Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Are You Being Served?

Two separate incidents got Vicky and me talking a little late into the night, last night.

One, the disappearance of Bruno. The teddy bear mascot of Brown's, Bruno was a gift from Aniruddha to Rahul and I fell in love with him. Some time yeterday or perhaps even late the day before, he vanished and we fear that Rahul chucked him outside, something he's doing a lot these days. Many of his toys have vanished . I was quite sad last night, because I really liked the bear, but it's Rahul's to give away. These toys that he throws outside -- I think some time in the chaos of the last week he's managed to do it more often -- are not even toys that he misses. He has plenty. Nor does he throw them out of anger. He sends his favourites out, the spotted dalmatian, the broken bicycle, and I suspect he sends them to enjoy the freedom that he's being denied.

We've usually got back all the stuff but I think over the last week he's thrown far more than we knew, and I suppose passersby have walked off with them. Wouldn't you? These are expensive toys, some of them, and mostly in good condition.

The other thing happened last night. A security guard at South City pissed V off and I think V's anger was quite justifiable, given the lousy manners these guys think are acceptable. But I wasn't OK with him swearing in public (and psyching out the little old lady in front of him.) Not because I mind the swearing, but because the guard wouldn't be able to retaliate. V says he was misusing his powers, so V could also abuse his own powers. Yeah, I get that, but why?

I don't know how it is in other metros but here in Cal the resentment against the rich is getting a little scary. Some days it plain pisses me off. One night when I was on the road and making careful calculations as to what transport I would be able to afford, a rickshaw-walla tried to justify his over-charging saying Rs. 2 doesn't matter to me. Excuse me? I was in a foul mood already and that lit the fuse. I made him pull up and yelled at him. I'm always balancing, balancing expenses purely because the Rs. 2 does matter to me. Else I'd be in a cab, not a rickshaw in the rain.

Yes, V and I are better off together than I was as a poor student three years ago, but we also have more places to make the money go. In any case, why resent us? Because we have a car in this city of over-crowded public transport? A battered, seven yr-old model we cannot afford to keep smart? Because I wear shorts and skirts and clothes that look expensive? I make each item go a long way. Because our child looks well-fed and healthy and is well-dressed?

And that's where I stop the belligerence. Yes, our son is well-fed and healthy and well-dressed. He has shoes on his feet and enough clothes for it not to matter if one tears. Last Friday, at eleven in the night, when I was coming home from work, I saw a young boy, maybe ten, carrying a baby, maybe six months old, through the mild drizzle as he begged for money between the cars. We were waiting for the light to turn green when he came up and I just lost my temper. I yelled at him to take that child under shelter this very second unless he wanted me to take it away from him. I know the babies are hired and ill-treated, so the odds of it being his own sibling were low.

And all the while I was thinking of my own son at home. At that same age, being wrapped and changed and cuddled the live-long day. At times the difference gets too much to bear. I resent somebody telling me I have it good, so why should I care if I'm made to pay more just because I look like I can. And yet, I know the security guard will not go home to a flat as nice as ours. He will not drive himself swiftly home in a car. He did not just come out of an AC movie-hall. These things surely matter? If he gets his cheap kicks by being rude, I have to remember perhaps that his lot in life is less rewarding than mine?

I get this strong sense of resentment all around. Fifteen years ago places were more fixed. My parents knew their station in life and servants/wait persons or people who generally served, in whatever capacity knew their places and their duties. Now everybody is upwardly aspiring. Aspirations are good but surely not at the cost of losing you your contentment in the life you have? I should talk, because now and then I want to be more than I am -- richer, better-clothed, better-educated, more travelled. Takes me a little time to get my feet back on the ground.

All around me, I find the service is getting worse. A waiter at even the poshest hotels quite frequently doesn't know the basics of filling your plate or clearing it away. Salesgirls don't think it's necessary to be tactful when helping you choose some clothes. There doesn't seem to be much pride in doing one's job well, unless it pays astronomical sums of money or can be boasted about. And there's this resentment. Why hate me? I'm not only not taking anything away from you, I'm helping you earn your salary. As other people help me put food on my table by paying for the services I give them. I cannot understand why speaking in Bengali with a salesperson often gets me looks of disdain when it's quite clear that they cannot follow my request in English.

