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Special Madras Week Issue | VOL. XXII NO. 9, August 16-31, 2012
Short 'N' Snappy

Getting people together the bureaucratic way


The Man from Madras Musings was urgently summoned to discuss matters of pith and moment with one of the grand panjandrums running this State of ours. The minion who called MMM did not inform him in as many words, but hinted through tone of voice that a minute's delay this way or that would be to MMM's detriment. Not that MMM would have dared. Courage to defy, as his good lady (or She Who Must Be Obeyed) would attest, is not among MMM's virtues.

So the appointed hour saw MMM present himself at the portals of power. The minion, having no doubt sighted MMM from a ravelin or a bastion or a lunette, preferred to remain out-of-sight. A call on MMM's cell from a landline (so that MMM could not call back and establish contact) tersely informed him that he needed to proceed to a certain floor and enter a conference room.

It was exactly 10.30 am and MMM duly mounted the staircase, two steps at a time. After all, it would not do to keep the poobah waiting. On arriving MMM found the conference room locked. He espied a sofa in the corridor and decided to wait. Other invitees to the same meeting were also there, all waiting. We waited and waited and soon the waiting began weighing heavily on us. MMM proceeded to wander about only to note that employees (if you could call them that) kept casually sauntering into work, only to stop at watercoolers and on verandas for casual chats and sundry banter. None thought it necessary to make it to a desk and get on with the day's work.

At 11 am there was a stir. MMM wondered if the high and mighty bureaucrat had arrived. It was not he. Four men staggered in under mounds of biscuit packets. Another bore plates and a third carried what can only be described as a cistern of coffee. These were set up on tables and, as though on cue, MMM was informed by phone to partake of these refreshments. That was evidently on the mind of every employee in the building. Abandoning all tasks (casual chats, telephone calls to spouse, internet browsing) they rushed in like the famine-stricken. MMM and the rest of the invitees preferred to avoid adding to the crush.

After the refreshments had given out, those that had made it to the feast retired to chew the cud and the rest subsided into a coma. At around 11.30 am, there was another minor stir. A lunch bag arrived, preceded by a flask and a towel. These were deposited with due ceremony in some inner sanctum. At 11.45, just when MMM began wondering if he ought make something out of the rest of the day and earn a rupee or two, the building bestirred itself. Peons and clerks began running around. Some parked themselves expectantly in front of the lift. At precisely 12 noon, a pair of double doors opened with a flourish and to a chorus of sycophantic greetings, the great personality whom MMM and other non-entities had waited for sauntered in. Everyone was herded into the conference room and the meeting began with not a word of apology for the wait.

It proceeded along expected lines and ended with a promise of a second meeting a couple of days later. On the appointed day, the anonymous minion called again and said that the meeting had been postponed by two days. This by itself was an improvement. MMM would not have been surprised if he had been made to wait for two full days in the office itself for the mandarin to make his appearance. But this time MMM was wiser. He sent a colleague instead. The idea was to spread the bounty all around.


These meetings resulted in a grand public meeting at a five-star hotel. This, no doubt, because it involved the top bosses from the national capital, began on time. But such being the bureaucratic consciousness of pecking order, far-too-many mandarins had to be accommodated on stage. They were all so tightly wedged in that the merest nudge by anyone would have sent those in the periphery tumbling down. Each one had come armed with a speech. And all of them were far too long and highly repetitive.

That was not all. The meeting had to be conducted in the format perfected locally. Lamps had to be lit. And that meant all those on stage had to light one wick at least, as a consequence of which the lamp resembled more a bonfire. The lighting of the wick was applauded as though it were an Olympic medal. Here again, a strong hierarchy was followed. The national bosses were applauded by the local bosses who in turn were applauded by the local minions. As a result the local panjandrums had louder applause and this was not liked by the babus from up north.

Preceding the lamp-lighting was a prayer to be played off a recorder. Everyone was ordered to remain standing. Long after everyone stood up, the recorder refused to switch on and the standing-in-silence became more like a condolence meet. Meanwhile, the already-nervous, stammering and apoplectic Master of Ceremonies got off stage to go and check what was wrong with the music system. Someone must have twiddled with the volume meanwhile and so when the music suddenly got going it was in full blast and MMM bit his tongue in shock. It was a good thing that those on stage, no doubt owing to being tightly packed, did not or could not move a muscle. Otherwise we would have had a bureaucratic reshuffle.

For the lower orders in the Government, this meeting was a happy day out, in air-conditioned comfort. Several heads nodded, which in a private enterprise would have ensured that they rolled.

... & Lunching

At the same meeting, The Man from Madras Musings noted that when lunch was served everyone was dynamism personified. They rushed to pick up plates and then forks. Why not spoons MMM wondered. Then he realised. The fork was far handier in intimidating those who tried to compete for the same dishes. MMM had heard of Oliver Twist asking for more, but the average Government employee asks for more, some more and then still more.

MMM, armed with a mere spoon, was last in the race. It was while waiting for the crumbs from the table that MMM realised that the hotel had wisely avoided providing knives. After all, nobody likes to see bloodshed. Sure enough after filling their plates, MMM noticed that everyone laid the fork aside and ate with their hands.

This feast, straight out of something in the life of Caligula, ended and the meeting resumed. Loud belches punctuated the speeches for a while. And then came a gentler rhythmic sound. Their efforts over, those that laboured now rested.


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