Book excerpt: How a Kanpur bank staff house-arrested the manager to bully him into clearing fake payments
In her debut book, Restless Days, Sleepless Nights, retired bank official Ranjana Bharij reveals what it was like to be a woman in public sector banking in the early 1970s.books Updated: Jul 20, 2017 11:50 IST
The Bank’s policy for training its newly recruited officers was painstakingly prepared and meticulously implemented. Each fresher had to learn the theoretical aspect of banking in the training centre and then practise it in the actual work situation in a branch. This rigour had to last for two years. As a part of this gruelling training schedule, the Bank had posted me to a small branch, located in an affluent residential colony of Kanpur.
Though the area was upmarket, the atmosphere at the branch was appalling. The front-line staff would abscond from the counter for unduly long hours leaving the harassed customers waiting endlessly. Using foul and abusive language replete with unpalatable invectives was their birthright but no customer would ever complain about it for fear of backlash. Most people knew how to get their work done by flattering the staff. Conforming to the overall abysmal industrial relations climate in the Bank, no one had the guts to question the errant employees including the toothless Branch Manager who looked away helplessly. The clerks in the branch invariably tried to get overtime wages without working even for an additional hour. As a routine, they rarely worked more than a couple of hours a day. The outcome was obvious; the relationship between the management and the staff was totally strained.
No wonder, when I reported at the branch for training, the Branch Manager Rama Kant Bhatnagar was worried. He did not consider it safe for a young woman to sit in the main banking hall. So he did what he thought was the best and asked the messenger to place a table and a chair for me in his room itself. I protested politely as my on-the-job training schedule required me to sit at a different desk every week, but he was firm, “It is not safe for you. The environment at this branch is outright unhealthy and I cannot allow a woman to sit in the main banking hall with those goons. Our Head Office functionaries are sitting in the seventh heaven unaware of what is happening in the branches. They just do not understand our problems. In my opinion, they should not have posted a woman in this branch. Anyway, now that you have come, I have no option but to make you sit in my room. I will tell the messenger to bring all the registers pertaining to your work here itself.” He had finality in his tone and I had to abide his decision.
Sitting there, I recalled my interview for the recruitment, “Miss Chandra, if the Bank decides to post you as a Branch Manager in a far-off village branch as a batch of goons as your clerks, how would you handle them?”
“With tact, sir,” I had merrily replied then but this Branch Manager would not even allow me to sit in the same hall as the so-called batch of goons. I marvelled at the paradox.
On day one itself, the Branch Manager instructed the messenger to place at my table all the incomplete books and registers at the end of the day. He told me that in addition to my regular duties, I also had to complete all the residual work of the clerical staff, which would start coming to me in the evening after the clerks left. “This is a part of your learning process,” he added cleverly.
The industrial relations climate being what it was, what happened at the branch a couple of months later was inevitable. The clerks decided to resort to work to rule. They would come on time and would leave exactly at 4.45pm whether the job assigned to them was completed or not. As it is, they hardly did any work and no one dared check their misdemeanours. The officers had no option but to sit late and complete all the leftover jobs.
One evening, as I was busy writing half-completed accounts books, not noticing the unending stream of registers, which the messenger was piling up on the sidetable, all the clerical staff thronged the room.
They walked in hordes and suddenly surrounded him from all sides. Some sat down on the visitors’ chairs and others impudently on the arms of the chairs and yet some others sat insolently on the Branch Manager’s table as well. A few sat on the side rack too. All others stood surrounding the Branch Manager’s chair, some even trying to sit on the arms of his chair.
My table was in the corner of the room and I could barely see Mr Bhatnagar, the Branch Manager from there as they had blocked the view. It was clear that they were trying to coerce him to sign on some register, but he was resisting. He tried to pick up the phone and call someone for help, only to find that the phone was dead. They all laughed villainously. Perhaps those rogues had cut the wires of the phone to isolate the poor man. They were forcing him to sign and he was resisting forcefully. He sat stiff on his chair with a wooden expression and holding his arms tightly across his chest.
One of them raised his voice and shouted, “Branch Manager…” All others responded loudly, “Down, down!”
They continued shouting slogans,
“Overtime … It’s our right,”
I had no idea what the flare-up was all about but was shocked at the behaviour of the staff. I also felt scared for the poor man who sat helplessly taking on those bullies all by himself. All other officers had vanished from the scene. They had no guts to come forward and stand by his side. If nothing else, it would have given him some moral support, I thought.
Sitting in the room and picking up bits and pieces of their conversation, I understood the trigger for this turmoil. The employees were demanding overtime wages without actually having worked for it. They had prepared the Overtime Payment Register and wanted the Branch Manager to authorise the payment. As the Head Office had put a complete ban on the payment of overtime and he had no authority to pay it, he refused to sign it but they continued to coerce him.
I understood the gravity of the situation but did not know what to do. The only idea that came to my mind was to go to Head Office and inform the Regional Manager. Maybe, he could do something. I decided to drive down to Head Office but as I picked up my bag to leave, Rudraksh Singh, the secretary of the union, seemed to have read my mind. He turned to me and threatened in a gruff tone, “Miss Chandra, you cannot leave the room.”
“But why? Why not?” I put on a bold front although internally I was scared.
“Because you are a member of the supervising staff,” he said tersely as if being an officer was a crime. A few others swiftly moved and made a human chain around me stopping my exit from the room. I realised to my horror that I too was under house arrest. How long will they retain me in that room? I had no idea.
