Great Encounters with Indian Bureaucracy: Phone and Internet (Part 3)

But, to be honest, despite all the adventures, my work was suffering. And Airtel were no nearer to fixing the connection.
Finally, we heard from Airtel that their service was not currently available in our building. This news was delivered with an emphaticness matched only byDSCF0954 their earlier assurances that the Internet connection would be no problem.
While I delivered long, beautifully worded polemics that got to the heart of the failure of Airtel customer service, Kaveri did a bit of research and decided BSNL was our next best option.
I was not encouraged. BSNL is the government provider. It evoked images of India pre-1991, that crucial date after which market liberalisation came to the Subcontinent. It suggested an organisation of dusty ledgers and bureaucracy that made Airtel, complete failure or not, seem the model of efficiency.
We visited their offices on Commercial Street. Fittingly, it was tucked up a dark dingy staircase behind a shiny Vodaphone mobile phone shop. The office was all wood, sepia-coloured files and lazy fans. Men sat around with that air of chronic underemployment and inflated self-importance that is the speciality of government employees the world over. Yellowing piles of paper sat on dusty desks. The aroma of chai filled the air.
Self-important or not, the staff were polite, and a distinguished looking chap with a foppish fringe, sharp cheekbones and a pair of delicate specs perched on the end of his nose rolled out the usual no problems with the air of someone who has politely and elegantly disappointed customers for years on end. I took some comfort. Not so much in the possibility of our getting an internet connection (that seemed far too much to ask), but more in the fact that the impending failure would be carried out with a little culture, a touch of flair.
All seemed to be going to plan. Apart from the cultured bit. Kaveri was called by a flustered and irritated BSNL employee who could not decide which local exchange should deal with our connection. It seemed we had committed the unforgiveable sin of falling between two administrative districts; and he wanted to know what we were going to do about it. I had a few helpful suggestions and told Kaveri to tell him we would dig up the frigging apartment complex and shift it a few feet if that would help.
It wouldn’t.
I continued to sweat in my dusty internet cafe, amid coital grunts, temple bells and rickshaws.
One day two friendly BSNL men came and fiddled with a huge nest of wires in the corridor outside our apartment.
Weeks went by. Kaveri again evoked the image of the stranded Raj bureaucrat. She told me that the life expectancy of an East India Company Employee was two or three monsoons. ‘But that was a long time ago,’ she added.
Then, a couple of days later, we got a call to tell us our Internet and phone were working. Naturally, I assumed by working they really meant not working and never would work.
And yet it was working. With pathetic delight – as fruit sellers barked and rickshaws growled and temple bells clanged in the potholed streets outside – I literally jumped for joy as I hit the Google homepage. Then I ran around the apartment composing an impromptu song (quite a good one, actually) about the need not to fret because we had the internet. (It rhymed and everything.)
Then I took the phone from Kaveri and thanked the man on the other end.
‘No problem,’ he said.


A few days later, looking back on the madness of those first few weeks, I realised it was at least 50 per cent my madness. It was true that there was a gaping discrepancy between the slippery slick marketing of Airtel and their performance: there was no denying that day after day they promised to come between 9am and 6pm and that they never turned up. It was also true (uncomfortably true for me to acknowledge, because it is a stereotype) that many people in India will not disappoint you with a no, but instead reward you with an even more disappointing – in the long-term – yes. (Or no problem.)
But it was also true that BNSL quietly (well, mostly) and elegantly delivered. And that if I could have taken back the frustrated ranting that bent poor Kaveri’s ears so, I would have.
The fact is, things work in India, but they just work differently. And they take quite a bit longer to arrive. Whether it be the purchase of a mobile phone contract or a train ticket, one learns to wait patiently and await the verdict of a higher bureaucratic power.
Finishing this piece, I have to admit I felt awkward about this summing up. It is so easy, as an uncomprehending Westerner, to roll out the usual observations about Indian bureaucracy. Even marvelling at India brings up some hoary cliches about intensity and chaos and raw humanity. I am learning. I am constantly trying to shake of the superficial impression, to know India better. These are early days. It is all very confusing.
I actually broke off writing this piece and spoke to Kaveri about my impressions of bureaucracy. I said something half-baked about how, in India, the process is as important as the objective. She listened, quietly brewing tea, while I banged on about how fortunate I was to have seen so much of the Indian streets while waiting for our Internet connection. I finished up with a question: ‘Do you think that in India there is something particularly crucial about the journey, about the things to be discovered on the way? Is this a crucial factor in understanding India?’ I asked, triumphantly. (I have a tendency to get overexcited by ephemeral ideas; I buoy them up with enthusiasm because I know they will soon come down.)
Kaveri smiled. She was silent for a moment, searching for a little tact.
‘I don’t think people here think so philosophically,’ she said. She shrugged. ‘I think it’s just inefficiency.’
I am in flux, you see, caught between my frustrations and my liberal romances. Kaveri meanwhile is the realist. Waiting patiently.
And yet despite the frustrations and then the feeble, discredited philosophy, I can’t regret my little forays and adventures during those first few weeks. In fact, looking back, I would not have exchanged a working internet connection for any of it.
Perhaps, in India, there is a little bit of the no problem in all of us.

2 Responses to “Great Encounters with Indian Bureaucracy: Phone and Internet (Part 3)”
  1. Aditya says:

    Well written blog and quite hilarious. I’m an Indian living in Sheffield and reading this makes me miss home. Go figure!

    • gorah says:

      Thanks! Hope you’re not finding it too cold at the moment. I’m back in the UK for two weeks at the mo and my bones are missing the perfect 80 degrees of Bangalore.

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