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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Sweets new legal tender in Goa

I do not really like to shop. I make a list, go to the shop and realize that I have left my list at home. Then I fix the grocer with a glittering eye and will him to remember everything I wrote on that list.

Another thing is calculating change. Sometimes the numbers just don’t seem to add up but one has to pretend to look mathematical and walk out with the change in one’s hand. Then I calculate and re-calculate all the way home or to the next shop. For instance I have trouble with numbers like 38. If I proffer a hundred-rupee note, at the immediate point of transaction I know I should receive Rs. 62 as change but somehow my brain tells me, you havta get 72, 72, 72…

Now there’s a new complication. Sweets. Sweets have become the new legal tender in the larger stores and in certain pharmacies. In the past they would round off a .50 paise piece of change they owed you and offered you a sweet instead, generally a mint or a cough lozenge. Later they went into Eclairs and toffees in lieu of Re 1 change. Now they hand over five cough lozenges if they have to give you Rs 5 change. This is annoying, not just to me, but to my friend Omlet. He sat himself down, looked earnest and said, “Tell me, since when have sweets become legal tender?”

I understand his pain, because frankly this sweet business distresses me in no small measure. Now I have to calculate the cost of the sweets, then I have to find out the wholesale rate of the sweet, then I have to calculate how much extra the shop cashier is bilking me of in terms of change. Five sweets at wholesale rate are a mere fraction of the change actually due to me, this I discover as I am digging out bits of sweets that have lodged in my teeth, spawning brand new cavities and blood-sugar levels, while my mind and other nine fingers are calculating cost of sweets and amount of change due to me.

In the past they made it very easy, they gave you your change in the form of a token, which was a pretty neat thing, because it guaranteed that you would return to the shop to get back your Re 1 or Rs 2 or Rs 5. It made for more footfalls as I think they say in business and the shortchanged person did not feel shortchanged since he could come back and use that change towards buying more stuff.

Some shop owners had the wonderful idea of keeping postage stamps of many denominations, but with the advent of email, stamps were stamped out. With the amount of diabetics in Goa, sweets are about as useful to them as a stamp to someone who does all his communication online. I am diabetic, I cannot take your sweets does not seem to work, so the only option which seems to work in the big stores is to return the goods with the proper amount of regret and lo and behold the change is instantly forthcoming.

Change shortages are cyclical – like kurtis and three-quarter tights, and it happened in the late seventies, in Bombay. The BEST bus conductors used to make a good commission selling coins to shopkeepers and agents. They terrorized hapless commuters into forking over exact change for tickets. One such Incident happened to me: gimme change he said in chaste Marathi, I replied in foul Marathi, you have lots of change in your bag; it is bulging. The other passengers laughed. You get off; he told me and rang the bell to stop the bus. I told him I would; provided he opened his bag and showed me that he had no change. We glared at each other until the rest of the commuters began shouting that they were getting late, then he jerked the cord, the bus moved on, but he refused to take my money or issue me a ticket. I told the commuters, you are witnesses; he is refusing to take my fare. He took my fare, dug into his bulging bag and gave me my change and my ticket.

Sometimes self-righteousness works.

Bonding thru train travel

Nothing can beat the fun of train travel, second class, sleeper. Travelling by air-conditioned coach is more comfortable, cleaner, quieter, but it does not have the warmth and camaraderie that the second class sleeper has. Booking my reservation even a month beforehand I was informed that no AC reservation would be available that I would have to travel to Chennai by Second Class. The route is hot and muggy and I will sweat, I told the booking clerk. Window will be open modom, not to worry, she said.

Actually until I discovered AC III a few years ago, the second class sleeper was a regular mode of travel for me especially when my kids were growing up. And they loved train travel. You could eat, you could move around, you had moving scenery outside any window, they found the toilets wildly adventurous, the people were interesting and all sorts of goodies could be bought and consumed without any hassles. A startling amount of cucumbers, raw mango, sukha bhel, monkey nuts and wada pao made their way into normally fussy tummies.

Kids serve a purpose. They are a passport to fun times and allow you to lose yourself in the magic of childhood especially when traveling. During this trip to Chennai however, I was doing it alone. The kids had grown up and left and I solemnly checked out my compartment and found two foreign women sitting opposite me.

I hate the way my countrymen and women fawn on white skinned and fair-haired people, so I lean the opposite way to maintain some sort of balance I guess. I gave them both a disinterested look, but kept them firmly in my peripheral vision. The younger woman, sturdy in an orange kurta and black salwar had finished her orange drink and was making ready to throw the plastic bottle out of the train window on to the tracks at Vasco.

