At three in the morning in November, Allahabad is very quiet. In 1980, it was a charming town with a university, a high court, and a certain sense of historical importance. Yunus, who distributed tea and coffee in the region, received me at the station in a Bajaj tempo painted in bright Brooke Bond Red Label colours. There was a warm aroma of dry tea leaves in the vehicle that I found welcoming. It was my first job—as a management trainee in Brooke Bond, I had been dispatched to Allahabad for training.

Winters in east Uttar Pradesh are special. The sunshine is bright; the poorbaiyas (people of the east) claim it is sweet. The food is delicious and the countryside pretty.

I owned a medium-sized VIP suitcase that held a few T-shirts, a blazer, a pair of grey flannels, a few white shirts, and a pair of Levi Strauss jeans an uncle had bought for me from the US—they were precious because you did not get them in socialist India. The suitcase also held a Zenit camera, a present from my father, and I sported a HMT watch on my wrist—a present from my grandfather.

Yunus, a perennially cheerful man, as I was to discover over the course of my posting in Allahabad, seemed to have no problems meeting the new sahib at 3am. Together, we navigated some quiet dark avenues till we reached a large bungalow, which was a guesthouse.

Rhoda Gandhi, Indira Gandhi’s sister-in-law, owned the guesthouse, Finaro, named after her sons Feroze, Nariman and Rustom; it was across the High Court gate and was a very elegant place.

Rhoda ran a good guesthouse and I stayed there, on and off, during my posting at Allahabad. The guesthouse walls were adorned with black and white photographs of many people I had read about and seen in the papers. The footman and the gardener would tell me stories, peppered no doubt with some desi masala, about Indira Gandhi, the daughter-in-law of the house and the Prime Minister of the country.

The guesthouse was my introduction to any bungalow in the Civil Lines of any town in India; they were all alike—large rooms, verandas, high ceilings, separate kitchens with a corridor leading to the main house, Electrolux refrigerators that ran on kerosene, garmas (water heaters or large wood-fired boilers) for hot water in the bath. And yes, the Allahabad guesthouse also had a thunder box, which got taking used to.

Khansamas served chai with biscuits early in the morning; a full English breakfast with sausages, bacon, scrambled eggs and orange juice followed. The staff ensured that my clothes were well laundered and my shoes, polished. All this for 60 per night.

The Brooke Bond office was in huge villa called the Palace in Civil Lines. It was in the middle of an orchard.

For 12 weeks, I was under the charge of Misraji, who was one of the five salesmen in Allahabad. He, and other salesmen such as Dayanand Chopra, became my first tutors at work.

Kallu Miya was the tangawala attached to the office, and we would load tea and coffee on to his vehicle and cover 30 shops every day. Each shopkeeper had a story to tell; there was an air of genteel poverty, but everyone was proud—Uttar Pradesh sent Prime Ministers to Delhi and controlled India. We lived by a simple rule: We could not miss a shop, each had to buy something, and if a new store emerged, it had to be included in the route.

As a trainee, my mandate was straightforward: I had to do everything I was asked to, and by the book; I needed to become fluent in these before I could make a suggestion. Failure to do this was tantamount to insubordination. I had to fill forms diligently, leaving out nothing; the numbers needed to reconcile too.

Clearly, the system was designed to be idiot-proof; we didn’t have calculators or computers. All business was recorded on gaint sheets of paper with 18 columns.

My training schedule had been neatly typed on stencils, run off on Gestetner cyclostyle machines, and sent to every point of contact; the entire period of 18 months was mapped by the week and by the day, with details of what I would learn and from whom.

I learnt that no one changed jobs and that the system worked.

There was no ambiguity on any issue. Standing Instructions (SIs) covered every aspect of what we encountered at work. Permanent SIs were approved by the company’s board, and temporary ones by the line director. Between them, there was an SI (P) or an SI (T) to cover every conceivable issue, and no one dared to contravene them; suggestions to amend were discussed and adopted in manners mysterious to ordinary mortals.

Still, in the trenches, this made life easy; the rules of the road were clear. The system was geared to distribute, merchandize, sell and collect, and that too ethically.

How boring.

Subroto Chattopadhyay incubates new businesses as chairman of The Peninsula Foundation, and also advises companies and development agencies.

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