Wednesday , 23 January 2019

Unmasking Absurdity

Patricia Pereira-Sethi

Do you recall the reaction of the mobile dealer when you showed up with a gadget that you had purchased from him, and which had died pronto, with its guarantee still intact? He immediately suggested that you must have dropped it or thrust it in water – even gone swimming with it. He looked at you suspiciously with a secretive smile when you said: no you did not drop it, neither on the floor nor in the water, and that you don’t believe in swimming with your mobile. From his vantage point, YOU were the culprit. Period. He simply could not accept the fact that the phone, which had suddenly conked out for no reason at all, probably had a manufacturing defect, a poor design or a faulty battery. He said just about anything to wiggle out of the guarantee, including the preposterous comment that the sweat from your palm seeped into the device to make it blink. And he had the audacity to recommend an expensive device, the latest model, to replace it.

If you go to the bank to seek an explanation for an unusual transaction that has occurred in your account with urgent messages to that effect on both your mobile and email id, they immediately inform you that you have probably made an error online which has brought it about. No, I have not gone online, you say, and again they look at you with sceptical smirks, and more especially given your senior citizen status. It then comes to pass that the move has been initiated by the bank itself at the headquarters level, and no one at the branch office is even remotely aware of it. In the mad dash for cashless, the main bank has bequeathed you a wallet without your permission, but you don’t want it. You want them to remove it, but they will try to convince you that it does not affect anything, so let it be. You don’t want it, you reiterate, and then they sheepishly add that there is nothing they can do at this stage. Fait accompli. Shades of Facebook. Have you ever tried to delete an account there?

You pay a whopping advance to the Electricity Department before you take a long trip, only to find out when you return that there is a threatening letter on your doorstep informing you that they will switch off all power if you don’t cough up your dues soonest. You storm over to the main office to ask them what happened to the payment you had advanced, and they look at you askance and have the gall to suggest that the cheque probably bounced. After several nerve-wracking days, which include more demands for money or else…, they admit that there was a “slight mistake”, without an ounce of shame. Or an apology. Or an explanation. The classic bureaucratic bulldoze.

They talk in terms of multiple crores when estimating wealth, as if a crore is the new benchmark for basic survival in this nation. But when people get killed, because of a flawed infrastructure which snaps and causes a terrible accident, they dole out a miserable lakh or less to the families of the dead to salve their consciences. Even if the relatives of the victims choose to sue, litigation would be locked up in the courts for umpteen years, and the end result probably would be another paltry handout; which makes the entire exercise fruitless and pointless.

When major fires or building collapses occur, bringing death and destruction in their wake, the owners of the establishments rarely get penalised. A lowly employee inevitably bears the brunt of the calamity: he is the one who will go to jail, he will be blamed for the indifference and callousness of an employer who was busy raking in the moolah at the cost of customer safety. Unfortunately, fall guys abound: these are the countless, impoverished young men who are trying desperately to eke out a living at menial jobs — they constitute cannon fodder for their employers.

Take the case of the Kamala Mills fire last December in Mumbai, which engulfed a high-flying, Tony restaurant and bar, snuffing out the lives of fourteen people and injuring sixteen. The sprinklers did not work, a section had been demarcated for hookah smoking, there were flammable materials on the rooftop where the bistro was situated. Completely unacceptable, by any building-code standard. After the initial hysteria in the press criticising the owners, the architects and the bureaucrats who renewed the establishment’s license despite innumerable safety violations, the episode spun into neutral gear and out of the public eye with time. Everyone went scot-free, perhaps a mild slap on the wrist, or they could have corroborated on a “fine”. The blame settled instead on a lowly employee: a 22-year-old waiter who was merely doing his job, serving the clients. According to his employer-accusers, Sayyed alias Shezad Ali had allegedly left his post, where he was manning burning coals, to attend to patrons. He was the perfect fall guy. Sayyed was arrested a month later. The big honchos probably patted each other on the back as they chortled with glee: they were off the hook at last. The cops had arrested the culpable character. Justice had been served!

It would appear that the well-heeled get away with all sorts of transgressions, while the poor man must face the fury of the law. Major fraudsters fizzle into rarefied overseas air-waves, while the rest have to produce cards and authentications, validations and verifications, to explain every move. An NRI recently related how a phone company demanded a notarised copy of the multi-page sales deed of his apartment, as proof that he lived there, in order to get himself a landline.

Life indeed is the sum-total of strange experiences!

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