,” added Kundu in a cordial tone, dripping with reverence.

Andrew was tempted to extend his hand out but desisted. This was uncharted waters for him. He was on a deputation posting from England to this Calcutta office. It was the early nineteen sixties. India was still in its infancy of independence. While the British etiquettes were very much alive and well in most offices, once run by the erstwhile East India Company, there was a visible social uprising that clamoured for India to be left to the Indians.

How friendly was one supposed to get in post-colonial India with the office staff? This young man wasn’t sure.

Andrew was an easygoing chap. A poet at heart. The thought of living and working in India had intrigued him. So, he offered to replace his elderly Uncle who was keen to get back to the English soil.

“Kundu, where’s the tea I asked for?” bellowed Paban Sanyal, the head clerk of the office, snapping Andrew out of his reverie. Kundu jumped a few inches off the ground and shot out the door like a missile. “Kundu get it, jeero problem Sanyal Saab”, he cried as he hastily made his way down the stairs.

Mrs. Braganza, the office receptionist cum typist, shook her head in frustration. “Sir, don’t let Kundu get on your nerves. He will talk all day if you let him,” she warned Andrew.

“What does Kundu mean by ‘jeero problem?” asked Andrew. This was his first day as the new manager of East India Chemicals Ltd. He was eager to prove his efficiency yet approachability as a boss, even to the office peon.

Mrs. Braganza rolled her eyes. “Kundu speaks terrible English Sir, she vented.” He means ‘no problem’ but says ‘zero problem.’ He can’t even pronounce the word zero properly!”

Mrs. Lucy Braganza was the quintessential representative of the Anglo Indian Community of post-independence India. With an English father and an Indian mother, she took pride in her British ancestry but loved her spicy goat meat curries just as much.

“But Kundu is a very positive person, Sir,” chimed Venu Patel, the accountant. “Always smiling, always trying to keep everyone’s spirits up.”

It took Andrew about a week to realise that the office peon, Kalicharan Kundu, was indeed a shining beacon of positivity. Rain, hail or shine, Kundu was as chirpy as a cricket.

Kundu had a penchant for sniffing out people’s problems and offering solutions in no time at all. He always suggested weird and wonderful remedies for every possible ailment. The range included a bottle of concoction from a Sadhu in his ancestral village as a guaranteed remedy of heartburn to blood-sucking leeches for gout, and everything in between. He had a plethora of inane jokes as an antidote for every kind of bad mood, too.

And if all else failed, Kundu would offer to bring multiple steaming cups of tea to every droopy spirit throughout the day, until he or she was perky again.

Kundu was born to please.

The one person who seemed unaffected by his endearing ways was Mrs. Braganza. She was a widow of an ex-military man and believed in discipline and reticence. Life was serious business for Mrs. Braganza and she seemed to find Kundu’s infectious positivity almost offensive.

Her way of keeping Kundu under control was by ridiculing him for his faulty English, especially for his signature phrase ‘‘Jeero Problem.’

“Tum kaheko English bolta hain man?” she would disparage him. “Tum humara language ko insult karta. Hum ko dekho. Hindi nahi ata, hum nahi bolta.” (Why do you try to speak English? You are insulting my language. Look at me, I cannot speak Hindi properly, so I don’t.)

Kundu would flash her his amiable smile, followed by an offer of a cup of tea. But he kept his distance with her somewhat.

“ Mrs Braganza very nice lady Sir, just very single single,” he explained to Andrew in his unique ‘Indian-English’, while tidying up the files on his table. “ Her boy gone phoren Sir, forget his Ma, very sad, But, jeero problem Sir, Kundu is here. I keep all eyes on her.” he finished triumphantly before moving off.

Andrew found out through an incidental conversation with others that Mrs. Braganza’s only son, whom she doted upon, had migrated to Australia and severed all contact with his elderly mother. This broke the poor woman’s heart, and she took up this job not out of financial necessity, but to keep herself distracted.

Image by Udayaditya Barua on Unsplash

The first month at East Indian Chemicals flew by really fast for Andrew.

As his body adjusted to the heat and humidity of the tropics, his mind soaked up the local culture like a sponge. While he marvelled at the stoic fatalism of most Indians he met, the dogged ritualism of some amazed him.

“It’s all destined from before,” “Written on our foreheads,” were phrases often heard. Yet, these same people organised elaborate rituals to please their multifarious gods. They bickered with each other over petty differences, yet ran to help anyone at the first sign of distress.