I had no option but to keep sitting there helplessly. I resumed the work that I was doing. The messenger kept bringing all the other books and registers and I kept on writing and completing the unfinished clerical work while the people who should have done it, stared at me without any feeling of guilt, shame or remorse. I was feeling scared. Could they turn violent? Was I safe there? I tried to concentrate on the work on my table. That was the only way to maintain my mental equilibrium.
Their abusive and uncouth behaviour towards the poor Branch Manager who was doing his duty left deep scars on my psyche and made me abhor the unionists.
At midnight, the union leaders decided to let me go. I came out of the office feeling utterly helpless and wondering what I could do to help the unfortunate Branch Manager who was still trapped inside. I desperately wanted to inform the Regional Manager of the horrible episode but did not have his residential address or phone number. I drove to Head Office to obtain his phone number, but the security staff at the gate expressed their inability to get me the details. “We do not have instructions to part with this information madam. You cannot disturb him at night; it is past midnight. We suggest you go home. It is not safe for a woman to drive around alone in Kanpur at this time of the night,” the eldest of them advised me in all sincerity.
Next day morning, as I got ready to go to office, the head messenger landed up at my house and handed me a slip of paper with the Branch Manager’s message, “You need not come to the Bank as the atmosphere here is highly charged. I will call you when I consider it appropriate.”
I stayed put at my residence. My landlord and the landlady had already left for their respective offices leaving me all by myself. Two hours later at around noon, the phone rang. The uncouth voice on the other end did not mince words, “Hey woman! Listen carefully! You are a crucial witness to the last evening’s gherao at the Bank. You dare not open your mouth about it in front of the bosses. If you do, the consequences will be unpalatable. I guess you understand what I mean.” Click. The caller hung up the phone even before I could fully grasp the implications of what he had said. Shocked, I repeated to myself what I had heard, wondering about the identity of the caller. It was an open threat and the call left me with goose pimples. Scared, confused and anxious, I walked up and down in the veranda of the house thinking of the audacity of the caller and the open threat he had given.
Past noon, the head messenger came again and told me that Mr Bhatnagar had asked me to come to the office. Nervous and shaken with the anonymous call, I was still sitting alone on the steps leading to the veranda of the house. As I took my scooter off the stand, I noted with surprise that it had a flat tyre. I took out the spanner to change the wheel only to find that the spare wheel had also deflated. Everything was okay when I had driven back home last night. I was puzzled; has somebody played a mischief with my scooter or was it a sheer chance?
I hailed a rickshaw and reached office, to find that the Regional Manager was already present there to investigate the incident. I was the sole witness to what had transpired in the branch the previous evening as none of the officers had even peeped in perhaps for fear of becoming witnesses. The investigating team sat down to interrogate me. Thinking of the anonymous phone call, I was a little nervous initially but soon came to grips with my innate strength and shared ad verbatim the incidents of the previous evening with them.
“Can you document everything that you witnessed yesterday in this room and give it to me in writing?” The investigating officer asked.
“Yes, sir. I will do.” I pushed the telephonic threat out of my mind and sat down to write the entire sequence of the ugly event.
Banwari Lal, an officer who was the next in command to the Branch Manager and who was very much present in the branch at the material time told the investigating officer with a straight face, “No sir. I do not know anything. I was so busy with my work in the other room that I did not know that the Branch Manager Sahib had been gheraoed. If I had any inkling of it, I would have immediately rescued him from the clutches of those rogues even at the cost of my life.” Mr Bhatnagar appeared suitably impressed with his sincerity towards him.
I had seen this officer sheepishly ogling at the happenings in the Branch Manager’s room through the parted curtains. How blatantly was he lying now, I was aghast. Had he also received a threatening call like the one I did, I wondered.
After my interrogation was over and I had agreed to act as a witness, Banwari Lal had the audacity to tell me, “Miss Chandra, please add in the statement that these people tried to molest you and also used obscene language against you.”
The idea appealed to Mr Bhatnagar, the Branch Manager immensely, “Yes, yes. That would add a lot of weight to our case. Coming from a woman, everybody will believe it too. Please do so Miss Chandra.”
The Regional Manager also looked at me expectantly saying in an undertone, “You are the only eye-witness to the entire episode. All will believe what you say because you are a woman. Nobody will question a woman’s statement.”
“But they did nothing of the sort. Why should I write that?” I did not like the idea of giving a false testimony.
I could not stand Banwari Lal, not only because of the lecherous looks he gave me but also because he was lying blatantly to keep himself out of the enquiry proceedings. He was very much a witness to the ugly drama of the previous evening, but he was trying to keep out of it and earn brownie points as well with the superiors.
“It is not good on your part Miss Chandra. You must always co-operate with your bosses and help them,” Banwari Lal, rebuked me.
“I am sorry but I will not write anything which is not a fact and I will not hide anything which actually took place,” I countered him promptly.
The Regional Manager too did not like my stand and said wryly to Banwari Lal, “Do not ask her to write anything which she does not want to write.”
“It is not a question of my not wanting to write. I will not write anything, which is not true,” I snapped.
Mr Bhatnagar felt let down because I had not given the false evidence as suggested by his crony. He started cold-shouldering me and continued to keep Banwari Lal, the master of subterfuge, in his good books.
I guess that was a small price to pay for abiding by my values.
Restless Days, Sleepless Nights
By Ranjana Bharij
Publisher: Notion Press
Price: Rs 250
Excerpted with permission from Restless Days, Sleepless Nights, Ranjana Bharij, Notion Press.