The apartment assigned to me in Calcutta was No 12A, 10 Judges Court Road, located in the posh area of Calcutta – Alipore. Why 12A, you may ask. Actually, it should have been flat 13, but 13 was an unlucky number, you see.
The building had come up in the 1930s to house high-ranking Brits. It comprised two double towers separated by a large lawn. Each of the four blocks had only one flat on each floor. The lift opened directly into a foyer in your flat, not into a mundane lift lobby. The building was known simply as “Number 10” – the rest of the address was superfluous. My bank had seven flats in the building, of which one was mine.
The flat had been designed for the gora bada-saab (big boss). It had an enormous living room with seating for 25 people (the boss entertained at home often), a very large master bedroom (the mem-saab needed space), a mid-sized bedroom for the children on vacation (from boarding schools back ‘home’, you know), and a small room for the baby and the nanny.
There was a large kitchen, a pantry and servants’ quarters, of course – the nether regions where the Boss was never supposed to venture.
To a casual visitor the building was indeed very grand. When I brought my elderly father home soon after I arrived, I could see that he was quite impressed. Later I heard that my father had remarked to a friend of his: “My younger son has not studied much, but he seems to be doing quite well.”
To explain, my father was a historian and educationist. B Tech or MBA was, in his eyes, not much of an education – a Ph D was his benchmark.
But the fact remained – my father had been impressed by Number 10.
For all its grandeur and hauteur, Number 10 had two problems, as we soon discovered.
The first was cockroaches. My boss’s wife had warned my wife not to switch on the lights if she ever entered the kitchen at night, to get a bottle of water, perhaps.
She had explained that if you walked around the kitchen at night you would hear a “crunch, crunch” sound – cockroaches being trampled under your slippers. It was better not to see them, she had recommended, hence no lights in the kitchen at night.
Pest control? Yes, of course, pest control was done, perfunctorily perhaps, but the cockroaches just took casual leave and went to another floor, only to return to their ‘native place’ when the smell abated.
The other problem was a battery, or perhaps I should say the lack thereof.
It was the mid-1980s, and the Communist government had not yet fully succeeded in driving out all the industries from West Bengal, though it was trying hard using gheraos, and bandhs. A few factories still ran, and consumed electricity, due to which power cuts were a daily affair.
Number 10 had two gen-sets, one for each tower. Unfortunately, between them they shared only one battery. It was a toss-up whether the battery was attached to the gen-set in your tower when the power went off, or to the other tower.
If the latter, you would have to wait until they started the other gen-set, disconnected the battery, trundled it across on a trolley, connected it to the gen-set in your tower, and only then would lights come on in your flat.
Why a second battery could not be purchased was a question that remained unanswered all through my two years in Number 10.
For all its minor blemishes Number 10 remained a premier address, and its occupants were expected to follow certain unwritten norms, as I found out in the early days.
The building had an ancient central AC arrangement running on a ‘chilled brine’ system. Every room had a floor mounted blower, which received cold salt water through a pipe and blew air past it to cool the room.
One evening, after a heavy shower, I felt that the flat was very muggy and opened the windows of the living room to let in some fresh air. A little later I shut the windows and started the AC. Very soon a large pool of water collected on the floor at the base of the blower unit.
Alarmed, I called for help from the building’s maintenance chaps. A grizzled veteran in a faded uniform turned up. He looked at the water, nodded and turned to me to ask “Apni janala khule chilen?” (Bengali, meaning – did you open the windows?)
I nodded in assent.
He looked at me as if he was talking to some village yokel. “Dos nombor Judges Court Road-e janala khola hoi na.” (At No 10, Judges Court Road, windows are not opened.)
I realised that by opening the windows I had let in the moisture-laden air from outside. When the AC started the moisture had condensed, resulting in the pool of water.
More importantly, I had been made aware of my failure to live up to the norms of the grand residence of the bosses.
The Diary Boss
My Boss was a ‘diary’ man.
He prided himself on procuring a leather-bound Economist diary, one page for each day, well before the New Year arrived. This diary would sit on his desk at all times.
Whenever he gave any instruction for something to be done, or received an assurance that a certain task would be completed by a stated date, he would enter it in his diary.
Woe befell any officer who failed to deliver on the due date. Even if you did deliver as promised, the boss was not happy. The safest path was to report completion the day before the due date.
As you might have guessed, the key was to know for which date he had made a diary entry in your name. You had to be on very good terms with the boss’s secretary because she alone had access to the diary, and could therefore give you this crucial information.
This boss had another method of keeping control.
If he called you up early one morning and asked “What’s happening in Lipton?” it meant that he had met someone from Lipton the previous day, maybe on the golf course or at a party, and found out something that was happening in Lipton.
He expected you to be able to tell him what he had already heard. If you didn’t know, it was a big black mark.
Both systems were very effective. They kept everyone on their toes.
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world (until Covid, that is), playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)