Great Encounters with Indian Bureaucracy: Phone and Internet (Part 1)

I spent much of my first four weeks in India telecommuting from an internet cafe in a tatty district of Frazer Town, Bangalore. And often next to young men who had a great enthusiasm for pornography. It was all on accoDSCF0950unt of my first encounter with Indian bureaucracy: namely my attempt to get an internet line and phone connection up at home. And while, at the time, the grunts and groans of fornication inside that dusty, sweaty cafe, and the sound of temples bells and rickshaw horns from the street beyond, were a distraction, I don’t regret the fact that it took four weeks at all. It was invigorating, somehow, to be forced out of my cosy apartment and on to the Indian streets every day. I learned a thing or two about fortitude; and about my arrogant impatience towards the way things are done here.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start with some arrogant impatience.
This is how it works. First, you see some lovely air-brushed, billboards of people enjoying Airtel, one of the top Internet service providers. In indian advertisements, people are inebriated by technology. Their eyes are glazed, their mouths curled into shit-eating smiles. It is as if, with that technology, nothing else matters, that they could lie in their own faeces, grinning and content.
Next, feeling a bit tipsy at the thought of a high-speed internet connection, you visit the shiny Airtel office and hand over your money. It all seems wonderfully easy at this point. When you are handing over money in India, everything, as the cliche goes, is ‘no problem’. In fact, when you raise your trivial concerns – such as will the connection work, will it blow up my laptop etc – you are waved away with a no problem so gentle and reassuring and dismissive of your fears you feel a bit of a bounder, to be honest, in bringing it all up.
And yet, once money is handed over and your frustrations begin the meaning of this ‘no problem’ takes on a different hue. In retrospect, you realise that the reassuring ‘no problem’ held no relation at all to your queries or the ability of the provider to set up your internet service. It merely meant the man at the desk found it no problem whatsoever taking your money off you.
Days later (many days, in fact, after the date the service was due to start) you give Airtel a call, a friendly reminder that the connection was no problem to set up at all. They, in reply, will tell you again it is no problem, despite the evidence to the contrary.
Now you are beginning to understand the full power of the ‘no problem’. More than just some cheap trick to relieve you of your money, it a talisman of a word in which everything magically becomes okay. Drivers yell it as buses career over cliffs, dying men release it at their very last sigh, even hobbling, scabies-ridden dogs bark it in the night.
And internet providers say it. Relentlessly.
Because trying to fix the problem is not their first response. The first response is to pretend everything is okay. That it is no problem. From now on you will have the curious feeling that all your frustrations and anxieties will be rolled up into a little ball and binned, and that the individual responsible will go off to make a nice cup of chai and have a bit of sit down.
This is the point at which you start to shout down the phone. (Or, rather, shout down the earhole of your girlfriend, who then shouts down the phone, because no one in India can understand your English.)
After you have a good shout, the company sends a couple of young chaps around. They stand very close together and giggle when they think you are not looking, probably because you are a Westerner and an Indian living together. Then they tell you the reason your connection is not working is because you gave the company the wrong address. Your partner shows them the correct address, written on the form they have brought with them. They eye it suspiciously, as if you scrawled it while they were not looking.
It goes on. Every day Airtel promise to come to sort the situation. Definitely. No problem. Every day they do not arrive.
Kaveri told me I was like a bureaucrat from the British Raj, stranded in some dusty outpost, waiting for the arrival of the railways. It was an image loaded with meaning. She did not care to elaborate.



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