How much?’ I asked a clerk at the post office. Rupees 41, he replied. I gave him Rs 40 and a Rs-5 coin. He looked at the coin and frowned, ‘Give me change,’ he said. ‘This is change,’ I retorted. ‘You will have to wait for the change,’ he replied.
It was around 3 pm. I had gone to speed-post a letter. Though the queue was not long, the young clerk was taking an inordinate time in disposing of the customers. It had taken me over half an hour to reach the booking window. And now the wait, for Rs 4! I took a stealthy look into the cashbox and sighted a few glistening coins. I understood.
‘I will wait,’ I said, and stood my ground. The clerk asked me to stand aside. I did, and waited. Ten minutes passed. He looked at me furtively. Perhaps, he wanted me to vanish, but I was not in a mood to oblige. Another five minutes passed. I asked him for the balance. Again he mumbled, ‘Let change come. I will give you your Rs 4. Main kahin bhaga thode ja raha hoon.’ His tone was weak this time as I had seen him accept small coins over 15 minutes. I told him that though he was not running away, I was a busy man and had other things to do. ‘Please wait,’ he insisted.
Another five minutes passed. The wait was becoming painful. I was tired and felt weak-kneed. My temper was rising, but I realised that the young man behind the counter was taking me either to be a fool or a weak man who could be browbeaten simply because he was a government official — it did not matter how petty he was in the hierarchy — and the elderly man outside the counter an aam aadmi. I did not like this evaluation of myself. It was unacceptable to me.
Raising my tone, I said, ‘Char rupay ke liye kitni wait karni chahiye?’ ‘A few minutes more, maybe,’ he said. I told him angrily that he reminded me of bus conductors of the bad old days who would never return change to helpless passengers on one pretext or the other. ‘Even conductors have stopped doing this. Check your cashbox. There is enough change there.’ The clerk had not expected this. He glared at me. I glared back. The people around backed me. They had been watching the whole drama and knew who was at fault.
Then he cowered. He looked at me tentatively. Finding fire in my eyes, he made a quick decision to douse it with exceptional sweetness, dipping his hand in the cashbox. He fished out a Rs-5 coin and gave it to me. Sheepishly, he said, ‘Ok, Sir, you take it and go.’ I said the situation had not changed. ‘I don’t have a rupee coin.’ He asked me not to bother.
I came back with my Rs 4 clinking in my pocket. Besides, I had a rupee interest too! I had won a small but righteous battle against an official who had the potential to misappropriate public money at some stage, when he would be in a senior position. It wasn’t about Rs 4; it was about the dignity of the common man and the propriety on the part of public servants while discharging their duties.
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