issue 173 - July 1987
Illustration: Clive Offley
'I am from Deogarh'
Red-tape, paperwork and bribe-hungry officials await peasant
farmer Ramlal when he visits the city. All he wants to do is register
a village co-operative. Can he do it? Tony Vaux follows him through
the comic-horror jungle of Third World bureaucracy - and corruption.
Ramlal stopped outside the temple and counted his money. There was nothing to spare unless he used the rupee that he had been given for his own food. The rest was essential for the task with which his friends had entrusted him.
He shook off his worn-out chapals by the door and went in. A priest glanced up, assessing the wealth of the new arrival, and then continued on his way to consume yet another ritual meal of sweets and milk. His naked skin gleamed like gold in the morning sun.
The deity was hidden in the deepest recesses of the temple. Ramlal approached in fear, awed by the sounds of chanting and the peal of bells that rose above the endless mutter of devotees. In front of the bejewelled image was a large box for offerings. The ground was strewn with coins and notes.
He glanced at the face of the God, hoping for some sign of approval, but the lifeless eyes pierced him through. As he stood in uncertainty, still clutching his rupee, the people pushed him aside in their hurry to buy a little favour with divinity.
When Ramlal emerged the sun had risen higher in the sky and the stones of the temple courtyard were already hot. He put on his sandals and set out for the office of the babu who had the power to give his people what they wanted, or to refuse.
In the street a man was beating a pie-dog with a heavy stick, lashing at it with mindless energy as the animal cowered back helplessly against a mound of rubbish. Why such fury? The big town seemed full of anger. Ramlal longed to complete his mission and get back to the peace of the village.
At the babu's office a horde of people rushed about clutching bits of paper in search of signatures and rubber stamps. Quite often the form was outdated by the time it was finally authorized and the clerks would tell the luckless petitioner to start all over again.
The chaprassi (doorman) spotted the newcomer and stood up, blocking the way to the offices within. His manner was that of a tired toll-keeper. He did not even state his demand but waited for the rupee to drop.
'I want to see the respected Babu-sahib for Co-operatives,' said Ramlal.
'He is not here.'
'His office is open.'
The chaprassi became annoyed. He despised the rural ignoramuses who did not even know the system. Did they not tell each other?
Ramlal was wondering what to do. They had told him the chaprassi would want a bribe, but instructed him not to pay it.
'When does it open?' asked Ramlal.
'I do not know. You want to find out?'
The chaprassi glared at him. 'Get out of here. There are many other people coming. They can be ahead of you.'
'I will wait here.'
Ramlal sat down on the steps but the chaprassi kicked him aside. He stood in the dirt a few steps away, watching what would happen. Sweat from his hand began to soften the crisp white document that had been drawn up after many long night-time meetings when they had all finally agreed to form a co-operative.
As he touched it Ramlal imagined the great gleaming motor-pump that they planned to set on the river bank to irrigate their fields. Twenty thousand rupees it would cost, but the extension worker said the government would pay for it if they could register a co-operative. The villagers were suspicious at first, waiting for the demand of a bribe or request for a chicken or a village girl, but in the end they decided to believe him. He seemed to want to help them or else his plan was much deeper than they knew.
Encouraged by his enthusiasm the people of Deogarh had given every rupee and paisa they could find to raise the share capital for the co-operative. Many families would eat nothing that day as they waited in hope for Ramlal to return. There would be no new clothes for the children at Holi. His own son was so ragged that he dared not go to school...
Anxiously Ramlal watched the procession of lethargic clerks climbing the steps to their offices. Did they not feel the pressure of hopes raised, of hungry naked children waiting for them to move their pens?
Ramlal felt a cold shiver of despair. He reached into his pocket. There was still the rupee for his food, and another rupee given to him for the train journey back. He took them out of his pocket.
Alerted by some sixth sense, the chaprassi watched.
Ramlal placed one rupee on the step. The chaprassi shook his head. In sudden anger Ramlal pressed the other coin onto the step with a harsh click and they lay there glinting like the harsh eyes of the temple God. At a nod from the chaprassi, he hurried away into the corridors within. The crowd swirled around him but he felt no fear, only a flush of anger that seemed to wipe out his normal senses. He felt a strange exhilaration that he too could play the game of these city slickers, to repay evil for evil as the cruel features of the god had warned.
At the door of the Registrar's office was a long line of people ending at the desk where the Officer's clerk sat drinking tea and lording it over the supplicants. He thumbed through the applications in a knowledgeable manner and made critical comments in imitation of his superiors.
Ramlal approached the desk.
'I have come to register a co-operative.' The clerk continued to sip tea, studying a row of figures on a piece of paper.
'You have the money?' he asked after some time.
'Yes, the money to register the co-operative.'
'The officer will require something.'
'Go away. You can wait.'
