The ordeal of paying bills

Normally we collect water bills until they become a solid pile and then pay them. Till recently they looked dignified, like proper bills and not like sorry imitations of bus tickets or cash memos from department stores. They were recognised as bills and ignored like bills. And then there arrived these new apologetic forms – thin, wispy bits of paper that could easily get misplaced or lost. A few went that way until I chanced upon one lying on the floor. One glance and I got a shock. Normally electricity bills have that privilege. My eye caught a date for disconnection at the bottom. And the date was ...that day. Gulp! A pretty low down trick, I thought, making the bill look insignificant and then burying in it heart-stopping warnings like disconnection. There’s nothing like a threat to stir a law abider’s law abidedness into action. I learnt later that a disconnection date was nothing new.

My husband was out and I didn't want him to return to a home where the taps were giving impressive impersonations of gargling or heavy breathing. I swiftly dashed to the office with the bill and the exact bill amount. Clerks at counters seldom have change with them; they ask for exact change. Naturally you don’t have it. You lose your place in the queue and have to start all over again. Bitter experience has taught me these lessons.

I found two long serpentine queues and after some deliberation, joined one that looked marginally shorter than the other. I have unbelievable luck with queues - I unerringly pick the one that, even if it is shorter, just stops moving for some odd reason. Either the clerk has a sudden heart attack or he leaves the counter on some whim. Sometimes he gets an SOS from the clerk at the neighbouring counter and the good Samaritan leaps across to help, leaving his own window unattended for ages.

But on that day, my queue was actually moving, and pretty rapidly too. Annoyed glances and bitter comments came its way from those in the other line, who were ruing their choice of queue. I was amazed. Was my luck really turning?

I had plenty of time though, to observe the people around and I was struck by the behaviour of women. Some women, I'm sorry to say, are the pushiest of people. If there’s a queue, they dodge it, and hover near the counter. One unguarded moment and they thrust their hands into the counter with their bills. Or they nonchalantly break the queue to stand wherever they please, oblivious of the dirty glances coming their way from the others now behind them. Those whose places they brazenly steal have seen this before and know it’s futile to question the infringement. Of course, some men are presumptuous too, but if there’s a competition, there’s no doubt who will win hands down.

My turn finally came and I was about to hand in my bill when out of nowhere a big fat bejewelled arm beat me to it and the owner turned to give me a smug smirk. I couldn't even open my mouth to protest; she managed to stuff herself in front of me and blocked me completely from the clerk’s view. Worse, she seemed to have brought the bills of her locality too. When she finally moved away and I stopped gasping for breath, I handed my bill to the clerk only to be told the counter was closing for lunch.

Please, I pleaded, I've been here so long and believe me, I was here before that lady. Surprisingly he actually accepted my bill and the change I’d so thoughtfully brought. ‘You've to pay a fine of 6 rupees’, he said. What?! I was taken aback. I hadn't reckoned with this and found I had no coins. I sheepishly handed him a fifty rupee note. ‘Change, please.’ I toyed with the idea of telling him my husband likes me as I am, so I won’t change, but knew this wasn't the time and the place for flippancy. I looked at him with mute appeal in my eyes. It didn't work. It never does with me. ‘Change, please, madam, and return after lunch time.’

He closed the counter with a neat click. I clicked my teeth and went wearily home, got the change and returned to take my place at the end of another mile long queue. This time the one I chose stopped moving the moment I joined it.

(khyrubutter@yahoo.com)