Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Tales of the Sagacious Secretary

"Let him appear...just let him APPEAR...we'll see if he has the guts....I shall APPEAL........!!"

......hollered the bespectacled, crumpled old lady waving a spatula from her tiny tea-shack out to a rather petrified urchin who turned around and scampered away the immediate second her verbal tirade ceased.

The grand Old Post Office Street in Kolkata, the epientre of all legal activity in the city running along the banks of the Ganges, on which stands gaunt and proud the Kolkata High Court, sturdy and handsome with its typical pre-independence, 'Anglo' architecture and air, is quite literally a tiny universe in itself. On any given time of any day, apart from declared holidays of course, Old P.O. Street disappears under an enormous galaxy of human beings, hundreds of cars parked bumper to bumper in numerous parallel lines that zig-zag beyond visual limits, numerous little stalls and shacks offering typewriting services, notary sevices and a few, even legal advice, lots and lots of tiny stalls selling cigarettes, tea, juice and eatables and also a few restaurants and pharmacies. Apart from the High Court, Old PO Street has a number of old buildings originating from the pre-independence era which house some of India's top most law offices........yet something quite pleasently different, often unnoticed yet extremely significant about life in this lane aroused my deep interest and desire to explore.
During one of my internships with an extremely reputed law firm situated in one such building, on the opposite of 'Temple Towers' I couldn't help being intrigued and amused by a prominent existence of a healthy amount of humour, intentional, unintentional or sarcastic, that garnished everyday conversations between people working for a living in and around the High Court and it's adjacent law offices. Walking down Old P.O.Street, one shall experience a more-than-generous use of heavy legal parlance by everyday people there, used freely to assert or make clear a point and it did'nt really matter if it pertained to a legal business or not. The following narration accounts for a month's worth of 'overhearings'.

Ask if you can smoke inside a restaurant and you'll be told to 'plead' with the owner.
On various instances you'll hear about people 'appear-ing before' and even 'disappear-ing from' places....no stupid you dont need a magic wand!!
And of course, you can have your way with everyone if you just 'appeal' but if you 'argue' too much you're in for a 'penalty'.
It is Law firms on this grand old lane though that hold the real deal when it comes to wisecracks and hilariously sarcastic one-liners, quite interestingly the richest source of these are the non-legal staff i.e. stenographers, tea-boys, sundry errand-boys and finally, the secretaries. Being the 'downtrodden' or the 'trodden-upon', their expressions are often chillingly satirical.
Placed in a stuffy cubicle outside the boss's cabins I had the priviledge of mingling with the ground-level staff and thereby gathering an insight on their own little world. In every law office the immediate secretary to the boss enjoys a certain exalted status among the non-legal staff and is generally attributed with a certain degree of stoical sagacity, his sidekicks and generals being the stenographers, tea-boys, munimji's and other foot soldiers further lower in the hierarchy, a secretary is often regarded as the holder of inside information. He is, on one hand the spokesperson of the boss himself and on the other, the collective voice of the non-legal staff as well; quite a tight spot one would presume, but our man is a smooth operator. Being quite the 'narad-muni', neither the bosses nor clients, not even interns are spared of their scrutiny,examination, an inevitable subsequent criticism or the dreaded 'gyaan' session. Even judgements, petitions, legal documents and arguments are often critically evaluated and deliberated upon.

He is almost a superhero, that stupendous wisdom armed with a razor's edge wit and an equally sharp tongue, which he unremmitingly swishes and slashes every so often, accompanied by dollops of a "been there, done that so you're just a sissy.." attitude that coloured words spoken in completely smashed english (punctuated with shocking Bengali expletives), coupled with a hearty revolutionary spirit, a thorough knowledge of global politics and of course, by-the-minute answers to every pressing problem faced by the nation(phew!!) maketh the man that a sagacious secretary is; something between a born leader and a clown.

The state-of-affairs became quite transparent to me the day my boss's sagacious secretary muttered heavily under his breath
, "bhodrolok Kudi patar petition dersho patai lekhechen...eeeeeeesh!!"("the gentleman has written a 20-page petition in 150 pages....geeeeeeeez!!"), under his breath while struggling with stacking fleshy bundles of paper together. My awe and respect for this gentleman shot through the roof one fine morning when I overheard him saying, "akhono matha ghamai-ni ami sir....chinta nei...rasta ami bar korboi...!!"( I haven't laboured my mind yet,my dear sir.......... I shall DEFINITELY find a way out of this....!") over the phone. Another day, another sage screamed out from his cubicle to another steno after having made sure his boss was out of earshot, " shotero baar interim order extend koralam.......aar ekbar bhabchi koriei di, ki bolo??"( "I had the interim order extended 17 times.....I might as well get it done once again...whatsay??"), just before my nervous system could react to that one, another blow.. "Judgesaheb case nite parchen-na.....ki je kori?.....shob adjourn kore deova uchit!! "( "The respected Judge-saheb is unable to deal with the cases....what do I do?.....he should adjourn all his cases!!") struck me. Confused and slightly frustrated that these babus and clerks knew more than myself, a final-year law student pursuing a rather expensive course at a well respected law college, trying to find my way around the legal world, I dawdled over to my cubicle. The possible sense and concealed passion in the saying, "Baangalke High Court dekhiyo na"("never bring up the High Court while dealing with a 'Bengali'") lay unfurled before me the very next day when I overheard the secretary of a senior lawyer boast to someone else, "ki chai?? Stay?? nishchoi paiyye debo!!!!( what do you want?? a Stay order?? I'll definitely have it done...!").

