The Phal Phul Conundrum

Long after the British left our shores, the legacy of the Raj is still thriving in our bureaucracy through one unwritten rule of conduct known amongst the sahibs as the phal phul rule. As a measure against corruption and bribery in the conduct of public affairs, the British had prohibited acceptance of any gift by public servants except phal and phul — fruits and flowers. The rule worked well during the days of the Raj though there had always been ingenious attempts to circumvent it. One common trick was to present the officer a box of fruits with a gold coin concealed inside. Usually in such cases, adhering to the phal phul rule, the sahib kept the fruits and politely returned the coin to its owner.

More than sixty years down the line, the phal phul tradition or its modern day variation continues to flourish through the ranks of the bureaucracy with much more than phal and phul included in the list of gifts in recent times. The tradition continues even though specific provisions prohibiting acceptance of gifts by public servants have been incorporated in the service conduct rules of the Government. As the large wheel of administration rolls along unmindfully, it is presumed that fruits and flowers and the assortment of other gifts that change hands in our times are not meant for any specific official favour or as a matter of quid pro quo but just to create some good will — with no strings attached. Of course, things do not work out as smoothly as they are meant to be and sometimes it is the aberrations that stand out quite prominently — and outrageously.

Of all items in the inventory of gifts in the present day version of the phal phul tradition, tea occupies a pre-eminent position in Assam.

Early in my career during my posting at Naharkatiya, District Dibrugarh, I found out that anyone from a tea estate coming to the Circle Office on official work is expected to bring along a few packets of tea as gifts to the officials. Anyone coming empty handed is likely to be frowned at and in some cases, even faced with an avalanche of rules and regulations that the lat mandals and babus let loose for flouting the tradition. Similarly, any one from the Circle Office visiting a tea garden on any official matter expects to be gifted a packet or two of tea by the garden management as a matter of tradition. Some times this results in a ridiculous situation as one junior colleague in the civil services once found out to his utter embarrassment. I was working at Gohpur Subdivision at that time and one afternoon this junior colleague named Moon Gogoi dropped in at my office. Moon, an unassuming and polite person, appeared worked up with something that day.

“Is anything wrong?” I said.

“I have been really embarrassed today”, Moon said shaking his head from side to side. What he narrated was truly mortifying.

Earlier that day, Moon and a senior colleague had been travelling in a jeep to a remote place on some official work. They took a shorter route through a tea estate to reach their destination. As they entered the tea estate, the senior officer suddenly appeared to be alert over something. He told the driver to drive slowly and with his head out of the vehicle intensely scanned the wide expanse of neatly pruned tea columns passing by. After a few minutes, a lone figure in a sweat shirt and shorts was spotted standing in front of a large bungalow. Both the senior officer and Moon recognised him; he was one of the managers of the tea estate.

“Stop”, the senior officer shouted.

The driver stopped the jeep and the officer jumped out.

He rushed to the manager.

“Two packets, two packets”, he said thrusting two fingers in front of the unsuspecting person’s face. The manager was bewildered. He could not make out what the officer meant. Or he pretended not to understand.

“Two packets of tea. One for me and one for him”, demanded the officer pointing towards Moon.

The manager looked at the officer contemptuously.

“It will be sent to you at your office today”, he said and angrily walked towards his residence.

Moon looked the other way, too embarrassed by his senior’s coarse behaviour. Need less to mention that the packets of tea generated more embarrassment than goodwill that afternoon.

The association of tea with the Assamese is an indelible fact of life everywhere. Often I have met many colleagues who have experiences with babus of government offices in New Delhi discreetly asking for Chai patti,   the impression being that everyone in Assam owns a patch of tea garden in his back yard. Of course things have changed in recent times and people are not ignorant of Assam and the Northeast any more as before. Though the status of tea as a much sought after gift item from Assam remains unchanged, there are other products from the region that have also become known and are equally in demand as gifts these days. A senior Assamese officer working in New Delhi recently told me that Assamese silk, particularly Muga is one such product that is in great demand in New Delhi’s exalted babudom these days.

A lesser known but another greatly desired product from the region is the Tezpur lychee , a rare variety of the common sub tropical summer fruit grown in just two or three privately owned orchards on the outskirts of Tezpur town, District Sonitpur. The Tezpur lychee is almost three times the size of the common lychee and unlike the latter has a very small seed. Its size and distinct taste and flavour have given it an exotic status, making it vie for Geographical Indicator (GI) Registration. Every year during the months of May and June, the lychees are harvested. Most of the produce is immediately parcelled all over the country and abroad to meet orders placed in advance. During this time, the phal phul tradition is also at work with officers of various departments wasting no time in gifting boxes of the exotic fruit to their bosses within the district and outside. My current posting in Tezpur afforded me an opportunity to witness the flurry of activity over the Tezpur lychee. A junior colleague who knows one of the orchard owners gave me the details of the lychees despatched this season. The list of persons who received the precious fruit as gift reads like a who’s who in the state’s political and bureaucratic firmament.

