“Every debit must have a credit. They are two sides of the same coin,” explained Professor Abdul Hameed. “When I give you something, whether it’s a rupee or a banana, I credit myself to debit you,” he expanded, placing a banana on my table. I was flummoxed.
Prof Hameed taught accounting at the ND Kapur College of Commerce in Lahore in 1942. After school, I enrolled in a commerce degree at the college. I hailed from an agricultural family and was comfortable discussing the impact of protracted rains or inadequate sunshine on cotton buds. However, my father foresaw that managing numbers would reap a better future than growing wheat. Hence, he made me study accounting.
It was not easy, though. I agonised over the meaning of words such as “debit”, “credit”, “asset”, “liability” and “balance sheet”. I understood English words like “book” or “bicycle”. They were things that I could see. Accounting words such as “debit” and “credit” are transactions that cannot be seen, yet they occur whenever you exchange money or do business. It was very confusing.
Prof Hameed was a great teacher. He made dull and abstract accounting terminologies straightforward and memorable through examples. When he said, “Credit me when I give you a guava”, he took a guava from his pocket and put it in my hand. It was then mine to relish after class.
“Do not get lost in the figures, but look through the figures,” he counselled us constantly. “These figures tell you something happened. Understand what happened and why it happened.” Taking a mango out of his pocket, he said: “Look at this ripe mango. You can just eat it. But can you also discover where was it grown? Who grew it? How did it acquire this beautiful yellow colour?” We had young minds; we absorbed his words like dehydrated sponges.
Some of us who wanted extra coaching visited his home three times a week for private tuition. We would sit around a table and he would quiz us: “Why does a balance sheet balance?” Then he strolled around, giving each of us a piercing look, waiting for a response. He wanted us to ruminate over the question. We would try a range of replies hoping to be right. Finally when all of us failed, he would reveal: “Simple. A company cannot survive by owing more to the world than it has. Hence, the liabilities and assets have to equal each other.”
At night accounting figures and permutations swam in my mind. I had to stop thinking of sundry creditors and debtors so I could snatch some sleep.
After graduation, I often visited Prof Hameed at college or his home. Every meeting was enriching; he was a mine of accounting wisdom. During Eid, we would share saffron kheer (sweet rice).
Then came the desperation of partition in 1947. It was a fierce storm of anarchy and mayhem. We focused on moving to new homelands and restarting our broken lives from scratch. The networks of friendship and affection that we had woven with so much care were lost in a scorching blaze.
I moved to the newly formed India with my family and started to work. However, I continued to nourish my appetite for accounting. My work involved preparing company accounts or auditing them. There were no calculators or computers in the 1940s; we did all the calculations and aggregations manually. Perhaps this improved our agility with figures. Now, accounting software such a SAP and Oracle undertakes all the number crunching and prepares annual accounts. As a result, many youngsters have little feel for numbers. But to us, every number from 0 to 9 was full of charm and caprice, like a pretty girl.
Over the years, I got engrossed in the accounts of large corporations. However, I always remembered that the foundations of accounting had been firmly laid in my mind by Prof Hameed. His teaching style made me fall in love with figures, and his lessons saw me through a 50-year career in accounting and auditing.
I was reminded of Prof Hameed when I heard about the recent campaign by Google encouraging people to search for those they had lost contact with during partition. If only I could trace my old mentor and “salaam” him for helping me discover the magic of accounting all those years ago. Perhaps he’d invite me home for some of his delicious kheer.
Hari Chand Aneja is a 92-year-old former corporate executive who now keeps busy with charity work