The air inside the building that housed my office set in a rather formal, somewhat stiff English feel. The intricate wood-work and architecture, the old elevator, those high walls, the smell of smoked tobacco and of course the inevitable and pleasent scent of old books espoucing the air give the place a historical appearance reflecting a high degree of British grandeur. But no old building in Kolkata is complete without the omnipresent legacy of the 'babu', his romance with the colour red, something which he so lovingly stains the walls of his city with, the colour that had promised so much yet gave so less . I meant, those paan-spittle stains gracing the walls, reached so high up I found it extremely difficult picturing how one might've been able to spew the contents of his mouth that high up on the wall!!
Pondering on the physics involved with projecting spittle so high up in the air, one fine morning as I clambered up the dark stairways leading to the floor where my office was situated, I noticed a young member of the non-legal staff doing something rather bold. Its a well known rule that nobody was to leave his/her cubicle during office hours except during lunch-break or on official duty and my firm was pretty strict about this particular regulation of theirs for obvious reasons. One brave Sir Galahad stood outside the office doors casually leaning his back against the window panes, holding a cell phone to his ear his highness jabbered away with someone loudly, blowing large smoke rings from his mouth during intervals. I stood there admiring his nonchalance and defiant pose. The boss was surely not in today.
My rather obvious assumption was confirmed in seconds as I made my way through the doors and into the little hall that housed various little officerooms; all the secretary babus, stenographers and even the tea-boys huddled around one particular table. Tea was ordered all around. The boss was at a conference and therefore the mice were at play. I joined in with the crowd. The sagacious secretary began,
"Dhoro ekta gaadi 60-r speed-e jete jete break fail korlo......tokhon ki kore gaadi thamabe?"( Suppose a car is travelling at a speed of 60 when it's breaks fail, what would you do to stop it?").

A deliberation then commenced with mind-riddling permutations, combinations and fervid arguments on whether the gear-handle would break if moved to first-gear while the car was running or for that matter what would happen if the car were brought to reverse while it was still running, the conversation then raced further on through the faithfulness of the dear old Ambassador particularly to the Bengali community, the rash driving on Red Road, the Chief Minister's latest speech then quickly deviating to the
Mohun Bagan
line-up and fish prices for a short while after which, I kid you not, we were back to accidents again!!....the door slung open all of a sudden and in marched my boss, his appearance effecting various disappearances everywhere, the babus swiftly sprung back to their 'I-am-so-God-damn-busy-working' positions, pens began moving, the tetris and pac-mans disappeared from computer screens and keyboards began clattering. Bless his heart, my boss picked up a legal brief and walked out again. Without warning, his Secretary immediately turned to me and began, "Maarkaari-r sathe aar kono dhatu meshe kina?"("Does any other metal react with Mercury?"), taken aback I stuttered to explain the inadequacy of my knowledge of Chemistry before finishing which he remarked, "MESHE NA.....ALBAAT MESHE NA......dutoi dhongsho hoye jay!!" ("THEY DO NOT REACT.....both of them get DESTROYED!!") concluded the venerable sagacious secretary.

As the last day of my internship crawled lazily towards a conclusion, I slammed shut the book on Intellectual Property Law that I had just finished 'sleeping' over, wide eyed with utter disbelief that there actually existed a Mark based on a character of one of Ian Fleming's novels...........called
and that someone had actually applied to have it registered for selling his goods by that name.
I strolled down Old P.O.Street looking for my driver amidst the thinning crowd, the bloke was nowhere to be seen. The sun turned a mellow shade of orange having already disappeared half way over the tree tops and a gentle breeze blew over the place now carrying a smell that foretold that rainfall was approaching soon, groups of people now stood surrounding little snack/tea stalls catching up on the days events and gossip, some hurried away sensing a shower in the offing. Within moments it grew dark and a light drizzle descended over Old P.O.Street pacing up life immediately, lawyers fled for cover holding files or briefs over their heads, people scampered around rushing inside shops, inside any place that offered a temporary shelter, some simply walked on not bothered. Deciding not to budge till my driver showed up I took refuge underneath a large parapet belonging to a book store.
Next to me stood two people immersed in a deeply intense conversation. They hadn't noticed my presence. A fiery debate ensued and a tiny crowd had gathered around them cramming themselves in whatever little space was left under the parapet, gaping intently at the two gentlemen. All of a sudden, causing an echoe across the much deserted Old P.O.Street and a highly unwelcome shiver down my spine, the sagacious secretary standing right next to me exclaimed,
" But dear Mr. Mittir(Mitra), 'the EVIDENCE of the pudding is in it's eating!!'"

The drizzle had subsided considerably and my driver emerged from inside a tea-shack around the corner of the street scratching his pot-belly holding a paper bag stuffed with spiced puffed rice, grinning like a village idiot. Smiling, I quietly noted down my last observation underneath the parapet and headed off towards my car
. Driving past a photocopy shop called 'EVIDENCE' I turned around to take a last look at the grand old High Court of Kolkata, my flight to Pune left early next day.