Talk to Me
You can learn a lot from talking to people. Long train journeys were a prefect setting to have long conversations with perfect strangers, people who have a different point of view, a different set of life experiences. Now that these days there are very few train journeys, long cab rides are the substitute setting for me to conduct an impromptu interview. Books and other publications generally give you a macro-level view of the world. For a micro-level understanding, you have to talk to people who you would not come across in the pages of a newspaper or a book.
My innate curiosity about how others see the world overcomes the introvert in me. On my journey to Mumbai recently in a cab, I spoke at length with the driver. He did not appear to be terribly upset that he was forced to (indirectly) pay the cops for the privilege of plying his trade. He considered it as part of the cost of doing business, just like paying for diesel or the road tolls. He was just a very small cog in an immensely large machinery. He had no mental model of how intricate the system was but that ignorance did not prevent him from being an integral part of it. He did the best he could and had a resigned attitude towards what was beyond his control. He was willing to settle because even though things were bad, they were tolerable enough. Raging against the machine was not part of his thinking.
Systems that gradually deteriorate over time allow people to adjust and accommodate themselves as best as they can within it. Along each point of its slow deterioration, the system degradation is matched by equally slight changes in the expectations of the people. Finally, one settles into a state of such diminished expectations that getting next to nothing is acceptable because it is still better than the nothing that is the only conceivable alternative.
A colleague told me this story. In a recent survey of social services in a particular district in Bihar, he found that the government social worker was not doing her job. The scheme is called “Integrated Child Development Services” (ICDS) and is supposed to provide a comprehensive set of services: from nutrition to preventive healthcare to hygiene instruction. At least some part of the funding to deliver these services must have been there. Yet he found that all the social worker was doing only this: every morning at 11 AM, the worker would hand out one piece of hard candy to every child. That is all; nothing else. And for that, the children would dutifully wait till 11 AM to get their one piece of candy.
He spoke to the people and to his surprise realized that they were willing to defend the social worker and were not prepared to complain about the lack of services. He explained to me later that it could be that they were afraid that if they complained, the social worker may lose her job, and they would lose the one piece of candy they were getting. Furthermore, he was just an outsider and merely passing through. He had nothing to offer them. The social worker was someone who at least gave them something and was therefore less of an outsider.
The role of diminished expectations is absolutely fundamental in the emergence and persistence of sub-optimal system we see all around us. Changing expectations is fundamental to breaking out of this vicious cycle. Our expectations determine what is normal and therefore acceptable.
Last Thursday, there was no power supply between 10 AM and 6 PM in my part of the town. It was an inconvenience to me, just like it must have been to a few thousand people. But it is a regular inconvenience and we have all factored it into our routine. Initially I used to get worked up about it. I would rave and rant about the sh**-heads who managed the whole power infrastructure for their incompetence in not being able to plan for and provide a basic necessity such as electricity for a city in the 21st century. Now I take that as a given. I am thankful that there is power much of the time.
I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who had warned that one should not live too long in California. He said that it made you soft. In my case at least, that’s what happened. I had become soft. I expected service that I had paid for. Now I have revised my expectations downwards and after paying for the service, I pray that I get something and don’t demand more than say 50 percent of what I should get.
Let me tell you a story of what my experience with VSNL TataIndicom has been. Next time.