Friday, June 23, 2006

Systematically annoyed

I get a free ride into town these days because Uncle J comes to the gym with me. And having asserted himself as bigger (6’2”), stronger (years and years of weightlifting) and wealthier (goes without saying) than me, I’m exempt from sharing the auto fare and I’m also spared the long walk to the bus stop from home.

So this morning, right in the middle of an enthralling discussion about plagiarism and ethics in education systems all over the world, he pointed to the meter and let out a slow whistle.

'Seventy seven bucks?!' I gasped, 'We haven’t even reached!'
It’s usually fifty, give or take a few rupees.
And I raised my voice and screamed questions to the driver as he sped down the near-empty streets. He pretended like he couldn’t hear me over the sound of the wind screeching in his ears and I told Uncle J to pay our usual fare because we’d been using the same route by rickshaw everyday. Give him fifty, I said.
And with all my arguing, the driver finally decided to bring the eighty buck fare down to sixty. But still.

And then, Uncle J took out three ten rupee notes and pressed it into the guy’s hand along with the fifty we had already given him. I stomped my foot (yes, I really do this sometimes) and watched the auto speed away as soon as he got the extra money.
Now it wasn't the amount so much as the behaviour of the autodriver. Because in principle it’s wrong to cheat people when they’ve agreed to pay for a service anyway. He could have asked us for extra fare. I've paid one and a half before. I told Uncle J that it was obvious the guy’s meter had been tampered.
'You really shouldn’t have given him that extra money. We travel the same distance everyday.'

So he looks at me and says, 'Don’t worry I’ve got the license plate number and his name and his driver’s license number from the display board behind his seat. I’ll give the information to the police. They should be able to do something.'
And he watched my jaw hit the ground.
'Well, that’s what the police are for, right? If they can’t do something, they should feel pretty useless,' he reasoned.

Now Uncle J is a wonderful wonderful person. He teaches doctoral students and travels the world with my aunt. He’s American and is completely at home with our loud Bengali family and our loud Bengali meals. He’s a great cook and is a complete gentleman. I’ve never seen him upset and have never ever heard him raise his voice. He’s the kind of person who hopes subtlety and irony will make themselves known to offending parties, thereby resulting in a much more powerful insult to the perpetrator.
When he and my aunt travel around India, he takes offence at being charged ten times the amount of money for an entry ticket to visit historical monuments and tourist attractions. When they went to the Taj Mahal he looked at my aunt and said ‘But you’re as much of a foreigner as I am!’ And while pishi roamed about, admiring the exquisite ancient marble and taking photographs of the setting sun, Uncle J sat patiently outside the compound, reading his book and sipping chai. Did they change the If You Don’t Look Indian You Don’t Pay Indian rule because of this quirky tantrum of his?
I don’t think so.

So when Uncle J grabbed me by the shoulders and steered me away from the road towards the gym, I told him I was very angry with him. He laughed and said I was very impatient for someone hoping for social change.
'You need to use the system that’s in place for these things,' he explained.
Use the system? Oh, you mean the system that we’ve all learnt to ignore? The system we avoid because it serves no purpose other than to mock us? That system?

The system didn’t change when I watched a man die of hunger right in front of me in Kalahandi, Orissa. The local communities called it a natural death. There is nothing natural about having no food to eat. The system didn’t change when we went to the District Collector complaining that the tribals were dying because they didn’t have the rations that were promised to them. And as we speak, the system knows that there are tonnes and tonnes of foodgrains in this country lying in godowns in various stages of rot.
The system didn’t change when adivasi women were being violated by the mine construction workers who first took their land and then the jobs that were promised to their husbands by way of compensation packages. The system ignored all my project proposals for involving women’s groups in slum development. (Yes, but how silly of me, the system didn’t tell me that all the slums were scheduled to be demolished later on.)
The system doesn't empathise with eunuchs who sell their bodies at the risk of getting AIDS because that’s all they believe they can do with their lives. Because the system makes them believe that. The system didn’t help when I went to the police station to file an FIR against a group of guys in a Sumo who were trying to nudge me off the road when I was driving home alone one night. The system left me feeling naiive and even more harassed in the cop station.

So when I continued to stomp and frown and explain all these things to Uncle J, he said he’d try nonetheless. That one must never get too exasperated (like me) and one must trudge on, undaunted. Even if it looks stupid. Even if people say there’s no way to beat the system. We need to use it, if only to prove how futile the system is. And only then will things begin to change.

But didn’t you hear what I just said? Nothing is going to come of your complaining.
Well, he said calmly, if nothing came of it, he’d write an article for the newspaper.

Yeah, well.
There’s a good reason why I’m not a journalist anymore, Uncle J.