Sunday, November 1, 1998

A Tahsildar and a Prime Minister

A Tahsildar and a Prime Minister
By Narendra Luther

From 1914 to 1919 the seventh Nizam did not have a prime minister or a ministry. He ruled all by himself. In 1919 he set up an executive council with a president who was equivalent to prime minister.

For that post he selected Sir Ali Imam who was a prominent barrister of Bihar. He had served as a member of the executive council of the Viceroy. At that time he was a member of the executive council of Bihar and Orissa.

A year before his appointment, as a barrister, Sir Ali Imam had occasion to visit Hyderabad in connection with a court case. When his train stopped at Veyjapur station he saw a huge fawning crowd gathered around a bulky, pompous fellow at the platform. While people were paying their respects to him, liveried servants were rushing in and out of the train loading the first-class compartment with suitcases, trunks, bedrolls, tiffin-carriers, fruit baskets, bouquets, spittoons, silver tumblers, towels and a small carpet for prayers and numerous other oddments.

When the train started the beefy official looked at Sir Ali Imam condescendingly and introduced himself. “I am Zain-ul-Abidin, tahsildar of the taluk. I am popularly known as ‘Chunnu Nawab’. I am going to Hyderabad on leave”. He then asked Sir Ali his name. Ali Imam? He had never heard of the name before and concluded that obviously he was a man of no consequence. “ What he did for a living? Sir Ali Imam, not too keen to engage in a conversation replied matter of factly that he was a barrister.

“What is a balishter?”
“It is a sort of an advocate – a vakil.”
“Oh, vakil! Many vakils appear in my court? Have you ever appeared in the court of a tahsildar?”

On receiving a negative reply, he invited Sir Ali Imam to witness the glory of his court and to appear there someday. While jabbering away without a pause, he was chewing pan and using the spittoon.

Chunnu Nawab then asked Ali Imam how much he earned. Sir Ali Imam replied modestly that he earned well enough to provide for his daal and roti. Chunnu Nawab remarked contemptuously that dal and roti were for the poor poor. He should have higher ambitions – for chicken and fish, which are the proper meal for the well to do. He then proceeded to advise him to give up barristership and take up the job of tahsildar. He told him proudly that though his salary was only 200 rupees a month, it was just his pocket money. He earned a lot ‘from above’. “A tahsildar is the uncrowned king of the taluk, you know. He had to have the knack for making money.

At the next station a bearer of the Brandon Catering Company came to take orders for lunch. Sir Ali Imam was about to order when the tahsildar prevented him from doing so and said that he had enough to feed the whole compartment and he would take it as an insult if the ‘balishter saab’ did not break bread with him. However, he asked the bearer to bring half-a-dozen lemonades and sodas. Sir Ali Imam asked him why he was ordering so many sodas and lemonades for just the two of them. Chunnu Nawab said that it was a matter of status. A tahsildar could not order just one or two sodas. Whatever was left would be consumed by the servants. At every station wherever the train stopped, some people came and made their offerings to the worthy official. It was very amusing and educative for Sir Ali Imam to see the fuss which people made about the tahsildar and how tahsildars battened themselves on the people.

A year later Sir Ali Imam came to Hyderabad as president of the Nizam’s executive council. The memory of his earlier encounter with the great tahsildar was etched in his mind and so he sent for him. The tahsildar, ‘the uncrowned king of the taluk’ was produced before him. He came dressed formally in sherwani and bugloos. He made four nervous floor- salaams and stood erect before the Prime Minister like a statue, his eyes riveted on the carpet.

Sir Ali Imam tried to put him at ease by asking him how he was doing. The tahsildar replied very stiffly that by the grace of Almighty and the kindness of His Excellency he was doing well. Sir Ali then referred to their meeting the previous year in the train. The tahsildar feigned surprise and promptly denied that he had ever had the great honour of meeting the dignitary before. Inspite of Sir Ali Imam’s numerous attempts at refreshing his memory; the flunkey resolutely refused to admit that they had ever met before. He said respectfully that it might have been a mix-up. However, it was his good luck to have the unique honour to have had an audience with the Prime Minister. He would never forget that rare privilege and would recount to his progeny his great luck

He then asked obsequiously if there were any orders for that speck of dust, that is, himself. Sir Ali Imam understood the reason for the tahsildar not to be identified. After all he was the tahsildar of the old school and had acquired a ‘knack’ of which he had boasted in the train. He had dealt with many rogues and to dispose of a mere prime minister was no big deal for him. Sir Ali Imam gave up in despair and wished him well.

Zain-ul-Abeddin alias Chunnu Nawab came out of the exalted office, wiped his perspiration, loosened his bugloos and sherwani and scooted for his life. After sometime and much thought, he decided to apply for premature retirement. It was prudent to forego a year of service than to risk confrontation with the Prime Minister. After all it would not be easy even for the ‘uncrowned king of a taluk’ to bluff a Prime Minister and survive.