I was away on a break from my humdrum existence. I was still floating on cloud nine, having recently returned from a long holiday in the Land of Hope and Glory. In that country, as in most of the developed world, everything worked like clockwork. Right from the time when, if you called their police for help, or just by dialling ‘911,’ for any other sort of emergency. It was a given that you received a response within minutes of your call. Government mandatory documents or payments are online. No time-wasting tramps to government offices, begging and beseeching the powers-that-be, to release the requested documents to us as the bonafide applicants. All transactions are lucidly transparent, and the exact amount is expected to be directly paid online into government accounts. Ho! Hum! If such practices were followed in India…then life would be really boring, I am guessing.
I put away my memories of recently visited rose-tinted economies. Sigh! Unfortunately, I was forced to make a visit to one such den of Indian inequity,the Regional Transport Office. This department is second in line in infamy, only to the top-of-the pops-land-deals Department of Revenue. Girding my loins, I resolutely set out that day. A less doughtier soul than I, might have had second thoughts on entering the hallowed portals. Not me. I reached my destination. Before me stood this multi-storied, decrepit building, complete with it’s ubiquitous embellishments of peeling plaster, fungoid paintwork,and broken windows and drunken doors hanging rakishly askew, on their rusty hinges.The building had “government office” writ large upon it, in invisible ink.
I needed to visit a department on the top floor, and not seeing a lift, I trooped up the narrow, winding staircase, with broken and chipped treads.En route I was accosted by dubious looking men, asking me,”Medaam! You want DL renewal, RC book updation, address proof, change of address yaanyting alse, I can do.” These were the “Yaygents”, in the local language, “Agents”, if you like, in the Queen’s English.They were the life blood of such offices. If you wanted any routine endorsement done on your Transport Department documents, these were the Fixers. They completed the job in under the given time-frame…for a hefty commission. Multiple visits were unnecessary, nor rubbing shoulders with the milling millions. Short of changing your country of birth, your ethnicity or your face, everything else was taken care of. Sweeping the dubious aside, I continued my climb. I meandered past grimy walls, pan stained corners, garbage strewn spots, even a locked door, with a sign proclaiming it to be a “Public Toilet.” Fleetingly I wondered why the powers-that-be wasted their time in hanging such a sign.In most instances our noses lead us unerringly to such public conveniences. As to why these toilets, meant for the public, needed to be locked, that was beyond me. By the time I reached the third floor, I was hot, and very nearly, bothered.
On an earlier visit to this office, I had handed in a document for renewal. Sweating humanity, all male, milled about me. Various ripe odours assailed my nostrils. Of the great unwashed, of sickeningly overpowering, locally manufactured, “Old Spice,” cologne, or of what somebody might have eaten earlier that day, for breakfast! I stood in the scraggly line, an apology for a queue, to break into which, many of my countrymen take pride upon themselves to frequently do. There is no such thing as “your personal space” in public spaces, in our country. Maybe because our population exceeds a billion, maybe because our’s is a true democracy, and “your space” also belongs to the “publics,” again, as said in local parlance. I had all my supporting documents for the renewal, neatly compiled, pinned together and had gone to the correct department and the exact counter, to hand it over for processing. My turn came, the self important ‘Case Worker’ behind the counter looked up, then beyond me. He saw that I was not accompanied by any likely looking ‘Yaygent,’ and promptly lost interest in me, as I was not a potential contributor to his secret retirement fund. Mr.Self Important leisurely engaged in light-hearted banter with a loitering colleague, answered a call on his mobile, solicitously enquired of his caller, “Thindi aiyata”, which would loosely translate into, “Hello! How are you?” He ignored me. I stood my ground. He eventually decided I had been made to wait a fair amount of time, and curtly asked for my documents. Handing them over, I waited. He read. The next moment my papers were flung back across the table to me. In thunderous tones I was informed that as my documents were not properly pinned together, I was merely wasting his time, apart from preventing him from carrying on with his work. I realized that my mouth had fallen agape at this unexpected tirade, so I hurriedly instructed my jaw to shut it. I gathered the by now scattered pages, to rearrange the sheets. I was trembling at this unwarranted censure, trembling with rage, at a public servant’s shameless greed and frustration at my not being his pigeon for easy plucking. In loud and very clear tones I demanded what Mr.Self Important thought of himself by his outrageous behaviour, considering his pay packet was the fruit of my hard work and taxes. Since by then I had exhausted by meagre command over words in the local language, and yet having many mouthfuls to spew at Mr.Self Important, I continued, in full spate, in English. I informed him that his job was to serve us, the members of the ‘Publics,’ for which he was suitably compensated, and not to bully us in a bid to reduce us to quivering blancmange. So there! You could hear many pens drop in the hushed silence that followed . The motley office staff craned their necks to see which mere woman had dared raise her voice against powerful Mr.Self Important. A man with an air of being the Supervisor, apprehensively emerged from behind the nether regions of a dusty cupboard, a file folder in hand. A lone fellow sufferer from the outer ring of fellow applicants was heard saying, “Yes Saar! Aall these peoples are the same, not satisfied with their pay, they want us to come through Yaygents, yand then they can get their commission.” Heads swivelled, Mr.Self Important turned a visible shade of puce, looked around shiftily, and tried retrieving his earlier blustering self important position by pushing a few pens and papers fussily around his table. On his Supervisor’s advice, he sullenly handed me my receipt. Bout One to Mr.Self Important.
