SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Always the wrong number

HUMOUR

Always the wrong number

ARGUABLY we have one of the worst telephone systems in the world. Of course I have not had the opportunity of pitching it against Pakistan, Bangladesh or the African countries. But I almost drop when I go abroad and call an organisation like the BBC. Not only does the operator immediately identify the organisation but is also courteous. In India the only ones who respond like that are the five-star hotels, no doubt because they would lose their customers otherwise.

In the bureaucratic capital of India, the very act of identification becomes a state secret. If you are fortunate enough o get through to an official number, you have started your long battle to get past a battery of private secretaries. If you visit the office, you have to get past the peon. The P.A. will tell you that the boss is not on his table or in his seat, or he is in a meeting.

One distinguished editor, who was on first-name terms with a minister, found an unusual way out of this predicament.

When the P.A. asked him who he was, the editor replied: "Actually I am his wife's lover and I am about to shoot myself". He was immediately connected to the minister.

Try getting through to an official at home, a phone given by the office and paid for by the government — that means taxpayers like you and me.

I once had to speak to a secretary to government urgently because I needed a clarification before leaving for a meeting. It was around nine in the morning. His wife answered the phone. "He is not here," she barked.

"Can I call again in 15 minutes? It's urgent," I asked. "Don't call his residence," she shouted and banged the phone down. And that was that. In this case I was lucky. At least I had the telephone number.

It now seems to be government policy not to mention telephone/fax numbers or e-mail ids on letterheads. Recently I received a gracious letter from the Chief Executive Officer of Prasar Bharati asking me to write a piece for the brochure commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Broadcasting house. It asked for an early reply. There was no telephone number on the letter.

It took me six calls to Mandi House to find out because everyone seemed terrified of divulging this state secret, even when I explained why I needed the number. One official, a friend, finally gave me the great man's mobile number but pleaded: "Please don't tell anyone I gave you the number. Or I'll lose my job."

This secrecy extends even to small shops. I often order things by phone from a medical shop, a provision store and a gas company.

Everyone says "hello" but will not identify themselves though people are calling to give them business. I once tried to tell a shop owner diplomatically, "You are such a famous shop. You should be proud of your name. Why don't you mention it when you answer the phone?" That lasted for about two calls. Then it was back to "hello".

The worst examples of atrocious manners combined with inefficiency — at least in the capital — are from the telephone staff. After a busy tone for hours, you finally get through to directory services (197). It now has a PR statement about how important you are to them and "Please wet" (Wait). You "wet" for some time and a rude voice comes to the phone. You ask for a number, which has changed and are cut off. You go through the same tedious procedure and a voice in a tearing hurry might, with luck, give you a new number before you are cut off again. I often wonder why the worst voices with the worst accents are chosen to give vital information. In English, it was "This number does not egg-jist (exist)". And in Hindi, it is "Yeh number mo-zood (mojood) nahi hai". As a matter of fact, both numbers were very much in existence as I later found.

This was possibly my worst experience. Telephone directories, usually being obsolete by the time they come out, we always check our names carefully when we get a "new" one. Sure enough, I found mine missing the last time. I went anxiously down the line of "Malik's" and found myself listed as "Anita". Armed with the power of the press, I rang the CEO's office. After being given the usual run-around, I wore down his secretary's resistance on the fourth day and was greeted with: "You are always ringing, what you want?"

"My name has been given wrongly in the new directory. It is Amita not Anita. People have been complaining that they cannot get my number."

"Is that all? There's not much difference between `M' and `N', is there? Aap itna shor machatey hain. (You are making such a noise.)." And she slammed the phone down.

I wrote about this incident to the grand old man of consumer protection, H.D. Shourie, of Common Cause. He shot off a letter to the CEO saying that they should not only correct the mistake but also apologise to me. That was well oe a year ago. There has been nothing but silence from the CEO. Maybe the CEO does not egg-jist.

The writer is a well-known columnist and media critic.

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