Translated by Aswini Kumar
I must confess to a slight irritation when Mrs. Chari called me up that Saturday. The bank was supposed to close for business at 2.00 p.m. on Saturdays, after which we had to stay back to close and tally the accounts. It would be at least
3.00 by the time we would be able to leave the bank’s premises, and it had been a constant grouse of mine that I could not afford to relax even on Saturdays.
Mrs. Chari currently resides in Nanganallur. It is just her and her husband now. Their children are scattered all over India and abroad, and every one of them is extremely well-settled in life. Mr.Chari himself had retired from a highly-placed position and was currently drawing a substantial pension. They used to live at Thiruvallikeni earlier and the account they had opened then at our branch was continuing till date. If they had wished, they could have shifted it to a bank nearer their residence at any time, but they did not do so. The reason: they considered our branch lucky for them, and Mrs. Chari would travel all the way from Nanganallur to operate her locker at our premises. She would scrutinise her bank accounts and query if any interest payments were delayed. She would go straight to our Chief Manager to complain of any lapse, and he would summon me to his room and ask for an explanation.
She would then come over to my seat and complain that her interest payments, due on the 1st of each month, were consistently delayed. It was my job to placate her and promise to do better in the future.
Gita, who was seated next to me in the office, would advise me, “Sir, handle the lady with care. Else, she would move all her deposits to another bank.”
But Gita’s assistance in this regard was confined solely to her verbal advice on how to handle Mrs. Chari. She would not offer to help in any matter, for it was not in her nature to sully her hands by doing any actual work.
Saturdays were always busy and, since it was the first week-end of the month, the branch was thronged.
Mrs. Chari landed up exactly at 1.30 p.m. “Sorry, I’m late,” she apologised.
“Please take a seat,” I offered.
I then became busy attending to the customers already seated in front of me and forgot all about Mrs. Chari’s presence.
It was only when Gita prompted, “Sir, please escort Mrs. Chari to the locker room,” that I remembered the lady’s existence.
I got her to sign the locker register and escorted her to where the lockers were located. Truth to tell, each trip to the locker room was a painful one for me as the lockers in our branch were situated in the basement of the building next to our strong- room.
I took her into the vault and opened her safe deposit box with my master key. She had on lease a large locker. Additionally, her sons and daughters also had lockers of their own at our bank. She had this habit of taking out each and every object in her locker and checking it off against a list in a notebook that she carried with her.
“Please finish quickly today, ma’am. It’s a Saturday and we only work half a day. We’ll be locking up shortly,” I requested.
“Fine, fine,” said Mrs. Chari.
I came back up to my seat panting slightly. Every time I had to negotiate the stairs I felt short of breath. This locker business was a huge nuisance. I would have escorted one customer down to the vaults and come up panting for breath only to find another client waiting to be led down to the basement. This was a continuous process throughout the day and it irritated me no end. But I kept the irritation bottled up within myself. I could hardly exhibit it to the customers, could I?
Another problem with the lockers was waiting for me when I came up from the vault. A well-dressed man was waiting to add his name to the locker register. I asked him to be seated and examined the piece of paper that he had brought with him.
“Whose name is the locker in currently?” I asked.
“It’s in the joint names of my sister and her husband.”
“They need to come personally for this purpose.”
“But they are not in India. They are both in the US.”
“They need to come here at least once personally and put in an application to add your name in the ledger.”
“But they are not in a position to come immediately.”
“I am sorry. In that case, I cannot help you.” “But here’s the letter from them requesting
that my name be added…”
“A mere letter won’t do. They need to come personally to avoid any problems later.”
Unhappy with my reply, he shouted at me in anger and left the bank.
Ours is a hundred-year-old bank and lockers have always been a source of friction with the customers.
As it was a Saturday, we were supposed to close all transactions by 12.00 noon. That was easier said than done with the kind of crowd that we were handling. Very slowly the crowd started dissipating and, with that, the staff members also started to leave one by one. Gita was, of course, one of the earliest to leave. Lucky girl! Her house was quite close to the workplace and she could afford to take it easy. Jagannathan, who handled savings accounts, also left to grab a quick bite.
The Chief Manager had a meeting to attend at the Regional Office in the morning and had already left earlier in the day. As it was a Satur- day, he would not be back. It was his usual habit to catch the Saturday night train to Bangalore, spend the weekend there, and return to work on Monday morning. The Loan Officer hailed from a distant suburb and, come Saturday, would disappear fairly early without informing anyone. The Chief Manager and he had regular arguments on this issue.
Now, the gentleman handling pension payments has also locked up and is on his way out. The only ones left, apart from me, are the Chief Cashier and the peon Kesavan who stayed back to lug the heavy cash boxes and help me lock up.
The Chief Cashier hailed me. “Sir, I’m done. Please come.”
“Here,” I entered the Chief Cashier’s cubicle, counted everything and affixed my signature. Then I called Kesavan over and the three of us proceeded downstairs with Kesavan carrying the cash trunk. We entered the strong-room in the basement, opened it, stacked all the cash boxes inside and locked it after us using several keys. We then locked the door at the top of the staircase.
“What a busy day. And on top of it, there were a few counterfeit notes also to be dealt with,” said the Cashier in frustration. And then he too took his leave.
It was then just me and Kesavan. It would some time to complete the accounts on the computer and I tried to work as fast as I could.
“Look at us Kesavan? Here we are, unable to get home quickly even on Saturdays,” I remarked in vexation.
“That’s true, sir,” he agreed.
I could see he was itching to get away and start his drinking session, since it was a Saturday, after all.
“Is Jagannathan still around?”