I had waited patiently for a week, extended this to ten working days, and after a wait of three weeks and no document, I had embarked, a second time earlier this morning, upon this fact finding mission. The extended festival week end, of one of our Indian festivals, Dusshera, had concluded recently. Ironically, this was the festival symbolizing the triumph of Good over Evil. Embodied by the Goddess Durga Devi. On this visit I headed to the top of the food chain, to the office of the head honcho of the Transport Authority. His fluttering minions were largely ignored. I knocked, and walked into a large official, opulently decorated room. I was pleasantly surprised at the courtesy shown me by the government officer. Reading through my letter of complaint, the boss was most apologetic. After hearing me out, he rang for a senior assistant staff, ordering him to escort me back to the concerned department, have the staff there look into my problem, and report back to him without delay. Quite mollified, and inwardly exulting, I set forth to get justice and my work done. The flunky, my letter now in his hand, ushered me solicitiously out towards our new destination. In the corridors of power, many supplicants there were in our path, who upon seeing Big Boss’ flunky, fluttered around him, making breathless, earnest enquiries about their own pending jobs. With a regal dismissive wave of his hand, saying “Later, later. Saar has ordered me to escort this Medam to get her important wurk done first,” the flunky swept them aside. We proceeded to our destination, with a determined section of the die-hards hot on our heels. We reached a room, that looked familiar. It was Mr.Self Important’s department. I was invited into the holy of holies, faintly protesting that I was quite comfortable on the other side of the counter, in the supplicants enclosure, meant for lesser mortals of the helpless public. The flunky wouldn’t hear of it.”Remember Medam, that Saar was very particular that your wurk is satisfactorily completed?” I adjusted my halo, and walked into the den of iniquity. I looked curiously around for Mr.Self Important, and thought we passed a familiar, but cringing figure, now resolutely turning his face away from us. On closer examination the hallowed precincts of this department looked even seedier, if that were possible. Mismatched, ancient wooden office furniture, work tables, complete with baize green table cloths hanging to the floor. How convenient I thought. Maybe the origin of that term, “under the table,” for ill-gotten gains, must have been coined at just such a place. But one would have to be a very brave soul to have the temerity to lift the cloth off such tables, to peek into the treasure troves lying beneath! To get back to unraveling the mystery of the return of my document. I was hurriedly offered a chair, by many of the staff. I had concluded by then that that Mr. Self Important and his cronies had decided to teach, in the first bout, this mere woman, a lesson in harassment. My Self Addressed Envelope, a part of the required supporting ‘documents’ in my original application, with my completed form, was ‘found’ under a pile of papers, and displayed to me with nearly an exultant ‘abracadabra.’ Feigning ignorance of ever having made my acquaintance, Mr Self Important tried explaining to me that the Transport Department had not delayed returning my papers on schedule, by postal delivery. “See Medam,” said he, pointing to my envelope, “Look, look! It is saying here ‘Door Locked’!” I understood that this legend explained to me, meant that there was nobody at my home address to sign and take delivery of the letter. Since my stamped envelope was merely for ordinary postal delivery, and did not require a signature in acknowledgement, I was stumped for words,at their quick-thinking reply, to absolve themselves of any wrong doing. I asked for my document, and hastily signed a paper saying, “Hand Delivered to Consignee.” With my precious paper safely in my bag, and in silken tones, I fired a parting salvo at the bower, scraper and hand-wringer, now handing my document back. “Sir. My mobile number is written on this envelope, along with my address. So was there any reason that I could not be informed over over the phone about the document being ready?” Bower-Scraper was not fazed at this nugget of obvious information. Not missing a step, and in admiring tones he replied, “Medam you are great!” In wonder, I thought, “Full marks for chutzpah!”
Dusshera Devi triumphed. She had won the Final Bout. The winner’s bell was ringing.