The Accountable Link
Times's up!" Everyone stops writing and places his/her test papers on the desk of Professor Ted Birdsall.
"Young man, stop writing, time is up!"
I continue writing, frantically writing. It is hard to shed off a lifelong habit of studying till the last minute right up to the point of entering the "examination hall" or writing till the final minutes of a test, and in most cases, beyond. For some reason, being done on or before time, for us, means, something is amiss. That is why we need "time" to prepare for just about anything—preparatory leave of three weeks (extendable through processions) to "prepare" for the semester finals, LPR (Leave Preparatory to Retirement), aka, retire before retiring.
But Prof Birdsall means what he says. He doesn't snatch my answer sheet, but goes back to his desk. As I submit my answer paper, he smiles, takes my answer sheet, puts a "-5" in red on top of my answer sheet and reiterates: "When I say stop writing, I mean stop writing."
Then starts the typical deshi nagging for forgiveness. I would have expected a trail of angry retorts till the professor, in his mysterious (but predictable) magnanimity, would forgive me and strike out the red negative five. But he doesn't; nor is he angry in the slightest sense, but simply tells me: "Naveed [he knows everyone by their first name], I really need to get going with the class."
He starts his lecture, for the class test is a mere 10-minute affair. Every Monday taking up just ten minutes before the class lecture starts. Keeps us on our toes, but keeps us on top and fresh. The upside, we don't have to prepare for our finals, for we are prepared with the regular, weekly, cerebral workout. A far cry from the andolon we did during our first year in Buet when the class test system was introduced…
The class is over. But I follow Prof Birdsall to his office, hoping he would "forgive" me. No dice. I persist in my quest for erasing that negative five from my grades, something I know is going to cost me dearly in the long run. But he doesn't budge.
Three months later, the final grades are out. I get an A in a subject that is considered one of the toughest in the Masters in Electrical Engineering specialising in Digital Signal Processing. Professor Birdsall calls me into his office, congratulates me and adds, as a passing thought, "Oh, by the away, I erased that negative five for the late submission. With that still on your record, you'd be getting an A-…"
If you were to forgive (but surely not forget), then why the torment for a whole semester? What really was the big deal? But perhaps, this was to drive a message home. A message, that we, in Bangladesh perhaps don't take too seriously. We know we will forget, hence we know we will be forgiven. Since we know we will be forgiven, we will continue with our misdemeanours, and since we will continue with our misdemeanours, we will remain incorrigible, and since we will remain incorrigible, we will be the same lousy self we are.
And the best thing is that we know we can come up with an excuse. But no, this time I remembered the lesson of Professor Theodore Birdsall. I had told the cameraman to report (call time) at 8:30 am sharp so that we start taping of The Naveed Mahbub Show sharp at 9:00 am. He comes at 10:45 am. I decide not to yell and remain as calm as Professor Birdsall. We start taping at 11:30 am, we finish on time, but the editing barely starts as my editor has to leave at 1:00 pm for his weekend classes. He can come again at 9:00 pm, latest. He comes at 10:00 pm, being stuck in traffic. I can barely keep my eyes open to review the editing and besides, I fly out overseas early in the morning. My flight, the editor's classes, Dhaka traffic … all were factored in and the back calculation yielded 9:00 am as the ideal time to start rolling so as to finish the taping and the subsequent editing by 1:00 pm, by when the editor would leave for his classes, I would be done with an important task before my trip so that the show airs without a flaw even with me gone. But no, the cameraman shows up two hours late. Yet, I don't yell, but I pay him BDT 500 less than the total due. He doesn't leave, demands his full payment. But I tell him the cascading effects of his being two hours late. But he has a barrage of answers ready. As he is about start his salvo, I stop him: "You were late and that upset all my plans."
"But you need to listen to me! My assistant was supposed to come. He didn't pick up my phone…"
I smile. Let's see what else he has to say.
"Well, of all the previous times you hired me, you never started taping right away…"
Keep it going man, this is getting to be fun.
"I live in Muhammadpur you know …"
"I am very sorry. This will never happen again."
I just smile and say, "I'm sorry. But there really isn't much I can do. I know I feel like a scum bag, but I hope this will serve as a lesson for you regarding your professionalism."
"What will I tell my boss now?"
"Well, you tell him exactly what happened—you were late, and this is the penalty."
It broke my heart just as I'm sure it broke that of Prof Ted Birdsall's. But this will serve as a lesson for him. We always look for rewards without earning them. At least there should be a punishment for messing up big time. That is the lesson of accountability.
The writer is an engineer at Ford & Qualcomm USA and CEO of IBM & Nokia Siemens Networks Bangladesh turned comedian (by choice), the host of ATN Bangla's The Naveed Mahbub Show and the founder of Naveed's Comedy Club. E-mail: Naveed@NaveedMahbub.com