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In college in Poona, paying a few rupees to the peon to jump a queue or have an attendance register falsely altered was routine. It was rumoured that Duttoo and Nathhoo, shabby in their khaki attire, subservient to the point of embarrassment to the Principal and Deputy, were rich men through these practices, and - perish the thought - worse.

There were whispers of a question paper in the degree exam being smuggled out of the hall, couriered to a team nearby that answered it using texts and smuggled it back before time was called. Such was the power of peons - and of course such was the simple power of the factotum corrupted.

The word peon, pretentiously pronounced in some quarters as P-one, originated in Spanish America. It meant a peasant who was a virtual slave to the landlord, the conquistador. It was acquired by the British and passed into use in the colonies as a subservient person. With the British gifts for irony and contempt, the office-boy was called a 'peon'.

The British went but the word stayed and passed into Indian usage. What started out in Spanish America in exploitation and cruelty, and passed through the English at first ironically and then as a caste in the bureaucracy, became an Indian word with all the degradation that 'low' professions carry.

When I was in college I couldn't afford to bribe Nathhoo and Dattoo in order to jump queues, have attendances filled or to run relays of cheated exam papers. But their power to do these things gave them a mystique, relieving their status as the poor wretches who would, at a grunt, fetch the brandy bottle from under the office table because one of the professors was too fat and drunk to bend over to get it.

(A weekly column on Indian words in common use in Indian cities).

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