The stand-off in Singur and the debate whether fertile land should be used for industrialisation has rekindled old memories, sending my thoughts back to a time when I too did my bit to develop West Bengal. That was decades ago, when the Left Front had just come to power and I was a raw young trainee who had just got a job with a public sector bank. At the time, the communists had started a huge programme aimed at registering and helping the bargadars, or sharecroppers, so that they had security of tenure. And since for some unfathomable reason the Indian government had decided the best way to uplift the rural masses was to send callow city-bred bankers totally ignorant of agriculture into the countryside, I was duly posted for agricultural training to a small village in the depths of rural Bengal.
Under some state-sponsored scheme or the other, we were required to lend princely sums varying from Rs 70 to Rs 200 to the sharecroppers, who promptly spent it all immediately on buying goodies for the family and on booze. The banks were at their wits’ end coping with this flood of unwashed new borrowers, and I was immediately pressed into service. Since I had little knowledge of banking, and even less knowledge of agriculture, my role was confined to grabbing the left hand of the borrower, pushing his thumb on to a well-inked stamp pad, and then pressing it down at various places on the loan document.
After a few weeks of this, I started having nightmares. I dreamt that my expertise in obtaining thumb impressions had so impressed my superiors that I was called upon to use my skills at other branches also. I saw myself trudging from one village branch to another for years, employed in the endless task of affixing sundry left thumb impressions to documents. Yet another nightmare involved my being appointed to the post of Thumb-Presser at the bank, going on to become Senior Thumb-Presser, possibly even Chief Thumb-Presser before retiring as the Venerable Thumb-Presser. After retirement, of course, I imagined I would become Consultant Thumb-Presser.
Naturally, all this made me feel rather tense and nervous until all it needed was a spark for me to explode. One day, after putting his thumb impression on some documents, a sharecropper had the nerve to wipe his thumb on my spotlessly clean sunmica-top table. Quick as a flash, without even stopping to think about it, I picked up a ruler and rapped him across the knuckles, telling him to wipe it on his head instead. He let out a yelp of agony and I was soon surrounded by a gang of angry sharecroppers, some of them brandishing sickles. The bank staff managed to calm them down, pleading that I was a silly bourgeois twit who didn’t know their ways, but for some horrifying moments, I thought that I was about to become a martyr to the revolution.
Soon after that incident, the Branch Manager decided to take me along with him on his ‘inspections’. I didn’t really see much point in them, because all he did was go from one borrower’s house to another sampling the eggs, milk and other refreshments they plied us with. I never did learn the difference between one green field and another or between wheat, paddy and jute, and I suspect my boss didn’t know it either. He was dead sure than none of the loans would be repaid and spent his time worrying about what would happen to him then.
A few years later, I met him at the head office in Calcutta, when he cheerfully informed me that a huge flood had inundated the village and most of the loan documents had been destroyed. He grinned from ear to ear as he gave me the bad news.
Anyway, the bank was so impressed with the proficiency with which I had inked thumbs and polished off omelettes during inspections that they soon appointed me Agricultural Field Officer. I must have been pretty good at rural development.
Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint