The Waters of Bengal

by Gabriel Timar


I got my first overseas assignment in 1963, to prepare plans for the rehabilitation of the water distribution system in a fair-sized city of East Pakistan. At first, I did not know where East Pakistan was, despite the fact that I had topped my high school class in geography. Later I learned that during my high school days there was no Pakistan, and the area in question was part of India: the province of East Bengal.

My first official function was the visit to the Chairman and CEO of the water authority, a guy called Jama.

Before entering the office building, Errol, my assistant told me what was going to happen. “The government offices have changed a great deal since the British left.”

“In what way?”

“When a European visitor arrives, the staff immediately smells blood — baksheesh — and goes into the appropriate operating mode. The official must convince the visitor about being high enough on the organization chart to do almost anything.“

“Do I have to pay baksheesh to meet the chairman?”

“Of course not, but the operation is always the same. In your case the baksheesh you pay is in kind: respect.”

“Okay, I've got it.”

“The process is simple; an important person has to be very busy. Therefore, the visitor must wait; not ten or fifteen minutes but at least an hour. Novices often become impatient and start bugging the secretary. This is bad form, because at the slightest sign of displeasure, the waiting period becomes longer,” Errol explained.

“What are we going to do?”

“We will wait patiently while complimenting the secretary on her nice sari and the organized appearance of the office. This is usually helpful.”

Regardless, it took a whole hour until Mr. Jama got tired of counting the flyspecks on the ceiling of his office and called us into the inner sanctuary.

There was not much conversation.

“Welcome to Chittagong, Mr. Gabriel,” the chairman said. “I'll issue a letter of introduction to all department heads instructing them, under the pain of dismissal, to cooperate with you.”

“Thank you very much, sir,” I replied.

“It was nice meeting you, Mr. Gabriel,” the chairman said, stood up signaling the termination of the meeting.

* * *

In a few months, Rana, my itinerant girlfriend, became my primary advisor on the matters of etiquette, business, and human relations in general. As I wanted to obtain souvenirs of my service in Bengal, she suggested brass and Persian rugs.

“Of course, I cannot go to the merchants with you, because they are mostly Muslims and detest dealing with a woman. However, I can teach you the art of buying a rug.”

“How does it work?”

“Rule number one: never state your price first. Let the other guy do it. Rule number two: you select the rug you want and create the impression of not liking it, and start bargaining for another piece. On the third visit, you may start looking at your first choice again. At this stage, I would keep advising you.”

Rana was right. The merchant, another Ahmed, offered me tea, and chatted about everything, occasionally looking at a rug. When I asked the price and the merchant replied, according to Rana's instruction, I immediately called him a crook and offered less than fifty percent. When he did not agree, I had to stomp out of the store, swearing never to return.

The charade started again next week.

I managed to buy two smaller Persian rugs but had my eye on a beautiful silk Kashan hunting-ground carpet. Ahmed started at 12,000 rupees and, according to Rana's instructions, I offered 6,000. A few weeks later, I raised my price to 8,000 and Ahmed swore he was not going to let it go for anything less than 9,500.

We were having tea, taking a break in the bargaining when an American couple walked into the store. They were obviously tourists. The woman looked at my rug saying: “What a beautiful carpet. How much is it?”

Ahmed looked at me, and without batting an eye, declared: “15,000 rupees, Memsahib.”

The woman waited a few seconds and turned to her husband: “Joe, pay the man...”

When they left with the rug, Ahmed remarked: “Although I made a lot of money, I would have preferred selling it to you. These people are barbarians.”

* * *

The concept of how the Bengali administration worked surprised me, but I had to admit it was efficient.

If someone wanted a water service connected to his house, he filled the application forms, paid the connection fee at the Authority's cash office, and before handing it to the engineering department, clipped four five rupee notes to the form. This assured speedy installation.

“What happens to the application if there is no money attached?” I asked one of the engineers.

“We lose it,” came the terse reply.

“What do you do, if the man attaches a twenty rupee note?”

“It creates problems. Most likely the clerk will hand it back or changes the twenty.”

“Why?”

“First, the clerk takes off five rupees and hands the application to the senior engineer. He signs it, takes five rupees for himself and his staff. The construction crew chief and his people take another five rupees, and the last note goes to the general manager.”

“What happens if the counter staff takes all the twenty rupees?”

“It never happens. We are honest people and do not steal each other's baksheesh. It would be corrupt and contrary to our traditions.”

Strange as it may sound, the average Bengali preferred making five rupees baksheesh to earning twenty rupees in regular salary, as only important people earned baksheesh.

* * *

In one particular instance, my workers needed a four-inch valve to replace an old one, which nobody had repaired perhaps since the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857. My spies reported a few valves in the central stores, but the manager hung on to them with grim determination.

“He figures we are selling the stuff on the market,” said Errol.

“I am going to talk to him,” I said, and jumped into my car.

Heading for the central stores of the authority, I decided to see the head honcho and wave the letter of the chairman ordering every department head to afford maximum cooperation.

After having to wait about an hour for the Director of the Stores, I got into the office of the big man.

“It is such a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Tanner. I've heard a lot about you. Would you care for a cup of tea?”

As the local etiquette dictated, I had to put down two cups of the horrid sugary liquid while listening to the Director's complaints about his personnel and the management.

“How may I serve you, Mr. Gabriel?”

“I need a four-inch gate valve if you have one in stock...”

“Most certainly, sir. Please wait a moment,” he said and rang the bell on his desk summoning his secretary.

“Take a letter,” he grunted. “From the Director of the Central Stores to the Chief Supplies Officer...”

He dictated a letter saying that he was about to issue a four-inch valve to Mr. Tanner, asking the guy to replace it forthwith.

It took a few minutes for the typist to come up with the letter. The Director signed it and the Secretary disappeared.

“You see, Mr. Tanner, I cannot give you the valve until the Chief Supplies Officer confirms he would replace it.”

Before I could express my fear of too much time being lost because of the bureaucracy, the secretary came in with a letter to the boss. The Director carefully slit the envelope and read the letter. I thought it was important, since the man smiled at me and, asking for my indulgence, he rang the bell again and the secretary returned.

“Take a memo,” he dictated, “from the Chief Supplies Officer to the Director of the Central Stores. Urgent! Dear Sir, this is to confirm that I am aware of your issuing a four-inch valve to the rehabilitation project, and I will replace it forthwith.”

It sounded strange, but before I could say anything, the Director launched into a tirade about the amount of work he had to do. He would not shut up until the secretary came back with the typed letter. The Director signed it and turned to me: “In a few minutes I'll be able to give you the valve.”

“When?”

“As soon as I receive the confirmation...”

The arrival of the secretary interrupted me, bringing the Director an urgent letter and handed over a sealed envelope. He cut it open and showed it to me saying: “Here is the letter from the Chief Supplies Officer, you can have your valve now.”

As the situation seemed confusing, I risked the question: “Who is the Chief Supplies Officer?”

“I am. Actually, my official title is Director of the Central Stores and Chief Supplies Officer...”

It did not sink in immediately, but on the way to the storage building I realized the man had been corresponding with himself.


Copyright © 2008 by Gabriel Timar

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