Why I did it, I’ll never know, but I gave her a frosty look and said, please don’t throw that bottle out, put it in the bin near the wash basin. Her jaw dropped but she picked it up and her bottle and moved towards the washbasin area saying, Wow, this is the first place in India there are rules against littering. Everywhere else, it’s throw it outta da window. She came back a good ten minutes later huffing and puffing. There was no bin near the wash basin she said and she had to gallop down the platform to find a bin to throw the bottle away and gallop back to the train. I felt bad but laughed instead and was laughing the other side of my face when I found that I could not throw my empties outta da window, but had to practise what I preached and keep them neatly in my bag until I reached Chennai.

It took an hour to discover that all prejudices disappear with train travel. A Tamil family using the bunks next to ours, the two foreign women, a man from Karnataka who knew facts about everything and myself bonded in a camaraderie that was warm, funny and alive with laughter. Especially when we all emptied out our collection of empty coffee cups, wafer and wada packets into a bin at Chennai Central rail station.

‘Enough’ is a good word

I would vote for anyone who used the word “Enough” as their slogan. Life would be so much better if everyone learned to use the word enough. It’s a good word. Enough. I have robbed and cheated enough people to support two generations of my family, now I will stop. Enough.

I have destroyed enough hills and fields with constructions that my neighbours will never afford to buy. I have made enough for six generations of my family, now I will stop. Enough.

I have taken enough bribes and kickbacks, passing illegal structures, dangerous structures and destroying evidence. There is enough in my banks and vaults to keep my great grandchildren in luxury. Now I will stop. Enough.

I have dug out enough from the earth of Goa, I have destroyed enough hills and fields and once deep sparkling rivers are now sluggish muddy streams, but I have made enough for my children and their grandchildren to live a great life abroad. Now I will stop. Enough.

I have taken enough money to look the other way, there’s enough for two generations. Now I will stop. Enough.

I have not done my job properly for years, demanding and getting pay increases. My children and grandchildren will be guaranteed a government job. Now I will start doing the job I have been employed to do. Enough.

I have always lived in a universe peopled by one. I will open my eyes and see that there are billions in my universe and we all need to pull together, so that billions in the future can live comfortably. Now I must start thinking of cause and effect. Enough.

I will stop playing with people’s lives and futures in order to win a seat in the Assembly. I have gathered enough of a fortune for generations to come. Enough. Now, let me do the job the electorate have trusted me to do.

I will stop expecting free lunches, it’s getting me nowhere. I will now earn my daily bread and enjoy doing it. I will stop blaming everyone else for my failures. Enough.

I will stop throwing plastic bags full of my garbage into rivers and fields and lonely corners. It may kill me one day, or my children or grandchildren. It’s killing Goa anyway. I will stop. Enough.

I will stop sitting in my balcao and saying they are all so corrupt, we can do nothing. It is time to get out there and right the wrongs that are taking place under my nose. I will stop renting out my premises to a paedophile, a pimp, a terrorist or a drug lord. I will report them to the police and throw them out. The wads of cash I earn from rent cannot wipe away the tears of the innocent. Enough.

I will stop using my knowledge of terrible things that are taking place in Goa to entertain others at parties and other functions. I will stop talking. I will now act. If I cannot actually take to the streets, I will join others who do. Talk is cheap. No more talking. Enough.

And finally. This column is meant to be a mirror to the comic irony of life. This is not comic. I will stop. Enough.

Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme

The peon had his finger way up his nose when he told me that the clerk I had to see was not on his seat. It was as clear as the nose on his face, finger and all, that the clerk was not on his seat. Where is he, I asked. Out he said. When is he coming back? He did not know. There were three other frustrated looking members of the public who had come to the government department. They asked the other staff members who looked at the desk as though for an answer and shrugged, come in half an hours’ time, said one. Can anyone else do his work? No, they said, half an hour’s time. Half an hour’s time would be lunchtime, so I timed my arrival for 2.00 pm. No luck. The peon too had gone for a walk and the others were picking remnants of lunch from their teeth. Many desks were empty.

