May 04, 2013
My colleague Imran Naeem has been bugging me again. "Give me a story," he demands. I send him a list and point out, quite unequivocally too I must add, that I'm not in the mood to write anything serious. I've been busy working on my book and need a break from writing. But he has this bulldog-like tenacity and I couldn't shake him. This is what he selected from the list - The office tea boy!
Hmmmm. What about tea boys?
In my 30 odd years in the profession I've had the opportunity to observe and get to know quite a few. One thing for sure no newsroom in South Asia and the Gulf can function without the multi-faceted services of these tireless individuals even if they are known by different names and designation – tea boy, office boy, chaprassi, daftari.
"Same same" my friends from South India would say, typically wagging their head from side to side.
I wish I could agree. No, they are not 'same same'. As hardworking and enterprising some of them may be, some are more enterprising and certainly better remembered.
Just think of it like this: "It's past two in the morning. The newsroom is haunted by a group of exhausted, jaded zombies. The paper has not gone to bed. Nobody knows when it will. There's a bloody hitch somewhere. You want to cream the moron responsible, bash in somebody's head...perhaps your own. Instead, what do you do?
"Chaey," you warble miserably as your eyes desperately search the newsroom for that most unassuming angel, the tea boy. The same tea boy who gets paid one-hundreth of what you get but still manages to smile at that late hour after some 12 odd hours of rigorous duty, serving you and a gaggle of others.
"Chaey..." you almost plead when you catch a glimpse of him and he stands before you like the 'bottlewallah djinn". Instead of those three wishes you always fantasized about, you tell him to bring you and your mates six, seven cups of tea."
You forget that perhaps he may like a cup too. Don't worry; he's used to it.
"Je Hazoor," he says amicably and vanishes and you are not sure whether he'd mocked you for your frailty or had just been his good old subservient self. You can't shake the feeling that he may have 'pangafied' you just a bit. But you pretend to look busy and let it ride. You don't want to be the target of the sharp tongue you know he's reputed to have when angered.
After all, before the time of desktops and page-makers, he was the guy who used to take and bring headlines to and from the bowels of the Press. He would take and bring finished and unfinished pages. He would cut and sort the news feed off the teleprinter and the telex and make sure the chief sub got all of it. He would take your stories to the proof readers and sometimes bring them back. He would carry messages to and from various desks in the newsroom. He would be the guy to tell you the cashier had just come back from the bank and was ready to pay salaries. He would be the guy to tell you the editor was entertaining a 'damn pretty' visitor that deserved a peep in.
He would fetch your lunch and dinner. A packet of cigarettes...? Well, you know who got that for you. You have a guest and guess who fetches the 'something thanda'?
Dang...he would even be the first to push your car when it refused to start!!
And then we complain about the rigors of our job. Where do you think you stand against this ultimate multi-tasker?
But like I said, these guys are the X-Men of the newsroom. They aren't the go-fers but the go-getters.
Don't believe me?
Then check out just why this league of extraordinary men has a knack of leaving a lasting impression:
Iqbal a.k.a Bala (Pakistan Times)
Back in the early eighties when The Pakistan Times was a newspaper and not an online excuse for one, the offices and printing press of this government broadsheet was housed in a ramshackle and rundown building on Peshawar Road, Rawalpindi. Although there were a number of tea boys, the reporting room had two - Iqbal and Razzaq. I was a reporter and, therefore, got to know both these fellows quite well.
A little over five-eight in height, Iqbal, better known as Bala, was so emaciated and thin that you could count his ribs. He also had a couple of missing teeth under a set of exceptionally bright eyes. Polite and ever cheerful, Bala would often regale me with stories of his marital problems, including an on again-off again relationship with some woman who'd taken a fancy to him and used to frequent his 'kariana' store when he was not working at the Times. He was also my best source of information on what was taking place in the newsroom and the reporting room when I was not there. It didn't matter that I gave him a couple of hundred bucks every month just to make sure I didn't suffer in any way.
The story goes that one day, on his way home from work at night, he was hassled by two cops who not only slapped him a couple of times but also deprived him of his wallet which contained Rs25. To add insult to injury the cops roughed him up for having so little money and dragged him along to the police station, throwing him into the hawalat/lock-up for the night.
The next day, Bala was allowed to make his 'one' phone call. He called the chief reporter who in turn lost no time to land up at the police station and kick up the mother of all ruckuses. Flustered, the sub-inspector on duty duly apologized for his 'stupid men' who had laid a hand on a Presswallah. Bala was immediately released and presented to the chief reporter.
"They beat me up," he said, showing a few bruises and a slap mark the origins of which the chief reporter was unsure about. "They took my money," Bala stammered.
The sub-inspector looked on sheepishly.
The chief reporter asked: "How much did they take?"
"All that I had," said Bala, "Two hundred and eighty five rupees."
The sub inspector gave the two cops a dirty look, delved into his pocket and produced a wad of currency notes. He counted out 300 rupees and gave them to Bala. "I'm sorry for the bad behavior of my men," he said.
"Next time, I will file a first information report (FIR)," Bala threatened as he followed the chief reporter out of the police station.
The very next day Bala placed a plate piled high with gulab jamuns and barfi in front of me at the office, madly grinning all the while like the proverbial cat that swallowed the canary.
I arched an eyebrow in inquiry.
"Police station sent it," he said and planked himself down on the chair next to mine.
