5 min read.Updated: 17 Jan 2022, 12:24 AM ISTManu Joseph
Indians are habituated to a farce that absolves some authority from doing what’s not a farce
Why does the security guard check your air ticket before you walk into a terminal building? It is a practice across all Indian airports. What is he looking for? What people show him is a printed copy of a flight booking or an image of it on their phone. How does the guy know whether what you show him is really a ticket? He does not have a scanner to read the barcode.
He is not like the hotel security guard in a fancy-dress costume who is made to do some dance with his hands. The guy outside the terminal building is armed and can get very serious; he is a cop of the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), a paramilitary police force. If one of his motives is to dissuade a person from leaving a suitcase bomb inside the airport, how does checking printouts help? Wouldn’t a terrorist fake a ticket, or even buy a real ticket? They have the budget for that. If the idea is to use spurious behavioural theories to spot suspicious characters, who look nervous or sweat profusely or exhibit other traits of people who are up to no good, half of all Indians would probably qualify inadvertently in any situation.
The guards serve a far less glorious purpose than securing the nation—they pretend to secure the nation. Also, the only practical work they accomplish is to discourage underemployed Indians from thronging airport terminals to bid farewell to their relatives. But you can dissuade Indians from bidding farewell to passengers at the airport in simpler ways, like getting them married, or charging a hefty visitors’ fee, many times more than the meagre ₹100 that some airports charge. Or impose a heavy fine on those caught loitering in the terminal without a visitors’ pass. This system has worked very well in controlling entourages at Indian railway stations.
Making thousands of trained guards check tickets outside airport terminals all day and night is among the most useless things our government does. The CISF has requested scanners to read air tickets in a more meaningful way. Even so, what it strives to do with more meaning is still a useless act that can be achieved by much cheaper means. So what if it is useless, you could argue, why should anyone be productive? Isn’t being productive merely another way of wasting time in a universe that has no meaning anyway? This columnist probably takes this argument more seriously than most columnists. But still, it is not a good argument for a reason that is as important as the truth that life itself has no meaning. The meaninglessness of life is very different from the meaninglessness of a guy pretending to check a printout.
There is a difference between doing nothing and enacting a farce. Doing nothing has personality; it is ancient, pleasurable and a defiance of the modern consecration of being busy. A farce, on the other hand, is something bereft of intelligence, an organized way of stealing the time of other people who may want to waste it in other ways.
You can argue that the CISF guards don’t exactly waste your time because even in a scenario where you breeze into the terminal, you will get caught in other queues. But my complaint is against being made an extra in a governmental farce; to be forced to stand in a line that has no meaning; to feel the dumbness of inching ahead in a meaningless moment; to show a ticket for no good reason; and to be a part of a system that makes well-trained young men and women stand for many hours bearing heavy arms just because they are available to be used in this manner by their bosses who did not have better ideas. Why can’t these guards instead be playing a sport, as part of their training? They could be hiking, running, swimming, bowling—all in the national interest. Instead, they are made to spend the best days of their able lives standing there, ruining their spines, and doing something boring and useless. There is pettiness in this, an ancient Indian stinginess often seen in the powerful, a systemic denial of joy to others who have no power to demand it.
Outside India, I have not seen this form of ticket-checking through glances. I do accept I’ve not been to all nations, and there could be other countries where they deploy a paramilitary outfit to perform a farce. But that does not change what it says about India.
As Indians, we go through many forms of farce everyday. Cops erect barricades on the road to make vehicles go in a slow zig-zag fashion as they sit chatting on the pavement on plastic chairs. What I want to know is, from where do they get the chairs? Are they officially issued? When they set out to work, do their wives pack them with the lunchbox?
When I am zig-zagging, I want to believe that the cops make me do this because they have got some deep intelligence tip-off, and that they are sitting on the pavement on their plastic chairs and gossiping only to lower the guard of terrorists.
It is not as though the private sector is more substantive. Outside every hotel and mall, that malnourished former farmer who opens the boot of your car and looks for two seconds, it is as though he has X-ray vision.
Habituated to farce all our Indian lives, we don’t protest. We inch along, join queues, submit to checks. Sometimes, I try to look suspicious to the guard outside the airport, or when I am in a car outside a hotel, as the fancy-dress guard examines the boot. I pretend to have a pistol under my shirt. But no one has bothered. If you are a more serious person than me, maybe you should launch a serious protest. Let us not forget why farce exists. It absolves an authority from doing something that is not a farce.
Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist and creator of the Netflix series ‘Decoupled’