Why does a human being consider it unnecessary to open a door when he sees a hassled young man with a full trolley approaching? It may not be a part of his job description, but why would he think that it lowers him in any way to show basic decency?

This whole dilemma tears me in two ways: on the one hand I am glad to think Bruno has gone to somebody to whom he will be more than just another soft toy. On the other, this whole neighbourhood knows that Rahul throws his toys out of the window. Yet nobody rang the bell to warn us, nobody ever returns a toy.

And yet, should I not make allowances for those who don't even have it as good as I do? There's a part of me that doesn't want to make allowances for bad manners. And another part of me asks, where would they pick up the good manners? Do they have the same kind of exposure that I do? I was telling V last night, if he'd cussed the guard out knowing that the guy could have returned it in kind, I'd understand and not mind so much. But the guard wouldn't be able to retaliate. Then again, it was the guard who started the whole thing, letting us climb a full flight of stairs before blocking us at the top and saying that the way was closed. Who do you blame? V's not a snob at all, he really isn't. If you ask me, the guard was showing the reverse snobbishness that's coming to bother me so much -- penalising the better off simply because they are better off.

And yet, if you live in Calcutta, you know just how little the other side has. Can I really resent somebody who has the same dreams for his son as I do but has to live out his entire life knowing the two boys will never have the same chances just by an accident of birth? Ought I on the other hand penalise my own son just because he has the breaks?

It's a city of contradictions, this one, and I cannot help feeling it would be a happier city if more people counted their own blessings rather than those of their neighbours.


WaitingforSunshine said...

I feel bad when I see old ppl, kids begging for food...but I was thinking sometime back, we have really worked hard and do so each day, to reach where we are... should not we be guilt free sometimes atleats while enjoying the ice cream cone or coming out of multiplex!!

The Marauder's Map said...

Well said, Sue. These things bother me a lot too, and I find myself doing funny things like stashing away all the shopping I did for Ananya before my maid comes in in the morning -- simply because she has two daughters and I know they can't imagine buying so many clothes all at once. It's another matter that I can't explain to her that I got them at a sale and paid about 1000 bucks for a year's supply of outdoor wear. I buy toys for her and tell my help they were gifted by friends and then think how silly.

But at the risk of sounding self-contragulatory, I will say that there is a lot of unnecessary flaunting all around too, and we should be glad of our solid middle-class grounding that makes showing off vulgar.

D said...

I don't know sometimes if I should feel guilty for having all that I do. Then again, I think I might think the same way as the have-nots do if I was in their shoes. But you're so right about everybody being so dissatisfied with wherever they are in life. This world now makes it seem easier to get a better life, but it isn't easy at all. And that's why the frustration. What seems so reachable is actually getting beyond our reach.

Anonymous said...

Its not only your city Sue, its happening every where. Sometimes I think we are at the brink of a rebellion, the resentment against our way of life, our breaks is so strong. May be I am too imaginative but I feel at times that those beggars at the red light might just break the car windows and attack us. Scary!

First Rain said...

This is very well written indeed.

In addition to what you wrote, people do not respect what other people for what they do - discrimination based on labour/work is very prevalent. This also causes resentment from people who do not get the respect. On the other hand, if someone sees a shoddy job done, they do not feel like respecting the job doer. And so on.

Somewhere such cycles have to be broken.

Rohini said...

Yeah, it's not just in Calcutta. It's everywhere. Something very similar ti V's experience happened with me the other day - the parking attendant stood while I parked the car, got Ayaan out of the car seat, collected my bag, locked the door and was walking off before telling me that I had parked in a reserved spot...

I really don't know what the answer to this is. But I do know that I work really hard to make the money I do and it's irritating to feel guilty about it. I know I am lucky, so much luckier than them but that's no cause for rudeness or bad service...

Suki said...

Ditto. People assume I'm rich because I dress well and walk with my back straight. Think it appropriate to fleece me. And I can't blame them.
Then again, I'll also want my money's worth - good service.

