The dosas were lovely, crisp and sleek. We relished them, not knowing we had miles to go before we could leave. We sighed with satisfaction, burped and waited. And waited. And waited. For the bill that showed no signs of being brought to our table. The restaurant was quite full; there was a lot of lively action around, but we were being avoided like the proverbial plague. The smiling, petite servers, mostly of north-eastern origin, were floating swiftly and lithely about, with the ease of ballet dancers, taking water here and sauce there, but they left our table well alone.
We tried to catch their studiously averted eyes, waggled our arms like agitated octopuses with tentacles on fire, said soft, ‘psssst’s but to no avail. Had they forgotten us? Or had we turned invisible? Come to think of it, the chutney had tasted a little funny. But a friendly wave from an acquaintance who spotted us from the other end put paid to that intriguing possibility. We weren’t out of the sight of the restaurant staff, only out of their minds.
“Maybe it’s the owner’s birthday today and everything is on the house,” I suggested. This bright solution was brushed aside by my husband who said no restaurant owner worth his salt would have such a hare-brained idea. They don’t mix business with pleasure. I accepted the compliment and kept my own counsel for a little while.
“Taking the order and bringing our dosas had taken far less time,” I piped up after a bit. We were time bound to keep an appointment and I began to get restless. “This is just too bad,” I grumbled. “Why are they ignoring us like a whiff of bad breath?”
My husband, equipped with endless patience and a book, ignored me and began reading. I mugged up the menu, then sensing some commotion behind me, turned my neck sharply around, almost Exorcist style, to get a view of the desk. It was buzzing with people.
“A hold up!” I exclaimed, excited, spinning my neck back to normal. “I knew something was wrong.” I plucked a server by her sleeve. Why didn’t I think of doing this earlier? “What’s happening? A robbery?” I asked. “Why the ruckus? Where’s our bill?”
She pulled herself free, her plastic smile still on her face but her expression was disapproving. “System down, madam,” she muttered, poised for flight.
“As in?” I asked. “Meaning?” joined the spouse, who had been jolted back to base by my unexpected exclamation.
Cornered by this double interrogation, she became more communicative. “The system is down, sir, madam.” I half expected her to add, “as the case may be.” “The computer isn’t working and we can’t prepare the bills.”
“Don’t you have a backup?” asked my husband.
“What about the good old paper and pen?” I added.
Her training deserted her now and her lips tightened into a stubborn straight line. “We have been tutored to rely on computers; they never make mistakes,” she snapped.
“Of course they don’t. They just stop functioning,” I retorted.
Isn’t this happening all the time? Ever since computers began to replace humans, life has become more unpredictable. The computers develop a problem and everything grinds to a halt. It might be power failure, a system crash or a software bug and in our country where power supply is uncertain and suspense is a key element in any transaction or operation, all three can happen simultaneously.
Applications cannot be processed, birth, death and certificates for the time in between cannot be issued, hospital bills cannot be prepared, problems cannot be addressed...the list is unending. At banks, cheques cannot be cashed just when you need the money urgently and once, though there was balance in my account, my cheque had been returned because the internet was down. A voice had apologised in response to my call, “Server problem, madam.”
Our server’s problem was she hadn’t been primed to address such an issue. She looked around for help. There were raised voices nearby and altercations at the desk. An official-looking person finally came to our table with a note pad and pen.
“Two dosas,” my husband volunteered. “Forty rupees each,” I added. I knew the menu card by heart. “Total eighty.” He wasn’t convinced and checked on his mobile. We gave him a hundred rupee note. As the modern Einstein sought his phone’s help once again to calculate this mind-boggling mathematical problem, we left the place.
Computers and smart phones have made dumbos of us all.
A fortnightly column by the city-based writer, academic and author of the Butterfingers series. She can be contacted at email@example.com