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Nowhere does the phal phul tradition find better expression than during the tours of senior officers to the field offices of their departments. It is not unusual for a senior officer visiting a field office to return home with fresh vegetables and luck willing, a large fish, stashed inside the dicky of his Ambassador. Of course there are also some officers who disapprove of the phal phul tradition and do not accept any gift as a matter of principle. One officer I knew from the early days of my career prohibited anyone from gifting him anything during his official tours. All he accepted was a glass of water and after a lot of persuasion would agree to have a cup of tea. Once, during the inspection of a Block office by the officer, a junior engineer inadvertently presented him a bottle of Xas, the local rice beer of the area, to take home. The officer was outraged. He stormed out of the office, fuming with rage as the bewildered junior engineer rushed along profusely apologizing with the bottle of xas still in his hand. The officer just could not be placated; he got into his Ambassador and darted out of the campus. Later, it turned out that the junior engineer who had joined the district recently mistook the officer for his predecessor who invariably used to ask for a bottle of Xas during his inspection rounds.

Usually, most officers posted in the field expect to be gifted by their subordinates and others on festive occasions as part of this tradition. The latter usually comply as it is no big deal to part with a little something to please the officers — and maintain an atmosphere of cordiality and good will. No one complains and things move on normally. Trouble starts only when officers demand gifts as a matter of right .There are some officers —- fortunately a very few — who seek gifts out of a compulsive need for gratification at the expense of others. One officer I know had this fetish for collecting mobile phones and went out of his way demanding mobile hand sets as gifts from all and sundry. The hapless nazir of his office who often had to act as a conduit for the officer’s obsession counted more than a hundred mobile sets till – much to his and everyone’s relief, the officer was transferred to some other post where his mobile phone fixation found no takers.

The likes of him are the black sheep of the community who have no qualms about subverting the genteel tradition and making asses of themselves. The very rationale behind the phal phul tradition is lost when one resorts to demanding gifts. These officers are detested by everyone and become the butt of ridicule of the fraternity. Stories of their atrocious demands circulate fast and at gatherings in officer’s clubs everywhere, they become a subject of great hilarity.

One boss I had worked under made seeking things from his subordinates into a real consummate art. The phal phul tradition was stretched to the limit during his tenure. He developed an efficient system using his considerable skill and acumen. He maintained a roster of his subordinates and each day selected one official from this list. A firm believer of fair play, the boss never selected someone before his turn was due. After the selection was made, the boss’s personal peon went to the selected official’s house and handed him a slip containing the day’s ration for the boss’s household. The selected official had the choice of buying the items himself or handing the cash equivalent to the peon. The system worked very effectively: never in the annals of administration could a humble peon with a shopping bag evoke so much apprehension — and disdain.

Fortunately, I was not in our boss’s zone of consideration as I had been posted in a very remote area of the district and out of range of the controversial peon with the shopping bag. But a bigger surprise lay in store for me.

During those days, I had a small but very powerful radio, of the same size as today’s mobile phone. Every night, at that forsaken place, the radio became my only source of entertainment as I spent my time in the candle light twiddling with its tiny knob, listening to music or just catching up on the news from any station in the world. It became a constant companion during my lonely nights at the remote post and I was inspired to write a middle in a local daily about my affair with the small radio. Some of my colleagues read my piece and one of them told our boss about it. A few days later I was called by my boss for an official meeting and after it was over, he called me to his chamber. He was sitting alone behind his desk, reading a file.

“I read your write up on your radio,” he said looking up from the file.

“Thanks,” sir, I said.

“I wish I too had a radio like that”, he said, his voice modulating into a whisper. His face wore the look of someone pleading for some kindness from his fellow beings. At once I knew what he hinted at but pretended not to understand. I didn’t want to part with my small radio.

Suddenly, the look on his face changed. I saw a different man staring at me with grim determination.

“Wouldn’t you like to present me with your radio?” he growled , his voice now more a command than an entreaty.

My years of experience in the civil services taught me one thing: never bang your face against a wall. Just give in.

“Of course”, I said feebly.

“Thanks,” my boss said appearing quite relieved. “Do you have it with you?”

“Yes sir, it’s with me in my attaché case outside,” I said. I realised that there was no point in keeping a malady pending. I walked out of the chamber and in a minute came back with my radio.

I handed over my small radio to my boss. He grabbed it with both hands and like a child getting a fancy toy out of the blue became overjoyed with excitement. He fidgeted with the knobs, pulled the antennae and brought the gadget crackling into life with some Chinese station.

In that instant, I realised that my boss’s happiness far surpassed my own unhappiness over parting with the radio. I reasoned with myself that if the true meaning of life consisted in having an altruistic attitude towards all, then that afternoon at my boss’s chamber I had more than my fair share. As I walked out of the room, leaving behind a happy man with his new toy,   there was surprisingly no trace of disappointment inside me. That moment, I understood what a great saint meant when she said, “Give until it hurts”. There was I realised a deeper joy in the act of giving.

Bhaskar Phukan

Bhaskar Phukan

The author is a civil servant with the government of Assam. The views expressed in the article are his own and in no way represent the Government of Assam’s views. Feedback: bhaskarub@gmail.com.