Chai Pe Charcha and Chai’s Truth!
All empire in a cup of tea
I received a humorous WhatsApp forward today conveying that Tea Destroyed a Nation. Another message described the Two types of people you never find on this planet: 1. Classmates of Modi 2. People who bought tea from Modi. My mind quickly harked back to the tea trope that was doing the rounds both pre and post Election 2014.
But first a word about the Biometric Attendance Monitoring System that introduced by the new dispensation in central government offices, to check attendance and track public servants’ Indian Punctuality Time (IPT) register. We were happy, and the reasons were obvious: Were there a World Punctuality Index, India would’ve nestled closer to the bottom! But the wails of dismay among the denizens were loud and piteous. Happy days are over, people bemoaned. Is this our new Achhe Din!
Before I get into the provenance and dynamics of Chai Pe Charcha and Chai’s Truth, let me first retail this beast – IPT – as I have experienced it over the years.
I’m a small-towner, born in Cuttack, and entirely home-bred, home-grown and home-spun. Small town has this unique flavour of self-importance. The hierarchical social order and the sense of self-imparted vanity are markedly pronounced. The higher the perch, social or official, the greater the infraction! We grew up in an ecosystem where punctuality was for the hoi polloi, and not for the urbane feudal gentry.
A pert defining emblem of power – an offshoot of the Indian small town syndrome – is to never stick to time. Being punctual could be self-defeating for the abstraction of self-importance: it diminishes the value that society auto-accords to the Heaven-born, and impugns the aura and mystique wrapped around the venerable souls. But late-coming billows the expectations of the rabble and, with it, the halo waxes. This sets the tone for lesser mortals to emulate.
Now back to the story of biometric office attendance. Beyond the threat of punctuality that biometrics willy-nilly imposed, was our Mantriji’s (sir minister’s) avidity for the chai pe charcha – a discussion of the day’s important concerns with the ministry’s top honchos every morning at nine. It was a small group of 8-9 senior officers, unless some select joint secretaries were specially called in to discuss any particular issue, and was introduced within days of the formation of the new government.
To be fair to him, Mantriji was very punctual – every day! At the first meeting our personable minister was full of beans. He was a first-time minister and having been allocated the Ministry of Environment & Forests which closely mimicks the Ministry of External Affairs in terms of foreign travel, the world was now his oyster. He was also struggling to find his feet in the maze of bureaucratic alleyways. Plus, he still carried the euphoria and halo of the post-2014 electoral triumph in his head. Frankly, we didn’t discuss anything of consequence.
Though there was an issue concerning Project Tiger. The discussion veered around the topic of road widening and four-laning National Highway 7. The minister began by informing us that the roads and highways minister had called him to enquire after the status of environmental clearance.
When the Additional Director-General (Project Tiger) informed the minister that the suggested three underpasses, of 50 metres each, would choke animal movement and hence was not acceptable, Mantriji snapped, ‘When we’re not able to feed the people, must we bother about wild animals!’ The rest of the conversation that day didn’t go too well.
Since the issue gained significance and is likely to set the tone for development in India, a few basic facts may be mentioned. The expansion of NH7 will impact the Pench Tiger Reserve both in Maharashtra and in Madhya Pradesh. It will destroy the corridor between two of India’s iconic tiger reserves, Kanha to Pench, aside from impacting the Navegaon-Nagzira Tiger Reserve which comprises five protected areas – Nagzira, New Nagzira, Koka, the Navegaon National Park and the Navegaon Wildlife Sanctuary.
The work on NH7 was stayed by the National Green Tribunal. The moot point was whether to wait for an amount ten times larger than the amount laid out for the highway, and let the former with its eco-sensitive instinct triumph over the putative return on investment in the immediate future!
My fingers were crossed as I quietly mulled over the ground reality, my mind still intuiting. It conveyed in fairly unmistakable terms that in a battle of unequals – development (or the much trumpeted sustainable development that is often used as a poultice to allay the concerns of environmentalists!) and the environment – the former shall prevail!
And the challenges were bound to grow exponentially in the years ahead. Was this how the new Achhe Din were to be brought about?
On other days, interspersed with the usual gupshup we sensed that the minister, riding the high crest of recent victory, was so zippy about future possibilities that he had unwittingly become the weathervane of the government’s thinking and pre-electoral hype.
Often he would regale us with his party’s election strategies and Modiji’s quick decision-making abilities and uncanny one-liners. ‘Look at the Chai Pe Charcha! How Modiji suddenly hit upon this brilliant idea! “Why not we let this go and suffuse people? I can claim that yes, one day I too sold tea in the railway station? So let’s get this going!” he suggested. That was it… it went viral… and you saw the results.’
No one asked Mantriji if it was true that Modiji, as a six-year old in 1956, sold tea in the Vadnagar station, and whether the station actually existed before 1973.
The minister’s Chai Pe Charcha! singed many of the august participants. One was a colleague with whom I shared the same floor. I often happened upon him by the lift as we hurried for the charcha. He looked sleepy, wrung out, and very woebegone. “I think Mantriji wants to teach us a lesson! Why else this?” he agonised softly. “Never in my life had I come to the office before eleven!” I smiled beatifically at him.
A few days later I ran into him again, as we again waited for the lift-car to arrive. His hair was tousled, he looked dishevelled and pathetic. “Seems you haven’t had a shower,” I said instinctively. “Shower!” he snapped, his face scowling, as if I had blasphemed with my words. “Where’s the time for all that!”
We hurried to our rooms for the biometrics before anchoring back to the meeting. He sat beside me. His sleep-soaked eyes and mood hadn’t gotten any better.
Once the chai arrived he perked up from his soulful debris. Heaving north from his backrest he accepted the platter of biscuits I pushed his way. “The postprandial medicines you can pop once you’re back in your room!” I whispered. His face lit up, letting a smile sunny his hitherto grimaced face. He worked on the plate all through the charcha.
Today, whenever I exasperate over people’s late-coming – our national signature! – and transparent lies spoken effortlessly, I lighten my mood by letting fond memories of Chai Pe Charcha and Chai’s Truth flood my mind – to act as a balm!
Sudhansu Mohanty worked in the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change as Additional Secretary & Financial Adviser between 2013 and 2015.