It's No Joke
Picture a divisional land settlement office in, oh…let's say Barisal!
Picture my friend who has lived all his life in Dhaka but has travelled to his 'village home' to verify a land ownership document.
Picture a dusty office with a clerk who looks well-fed, wears black framed spectacles and appears to have a dark mark in the centre of his forehead suggesting that he is a pious man.
My Friend is not well known in these parts. He's hot, he's sweaty, he's scruffy. He has not exactly made an effort to 'look important.' The Clerk pointedly ignores him and when My Friend asks about his land document The Clerk is decidedly non-commital as he lethargically waves My Friend towards a chair. My Friend sits down to wait.
Soon some other poor fool requiring assistance from the land office enters. Poor Fool glances quickly in My Friend's direction before leaning over and passing his papers to The Clerk. He does this around the far side of the table so that My Friend cannot see but can guess what else is being passed. The Clerk however takes no notice of My Friend as he loudly and unashamedly rejects Poor Fool's offer.
"No! This will not be possible today. Take your thirty taka with you!"
Similar encounters take place over the next hour. Sometimes The Clerk even stirs himself to oblige a 'customer' by accepting the 'fee' offered round the side of the table.
Eventually The Clerk deigns to look in My Friend's direction. The usual types of question posed in this situation soon elicit the not inconsequential fact that My Friend is a journalist -- working for a major newspaper in Dhaka.
The Clerk's devout looking forehead develops a shine.
His demeanour changes, he is grinning and eager now. The matter of My Friend's land document is soon settled. But The Clerk strives to keep My Friend back, offering tea, biscuits and strenuous small talk. My Friend is hot, he's sweaty and he's dying for a smoke. He stands. He picks up his document. He reaches for his pocket…
The Clerk is up from his desk in a flash. His indolence is gone, he lurches forward and grabs My Friend by the elbow of the arm that was reaching for the pocket. A smile of holy terror and apology is frozen in place on his well-fed face.
"No, no, no! Please. No! There is no need," The Clerk exclaims in a high voice.
My Friend is stymied, then chuckles as he manages to extract a packet of cigarettes despite the restraining hand of The Clerk.
"You misunderstood me, bhai," My Friend says.
The Clerk looks plain miserable now as he apologises. But he collects himself as My Friend leaves.
"Please visit again sir," he calls out feebly …
It's not exactly hard to imagine the above little play unfolding, is it? Why have I even bothered to record such a mundane and trifling incident of petty crookery? What is the point?
Corruption is all around us! Sleaze and deceit and frauds and cheats are being uncovered on a massive scale. The Anticorruption Commission and the National Board of Revenue are in overdrive. The formerly 'great' are going down everyday and the once 'invincible' are going to ground. The authorities are falling over themselves to charge, arrest and jail the next big name.
Meanwhile, debates abound about whether it is 'corruption' or 'the corrupt' that we should be most worried about. What is it that needs cleaning up? The system or the individual? The party or the member? The service or the servants?
All valid questions; if only we could find equally valid answers.
And then there's the question to end all questions. The question that paralyses the senses when we stop to consider what the answer might be. The question that takes all the wind out of the endless deliberations on the matter. The question that is the conversation stopper of all time.
A small and simple question requiring an answer of such vastness and infinite complexity that it can hardly be contemplated: where the hell do you start?