Monday, February 19, 2007

A memory of Calcutta: Kaisar Ahmad

The Britain I left behind in 1961 after qualifying as a Chartered Accountant had a decidedly young feel to it, full of energy and life. Renewal and restoration starting from the '50s had transformed London from the damage suffered in the War. The newly built Royal Festival Hall and the Royal Shakespeare Theater in Stratford-upon-Avon were fueling a vibrant theater and music scene, with the opportunity to see performances led by von Karajan or Laurence Olivier. Class distinctions were being rapidly eroded as a new generation graduated with State scholarships from previously socially restrictive Universities. The Beatles had just started working their magic in the pubs of Liverpool. Similar trends across the Atlantic were interacting with these developments - rock & roll music swept Europe, Jack Kerouac published "On the Road" in 1957. On the other side of the Channel, steps towards the unification of Europe had begun to weld Italy and Germany to their former enemies of France and Benelux. Even Britain, the proud island fortress of history, had started negotiating entry into an expanded European club. The traditional xenophobia was withering away. The Angry Young Men of English literature were deriding the hypocrisy of outdated English social institutions and hammering home the message that whatever the uncertainties of the future, it just had to be better than the past.

The Volkswagen Beetle and the Mini had created a revolution by bringing car ownership within reach of young people and families that had never owned one.

The Prime Minister of the time, Mr. Harold MacMillan, won the 1959 election with the slogan " You've never had it so good".

By contrast, returning to India was entering a time warp. The buildings I had left behind in 1953 - most of which were pre-war anyway - were badly maintained, crumbling but still in use. Practically no new construction had taken place in Calcutta, and what little had been built was cheap, utilitarian and tawdry. The cars on the road were either old models kept alive from the '50s and earlier or the Indian version of the Morris Oxford, which had been discontinued in Britain in 1956 and was now being manufactured under license - the same model year after year, creating a dreary uniformity in the traffic. The population of the country had grown to 500 million from 350 million in 1947. Millions were migrating to the cities from the land that could no longer support them, in search of work that was not always there. They lived on the streets or swelled the shanty towns and formed an aggrieved underclass that occasionally boiled over into violent strikes and riots.

Business conditions were difficult. Suspicion of the Western Powers had severely inhibited foreign investment. Imports were permitted only for the most essential commodities, and consumer products were kept out of the

country by prohibitive tariffs. Industry was outdated and uncompetitive, kept alive through protectionist policies. Business was administered by a dwindling number of British expatriates in their last years before retirement and an emerging Indian executive class, educated like me on traditional colonial lines and now learning to adapt to their own country.

Imbued as I then was with the irreverent attitudes of Young Britain, it was difficult for me to take the Calcutta commercial world and its stratified attitudes seriously, as I started my career as a Chartered Accountant with Lovelock & Lewes - L&L to its friends - with the grand title of Senior Qualified Assistant or SQA. The three senior British partners were still popularly referred to in the firm by their World War II identities - The Desert Rat (for North African service), the Goat Gunner (Mountain Artillery) and the Chindit (for Commando operations in Burma)

Our office, and many of the old banks and merchant houses , were clustered within easy reach in the half square mile that constituted the old Dalhousie Square commercial area of Calcutta. However, SQA's were not expected to walk to our clients. L&L owned two horse-drawn carriages (or ghora gharries in the vernacular) that took us around Dalhousie Square and dropped us off. At lunchtime they would collect us and bring us back to the office dining room, where we were waited upon and served a three course meal. Presumably the horses also got their daily nosebag during the hour it took us to finish "tiffin", before we clip-clopped back to our clients'. These were the last two horse-drawn carriages in use by a commercial establishment in Calcutta and as such the L&L ghora gharries were regarded as quite an institution.

Initially I felt a little foolish as we rattled around Dalhousie Square in these Victorian contraptions, but soon learned to be grateful during the nine consecutive months that constituted hot dusty summers, torrential monsoons and the Turkish Bath atmosphere that followed the rains. In addition of course the horses were cleaner as far as the atmosphere was concerned, although not always so, regretfully, for the road surface over which they trotted. In a year or two this tradition was discontinued as the two horses passed their usable ages. One day they were there, then they were gone, hopefully to a humane end. The last of their breed, they should have been ridden into a Technicolor sunset by some Indian John Wayne or Alan Ladd.

The task of matching clients to new SQA's was a delicate operation. Indian regulatory and reporting practices were deviating significantly from the previous British legislation and it had to be ensured that someone just returned from England had mastered these complications before being entrusted to corporate audits. Personalities (mine and the clients) also had to be taken into account as much of Calcutta commerce ran on the basis of shared backgrounds and other social links.

The Desert Rat, the Goat Gunner and the Chindit met to decide on the portfolio of clients that were to be assigned to me and my new team.

In their wisdom they decided that along with a number of commercial establishments my client roster would include some of the exclusive social and sporting clubs of Calcutta. These clubs owned valuable buildings, extensive land assets such as Golf Courses and race tracks, and their financial affairs needed delicate handling. The Committees which ran them included many captains of industry and other prominent social figures, accustomed to deference and with strong opinions (often different from each other) .

It was made clear to me that diplomacy and a certain degree of savoir faire would be as important as professional skills - perhaps more so - on these Club assignments.

This was particularly emphasized when I had to conduct my first half-yearly inventory of assets of the Royal Calcutta Golf Club, established in 1829 as the first Golf Club in the world outside of Great Britain and granted its Royal Charter and title by King George V on his visit to India in 1911. There were some unique delicacies involved in what should have been a simple physical count. Among the Club's assets were hundreds of bottles of foreign wines and spirits, imports of which into India were now severely restricted. These were rapidly increasing in value as their quantities diminished, steadily vanishing down the throats of the convivial members of the Club. I was made aware that these stocks had not only to be counted and valued but "verified". This involved taking the occasional sip from an open bottle, to ensure that some club employee had not substituted colored water for the Green Chartreuse, for example. This verification could obviously only be entrusted to the SQA in charge of the inventory operation.

I learned that my predecessor at the last inventory had unfortunately tarnished the professional image of L&L. His zealous attempts at verification had required him to be gently helped away before the end of the working day. The Committee of the Club had been particularly incensed when informed that the last remnants of a rare old Madeira, which was being carefully preserved for a special Committee session, had been verified out of existence.

I would like to think I was thorough but judicious in my professional conduct that day, taking care to line my stomach adequately with a good lunch - provided by the Club - before commencing the afternoon's verification exercises. I had to perform this arduous function twice a year during the three years I was with L&L, without the partners ever feeling the need to replace me in the assignment.

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