Sunday, January 25, 2009

Terms of Embezzlement

Murali was an interesting fellow. He had a talent for making up anything from thin air. He could talk about anything - or nothing - for more than ten minutes; nonstop. This latter skill he put to use quite well. For years he was the unassailable champion at Just-A-Minute or JAM, a multi-participant social game session, where players must converse smoothly on any subject thrown up by the moderator. If you falter or slur or come out with drivel, you’re out. Murali was always the last man standing. He had an air of confidence about him which might have been just a patina, but you could never tell that from his gift of the gab.

He and I were among the very few guys, perhaps the only, from our class who intended to take up graduate studies in Management in the US. So we stayed back over the summers and took implausible IIT courses like AFMC (Accounting for Managerial Control) and FAMD (Financial Analysis for Management Decisions) that no one had heard about, but where we chalked up easy A grades to make up our abysmal averages. At least that’s the way it was with me.

A summer afternoon, up at my wing at Narmada hostel, bore out the episode that follows.

It was about 1:30. Most students were away for the summer and a few of their rooms had been taken up by visiting students from other colleges. It was after lunch and the Madras heat was insanely intense, shimmering off the white balconies and making your eyeballs dance. Murali and I lounged on the old rickety cane chairs in the balcony, hot and just plain bored. Down, in the corridor outside the ground-floor rooms opposite, were some guys chatting away in Hindi.

With a gleam in his eye, Murali hatches up a plan. He spots a guy, leaning on his bicycle outside his room, a worn yellow bag slung over his shoulder. With his outstretched forefinger Murali counts down the room, starting from the one in the middle… 17, 18, 19, 20, 21.

Now every hostel had a single phone, right by the mess. Incoming calls to any of the more than 150 residents, always came into this one number. Someone would pick up and the shout for the room number would ring out. I hated the system because I never got calls and the shouts for the ones that came in always interrupted my afternoon slumber. One of my selection criteria for a room had been to put as much distance as possible from this wretched phone. Our hostel also owed the privilege of an additional private phone in our wing to Sukumar; as the Social Secretary (Soc Sec) he must have had important affairs to transact.

Murali picks up Suku’s phone, dials the one downstairs, and asks for number 21. A mess worker sounds the call and we watch the guy we’d spotted earlier listen up, park his cycle, and walk across.

“What’s your name?” Murali asks. The guy mutters something.

“This is the Dean of Students”, Murali insists, standing up and inhaling to deepen his voice.

“Good afternoon, Sir”, the voice comes back.

I’m wondering where this is headed.

“There’s been a cash embezzlement at the Ad Block, to the tune of ten thousand rupees. In cash. Security saw a man leaving with a yellow bag on a cycle. You were last seen leaving the ad block about ten minutes ago holding a yellow cloth bag”.

All this without pause, for breath or ideas. Now he holds out the phone to let me catch the gasp at the other end, before he proceeds with rapid questions.

“Where are you from? What is your roll number? Who's your advisor? What did you have for lunch?” He just lets it rip.

“Sir, I’m Materials Science M Tech from REC Durgapur, sir. I have no idea sir. I just came back. You can ask my friends sir. I am doing my summer project with professor… I have never been to Ad Block, sir. I am just coming from library. Don’t have a roll number. I am external student. You can ask them sir.”

Murali lets all this in through one ear and out the other, before retorting:

“Do not leave the hostel premises... I repeat... do not leave the hostel premises. Stay where you are. We will be sending the Campus Security jeep to pick you up for questioning. What’s your roll number?”

His voice remains deep and official. All I can hear at the other end is breath whistling off the mouthpiece.

Now Murali twists the plot.

“Say, why don’t you go and meet the Gen Sec of your hostel and wait in his room until Campus Security arrives. Go there immediately.” He hangs up the phone and looks at me with a wide shit-eating grin. “He’s yours now, machaa”, he says.

I had not bargained for this. A few minutes later the guy shows up. He walks across towards me (and Murali), his nervous energy preceding him by about ten feet. I’m nervous myself for he looks much older, close up. I introduce myself as the Gen Sec and repeat the circumstances of the fraud, focusing on its central allegation. In a moment of sheer brilliance, I up the amount - to one lakh rupees. The guy’s eyes open up and he almost bites through his lower lip. Murali turns away to hide a smile. I start to feel a bit sorry. I also don’t have the chutzpah to hold the act up much longer. I tell him to go back to his room and wait for security, but to not leave.

The afternoon passes with no further event. That evening, when Murali and I come down to play some hockey, we see our man outside his room. He turns away in an instant, but his eyes tell us that he knows he’s been had.

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