Oh dang, I'll just end up repeating everything you said so am just ending with total agreement.

Mama - Mia said...

that was such a brilliant post Sue. So many things said without ever losing the point.

when you said M reminded you of V, this post reminded me of M. similar thing happened in Bangalore when a parking attendant tried to fleece M of some money. M got mad and hollered at him and created a scene.

Now that Dude had taken similar amount of money from few others and taken advantage of the fact that they didnt care enough to check! whats 100 bucks apparently!

what the attendant was obviously wrong, but by creating a scene M hardly got the respect he would have, if he had stayed calm perhaps.

its difficult to control ones temper when faced with such situations over and over with no respite in sight.

the divide between rich and poor is increasing and so is the resentment. imagine the aspiration levels of these people working in swanky malls where we spend their entire month's salary in one shopping spree perhaps.

but the assumption that we dont work hard enough for it and thats why we can be and should be taken for ride is just crazy and helps no one.

why should i want to leave 3rs change? i work even for that.

great great post yet again!



Vidooshak said...

Hmmm.. post with vajan. Hmmmm...

Sue said...

Waiting -- Yeah, this whole begging for food really bothers me. Especially when I've seen the kids throw away the food. If it wasn't good enough for them why take it away from me? It was good enough for me.

Marauder's Map -- Well, I suppose it's only human nature to flaunt. Many of my friends have things I would love to own. Doesn't mean I start thinking they should belong to me, though. It's such a mixed up thing. I don't want to feel guilty, and I think it helps that I have this annual clearing out (happening right now) where clothes and stuff we no longer strictly need are passed on.

D -- I blame the advertisements. All they do is set up some ridiculous notions of success. Rubbish.

Ritu -- You feel it too? It's scary. I know any time there is trouble on the roads, we'll be held to blame because we're the ones in the car that actually belongs to us.

First Rain -- I agree. I do try to appreciate good service but perhaps I don't always. Perhaps I've helped demoralise some enthusiastic would-be-good server somewhere. Worrying thought.

Ro -- Yeah, exactly. We got the breaks but nobody tell me we don't/didn't work for them. I refuse to feel guilty. But I do wish ppl wouldn't go around with such huge chips on their shoulders either!

Suki -- :)

Abha -- And you know, that's why I value the folks who show me how to save my money, where to get good quality for cheaper. Our current electrician has known us since our poorest days and he's always very helpful that way. So I keep calling him for all our jobs, recommending him. Such simple logic, I don't understand why the rest don't get it!

Vidooshak -- :) What, gave you indigestion?

Monika,Ansh said...

very thought provoking & i know what u mean. I have been branded as a miser & having no heart just because I cannot waste my hard earned money.
It's the same with domestic help. What we have to put up just to keep them from leaving is unspeakable.

Casuarina said...

Deja vu. Oscillating between what we don't have and what we won't ever have. Never happy with what we DO have. I am one, too.

Jassie said...

I read your blog this morning "Are you being served." Your message was alarming at the least. It is actually hard to respond intelligently.

You send two disturbing thoughts. One is that Rahul is habitually tossing toys out window, and that, perhaps he does so to assure freedom for the toys that he is being denied. That is a bit of a mindbender. One that Rahul tosses toys out the window, and the second that you think maybe he sees himself as somehow lacking in freedom.

The second thought is that you seem angry a lot, and you sometimes seem to think it's ok to explode at people when they don't show the proper respect most of the time.
I've been there, done that, but somehow don't find it worthwhile anymore, given how people are here. I also have really bad days here and I haven't even grown up in the place. You and I both know how bothersome people can get here - but somehow it's just not in my best interest to get angry with duds, whom I know, will NEVER be good at what they do.

On this second point, I find myself wondering why you feel such anger? In the beginning when I came here, I felt that it could be that life in Calcutta, such a dense urban area, was perceived by me as a hostile environment and I felt threatened. That could be understandable, as I know that urban dwellers often sense hostility--not uncommon in big places such as New York City, et al. Still, outbursts such as you describe seem to me as rude as what you rail against.

