(…in continuation of the post titled “Death of unemployment” published on 18th November, available on https://darkofficehumour.wordpress.com/2012/11/18/death-of-unemployment/)
The next day, the President reached the Prime Minister’s office a good thirty minutes ahead of schedule, such was his curiosity to know the answers. He was pacing up and down the venue waiting for the Prime Minister (PM) to arrive.
The PM tottered in at the appointed time. Wise beyond his age, ninety-three at that time, a pre-condition for assuming public office in the country, he took one look at the President and smiled. He knew what was bubbling beneath the surface. He had been there before.
“It is a cultural thing”, the PM said, after the usual pleasantries had been concluded, with a faraway look in his eyes, and, without waiting to see the reaction, added, “and it has taken us centuries, nay millennia, to evolve to the present state of being.”
The President blinked and rubbed his eyes, as if he was seeing an apparition. Who was this man? He was already answering the question that he, the President, had not even asked.
“I have to thank my countrymen for what we are today. Not just today’s countrymen, but all those who have been their forebears as well, as they have played an equally important part in our development. We are an ancient civilisation. We know how to respect our ancestors and our elders, except when they become old and dependent on us.”
The PM was speaking very softly. The President drew his chair close. Soundlessly. So as not to disturb the reverie the PM seemed to be in.
“Some people laugh when we talk about our ancient civilisation and culture” the PM said, seemingly with some rancour, “but we do not take offence; we know that they do not know what they do not know.”
The President could sense that he was in the presence of greatness. It was going to be a momentous occasion for him and his countrymen. Brutus’ lines from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar were playing inside his head:
“There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.”
He dared not interrupt. He could sense that he was the “we” in “On such a full sea are we now afloat”.
“Tell me”, the PM asked, “in the place you come from, sorry I am not good at remembering names, do people form a queue when faced with a counter which they need service from?”
The President was, by now, in a daze, listening to the soft voice of the PM. He did not respond.
“Do people form a queue when faced with a counter which they need service from?”, the PM repeated, in a slightly louder tone.
“Huh, what, what did you say?” is all he could say.
“Do people form a queue when faced with a counter which they need service from?”, the PM repeated, patiently, even indulgently, if one could be permitted the luxury of being indulgent with the President of the most powerful nation.
The President was now alert. He thought for a bit and said “of course” in a business-like tone.
The PM smiled. That was the answer he had expected. He continued, “in all your travels around the world, other than our country, have you ever seen cars travelling the “wrong way” on a clearly marked one-way street, and honking loudly so that cars coming the right way can get out of the way?”
The President thought for a while. “No” he said after a few moments.
The PM smiled. That was the answer he had expected. He continued, “in your country, if you make a request for which you are given an assurance of service by a certain time, do you get informed by the service-provider in case, for some reason, the service cannot be completed as originally committed?”
Seeing that the question was not clear, the PM was nothing if not perceptive, he repeated, “Say your washing machine is not working and you call the repair service who tell you that the engineer will visit you between 2 and 4 PM the following day. Say something comes up in the morning on the following day and the engineer is unable to visit and needs to reschedule. In such a case, will the service-provider contact you and inform you of the same?”
The President was fully alert now. He immediately responded with a prompt “always” and added with some vehemence, “and he will, in all probability, also apologise for the inconvenience”.
On hearing the response, which was on expected lines, the PM could only smile. “Apologise! Inform!” He inwardly chuckled at the strange world the President lived in. With a straight face, he continued, “in your country, is it common to throw your garbage in front of the neighbour’s house, or roll down the glass and throw trash out of your moving car onto the road?”
The President was fully alert now. He immediately responded with a prompt “never”.
He had warmed to the “quiz” format adopted by the PM. He had been a good quizzer in his student days and had won many accolades for his quizzing exploits. Since becoming President all he had received were brickbats. He saw this as a chance to win some accolades. He even looked around for the “buzzer” in case it was part of the format, but did not find one.
“How about talking loudly on the phone in a cinema immediately after an unambiguous message asking patrons not to, has been played on the screen?”, the PM continued, “does that often happen in your country?”
“Never ever”, the President responded firmly, and added with pride, “others in the hall will lynch them if this happened”.
The PM leaned back in his chair and smiled. Again.
The President smiled back.
The PM smiled once more. “What do you see in these examples? When a person at a traffic signal breaks the queue he is in, and boldly drives forth in the lane meant for oncoming traffic hoping to get through first, effectively and completely blocking traffic on all sides, he is making a statement. Do you know what it is?”
The President’s shoulders drooped. He had confidently answered all questions pertaining to his country and people. But he was out of his depth when confronted with a question about people in another country. His quizzing record would be sullied, he thought.
But the PM did not let that happen. He continued, “he is stating that he is the smartest person on this planet and all others, standing in line on the right side of the road, are fools.”