‘The most wonderfully contradictory bunch I have ever encountered.’ he wrote to his family when asked what he made of the Calcuttans.

The office climate at East India Chemicals was a microcosm of this very culture. Calcutta had been the British capital for a very long time. Though the capital had shifted to the northern city of Delhi in 1911, Calcutta still remained the most cosmopolitan of the cities and a strong favourite with the remaining British populace.

Calcutta’s society had hierarchies for sure. Yet, there was an invisible fabric that tied the inhabitants of this thriving metropolis into a cohesive whole. Palpable to anyone who wanted to feel it, yet hard to put into words.

Hierarchy was alive and kicking in the office too. Andrew was the ‘Sahib’, the boss, to be revered and avoided unless summoned. The only exception to this rule was Kundu. He chatted away with Andrew most amicably, always inquiring after his health. Ever eager to bring him some miracle cure or the other. Unbeknown to himself, Andrew had grown dependent on Kundu’s hovering presence and his offers of endless cups of well-brewed Darjeeling tea.

What happened next made him aware of the place this chatterbox of an office peon had made for himself in his heart.

It was into Andrew’s second month as a manager at East India Chemicals that Kundu suddenly stopped coming to work.

“Not like him at all, Sir,” said Sanyal. “I will send a telegram to his village,”

Andrew was surprised to learn that Kundu actually lived in a village a two-hour train ride from the city. That made him realise with a shock how little he actually knew about this custodian of everyone’s happiness. It turned out no one in the office really knew much about Kundu, apart from the fact that he had a wife and most probably a daughter who had recently been married off.

“Kundu never talked about himself, Sir, always asked about us. Some people called him nosey,” said Venu Patel with a sideways glance to Mrs.Braganza, who kept her eyes on her typewriter and refused to engage.

News finally arrived that Kundu’s daughter was fighting for her life in hospital. “In-laws tried to burn her to death Sir,” reported Sanyal, “dowry issues.”

The staff of East India Chemicals sat in stunned silence as the gravity of the situation sank in. Kundu’s daughter needed an expensive life-saving surgery soon, but Kundu had depleted all his savings getting her married off. A silent pall of gloom descended upon everyone. A petty office peon would have precious little borrowing power from the company, that much was for sure.

Andrew was thinking hard. If he wired a request for a loan in his own name, it would take a couple of weeks to be processed at the head office. Too late!

“Can we all pool some money together?” he asked. He knew the staff in this office did not have surplus cash floating around. They had families of their own to feed. But everyone answered his call. Each staff member pledged whatever they could afford, including Andrew, of course.

Despite their best efforts, not even half the amount needed could be raised by the end of the day.

The gloom descended again, this time it felt heavier, as all doors seemed closed and the key thrown out. No one was sure for how long they all sat succumbed to an unshakable ennui.

Eventually, the silence was broken by the words, “Zero Problem Sir!”

Startled, everyone looked up!

Mrs Braganza was standing in the doorway. No one had noticed when she had quietly left the office. She walked towards them with a big smile on her face, a sight as rare as hen’s teeth.

Lucy Braganza handed Andrew a cheque.

“Kundu’s daughter must have the surgery.” She declared as tears threatened to choke her voice. “It’s my money, Sir. I saved it for my son. He doesn’t remember his old mother anymore. It’s time the money got used.”

The rest of her words got drowned out by the clapping and cheering that followed.

It was almost a month before Kundu resumed his duties as a peon again. His daughter’s surgery was a success. She was recovering at her parents’. Andrew had seen to it that a complaint had been filed against the heartless inlaws.

Kalicharan Kundu couldn’t have returned to a more welcoming bunch of co-workers, who missed his opulent optimism like the desert misses the rain. Andrew found him sharing cups of well-brewed Darjeeling tea with his newfound best friend Mrs. Braganza at break times.

“Kundu, get me some medicine, man. My knee hurts.” said the old lady with a grimace.

“Jeero problem, Lucy Madam, I get you the root of old pipal tree in my village. You apply that, all pain gone.” responded Kundu gleefully.

Short Story

About the author

Rhea Dyuti

A Kiwi-Indian writer.

Born and raised in India, domiciled in NZ.

Writer of Fiction, Poetry, Personal Essays and Blogs.

Educator and Lifelong learner. Aspiring Novelist.

Connect with me at: https://linktr.ee/rheawriter

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