Hope, for a change

Among news of unemployment and financial meltdowns,

Among unsavory scenes of protests and forceful clampdowns,

Among reports of corruption, self-denial and government lethargy,

Among batting failures in Cricket and mismanagement in Athletics and Hockey,

Among wars between nations and fights to decide which is a more peaceful religion,

Among rising costs and declining quality in all domains, from farming to education,

Comes a message, though an advertisement, that provides a glimmer of ‘hope’ to the conscience which is on the brink of extinction.

Hindi (Indian) Version

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English Version

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‘Laxman Rekhas’

The celebration of the common man has been, and will always be, an uncommon tale. Fortunately, one person amongst us men has captured this ethos very well over the years. Through his satirical cartoons, legendary artist R.K. Laxman has glorified the bewildering life around a regular working class man, a mere mortal in the vast land that is India. For about five decades, Indians have looked forward to his cartoon strip ‘You Said It‘ in the newspaper every morning only to find a sardonic portrayal of the current affairs, mostly related to the political domain, that can be easily identified with.

Wouldn’t a collection of such portrayals be a prized possession for anyone? Most definitely. However, you tend to value it more when you receive it, quite unexpectedly, as a birthday present!

Yesterday when I opened my mailbox I found a copy the book ‘Laxman Rekhas’ with my name on top. It was a present sent to me by my cellular phone service provider, Idea Cellular. What a wonderful gesture! Now I recognize the fact that I wasn’t and won’t be the only person to receive this as a birthday gift, and it might even be a campaign by The Times of India and the cellular service provider to publicize the book as well as themselves, but who cares! I am loving it 🙂

A celebration of the common man, one of my prized birthday gifts this year

Needless to say, the book has some delectably hilarious sketches. On the last page is another sketch, this time that of a crow with a few words next to it, words which I think capture the character of the legendary cartoonist.

Crow

R.K Laxman’s fascination with the crow is well known. He has no patience with “stupid birds like the parrot”, but the crow, with its intelligence and quicksilver movement, has always captivated him. In his autobiography The Tunnel of Time, he wrote: “As I grew up I realized that crows had a temperament close to that of humans – clever, cunning and cautious!” Because the crow is so ubiquitous, found as it is on tree branches, near the garden tap, on the window sill, on top of statues and TV antennas, we tend, says the cartoonist, to take the bird for granted “like a full stop in a sentence”. One of the best compliments paid to him was when a child mistaking one of his framed core sketches for the real thing, flung a stone at it and cracked the glass.

Government: A ‘Whisky Priest’

Government: A ‘Whisky Priest’

There has been a lot of air about the fight between the Indian government and the civil society on the battlegrounds of the anti-corruption ‘Jan Lokpal Bill‘ (citizen’s ombudsman bill). The swords too are nicely named: ‘stability’ and ‘morality’, and as with all swords, they are double-edged!

With neither side backing down, nor moving substantially forward, behind-the-scenes meetings and under-the-cloak deals being carried out every minute, its the classic stalemate that has plagued the world ever since the Greeks coined the word ‘democracy’, a brilliant concept spoilt by an ego-centric populace. Well, its no point blaming the Greeks anymore if recent history is anything to go by, they are more than suffering from the consequences of dealings under the economic part of that ideology.

Standing on the sidelines, though, I have tried to understand its gravity. While watching an episode (‘The Whisky Priest‘) of the extremely popular 1980’s British comedy TV series ‘Yes Minister’, I came across a dialogue sequence which made things clearer. The scene is question is after the minister, Jim Hacker, receives information about underhand dealings between British arms suppliers and middlemen and Italian red terrorists. He wishes to raise the issue with the Prime Minister and in that vein mentions his desires to his permanent under-secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, a hard-core civil servant. Appleby advises him against opening ‘a can of worms’. This is what transpires after that advice, and it will give the reader a very good idea about the perpetual state of any government and civil service establishment on the Earth.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Government isn’t about morality.

Minister Jim Hacker: Oh I see, what is it about then?

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Stability. Keeping things going. Preventing anarchy. Stopping society falling to bits. Still being here tomorrow.

Minister Jim Hacker: What for? What is the ultimate purpose of government, if it isn’t for doing good?

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Minister, government isn’t about good and evil, it is only about order or chaos.

Minister Jim Hacker: And it is order for Italian terrorists to get British bombs, and you don’t care?

Sir Humphrey Appleby: [disdainfully] It is not my job to care, that’s what politicians are for. My job is to carry out government policy.

Minister Jim Hacker: Even if you think it is wrong?

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Well, almost all government policy is wrong….. frightfully well carried out!

Minister Jim Hacker: Humphrey, have you ever known a civil servant to resign on a matter of principle?

Sir Humphrey Appleby: [surprised] I should think not! What an appalling suggestion!

Minister Jim Hacker: For the first time I fully understand that you are only committed to means, and not to ends.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Well, as far as I am concerned, minister, and all my colleagues, there is no difference between means and ends.

Minister Jim Hacker: If you believe that Humphrey, you will go to hell.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: [smiling] Minister, I had no idea that you had a theological bent.

Minister Jim Hacker: You are a moral vacuum, Humphrey.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: If you say so, minister!

As Stan Lee of the Marvel Comics fame would say, “nuff said!”

(P.S. Follow the link to understand what the term whisky priest means.)

