Ledger to balance
When in dire straits, sometimes providence unfolds in inscrutable ways
The roar of an angry river rushing down a mountain in the middle of the night outside your window is a sound that remains with you for some time. And if it happens every night at an altitude of 11,000 feet, the sound is, well, frozen in one's memory!
In the summer of 1988, I was awaiting the UPSC results while posted as the officer in charge of the State Bank extension counter in Badrinath. The Bank had an unwritten policy of exiling its youngest officers to the remotest branches where banking took a backseat to surviving. Taking the posting order in my stride, I rode the bus to Badrinath via Joshimath all the way from Delhi and arrived in the temple town on a cold April morning with a single suitcase, a two in one radio, assorted cassettes and no real address to go to. Bisht, the junior clerk, was already in town and he easily spotted me amongst the hordes spilling out of the 100 odd buses that seemed to have arrived simultaneously and with the ease of a veteran, guided me through the gangs of middlemen pouncing on unsuspecting pilgrims.
The branch was located at the foot of the steps leading up to the main temple gate. It had two rooms. One served as the office where all transactions took place and the other as my residence. My room housed a bed and a safe — the former for me and the latter for all the bank valuables. Each night I would place the account ledger and challan copies along with currency in the safe and lock it with a silent prayer. Needless to say, I felt a lot less safe in my bed with just the terrifying sound of the Alaknanda roaring past my window for company!
One of the first problems I encountered in the abode of the gods was a very human one. The bathroom attached to the bank premise was locked out by the landlord as his demand for extra payment had not been met. So I was in this rather unenviable situation where the bathroom next to my sleeping quarters was regularly used by the landlord and his acquaintances but for my own ablutions, I had to trek a kilometre away to the GMVN Hotel where for an unofficial charge, I was allowed to use the bathroom of one of the unoccupied guestrooms. Every morning, a keen eye would have spotted the unseemly sight of a young bank manager making his way rather sheepishly if not sleepily from the steps of the temple and across the old bridge holding on to a toothbrush, toothpaste, towel, soap dish, set of fresh clothes, shaving kit and a mug. A discerning few may even have been tempted to mistake me for one of the many vendors who crowded around the early morning buses with similar wares to peddle!
But God provided the solution in His own way. On learning that I had given the UPSC exam and was a veteran of two previous attempts, the CEO of the Temple Board, a senior PCS officer named Pant, introduced me to the head priest, a young Malayali Namboodiripad. Familiarity may breed contempt but in my case, it emboldened me to ask him if I could by any chance use the VIP bathroom and, with a little bit of help from Mr Pant, soon enough I was given access to the sanctum sanctorum. The mere fact of having sat for the UPSC exam had propelled me to some kind of celebrity status, it seems. A dip in the holy and warm community waters of the temple 'kund' each morning resolved the bathroom problem in a neat combo package which I dare say few pilgrims could aspire to!
A favourite pastime in Badrinath was sitting on the top of the main steps and watching the pilgrims float by. They came in all shapes and sizes and from all over the country. One could identify the Bengalis from the ubiquitous monkey caps and incessant chatter, the North Indians by their mufflers and the South Indians would be the ones looking lost in a world where neither Tamil nor English was much spoken! Men, women, old, young, the fit and the invalid (the last mentioned in chairs carried on the shoulders of local porters) — all swarmed the temple and made a beeline for the morning dip in the 'kund' before lining up for the darshan. Some would eventually wander into the Bank with travellers' cheques to encash. A lady from Bombay walked in one day with a familiar problem. She had the TC but the Bombay manager had forgotten to append his signature on it without which it was not worth the paper it was printed on. Her desperate pleas were however of no avail as the Bank had trained me well to turn blind and deaf in such situations. As expected, the banker in me prevailed over any humane considerations and finally, she left tearfully clutching the invalid TC.
The following day, I happened to see her near the bridge and she accosted me before I could take cover. She folded her hands and said, "Thank you so much! I am so grateful and don't worry, I will send the money order as soon as I return to Bombay!" The mystery was solved late in the evening when Bisht confessed that he was so moved by her plight that he gave her Rs 2,000 which she promised to return by money order. Bisht himself always complained of being short of cash and this generosity puzzled me. When questioned, he smiled and looked towards the temple gates. That night I slept a little closer to the safe and to this day I wonder if Bisht had taken upon himself to dip into the offerings to bail out a damsel in distress. The money order itself was never mentioned again. If ever it did arrive, I am sure Bisht would have credited the source because after all even God has a ledger to balance while solving our problems!
Views expressed are personal