We had a water pressure problem in our house recently, and needed the automated water pump gauge in the overhead tank to be set right. So we called Harish, the vendor who had installed the automated pump system.
Harish is tall, slim, has kind eyes and a permanent smile on his face. As we walked up and down from the tank to the pump, we got plenty of time to talk. I noticed that he had a hard time going up the step ladder, with one knee barely bending.
“What’s the problem with your knee?” I asked.
“Sir, I had (an) accident about 10 years ago (I soon realized that he began every sentence with ‘sir’). Almost lost my life. After all the surgeries and hospital stays, this is the least that I have to manage now,” he replied.
“Must have had good doctors,” I said, nodding sympathetically.
“Sir, the best surgeons in Bangalore, but they all messed me up!” he said and continued, “After the first operation on my knee, the surgeon looks at the X-rays and says casually, ‘Harish, I need to open you up again, forgot to put in a bolt’!”
“I can’t believe it”, I exclaimed, “This sounds like a scene from a comedy!”
“Sir, it gets worse. They open me up again, and something goes wrong with the anaesthetist. I end up paralysed from my hips down. So there is a third operation, and then a fourth. I was in for 18 months, and had six intensive surgeries during that period. One was hilarious—part of the procedure was for a wire to be cut and removed from my knee, for which the orthopaedic surgeon had scheduled to send his deputy. At the appointed time, I am on the operating theatre, my knee is cut open, the other doctors are ready but there isn’t anyone to cut the wire. The surgeon calls this chap on the mobile, and I could hear the conversation—‘Where are you! What! How could you forget? This is a man’s life that you are playing with.’ And finally, ‘OK, walk us through the procedure, we will do it.’ Which is what they did!”
“My God, what a tragedy! And you have just accepted all this?”
“No sir, but I need to move on. One thing though—I wouldn’t trust a doctor even if he were my brother. Always get a second opinion, and a third if necessary. They pretend like they know what they are doing, but they are actually experimenting on your body.”
As he gingerly climbed down the steps, I asked him about how business was going, given the slowdown.
“It’s OK sir. Everybody needs water, so no issues. But Indians don’t want to pay for good products, they try to cut costs by any means. When they hear the price of our products, many of them ask, ‘Can you make it a cash transaction, no need for a bill?’ so that they can save on the VAT (value added tax).”
“But this is a standard phenomenon in India,” I said, “not just for water services.”
“Sir, I agree, but you should see some of those who ask for this. I have installed for each of the houses of an ex-finance minister of the state government, and he always says, ‘Bill beda (don’t want the bill)!’ The best was when I finished the work in a senior commercial tax officer’s house, gave him the bill and he says, ‘Enappa, namage bill kodthiya?’ (What I say, you are giving a bill even to me?).”
Smiling at these anecdotes, I said, “Unfortunately, this is our system. It will take some time to clean it up.”
“Sir, it’s not the system. I have a small theory on this, can I explain it if you don’t mind?” he asked. He had finished his work, and I had just paid him (with bill!). But he was eager to explain his theory, and I was curious.
“Please, go ahead.”
“Sir, there is corruption in every system in every country. But in the Hollywood movies, they don’t show the system as corrupt. They show individuals as corrupt, but the system as being good. When the hero fights something wrong, he is not fighting the system, he is fighting against some individuals inside the system. In fact, very often, the system actually helps him out.
“But in India, when we show our heroes fighting against corruption or injustice, they show the system as corrupt. This is wrong. How can the whole system be bad—it is only individuals in the system who are bad, isn’t it? Not only is it wrong, it sends such a wrong message, especially to the youth.
“Sir, I agree that there are corrupt people in the system, but we must believe that the system is good. Otherwise, what is the hope for good people in the system?”
I wonder if there is a connection between Harish’s doctor experiences, compromised individuals and his ideas of a benevolent system. After an afternoon with our water services vendor, I got our problem solved, and much more.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org