“No, sir. He left long back. I thought you knew.”
“Then let’s lock up and go home.”
Kesavan and I proceeded to lock up and leave. When he switched off the electricity mains, I thought I heard a faint cry from somewhere.
“Kesava, I thought I heard someone shouting from somewhere. Did you hear anything?”
“Sir, perhaps it was from outside, on the road.
When I was locking the main gate to the bank I felt a faint sense of unease.
I reached home relieved that I did not have to give a thought about the bank for one whole day.
I leave home at West Mambalam for Thiruvallikeni at 8.00 every morning and by the time I return home again it would be 8:00 at night. The traffic on Anna Salai would be simply horrendous.
“You seem to have returned home early today?” remarked my wife
“That’s because the Chief Manager wasn’t around when I left. If he had been there, he is sure to have delayed me.”
“Let’s go the vegetable market today. I’d like to buy the month’s supplies today itself,” said my wife.
“I’m feeling a little sleepy. Let me take a short nap. Wake me up when you are ready to go,” I said and went into the bedroom.
I felt I had just dozed off when I seemed to hear someone moaning. I quickly woke up and looked at the clock. It was 6:00 p.m. I was suddenly reminded of Mrs. Chari and I remembered that I had not seen her coming out of the locker room. I dressed hurriedly and called Kesavan.
“Yes sir?” said Kesavan.
“Come to the office immediately. I do not remember Mrs. Chari leaving the bank premises. I have a horrible feeling we have locked her in.”
“But I checked around, sir. There was no one about.”
“No, I am feeling uneasy. Let’s open the bank and check once again.”
“What happened? Aren’t we going shopping?”
“Not now,” I answered irritatedly.
Once again I drove towards Thiruvallikeni. Mambalam was chock-a-block with shoppers. Throughout the way, I kept praying to all the gods that Mrs. Chari should not be at the bank’s premises.
On the way, I stopped by at the Chief Cashier’s house and borrowed his set of keys. “What for?” he asked.
“I have a horrible feeling Mrs. Chari is locked in,” I replied.
“Oh my God! Should I come along?”
“No. Don’t bother. I’ll bring the keys back when I’m done.”
Kesavan was waiting for me at the bank’s gates.
“Kesava, I have a feeling Mrs. Chari did not come out of the locker room and we have locked her in.”
“How is it possible, sir? Doesn’t she have a cell phone? Wouldn’t she have called somebody for help?”
“I don’t know the answers to these questions.
We opened a series of doors and entered the premises. I switched on the mains. Kesavan hurried and opened the door to the staircase and switched the lights on.
A few rats were scurrying around and when they heard us approach, they quickly hid themselves.
“Sir, I can’t hear any sound. Looks like it was all in your imagination.”
We opened the strong-room. Once locked the place would be airtight and anyone stuck inside would asphyxiate and die in double-quick time.
My heart stopped for a moment.
Yelling, “I am sorry, Mrs. Chari,” I rushed into the locker room.
Mrs. Chari was lying unconscious on the floor.
I got flustered. We sprinkled water on her face but there was no reaction from the lady.
She had closed her locker and her bag was empty. It was apparent she had not come to collect anything from the locker that day. Perhaps she had come to deposit some items in her safe deposit box.
Kesavan and I somehow picked her up and carried her upstairs to the main hall where we laid her down.
Tremulously, I asked Kesavan, “Is she breathing at all?”
‘Don’t worry, sir. She’s breathing. Let’s admit her into the hospital next door. They’ll treat her.”
“Kesava, I’ll stay here with her. Go and fetch a doctor.”
The doctor examined her and recommended that we admit her into a hospital immediately.
“Doctor, what’s wrong with her?” I asked in trepidation.
“I cannot conjecture, but it’s imperative that she be admitted to a hospital immediately.”
Kesavan and I arranged for Mrs. Chari to be admitted to the nearby hospital, relocked the bank’s doors and stayed at the hospital with the lady. I also called up Mr. Chari and informed him of the situation.
I also called Gita and briefed her. She rushed to the hospital. After some first aid and intravenous drips, Mrs. Chari slowly opened her eyes and glared at me. Her look spoke volumes.
“How could you do this?” she asked angrily. I had no answer. “I’m extremely sorry, Mrs.
Chari. I assumed you had come out of the locker room.”
She continued to glower at me.
In a private conversation, the attending doctor told me, “Good thing you found her when you did. An hour or two later, and it might have been ‘goodbye Mrs. Chari’”
Those words shook me up. What a monumental error! Old Mr. Chari then arrived and start- ed laying into me. I held his hands and sincerely apologised for my action, “It happened inadvertently. Please forgive me.”
“I’ll not let you off so easily. I’m going to the police,” he said angrily. He was well-known to Gita and she pleaded with him to let me off this time.
Mrs. Chari was in the hospital for two days and everyone from my bank’s branch visited her and wished her a speedy recovery. My Chief Manager called me into his room and roundly abused me.
“My branch has been defamed because of you.”
Within two weeks of her discharge from the hospital, Mrs. Chari went about transferring all her accounts including the locker to Nanganallur.
My Chief Manager has written to our Regional Office recommending that I be transferred to some other remote branch in India.
(Note: The above story is from the collection Dad’s Favourite Newspaper published by Zero Degree Publishing)
About the Author
Azhagiyasingar is a noted modern Tamil poet/author. He has several poetry collections to his credit and has also authored numerous short stories and a few novels in Tamil. He is also the founding editor/publisher of the Tamil literary journal Navina Virutcham, which he has been steadfastly bringing out for the past more than 32 years.