The title of post-in-charge on the door sounded official. That was my designation. At twenty-four, I was in charge of an entire district. A district nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. A Government office. The staff headcount was five. The number included me.
The office was one small room in a log house. This structure of wood also functioned as my residence.
Let me be honest there was no work for us to do. Every morning after a leisurely breakfast, the staff would gather around the office table. We would read the newspapers or any magazine we could find. And we also gossiped. When we got tired, we watched TV. Soap operas, to be specific. And yes, the Government paid us for this ‘work’.
One day I was in my office, waiting for the rest of the gang to turn up. It was about ten in the morning. I was wondering what was keeping them when I heard a knock at the door. Nobody knocked to enter my office. They just barged in and sat down on any available chair. Decent behaviour was unusual in my district. But, I did not have time to investigate.
A young woman burst through the door. In a second, she was at my desk.
Not knowing what to do and quite a bit surprised, I stood up. I realised that as the boss, there was no need for me to stand up. I sat down. At this point, my upbringing kicked in. I remembered that it was a lady who had come in. As a gentleman, I was supposed to stand up when a lady entered the room. I got up.
While I was going through this cycle of alternately standing up and sitting down, she just stood there, staring. Finally, not knowing how to react to this situation, I pulled out an old file that had been undisturbed for a decade and started reading it. I wanted to look important. I am not sure I was successful. From what I could make out, the woman was not impressed. She continued staring at me. I must confess that at this point, I was worried.
“Could she be mad?” I thought. Maybe she was planning to attack me. I reached for the jumbo paper stapler I kept for such occasions and as prescribed by the Government manual section VII subsection b.
I was careful not to make any ‘sudden movements’. I had read this in a book on `How to tame a lion in a week’. All the reading from my youth was finally paying off.
“Husband work here!” she said, finally breaking the ice.
I wondered what that cryptic message meant.
Was it the launch code for an impending attack? Were the natives gathering in force and waiting for some signal to storm my citadel?
Was I expected to respond to this code with something like “The Sun shines bright,” I wondered?
“What husband ?” I said, breaking the ice from my side.
“My husband, ” she said.
“Oh,” I said.
“What is your husband’s name?”
The fog finally cleared, and the Sun started shining. I hope the reader gets that I just threw in a metaphor for the actual Sun was already shining halfway through its journey in the skies.
I did have a John on my staff. He was in his sixties. As per Government rules, he should have retired a decade ago. The reason he was still in service was that he knew about sixteen local dialects. This skill made him indispensable as an interpreter during senior management tours in the villages.
“John has not told me of any problem. ” I said.
The woman made a snorting sound, and the portion below her nose twisted weirdly. For a brief second, I was worried she was having a fit. Then I realized she was smirking.
“Problem is outside office. John wants to marry again,” she said.
The fog cleared further. The metaphoric Sun was shining in full splendour. As mentioned previously, the hero of our story John was skilled in multiple languages. He was employing his skills for reasons which were not exactly official. It seemed that in every village that he toured, he ended up marrying a local girl. He was married six times, and the best part was that all the wives were alive. Sitting across me was wife number six. She had come to complain about the soon to become wife number seven. And yes, one point more about the previous five wives, he had not divorced anyone. The tribals had weird customs in those parts.
“The woman is eighteen!” she said.
She was in her early twenties and had married John five years back. That would have made her about the same age as the next challenger in line.
While she was narrating her tale of woe, my mind was travelling in a different direction.
“Here I was twenty-four old with no girlfriend while John was cleaning up the local market. Note to self, check with him and learn his trade secret!”
After all, as his superior officer, I could force him to confess.
She could see that my mind was not focusing on her problem.
“Yes, yes….hmmm…let me speak to him!”
“No, speak. Only punishment will work!”
No one was going to tell me how to run my office.
“Let me look into it. I need time to think about this!” I said and returned to reading the previously never-read file.
“How much time, you think?”
“This is a government office. We cannot work fast. It is against the rules.”
She stood there and returned to her staring routine. After some time, she must have realized that I was serious and left the office in a huff.
Within seconds of her disappearance, my staff tumbled in. I realized that the idiots were hiding in the other rooms waiting for the lady to disappear.
“I knew this would happen. John was always talking about this girl he met in the market.”
“Who is she? Is she the one with the long plait who runs the tea stall next to the bus stop ?”
“How can he do this? He has three children with this woman.”
“What about the ten from the other five?”
“Is it ten or fourteen?”
” How do I know? Even John doesn’t know the count or remember their names!”
They were all speaking at the same time.
About an hour later, the hero of our story ambled in.
“John! we need to talk. ” I said, putting on my serious face and voice.
Six months later, I got transferred to the state capital. John came with wife number six for my farewell party. She was sad that I was leaving.
“You keep him under control. I worry about John now!” she said.
I took that as a compliment. John offered to accompany me to the bus stand.
“Sir! how about a cup of tea to remember this place,” he said, nudging me in the direction of a tea stall next to the bus stop.
In the tea stall, I could see a girl with a long plait smiling at John.
I gulped down the cup of piping hot tea, jumped onto the first available bus and left that place.