Razzaq (Pakistan Times)
Razzaq was in his late sixties, gray haired, good looking, robust/sehatmand and without doubt one of the calmest people I have ever come across. He had two jobs - in the evenings he worked at The Pakistan Times and in the day at the State Bank of Pakistan. He never let one job take a toll on the other. Oh yes, Razzaq also had the uncanny ability of looking ever fresh!!
One evening at about six, Bala came around with a note book and a small leather bag in his hands. "One hundred rupees or more," he announced, handing me a ball point pen. I forked out 150 and signed the book.
"You getting married?" I kidded.
"I wish," he said laughing, "My wife said she would cut off my ***** before that ever happens. The money is for Razzaq. "
"Razzaq's getting married!!?"
"No, no.." Bala protested, "His daughter. We are collecting money to get her husband a motorbike. Razzaq already has two wives."
"Yes," said Bala matter-of-factly, "He also has nineteen kids."
I pushed my beloved Remington away in disbelief. "You must be kidding.... right?"
"No sir. You can ask anybody. There's even a joke about him that at night he goes about the house counting how many children are home. If you ask him their names, he will avoid telling you because he can't remember all."
"They all live in the same house?"
"And he works at the State Bank in the day and here at night?"
"When does he get the time for you know what...?"
"Here he is sir, why don't you ask him yourself."
Razzaq sensed there was some funny business going on that had something to do with him. He glared at Bala. "Ask me what?" he enquired.
I took a deep breath and said: "How many children do you have Razzaq?"
Razzaq stared at me in silence. I noticed his face was flushed. "Nineteen," he said, grabbing Bala by the neck.
There goes the myth about newspaper guys having little time or energy to produce more than two kids!!
Ibrahim a.k.a Chacha Al Kabir (Khaleej Times)
To call Chacha Ibrahim a tea boy would be stretching the truth to its furthest limits. However, that is the designation he was hired at. At something close to seventy, snow haired Ibrahim could certainly not be called a boy. Furthermore, it was common knowledge that he never served anybody tea.
Indeed, he was haughty, dismissive and generally ill-tempered. He thought subs were a pain in the neck and reporters a waste of space. He authoritatively gave junior tea/office boys work directions, occasionally took a page or two from the subs to the proof readers' desk and generally spent more time snoozing on an easy chair at the back of the newsroom or in the depths of the cavernous shed that housed the press. One thing though, when he wanted to work, there was nothing old Ibrahim could not do. He knew it all and the shortcuts too.
From Bombay, where he supposedly had a large family, Ibrahim was one of the first people to be hired at the Khaleej Times. It was common knowledge too that he was there on what was referred to as "affectionate status". The owner, Galadari, was said to have a soft corner for the old man.
But it was not for any of these reasons that Ibrahim was famous, rather notorious.
Bathroom/toilet rumor had it that the veritable Chacha packed quite a wallop when it came to certain part of his body. There were a number of young men who were in total awe of him. At the same time he left others feeling more than a tad inadequate... and that is how he got his nickname - Chacha Al Kabeer, Uncle Big.
That nickname too has a bit of interesting history. Al Kabeer's is one of the biggest producers of frozen meat and chicken in the UAE. One of their most popular products is ground beef/mince that has a large sausage/salami roll like shape, hence the reference point for the good Chacha's nickname.
Just a teenaged kid from a village out of Lahore, I got to know Yasser in 2006. Good looking in a Latino pop star way, he was extremely polite, sharp-witted and hard working. Given the dynamics of our office, one never quite knew where he might be slogging away. It could be cleaning cups and saucers in the kitchen, filing papers and documents, pasting news cuttings, going to the market for something or the other, helping out the guards at the gate, or simply doing what he did best, make excellent tea. And he never forgot the biscuits/cookies/cake.
Yasser also knew the best places to get lunch from.
What really impressed me about him was his ability to learn and retain and this extended beyond his office duties. He would come to me with words he did not understand in English and I would help him out. He would ask others about technical jargon and terms. He wrote these down and used them where necessary. He said he wanted to complete his education.
He told me he was sitting for his B.Com exams. I was floored. How did this kid find the time to work and study?
He let you know he had ambition. I offered to help. He said "Thank you, but no thank you. I have to do this on my own steam."
I was really happy for Yasser when one day he came with a box of sweets and announced he had passed his exams. I congratulated him and wished him the best.
Recently I learned that Yasser had been appointed a brand manager for a well- known apparel manufacturer, promoting the latest in men's wear.
Just goes to show you that hard work always pays off. So does ambition.
Habib (Khaleej Times)
There was another kid too I recall, a guy from Rajasthan named Habib who was similarly hard working, enterprising and tenacious. I recall him serving tea without ever complaining a million times a day, asking if there was any work for him, and forever smiling. He had a wonderful sense of humor and a wonderful laugh.
However, there was a certain line that could not be crossed as one sub-editor discovered. That sub-editor abused Habib under his breath, not realizing the boy was standing right behind him. Habib challenged him to take a walk outside. Needless to say the sub backed down.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, this guy too went on to further his education and landed an excellent job with DEWA, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority.
Finally, there is yet another guy I want to tell you about and this story is truly astonishing. He's a young guy from AJK and he used to be a newsboy. If you really want to know about his amazing story wait a few days; I'm working on it.
Pakistan Observer, October 31, 2016