THE HEAD OFFICE

It stands there, in steps on the slope at the edge of a deodar forest; of southerly aspect catching the precious winter sun when warmth is at a premium.

Those of the office whose work is to wait and watch, like drivers and peons, congregate in huddled groups in shifting patches of winter sunlight that stream through the tree canopy in the morning.

Occasionally joined by busy, news-bearing clerks, the group in the sun, eager for news that would add juice to their gossip or insight into official secrets, may offer a cigarette or even tea to a clerk with access to “establishment” files.

ESTABLISHMENT files are the ones on which a Government department moves. Learning that an officer has applied for leave (which is invariably allowed), triggers an immediate and co-terminus leave planning exercise for the affected driver, peon or even the steno.

Long pending works in the village or ‘personal’ issues in other offices come into focus and suddenly the affected in the group have real work as they hurry off to pursue their individual destinies. The warmth of the winter sun is forgotten in the heat of opportunity waiting.

Establishment files also deal with tours, transfers/ cancellation/ re-transfers, postings, petitions and representations, confidential reports, withdrawal of provident fund, inquiries and action on misconduct, unauthorised leave (when one is caught), embezzlement and such minor glitches that punctuate otherwise smooth sailing in Government service.

In short these files hold inexhaustible grist for the gossip mill and the now mobile enabled grapevine.

The GRAPEVINE is the metaphysical medium through which bureaucracy actually functions. One ‘alert’ on the grapevine can instantly alter an officer’s priorities for the day, cancel an important meeting or prompt sudden sick leave if a transfer is threatened.

The head office gossip soon echoes in far flung sub-ordinate offices and depending on the threat perception, political brass can be quickly mobilised to block undesirable moves.

The lesser known virtues of this virtual medium include the planting of ‘new intelligence’ in otherwise straightforward establishment files on their way up just as fresh buds sprout on a grapevine searching the Light.

That many such leaves will cast deep shadows below is not always unintentional. Like the recurring quest for justice or women of easy virtue, the grapevine has always had ardent followers in history; and the head Office is its vibrant hub.

The FILES of the head Office have a story and a significance of their own.

Files are physical proof of institutional existence. Men may come and women may go, but files go on forever.

Like humans who have children in youth, files too beget volumes but breed only when they are old.

While men may be buried or burnt in death, files are respectfully stitched and archived. A single file can hold history spanning decades and when carefully read holds a mirror to the times and people who have ‘dealt’ it.

In event of a fire turning the files to ashes (an annoyingly unplanned plot); the Office gets busy re-constructing each file, which though tedious is nevertheless feasible.

Unlike humans, files have clones (read copies) of each paper they hold in another file somewhere in some other office! Office without file is like Hospital without patient, as Confucius might have said.

That PEOPLE in the head Office are supercilious and demanding is a given, just like people in a subordinate office are differential and submissive.

This inveterate equation has governed inter-office transactions; from who is to be “Sir-ed” and who to be shouted at.

Head Office people have this knack of hanging around for decades (sometimes in the same ‘kursi’) and some of the “ghunnas” (is there an English equivalent?), manage to get their date of birth changed to their advantage unlike our venerable Generals.

So a Head Office is teeming with geriatrics refusing to retire and perpetually seeking medical reimbursement.

TEA drinking (and therefore tea making) is an elaborate enterprise in the Office.

A whole sub-cadre of peons is dedicated to this essential service.

For the officers tea is boiled or brewed in a concealed corner of their rooms and served in pretty standard government approved crockery.

For the non-officers it is fetched from the canteen in dirty aluminium kettles with their snouts blocked with knotted newspaper to keep the tea warm.

From exalted visitors to hapless villagers and from fellow Head Office officers to the harassed field staff seeking to pursue their papers, a cup of tea can serve as a courtesy, an inducement, a pastime or even a reward to push reluctant files weighted with bureaucratic inertia or insidious intent.

Perhaps the Head Office unthinkingly mirrors the political culture of the times?

Nodnat - is a pen name that the writer with deep knowledge of Himalayan flora and fauna and a keen environmentalist has adopted. He hails from Kotgarh, in Shimla Hills and retired as Principal Chief Conservator of Forests from Himachal Pradesh forest department.

6 Comments

  • Interesting insight into government functioning. Entertaining, uproarious and facts presented in lighter vein. Keep posting …..

  • Tea (and the tea-boy) is an essential part of Head Office functioning. If you do not find an officer or a clerk (dealing hand) at his/her seat, they have gone out for a cup of tea!

    There is this wonderful story about a tiger in the wild who was starving because humans had killed off all its prey. As he wandered close to town in search of food, he met a healthy, well fed tiger sunning himself in a meadow close to a structure very similar to the ‘Head Office’ alluded to above. On inquiry, the healthy beast revealed that he picked up a human from the ‘Head Office’ every few days and was having a great time. Taking pity on his famished counterpart, he said ” If you like, you can take my place and feed on the humans here. Nobody will ever miss them, thinking that they are on casual leave or earned leave! But,” he cautioned, ” do not ever think of eating the little boy in the vest and brown shorts.” With that the town tiger took off to wander the wilds.

    Well …. the famished tiger established himself in the urban environs and soon became fat and healthy on his diet of office functionaries. Sure enough, nobody missed them. One day, however, he wondered what would happen if he picked up the youngster in the vest and shorts. Was the other tiger keeping him for himself as a special treat? Not being able to control himself, he pounced upon the youngster that afternoon and gobbled him up.

    The next morning there was a hue and cry in the corridors of the ‘Head Office’. When the staff realised the boy was nowhere to be found, they went looking for him. Sure enough, they found some drops of blood near his room and in the lawn they discovered some pug marks. Following they footprints of the tiger, they soon found his hiding place and beat him with sticks, files and office rules, till he was quite dead. Can you guess who that little boy was and why he was so important?

    HE WAS THE TEA-BOY WHO USED TO RUN AROUND SERVING TEA IN THE ‘HEAD OFFICE’ – the most important person in any ‘Head Office’.

  • i wish i could send one such famished and weak tiger to central secretariat offices in New Delhi. It would be a great service to the nation.

    • All offices have them, these timid Bureaucrats
      Gossiping, idling, drinking tea like Victorian Aristocrats!
      But when it is time for a break or for lunch or to just roam,
      They’re on the dot and especially punctual to go home,
      Afraid, of the Tigress at home and her brood of brats!

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