The 40-day telephone downtime

A few days ago there was a blog post by the WordPress team (see WP.com Downtime Summary) where they had updated the WordPress community about the website outage on Feb 19, 2010, highlighting the technical reasons why the website did not recover on it’s own (automatic failover recovery) and the remedy they planned to prevent this from happening again. Having worked in this field before, I personally felt that their team did a very professional job in handling the crisis and the fact that they admitted it upfront was all the more commendable.

They said that it was their worst downtime in four years – and how long was it? 110 minutes. Now that’s a narrow blip if you ask me. It means that during the last 4 years, the WordPress.com website was up 99.99% of the time. As one reader (Dave) commented, that is a better percentage than what Lysol disinfectant claims for killing germs!

Right, so lets climb down from cloud nine and back to reality here in Pune, India. I recently experienced a similar ‘downtime’ for our home landline telephone which is provided by the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), a Government of India undertaking. This downtime wasn’t in minutes. It wasn’t in hours. It was in days (more like months). It was – 40 days.

Anyone familiar with the workings of government agencies here in India would agree that such a long downtime isn’t unheard of. But what shocked me and my family was the response given by the authorities concerned. We filed a complaint with their automated complaint registration service the day after the phone went dead. Generally this is transferred down to the local linesman who checks the problem in about 2-3 days and reports the results back to the main center, after which a call is made to the complainant to confirm the proper operation of the telephone. Now, this 2-3 days time itself is quite large when you consider that nowadays the ‘telephone’ is an essential service. But sometimes you have to give them the benefit of the doubt because of the lack of manpower in the department and the relatively large number of outages they have to attend to every day. Plus, everyone in the family had their cellphones with them, so it wasn’t as if the sky was going to fall. We patiently waited for 15 days.

On the 16th day, my mother called up the telephone exchange to which our number is associated and asked what was causing the delay. They replied – “Yes, we know where the problem is. In fact, more than 20 telephones are down in your area (Kothrud) because of a fault in the underground cabling. But the problem is that since there is a lot of traffic on that street, we can’t start digging.”

I wonder if there had been an IED explosive (bomb) planted under the same street, would they have given the same response?

Another 15 days passed, and presumably the ‘traffic’ on the concerned street hadn’t halted or reduced for even a second. Again, I wonder why they don’t call Pune the ‘busiest city in the world’! Move over New York, move over Mumbai, here comes Pune!

A few more calls and visits to the telephone exchange met with the same lukewarm response. Eventually, yesterday (i.e. 39th day) my mother called the exchange again and demanded to speak with the supervising zonal officer. When the call was transferred to his office, a person there said – “Oh, what can we do. For the last 2 years, 200 people are working to fix a few hundred telephones on Paud Road (a nearby locality). Once they are done with that, they’ll attend to your complaint.”

Inference 1 – A few support engineers cannot fix a couple hundred telephone lines in over 2 years. So, are they really qualified to do the job or have the BSNL mandarins contracted local barbers to fix the faults?

Inference 2 – For a population of over 30 lakhs, there are only 200 support engineers in the ‘entire’ of Pune. Isn’t this a serious misallocation of personnel?

On being appalled after hearing this reply, my mother somehow obtained the personal cellphone number of the zonal officer and contacted him immediately. His reply was even more wonderful – “Ma’am, I didn’t know your telephone was out of order.” I wonder if he ‘knows’ that he works for the telephone department in the first place.

He went on to say – “Oh ma’am what can we do now? It’s already 6 O’Clock, people in the office must have already left for home a long time ago!” Oh well, then what was he doing there? Playing cards with the watchman?

As was bound to happen, my mother finally lost her cool and threatened to go public with this story and the replies that she was getting from the department. She said that she would call up the leading newspaper (she did in fact call a ‘Sakal‘ newspaper reporter) and also place a call with the local TV news channels. Without doubt, they would have pounced on this story like a Tiger who’s been kept hungry for a fortnight.

It was then that the cogs started to turn. The zonal officer pulled up the person who had given the ‘200 people – 2 years’ reply. We were ‘assured’ that our telephone line will be up and running in a day’s time. I wonder what suddenly happened to the ever-flowing street and also to the 200 men who’s hands were already tied!

What happened later, can happen only in India. Our phone was back online this morning. The ‘200 people – 2 years’ guy called up and told my mother that he had – “specially set up a special line from the exchange for our number”. When my mother replied that we weren’t the family of the President of the country and that if a fix is to be applied it should be applied to all the phone lines affected in our locality, he replied – “Ma’am, be contended that we have restored your line. Why are you worrying about others?”

Don’t you think that this person should be considered for the Bharat Ratna (India’s highest civilian award) next year? With the way the recent winners of Padma Shri (another Indian civilian award) have been selected, he stands a very good chance!

Bottom-line is that the answer to when the other phone lines in the vicinity will be fixed is still buried somewhere under the apathy prevalent in almost all Indian government undertakings. I don’t know why most Indians proud themselves on being a part of one of the world’s largest service-oriented industry, when half of them don’t even know what ‘uninterrupted service’ or ‘zero downtime’ means!

Since then, our home has been inundated by calls from almost every desk in the telephone exchange and the telephone department. We have answered over 12 confirmation calls today, right from the senior officers to the local linesmen.

At this rate I’m curious where the next call would come from. Alexander Graham Bell himself, perhaps!