Why Hakim and Ramesh Hate Christmas
By Richard Rupnarain
Guyana Journal, December 2006
Christmas in Guyana is, arguably, one of the jolliest times of the year. It used to be even jollier in years gone by when people were not so fanatical and zealous about religions; days when Hindus, Muslims and Christians, and everyone else celebrated whenever an occasion called for a celebration, regardless whether it is their tradition or not. Like Hakim and Ramesh, a Muslim and a Hindu, two friends and colleagues who enjoyed Christmas as much as the Christians.
The two childhood friends were always front and center of their village celebrations. They would help the neighborhood kids make harmless bombs with calcium carbide, mixed with spittle and shaken in an Ovaltine container, and then laugh with them when the resulting loud explosion sent older women holding their chests and young girls screaming and restraining themselves from expletives. They cheerfully joined in the excitement of domestic chores painting, cleaning and installation of new curtains and linoleums in their homes. They enjoyed the walnuts and ice apples, grapes and prunes, the home fashioned Christmas trees with tinsels and cotton wool. They loved the nights of gift-wrapping and the hours spent writing cards to worthy friends and family while listening to the radio broadcasting endless strings of carols. They enjoyed the visits from families they hadnt seen all year. The enjoyed the masqueraders with fife and drum, the long lady on stilts and the mad cow. They drank, they partied and they shopped like profligates with their pocket monies. They ate as much black cake and drank as much ginger beer as goodly neighbors brought to their homes. They fired off squibs, played cowboys and Indians, and even joined the carolers from the local church, following them from house to house just for the snacks and drinks. For these two boys, Christmas came and went much too soon.
But all that changed when they passed their GCE A Levels and started working at the same public accounting firm in Georgetown. Not that they wanted it to change but they found that their new jobs demanded much of their holiday time, more than they were willing to surrender. Unfortunately, most of their companys clients ran their businesses on a strict calendar year so that the final weeks of December were the busiest for public accountants, with most of the staff preoccupied with year-end cash and stock counts. Both audit procedures were necessary evils but Hakim and Ramesh deemed stock counts the lesser of the two evils and they did their utmost best to avoid cash counts. For one thing, cash counts had to be undertaken at close of business of the current year and some of those businesses, like banks, hotels and bars required counting of hundreds of thousands of dollars, a chore that ran into the morning hours and which required cut-offs at midnight without stoppage of business. This often meant that observers and counters had to sacrifice any New Years Eve party plans. Stock counts, on the other hand, though best if done on the last days of the year, were not always feasible because most of the companies had a December 31 year end and there was never enough staff to go around to all the clients. Many of the accounting staff also took their vacation around this time of the year and this only aggravated the labor problem. Consequently, stock counts were conducted anywhere between Christmas Eve Day and New Years Eve, and the necessary adjustments were made to determine year end numbers.
This year, however, even the lesser evil of a stock count was not as appealing to Hakim and Ramesh and that because of their experiences in the past two years. Those were episodes in their career for which they were still stigmatized in the accounting community.
It all began in December 1979 when Hakim opted to take on the inventory count at the Distillery on the West Coast, some ten miles from the mouth of the Demerara River. The Distillery was one of the largest providers of neutral spirits in the country and was easily located if one followed the stench of lees that filled the canals and trenches surrounding it. Their product was popular and was being used locally to make rum and gin, and exported to vodka producers in London and Europe. The stock count was completed without incident and the two friends wrapped up their assignment and submitted their stock reports to the senior manager in charge of the clients accounts. But when the audit of the companys accounts were undertaken a few weeks into February, and the company reflected an abnormally high gross profit, the audit manager performed an analysis of the financial statements and found that the cost of goods sold was much lower than it should have been when compared to sales. He then undertook some testing of subsequent issues from stock and determined that the year-end stock numbers were inflated. This led to an investigation into the accuracy of the inventory.
