Dirt Papered Over

A gentleman named Chick Ambrass, subscriber to E-Sylum, the e-mag of the Numismatic Bibliomania Society, asks in the midst of the clink of coins and medals, “Any idea what a ‘chit’ is?” He’s been reading a paper money catalogue titled “Military Payments and Chits”, but has found nothing labeled a “chit”.

The editor of E-Sylum thinks a “chit” is a paper or cardboard token having redemption value. But can readers throw light on the word he asks?

I’m instantly hooked. For years I have pondered over the “clean chits” that get thrown around in our country like confetti, wondering who started it all. I have also wondered at the syntactical strangeness of the phrase. Clean chit, like clean laundry? Meaning a chit that is clean? Blank?  Nonsense. The adjective “clean” attaches itself, not to “chit” but to the person who has been accused of dirt. Like Guru Ramdev. The clean chit he got from the Uttaranchal government stated categorically that the medicines from his pharmacy “did not test positive for animal or human remains”. The ball was then in the accuser, Brinda Karat’s court. She is not known to have tossed it back.

Syntax settled, the question, who had started it all, remains. Turning to E-Sylum for light, I find a thin gleam. Bill Spengler, describing himself as "an old South Asia hand (seven years with the Foreign Service in Pakistan and many in and  out of India)” cites an entry in Nigel B. Hankin's parody of "Hobson-Jobson", entitled "Hanklyn-Janklin", (New Delhi 1992). Here, under “Chit-chitty” appears the following: “To receive, or give, a good (or bad) chit: a reference to a written commendation (or censure), or a favourable (or unfavourable) report.” And then, hallelujah, appears the phrase itself : “A clean chit: the equivalent of  an unblemished report." If “Hanklyn-Janklin” has listed “clean chit”, then who are we to question its use, however quaint?

Usage established, I give up on journalistic history. Reluctantly, I relegate “clean chit” to the area of darkness in which other samples of Indian journalese like “s/he quipped” and “wee hours of the morning” reside. But I’m impressed by the cleverness of replacing the weighty “exonerated”, “acquitted” or “absolved” with the home grown “clean chit”, because it doesn’t take itself so seriously. I can imagine a “Person In Authority” asking his PA to send over half-a-dozen of these light-weight things when dirt flies around fast and furious.

An inquiry officer recently appointed by the UP government to investigate the affairs of a Chief Secretary arraigned for corruption, is known to possess a stock of clean chits. She has given one to this Chief Secretary; she had given one earlier to a similarly “tainted” Chief Secretary, and another to a Senior Provincial Services Officer of the State before that.

By virtue of their lightness, clean chits are never regarded as the last word on any matter. Last month the General Secretary of CPI, A. B. Bardhan criticised the State government of West Bengal for giving a clean chit to the police over the Dinhata firing incident. Then there was the battle between clean chits and dirty chits in the Coca Cola pesticides affair.

On Sunday another twist was added to this drama, bringing the linguistic journey of the chit back to where it started.

Hobson-Jobson  tells us that the word “chit” comes from Hindi/Marathi “Chitthi”. On Saturday R. R. Patil, our Home Minister gave a clean chit to the police inspector from Sangli who had lathi-charged the mob protesting against “Jodha-Akbar”. On Sunday, a Marathi newspaper transcribed “clean chit” in Devnagari as a single word “cleanchit” turning an export into an import.

But I wish the Home Minister had carried a few more clean chits with him to Sangli. He could have given one to Ashutosh Gowarikar too while he was about it, absolving him of “distorting history”. Someone needs to do that. Soon.

Published On : 19-06-2014