Went to pay my electricity bill. The window was open but the individual who took the cheque and stamped the bill was not around. Another bill-payer came in and stood at the side of me. We both looked sadly and silently at the empty chair. Five long minutes later I approached one of the clerks in the department behind the chair. I have come to pay my bill, I said. You have to stand outside that window, he said. I said, I know, I have been standing outside that window but there is no one there. Where is the person who takes the payment? He’s there, he said, gesturing to a man who was entertaining some other clerks with what must have been a very witty anecdote. They were all laughing. I went to a desk on the periphery of his adoring audience and asked a female employee to call him. She did and he looked impatiently at her, at me and then continued with his story. I have come to pay my bill, I said in clear, carrying tones, the window is open but there is no one here. Who is supposed to be taking payments? Wait five minutes, he said shortly. I said it is 3.15, I have already waited more than five minutes. He muttered something under his breath which embarrassed his colleagues and he walked with what looked like a classic case of creeping paralysis, to his station. He moodily took my bill, checked the cheque, moodily stamped the receipt while the other bill payer behind me, said, only they have to work, we don’t have anything to do. Except pay their salaries, I said.

Years ago sitting in the Administrative Tribunal, there was a power breakdown and the fans stopped whirring, the lights went off. That was all the use the court had for electricity, but the judge in his black robes, felt the heat and retired to his chamber until such time as the electricity would be restored. I decided to go out for a cup of tea because my case would come up for hearing in an hour’s time. I returned in less than an hour, the power had only just returned, but fresh dates were being given. Why? I don’t know if the lawyer was joking, but he said the judge had removed his robes and court was adjourned. As easy as that. Many litigants had come from out of town.

With so many urban poor committing suicide due to unemployment, and members of the public contemplating either suicide or murder because of work not being done, here’s an idea. Many government servants sign the register in the morning and then like grasshoppers they hop in and out of the office as and when they like. With an Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme, the grasshoppers’ jobs could easily be given to someone else for 100 days with the unemployed person getting 50 percent of the hopper’s gross salary while he could sit at home with half pay. This would serve many purposes. He will make sure he works diligently in the future, the unemployed person earns good money and work experience. If he is good at his work, the department can call him again, or place him elsewhere. The common man gets his work done and everyone is happy. All round it looks like a win-win situation.

Deflation over inflation

Made me laugh, it did, when a national channel spoke to wealthy residents of New Delhi to find out how shattered they are by the rising prices. Their correspondent spoke to this woman wearing expensive dark glasses pushed up on her colour-rinsed hair, her shiny made-up skin glowing healthily in the morning sun and the thought crossed my mind that just the cash she spent at a beauty parlour from her chin upwards to the ends of glossy shoulder-length hair on her head would be enough to feed a widowed Thane tribal grandmother for a year. Throw in her designer shades and you could build a small hut for the old tribal left to starve to death by her family.

I’m talking of the Thane tribals because the same channel did a feature on the prevailing custom of the tribals of Thane who first feed the men of the family, then the children, the mothers and starve the elderly. One grandson is looking after his grandmother even as she tells the correspondent that her son, the father of her benefactor, tells him to throw her out and let her die in a ditch.

The wealthy, one learns have to tighten the old budget belt by buying cheaper brands of processed foods and cutting down on eating out. The poor, one learns, buy less, eat less and starve those who cannot earn. Never mind that only recently a law was passed which makes children duty bound to look after their aged parents by law, failing which they could face arrest and prison.

My trillionaire friend was also upset with the rising prices. How will I save anything, he said. You with your 27 cars and 45 chauffeurs, cannot save? I asked. The cost of fuel is shooting up so much I have had to cancel my order for three new SUVs this week, he said. Tsk, tsk, I said. Everything has gone up, rice, dal, vegetables, edible oil, fish, meat, chicken. I tell you the horror is upon us; my chef will have to prepare meals for me in my own kitchen, I won’t be able to eat out every day of the week, he said. I pointed out that he was always invited to Page 3 parties, where he got free booze, drugs and food.

He ignored that and said that the biggest horror of all is there are rising prices in the market and falling prices in the stock market. These are dark days indeed, he said. Looking for a lighter note I said pity you can’t even eat the share certificates, since everything is dematted now. He ignored that too and said he couldn’t vacation in Switzerland, or Japan, this month, and that he’d have to go to Bangkok with all the poor people. It’s awful, he said.

There’s always Goa you can do the holiday thing with, and you’ll save on air fare, I said.

Goa’s become too expensive. Even the real estate prices have gone mad; to buy two flats I had to sell five of my old ones, he said.

Life is as uncertain for you as it is for the poorest of the poor, I said. They are the lucky ones: they never have any money, so rising prices make no difference to them, he said. Then why are so many farmers committing suicide? I said. He said they were doing that before inflation and their problems started with money; when they took loans from moneylenders for weddings, hybrid seeds, etc. What is your point, I asked. The secret of tackling rising prices is to have no money at all, he said. Great, so give everything away, give it all to me, I said. Wealth is a curse, I could never be so cruel to you, he said.