Two weeks later the audit manager had his report on the partners desk. The manager discovered that the audit clerks who were sent to observe the stock count apparently got caught up in the festivities of the day at the company stores and failed to employ due diligence in their count. According to the findings, on that particular day, Christmas Eve, the men in the stores were having a departmental party, and when the auditors arrived, they invited them to join in for a little drink and chicken wings before undertaking their count. Unfortunately, both auditors, Hakim and Ramesh, had a sweet tooth for chicken wings and a predilection for free rum and it did not take much persuasion for them to succumb to the temptation. They reluctantly agreed to one drink and a piece of chicken-wing but wound up drinking and eating and jesting with the stores personnel until some of the workers had begun to leave for home. The employees were allowed to leave earlier that day because it was Christmas Eve and many of them were heading out to the stores for last minutes shopping as businesses and stores were going to close earlier that day. The few who were slated to assist the auditors with the count then began to put pressure on Hakim and Ramesh to hurry up and get the procedure competed. The supervisor, Mr. Suresh, was most anxious to get it over with.
Listen, my friends, Mr. Suresh said, a slight alcohol induced slur in his speech, everything is all right. I checked it myself. Just sign off the papers.
But we have to do a test count, replied Hakim, the senior of the two auditors, mostly to impress his colleague.
Okay, but we have to hurry. I have to go to the tailor to pick up my pants for tonight and he is closing up early.
Well, lets go! We can check one tank.
Okay, let us do tank No. 2. Thats a big one, Suresh suggested.
And which one would that be? Hakim inquired.
That one over there, Suresh replied, pointing to the largest stainless steel container about two hundred yards into the distance.
That container is sixty feet tall. Are you going to climb it? I am not! Ramesh protested.
Well, we have to do it. Ramesh, you are the lightest among us. You climb up.
On that skinny little ladder along the side of the tank? Ramesh asked with incredulity in his eyes. No way!
Well, there is no other way to get up. Either one of you go or I send for one of the boys to go up and check it for you, Suresh suggested.
Hakim pondered his options. He was too fat and lazy and besides he was half drunk. Ramesh was afraid of heights and always complained that he gets eye-turn when he climbs even a guava tree. There was no way that he was going to climb sixty feet on a skinny, vertical ladder.
Hakim relented. Okay, let one of your men climb up but we will give the instructions.
Fair enough, Suresh muttered. Then he turned in the direction of the stores and screamed as though his pants were on fire. Baljit, come here boy!
Baljit, a skinny lad whose age was hard to determine, came running out of the stores with the expression like that of a man in deep trouble. Suresh walked up to him, stopped him, muttered something to him, then turned around and started back towards Hakim.
Okay, Suresh said, you met Baljit at the party, right?
Okay, Baljit, climb up tank No. 2 over there and I want you to measure the molasses in the tank.
But that is a high tank. I never climbed anything that high before. Suppose I fall in.
You cant fall in, man. Just be careful.
So how do I measure the molasses?
Okay, when you get to the top of the tank you will see a cover, like a manhole cover, in the middle of the roof. Open it but be careful and dont look down before you fall in. If you fall in there your cork duck, unless you can swim in molasses.
Then you will see a wooden measuring rod next to the manhole. Take it and put it down through the manhole until it reaches the surface of the molasses. Then shout out the reading where the top of the measuring stick touches the base of the manhole. Got it?
Yes. But how will that tell us how much molasses there is in the tank?
We know the volume of the tank and we will just calibrate and subtract the amount from the top of the tank to the surface.
Ok, I get it.
Alright, be careful! Then Suresh slapped him lightly on the arm and followed him towards the tank. When they were out of earshot Suresh whispered, Nice work. Now remember what I told you this morning.
They watched, with bated breath as Baljit made his way painstakingly up the ladder. He climbed, stopped, looked down and then quickly up again, and ensuring that with every step his boots were firmly grounded between heel and toe. He reached the top of the ladder some twenty heartrending minutes later then he disappeared from view until his high-pitched voice was heard above the sound of the wind rustling between the tanks. Okay, man, this tank is full, he shouted.
Great, then you dont have to do anything. Just close the cover, put back the rod and take your time and come down. Then he turned to Hakim. Okay, write that down. Full tank! How much does the stock sheet say?
Full tank! Hakim replied.
Good! I think you can conclude that our records are correct. Look, I have to close up. Are we done? Suresh did not wait for an answer. He turned in the direction of the stores once again. Harriram, he hollered, bring that thing!