The President nodded. He felt like Po sitting at the feet of Master Shifu, learning the secrets of kung-fu in order to defeat Tai Lung.
“Similarly, when he is throwing garbage anywhere outside his own house or car, he is demonstrating his love for the land; it is as if it is all his own where he can do as he pleases.”
“And do you know what happens when several hundred million people, each of whom loves the land in the same way, is the smartest on the planet and believes all others are fools, get together and interact?”, the PM quizzed again.
The President was veering towards saying “magic”, “new inventions”, “pushing the frontiers of human development”, and was still searching for the right term when the PM’s voice rang out, “Chaos”.
“Total utter chaos”, he repeated. “And do you know what needs to be done when that happens?”
The President was now out of his depth. He stayed silent.
“Every activity needs to be done again and again because it cannot be completed. You would have spent two hours before realising that the repair engineer is not showing up. You will then call agin, set-up a visit again, and then wait again on the next such occasion. Every interaction needs to be supervised and monitored. For every person manning a counter, we need a dozen guards to manage the melee at the counter, as each person spends five times the effort and time in getting his work done first, as compared to meekly and merely waiting his turn in a queue.”
Even while the PM was speaking the President was turning the incidents around in his head; he was a multi-tasker par excellence; he had not become President by being a single-tasker. And it began to dawn on him. He could see the light. He could see that all the examples given by the PM created a virtuous circle of inefficiency and employment. The less people followed rules and guidelines, the more people will be required to manage processes and situations.
The PM could see the halo around the President’s head. He knew he had got it. To drive home the point that it is not merely the latest fad, but a characteristic that is intertwined with their very identity, he added, “we discovered this secret long ago, and we have to thank our ancestors for faithfully passing on the practice from generation to generation.”
“So this is the secret”, the President thought to himself.
“We don’t sit on our laurels”, the PM continued softly. “It is a process of continuous improvement, as Mr. Welch may have explained to you. Newer generations are upping the ante and rewriting the rules. In keeping with the energy and enthusiasm of their generation, they have started exhibiting advanced patterns of behaviour which is being called bipolar behaviour order (BBO) by scientists. People endowed with BBO will exhibit all the behaviour patterns I have talked about but, at the same time, roundly criticise others for displaying exactly the same behaviour. For example, if you see a short queue and join it to await your turn, and you see someone jumping the queue to get ahead of you, you are likely to launch a vitriolic attack on the absence of manners in that person, the jumper. However, on a different occasion, when you are the jumper, you will provide logical excuses for why you had no other course of action open to you, such as ‘you were in a hurry’. We have no doubt that this recent development will lead us to the next phase of human development”, he completed.
The President drew in his breath. This was becoming too much to handle. He had come seeking a few answers and what he was getting was a whole new way of life.
“Our responsibility to the future generations remains undiminished”, the PM added. “Our adults are showing leadership by inculcating these habits in their children from an early age”.
“But how do you ensure more than a billion people behave in the same manner?” the President could not help asking.
The PM did not immediately respond. This was always a sore point. A black spot on an otherwise immaculate record. He took off his glasses, wiped them on his coat sleeve and put them back on. With his head bowed, as if in shame, he said, “There are still some people who resist. They will stand in line at a counter. Stop at a red light on the road. Call you back on their own even if it is to give the customer bad news. We call them coconuts here. Ever seen a coconut?”
“Yes, yes”, the President said enthusiastically. He had grown-up in some tropical locations and he had happy memories of those places.
“Just as the coconut is brown outside, like our skin colour, and white inside, like the skin colour of many people living in the western parts of the world, these people, though they look like us, pretend to think like the people in the western part of the world think, which they believe equates to standing in queues, giving way, showing courtesy to old people, etc., hence the nickname ‘coconut’”, the PM explained.
The President complimented the PM on the clever use of the coconut. The rest of the world had only discovered the edible side of coconuts.
“We have tolerated their destabilising tactics with good humour, in view of our culture and ancient civilisation. But it cannot go on forever. We are, and I share this in confidence, in the process of enacting a law to deal effectively with people demonstrating such form of unacceptable behaviour.”
As the time scheduled for the meeting was over, the PM has thanked his countrymen once again for the state of affairs where so many attendants have to be deployed, even for simple interactions, and so many tasks redone. “It is a cultural thing”, he explained to the President, “You guys will take generations to reach this state of self-centredness.”
The President was no more as upbeat as he was the previous day. He had realised that to achieve the same level of employment generation would take a cultural change, which could be difficult to implement and can take time, putting his next presidential campaign in jeopardy. He could see his vision of employed countrymen becoming dimmer.
The PM, seeing the despondent look on the President’s face, wanted to help. He said, “But we can help. We can export people so that you can fast-track the cultural revolution. Though there are reports that our past exports have been corrupted by prolonged exposure to the host environment and not had the impact we would have liked, we assure you that the newer strains of people are more hardy and are guaranteed to deliver the promised results.”