It's a good thing that you and Vicky can sit up late talking about your feelings and your actions. Andi and I have always used each other to explore uncomfortable feelings. Getting your anger under control is important, though, and I am left wondering whether your late-night conversations are enough. Only you and Vicky will know.

So when you get angry at one of these folks and show your anger, it is understandable, but something that you have to talk over with Vicky as you are doing now. Sometimes just talking about it helps and you find ways to deal differently with your anger.

Sue said...

Jassie -- First, throwing toys of windows is very natural. Nothing alarming there. And given a choice, R would rather be outdoors than in, so yes, he does feel 'imprisoned' some times. No deep psychological issues there.

Second, I refuse to feel apathetic about this or any other city I live it. I love this place and do not see why I should let things slide. Moreover, I would like to at least be responded to with the politeness I try to offer. Why I don't get that is what I've been trying to understand, and whether I should accept the fact that I won't.

I have no idea where you got the anger from, because my feeling was -- is -- of fear rather than anger.

It's an open-ended post and I don't exclude myself from my conclusion, if you'll notice.

noon said...

Wonderful, thought provoking post Sue. I don't know - I feel like in India people often wear (or are expected to) their social status on their sleeves. If I look simple and dress in ordinary clothes and actually give respect and address the guard or a maid with a lot of respect and say please and thank you - generally it is harder to get a job done because they do think I can be taken for a ride. But if I dress to look rich and walk with a swagger and treat them like you are one below me, then I am actually given more respect. You may or may not agree with me but that is my perception from the time I have spent there vs here (including trips to India). I mean it in general when I use the word "I".

And over all if there is more accountability to a job, then the service will be better no matter who the customer is or how he/she looks. It is such a complex issue really. So many things play a role...the culture of the nation as a whole, the class divide...there is bound to be resentment in some cases if what meets the eye is one of comfort and wealth - hard earned yes, but some of them work very hard and yet earn much less than they deserve for their level of hard work - so the bitterness happens I think.

Even here we talk about doctors - they earn buckets of money - but really speaking they just don't have time to explain things to a patient (esp one who is uninformed and afraid to ask) and they dont' like being questioned and just too busy to go on and on with one patient, period. So we feel like - heck you make sooo much money - you dont' have time to talk to me for 5 more minutes? Just cut down on two patients a day if that's how you will have time for me - kind of feeling. It is not every doctor but a lot of 'em. They work very hard for their money but we still feel like we want more from them.

the mad momma said...

Good Lord Sue, don't read too much into it. Rahul is a baby. He's not even two - welcome to the terrible twos, btw. All kids throw things down. they're learning cause and effect. The brat used to throw things off the balcony and I got the guard to just hold the toys and would collect them at the end of the day. Its as much fun as splashing in a puddle or anything else. The brat outgrew it and the Bean has begun. she enjoys watching the flight down and watching which things will break and which will survive the flight. I think the kids have enough freedom. if its not this, its flushing things to watch them swirl and flow away.

the money thing - we're a little careful with people less fortunate. but i dont believe that is a reason to take rudeness from them. if ever, i politely but firmly tell them that I wont take it.

I agree with Ritu and Rohini

noon said...

Oh btw Sue, in my sleep writing (previous comment posted late night totally tired and sleepy!) I forgot to add this. V throwing toys down is the most normal thing for a kid that age to do - what is not normal and is surprising is no one in the complex has found it and brought it back to you...or just leave it there for you to pick up later. I remember B's mom used to tell me how B at this age used to throw her cooking vessels too out of the kitchen if she didn't keep an eye on him. Here KB used to non stop throw things from his high chair or any higher surface he was on...I remember that phase so well - got so tired of picking things back up and handing it to him only to be thrown right back...but it is such a cute phase also...

