Musings

Losing your voice

I’m sitting outside a government office. This is one of the best offices in the city, I was told when I was first ushered in. This is now my third time here in the last month. I need to get some documents verified. A creaky fan dispels hot air. The water cooler looks like the khus hasn’t been changed since five years. And it is over forty degrees Celsius outside. The chairs in the waiting area are full of men and women of all ages from 18 to 80, quietly whispering to each other. No one talks loudly. They gossip far more loudly outside my room in the hospital, I think.

By my third visit, I have befriended the spider weaving its web in the left upper corner of the room and admire how it has skillfully expanded its domain in the last fortnight. By now, I have read, deciphered and crammed all the long officious instructions on the boards despite my feeble knowledge of administrative Marathi. My eyes keep returning to the board which states that the official time for verification of documents is 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. I have been waiting since 11 a.m. I just need to get a photograph clicked, a thumb impression taken and to sign a document, I am told. It will take all of five minutes. My papers are in order and I’m third in the queue. I just have to wait for Madam to arrive.

It is now 12.45 p.m. My stomach begins to grumble and my throat is parched. I notice that the more experienced of the people waiting have brought dabbas with them. At 1.00, Madam walks in. I am lucky. On my last visit, she arrived at 2.15 p.m. and was gracious enough to work in the lunch break.

I’m waiting to be called, my innards twisting with the smell of food opened near me. Around twenty people have gone in before me and the empty chairs have been replaced by newer people. What in the world is happening? I was supposed to be third in the queue. This is the backlog from yesterday which is being cleared, I am told.

My eyes flit to a temporary board swinging on a string hung on a door knob. Lunch time: 2 p.m. to 2.30 p.m. I panic. If this is not done today, I cannot afford to come tomorrow. I have been granted leave just for today. Promptly at two, the door shuts. I dare not leave the seat, as my place in the queue will be lost. There are no washrooms in sight.

Post the lunch break, the verification process begins. People wait patiently for their turns. I calm my rumbling stomach with some chikki that I find in my purse. At 4.15 p.m. I am called inside. There are around fifteen people crowding around the long table. I reach the person sitting on an archaic desktop computer. He clicks my picture with a web camera. And then keeps me waiting. Five minutes stretch to fifteen. “The server is down,” he says apologetically. “It is such a small thing, but transmitting this information centrally takes ages.” I am asked to sign at four places, pay some fees, and my thumb imprint is taken. My work is done. I look at my watch. It is 4.45 p.m. Had I come 15 minutes later, I would have been asked to report the next day. I thank my Gods and go home to grab lunch.

The Indian citizen is a roaring lion when he screams at an airline employee over a flight delayed due to bad weather conditions. He is a bull in a china shop, smashing nursing homes to smithereens, when a doctor says he has done all he could but can’t save a dying patient. But when it comes to objecting to the tardiness of a bureaucrat or government employee who doesn’t come on time, he loses his voice and becomes a silent lamb. It is easier to keep quiet rather than face backlash. When it comes to asking a politician to be accountable, voicing your concerns maybe dangerous. Scamper out of sight like a mouse or you might be targetted for being anti-national.

It is a game of power. And it depends on what you lose in the bargain. Haven’t we lost enough already ?

(Featured painting: ‘Voiceless: A disjointed portrait’, by Bryan Hillary)

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