'A hundred rupees, perhaps.'
'But we have no money.'
'For the co-operative you will get, if God is favourable, a lakh of (100,000) rupees from the Government. You can afford to be generous. You village people are too mean.'
'I come from Deogarh.'
'I have spoken to the MLA [Member of the Legislative Assembly]. He said he would fix it for me - that we get the loan. I spoke to him just now in his office. He told me to go ahead quickly.'
If it's printed it seems true. But you might be having the wool pulled over your eyes. Each month the NI invites one author to justify their style of argument.
Editor: Ramlal is a poor peasant, eager to please, embarrassed at his children's ragged clothes. Isn't this just a stereotype of the Third World poor?
Vaux: Only up to a point. Greater complexity in the character could have diverted attention from the main theme. I wanted an ordinary person, not a hero.
Editor: You have 'lethargic clerks climbing the steps to their offices' juxtaposed with 'hungry naked children waiting for them to move their pens'. Isn't this Dickensian sentimentality?
Vaux: Yes, Dickens stereotypes got into my mind. I hope the result is emotional rather than sentimental.
Editor: You give the story a happy ending, probably to please your readers. But why is the honest official a man at the top, while the dishonest ones are further down the scale? Doesn't this imply that all is well with the world once you get through all the corrupt underlings and reach the liberal, contemplative, authority figures at the top?
Vaux: There could equally have been an unhappy ending. Luck is important. Hence the emphasis on religion/superstition. As for the benevolent authority figure, I had intended to convey the view that the strongest pressure for corruption comes from high up in the system, particularly from politicians. Officers at the middle level can afford to have moral scruples, while those at the bottom, on ludicrous government salaries, can only survive by taking money on the side. The internal anguish that this may cause can come out in the form of apparent brutality. The chaprassi is worth studying. I am afraid I only managed a stereotype. He is the pivot of the class-tension and possibly the key to a revolutionary solution.
Ramlal held his breath in amazement at the extraordinary lie that had suddenly entered his head. Where had it come from?
The clerk sipped more tea. He wanted time to weigh up the story, also to restrain his anger against the politicians. Half of the bribes taken in that vast government office went back by devious and secret means to the politicians. That was bad enough but quite often they also took bribes directly from the people. It meant a loss of revenue to the clerks and the chaprassis but what really annoyed them was the loss of pride. It undermined their control of the people.
'Show me your application,' said the clerk.
He scanned it carefully looking for faults, but it had been well prepared.
At that moment, when the fate of Ramlal's co-operative hung in the balance, the door of the inner office suddenly opened and a woman rushed out still in full flow against the Registrar. She shouted at those waiting about how she had been unjustly treated. Her sewing co-operative had been refused. The babu said she paid the workers below the official minimum wage. He said it was not a co-operative but a business. But who does anything except to make money? Is that not a co-operative? Her husband was a friend of the Collector, she would make a complaint...
Taking advantage of the clerk's uncertainty, Ramlal pushed forward into the high-ceilinged room. A fan turned idly in the roof, adding to the sense of quiet, protected calm. The clerk called after him but he took no notice. The room was huge and cool. At a desk in the centre, surrounded by files tied with pink ribbons, sat the Registrar, on whom all hope depended.
'Sit down. What is it?'
'I want to register an irrigation co-operative, sir.'
'Show me the papers.'
The official studied them. The fan overhead sliced through the air, like the chaff-cutter that Ramlal used on his farm at home.
'These are all right. Who helped you prepare them?'
'A man called Mistry.'
'He has done it well. Take it. I have signed. Now you will have to go to the Bank and to the Tribal Development Office to get the loan. They will delay you and ask for money. Do not give them any. If then they still do not help, bring all your people and let them stay in the office until it is done. But I have not said this. Where do you come from?'
'I come from Deogarh.'
'I know the place. "The home of God." Not a bad name for a village. I hope the God is happy with the water pump.'
The registrar laughed to himself and then looked up thoughtfully at the endlessly turning fan. Judging the business to be done, Ramlal picked up the papers and went to the door. He paused to pay his respects but the official was busy with his heap of files. Ramlal stabbed his hand at the bell to summon the next petitioner. The clerk glared angrily at him as he paused in the doorway.
The sunlight outside was blinding. Ramlal strode past the chaprassi and out onto the streets. He was glad to get away from the brooding perplexity of the honest official. It clouded the sense of his own achievement, the sense that his own cunning had mastered the obstacles. The temple bells were clanging to their climax as Ramlal hurried past the door, clutching his precious document, and laughing to himself at the thought that the God had got nothing from him at all. But then whose achievement had it been? A victory for chance? Maybe it was the black humour of chance that the God represented. And maybe when Ramlal came to town again he would not be so lucky.
Tony Vaux is a freelance writer.