And also the above comment - hope it didn't come across as someone moving to the US and putting down accountability in the Indian system or some such thing - but what I meant was if you pay service staff a lot (which say even the cleaners here get paid so much more than cleaners there) then there is also a lot more accountability. But then again that is why labor is so expensive here and it is so hard to afford paid help.
And rudeness is certainly not acceptable but in some ways the bitterness is understandable.

itchingtowrite said...

oh it's everywhere sue
the "help" in the society- always trying to get the extra 10-20 bucks out of us just becoz both of us are working.
the iron wallah feels its ok to not return 60 bucks change and then vanish for weeks.
the hotelier who wud hav fleeced us of the no of plates in my wedding had we not kept a tab but the small time cateror who cud hav fleeced us if he wanted but his calculations were faultltless- it is a matter of attitude yaar!

Neera said...

I think its aspirations getting higher and higher by the day as you say. I don't think i would blame the have nots because life unfortunately is very very unfair to them. Frustration is bound to pent up when there's no guarantee of food on the table or the likes at the end of an exhausting day. You and I have worries of our own I understand but like you have noted yourself, we are lucky not to be denied the basics of roti, kapda and makaan. Its like we are at least getting that at the end of the day. I think to be denied those and still act in always justified ways would be befitting only of saints. Not to say it doesn't bother me right then - its undoubtedly irritating!

Neera said...

And I think its also to do with the treatment the poor are meted out themselves. In most of the households, the maids etc are treated with much indifference which trickles down. And when they see those whom they serve get richer when their own battles are even related to survival, its not surprising to see attitudes worsen. And its gloomy to think about it as something to which there is no solution.

Sue said...

Noon -- Yes, I too am looking accountability. I'll pay a little more but I want high service. Time was when the bearers at the club knew every member and their families and took pride in serving with a flourish and never getting an order wrong. The new generation -- my generation -- thinks it's a demeaning job and not worth doing properly. I don't like that attitude. I do all sorts of jobs and I do them the best I can, mostly

Our windows look out upon a street so I guess passersby walk off with the toys. Very natural. Lots of kids pass by.

MM -- Good lord, the flushing hadn't even struck me! One more thing to live in dread of. *sigh*

Itchy -- I know. And what I want to know is, what is it that they aspire to? They want a better life but maids in Cal refuse work, cabbies won't go places, shopkeepers are uninterested in selling in many shops -- what kind of ambition is that?

Neera -- I'm not disagreeing with you but tell me this -- how come the maids get to demand two months' salary, clothes and/or gold for Dussehra? My employer isn't giving me so much as a bonus.

I do give away a lot of things every year but nor do I want anybody to think that I 'owe' them anything. You know what I'm saying? I think I'm willing to pay more for good service provided I get my money's worth. Meaning I want respect, politeness and work fully done. How come this has become negotiable? In my own career if I drop any of these three I put my career at risk.

bird's eye view said...

Great post Sue. Re Rahul throwing stuff out of the window, that's normal. A friend's daughter used to open their almirah and throw out all kinds of stuff - passport, gold bangles, mangalsutra etc when the friend was at work! TG it's toys in this case :)

Re: the second issue, you can feel trhe class discontent simmering in the streets of every Indian city. There are times when I feel a little guilty but then I remind myself that dad came up the hard way and had nothing given to him on a platter - used to study under streetlights, had no shoes till he reached college, he and his 2 brothers shared one suit which they all wore for interviews...I've also had a fairly restricted upbringing in terms of material goods, folks never had money to throw around, so today if I can afford stuff and want to indulge, it's the hard work we've put in that makes it possible. And another thing I've noticed which upsets me - the nicer you try to be, the more people try and take advantage. To me even now, if a cabbie or rickshaw walla charges more, it's a matter of principle, not the two bucks so I fight about it all the time.

It's a tough life for many of these people and I wish the govt would take its head out of its rear and start investing in basic education and skill training to help them move up in life but meanwhile I resent their assumption that life is easy because I don't have a physically demanding job and earn more money. I've earned it.

I love Lucy said...

I linked you in one of my posts.Hope its alright?

Sue said...

Lucy -- Yeah, sure. Thanks for letting me know.

that girl in pink said...

nicely put sue, especially the last line.
it's a no-win situation really. i mean, even if i gave up all my worldly pleasures and started living in a slum, who would that help anyway?