He sat in the small office behind a very large desk that seemed to take up most of the floor space. To his right, through the window and across a space, was the Chief Storekeeper’s office waiting for its occupant to arrive from England. The space between the two offices was an area with room enough to allow a lorry to back up to the ten foot high double doors of corrugated sheet  that led to the main godown. This large warehouse and its contents  were his responsibility. Indeed; he was in charge of everything his eyes could take in when he swivelled round to survey a dusty compound, a perimeter fence, acres of steel casing and drilling pipes and carboys of hydrocloric acid and different materials needed for operating the oil fields. There was the watchman at the entry to the courtyard, a one man telephone exchange, gangs of coolies – not seen – who were probably taking it easy in the shade of the godown and, on the other side of the swing door to his left, the general office, where more than a dozen clerks sat at high desks facing the lengths of the two long walls. Each clerk worked with a giant-sized ledger before him. Then there was Mr Toor, the supervisor, who acted as intermediary between him and the clerks, because none of them spoke any English. It was a mystery he never did resolve, how a person can do clerical work in a language he cannot speak. But such was the case. Mr Toor came from Bombay, spoke English well, but pedantically and was sophisticated compared with the clerks, who were mostly country boys from the local villages.

If no one of his numerous staff could speak English, he, their new boss could speak no language they understood. Only the essential Mr Toor was able to speak both Urdu and English. This was his first week in this new job at the oil fields in the Punjab in the newly formed country of Pakistan. It was a desolate enough place and a year ago had been part of British India – the Jewel in the Crown – now, no more. In this very area the British boundary commission had traced a border to divide the mighty area of India into two independent and sovereign nations, India and Pakistan and the result had been an instant flight of Muslims from India to Pakistan and Hindus from Pakistan to India. People who had lived in villages as neighbours as their ancestors had before them, now feared the consequences of this separation. There was bloodshed, massacres, atrocities committed by both communities as reason departed and fear took hold. The Hindus clerks who had recently sat on those high stools in the general office were now either dead or in India. They had been replaced by these young men who were unable to give any sort of continuity to keeping the supplies coming. It was as much a crisis for the British Oil Company he now worked for as it was for everywhere in both of the newly created countries. BLOG – (A CLASH OF CULTURES) BLOG – AIR CONDITIONED RESPITE) BLOG – SPORTS DAY AT MORGAH) BLOG – A WEEKEND)

Just over a week ago he had been working in the London office of the Oil Company. Help was needed out there in the Punjab and he had been sent, poste haste, in a flying boat, from Southampton. Equipment to operate the four producing oil fields and the drilling activities was lacking; no new supplies had been ordered for a year; Everything had to come by boat; factories were not yet geared up from war work to commercial products and meantime the oil had to flow. He knew almost nothing – correction – absolutely nothing about the situation nor the operations and yet, he had been chosen. Why? Those were desperate days and people took unusual decisions. He had been de-mobilised that same year after four years in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War and the directors of the Oil Company must have thought that he looked a suitable candidate for the job. As far as experience was needed for this job they might just as well have got a name out of the telephone directory.

It was very hot in the office and the solitary ceiling punkah seemed to make little difference in keeping the temperature down. At the club he had been told that the weather was now building up for the monsoon, and this was always one of the most difficult times of the year. There was nothing much for him to do. He had gone over each clerk’s stock books and the system had seemed good enough for the slow moving turnover so long as accuracy was maintained. But now the figures represented nothing more than misinformation after a year of confusion. His first order had been to identify every item with a negative stock. He had started daily meetings with a drilling department represent. These were the only people able to physically identify the equipment. After correcting the stock records and using the annual usage information supplied by them, an order –  called an indent, for some historical reason – was telegraphed through to the London office. Almost everything used came from the Britain or the USA with delays of up to six months, so this was re-acting after the event and was not likely to resolve the problem long term. But it was something and only when the British Storekeeper promised him arrived could he get started on a better plan. He had tried going into the cavernous warehouse to learn the name of the parts with the help of old Faisel, the coolie foreman,  but the parts were all mixed up and mostly without identification cards or labels. Where there was identification, it was often wrong.

He was studying his basic Urdu textbook when Mr Toor came through the swing doors. ‘Mr Mason,’ he began in his plummy, avuncular manner, ‘there is a small matter I should like to bring to your attention.’ He was getting used to Mr Toor. Whereas the clerks called him ‘sahib’ and mainly kept out of his way, Mr Toor, as a man of the world, sought to involve him at all levels, using his English, in rolling phrases, in a fluent, if rather pompous fashion. He was not in awe of the 23 year old B. but treated him with jovial respect. He had seen Mr Toor reading a book in English; it was, ‘Love in a cold climate,’ and suspected that Mr Toor believed it to be a spicy book.

”Yes, Mr Toor, what is it?’ ‘It is the glass used by the clerks for drinking.’ B wondered what would come next. When Mr Toor developed a theme he knew that he only had to wait and all would be most lucidly revealed. He knew the glass; it stood on a small, low table together with an earthenware pitcher, and was used regularly, throughout the day. When the pitcher became empty, an office boy was despatched to replenish the water from an outside tap. ‘Some of the clerks are saying that Samuel and Paul must not drink from the glass.’

B felt a surge of indignation run through him. ‘Why is that?’ ‘Because they are not Muslims; they are Christians.’ ‘And why must they not drink from a glass because they are Christians?’ He was being deliberately, logically pedantic, and Mr Toor followed him down the line. ‘Not ‘a’ glass, Mr Mason; ‘the’ glass in the office.’ ‘All right, ‘the’ glass.’ ‘Because they say that it is not right for Muslims and Christians to drink from the same glass.’ ‘Well, let them bloody well get their own glasses,’  was how B would have liked to answer, but did not. ‘Do you agree with them, Mr Toor?’ ‘No, no, no. Some of them are very backward people, and others are religious purists.’ ‘Do all the Muslim clerks think like that?’ ‘No, but three or four of them are making trouble.’ ‘Will you point them out to me?’ Mr Toor looked doubtful. ‘I want to know those who object to sharing the glass.’ ‘Very well.’

They went into the general office, where heads were seen to bob down over ledgers. B was determined to make this a public expose. ‘Right, will you show me those who object to Samuel and Paul using the drinking glass, Mr Toor?’ There was Jahan Khan, Mohammed Ashraf, Abdul Rahman and Mohammed Ghafoor. B walked around making sure that there was eye contact between himself and the four named. ‘Are there any more?’ Mr Toor translated and there was a silence. ‘Will you please arrange to indent for one extra glass from the Stores,’ he said to Mr Toor; one glass will be for the four who object and for any others who might object later, and if there are any more complaints like this I shall have to think about charging for any office glasses.’

He went back into his office leaving Mr Toor to translate his decision, after which he was sure there would be a general office debate. It was with these people that he would have to work with to succeed in sorting out the present chaos in the material supply system to keep the oil extraction running and it never occurred to him to refer this incident up the line for a solution. Religious intolerance was a delicate subject and could at times turn to strife as had been demonstrated on a massively bloodthirsty scale around here only a year previously. But, if he was in charge, he would take the decisions in this high risk area and he knew, when there was no more talk on this matter and Mr Toor’s demeanour showed him that he had handled it adequately, he had passed the first hurdle.

JUJY 1948