Another skinny East Indian man emerged from the stores, his hands full with two large brown paper bags that made the sound of bottles clanging against each other. Suresh grabbed the two brown paper bags, walked up to Ramesh and Hakim and stretched out his two arms. Here, this is for you, a bottle of every product we make. Merry Christmas! Then just as abruptly he turned around to face Harriram. Alright, boy, go and lock up the stores, its time to go home.
Ramesh peeked into the brown paper bag, struggling to keep his stock count audit working papers from the blowing wind. In the bag there was a bottle of Gin, a bottle of Vodka, two bottles of Rum (5 and 10-year old blends), a bottle of Brandy and a bottle of Crème De Menthe, total value of a couple of days wages. Hakim, on the other hand, did not want to appear interested in the gift, aware that this was a conflict of interest and that there were independence issues at stake, so he appeared indifferent to the package and tried to conclude the matter in a professional manner.
Listen, thanks for the stuff but you know we are not supposed to take gifts from our clients.
Gifts? Look, buddy, that thing cost us less than ten dollars. But if you feel uneasy about it then just give it away to your friends.
Thats a good idea, Hakim replied, I will do just that. Anyways, thanks for waiting back with us and getting the count done.
No problem, fellas, anytime. You guys stop working so hard. Its Christmas Eve. Go home to your families.
As they were bidding farewell to Suresh and wishing him a happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year, they could hear the doors to the stores being slammed shut as the last of the employees began to make their way out of the compound. Ten minutes later they too made their exit from the company premises but not after looking back at the guardhouse. The security guard, a chubby East Indian man with a moustache that made him look like a deeply tanned Hitler, was the only person left on the premises. Poor blighter, they thought, having to spend Christmas Eve all alone. Little did they know that the portly guard would not be alone for much longer.
On the commute back home Ramesh immediately began to express his concerns about the count.
I really think we should have done some more counts, he said, There are a total of twelve tanks of molasses. That represents the largest asset on the Companys balance sheet and that is why the boss asked two of us to come down and do the count.
Yes, but how was I to know that they were closing up early? Hakim snapped.
Well, even if we didnt know and we had started to count since we arrived this morning we could have gotten through a good portion of it, at least enough to be comfortably satisfied.
You mean you are not satisfied with the count? I am!
How can you be? We checked one tank and we did not even do it ourselves. We took that mans word. How do we know if any molasses was in that tank?
What do you mean? Why would Baljit say the tank is full if it was empty?
Because his boss told him to?
What do you mean?
You remember after Suresh called Baljit he walked up to him and the two of them were whispering and then when Baljit was about to climb the ladder Suresh whispered to him to remember what he told him?
Are you trying to say that Suresh told Baljit to say that the tank was full? Why would he do that?
You are an accountant. You should know why. If they overstate the inventory will they not be reducing the cost of goods sold and therefore falsely increasing their profit?
Yes, I know that but why would they want to do that, to pay more taxes?
To increase the dividends and make their shareholders happy. In that way the directors get re-elected as well.
Hakim paused and appeared to be fully recovered from any side effects of the alcohol. Listen, he said, appearing a bit embarrassed because his junior had to make him realize the seriousness of the situation, we are in this thing together. Besides, how does our company expect us to do an inventory on sixty-foot tall containers? Were you going to risk your life? Not me! I dont have life insurance, do you?
Well, there! Why should we risk our lives for a company that cannot even provide insurance for us? And to besides, if we had started on time we still would have had to depend on Baljit to climb the tanks and tell us what Suresh wanted him to tell us. It boils down to this. We observed Baljit climbing the tanks and shouting the readings to us, and we matched those readings with the stock sheets and made our determination that the inventory was correct. Look, dont worry. Everything will be okay. I am in this profession for fifteen years and I never heard of anyone going to jail for inventory fraud. Besides, if they find out there is a discrepancy or a fraud they wont call in the auditors. They will call in the police and what do they know?
Well, it wasnt true, at least not this time. The audit firm was fired and sued for negligence and they exacted punishment on Hakim and Ramesh by suspending the two men for two months without pay, mostly to reinforce their image as leading professionals in the business. They wanted to fire them but realized that they would have been held accountable for requiring them to endanger their lives by climbing huge tanks, and by not providing insurance for them in case something had happened.
When the independent investigators report finally came out it revealed that tank No. 2 was empty to the base. The investigator also stated that when they confronted Suresh he simply said that he was amazed as anyone about the findings and that perhaps the molasses had evaporated. Baljits explanation was even more hilarious. He claimed that he was afraid of heights but did not want to admit that in front of Suresh for fear that his cowardice would soon be broadcasted all across the company. He forgot that his reputation as a coward was already firmly established two years ago, when he ran across the compound, shrieking like a woman being pursued by her inebriated husband armed with a cutlass, because he had seen a snake coiled up in the grass next to the stores. So the moment he arrived on top of the tank, the wind picked up and he simply lay low, clutching dearly for life to the portion of the rung that was curved unto the to the top of the tank and there he waited until he averaged that he should be at the cover and at work measuring the molasses. A minute later, after banging his fist on the steel roofing, he began to scream what Suresh had told him. He had not even removed the cover and so did not know if anything was inside the tank.
Company investigators, along with the police, eventually were able to come up with a plausible explanation for the missing molasses. They discovered that every fortnight, on Tuesdays, when the same security guard was on duty, truck drivers would pull into the compound and drive up to the tank. The security guard would take the key that Suresh had left with him, and with that he opened the lock on the steel box that contained the valve to the tank. The truck drivers would then drop the massive hoses into their tanks and fill up with molasses. The truckers were careful to remove any logo or names from their trucks and in fact painted their vehicles in the same color as the official company carriers. In this way they avoided suspicion. The truck drivers, however, were not the recipients of the stolen merchandise. They were just the carriers and some of them did not even know they were doing something illegal. Suresh had made his arrangements with dairy farmers who fed their animals with molasses and he had profited immensely from the trade, so much so that neighbors and colleagues soon began to view his activities with suspicion and ask questions. How can he afford such a large brick house and a nice, yellow Toyota Corolla on a store supervisors salary? And he always preempted the questions by using every forum to explain how blessed he was to have inherited land in Canal Polder No. 1 from his father and how he was able to sell it when the market was good. As to the car, it was a wreck that he purchased from the insurance company and had a friend rebuild for him. That was his consistent story and after a while no one bothered to ask. But after the fraud was discovered they all shook their heads as if to say, I knew it along. Suresh was fired and escorted like a prisoner out of the premises. He was fortunate that the company did not file any charges against him. The Company considered that he was a long serving employee, working there for almost twenty years, and that with a malfunctioning legal system it would have been a waste of time to go after his assets. Rumor has it that he has since been seen running his Toyota Corolla for private hire between Parika and Vreed-en-Hoop.
Then came December 1980, and as their firm geared up for inventory and stock counts, all the bad memories came back to haunt the two men. Hakim and Ramesh were still a team and they were assigned to perform inventory on Christmas Eve at one of the major oil companies operating in the country. The company held their oil storage in huge stainless steel containers in a fenced off area along the East Bank of the Demerara River, hemmed in by the East Bank public road and the river. This unique location allowed them to have access to both water and land for deliveries. When Ramesh heard of the assignment he shuddered. It brought back bad memories to him and he could not help expressing his apprehension.
Hakim, why are they giving us all the stock counts that require climbing on tall tanks? Do we look like Spiderman? I am not climbing anything higher than twenty feet. Thats it!
Dont worry! The tanks are not as high as those at the Distillery. And to besides, the company has not taken out insurance for us since the last incident. We will just have to be careful.
The storage compound was protected by 24-hour security and a high chain-linked fencing with barbed wire, like that of a prison yard. There were twenty-five tanks, lined in two rows with connecting pipes and valves between them, so that Tank No.1 was connected to No.2, Tank No.3 was connected to Tank No.4, and so on. The small office, no larger than an RV, was located about fifty yards from the gate, just behind the guardhouse. That morning, as the two men drove past the guardhouse they could hear the sounds of Christmas carols coming from a tape recorder in the office. As they unpacked their binders with inventory sheets and stepped up to the office door the Irving Berlin song, White Christmas, began to play.
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
As soon as the first stanza was completed they heard footsteps, the click of a key, and then the song stopped. White Christmas! Who in Guyana ever see white Christmas, eh, tell me! Then there was sucking of the teeth. And who does be dreaming about cold and snow? Must be them good living white people who have nothing else to do because it is not me!