Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Am I a corrupt citizen?

I had returned to Mumbai from San Francisco, to find pending bills waiting for my attention.  While the others could be taken care of online, what stumped me was a Property Tax bill with a huge five figure amount.

I remembered Society Property Taxes being included in the Society Bill.  But as explained by the Society Manager, a group in the Society Committee came up with this brainwave to have all members pay it directly to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) Office.  The bill was 6 six months overdue and the Manager advised me to pay the bill immediately or the BMC might cut my water supply, which would take a lot of running around to get reconnected.

"Can they really do that?"  I asked.

"They won't," he said disinterested.  "But they can."

So armed with confusion, the bill, and a blank check book, I headed to the designated BMC office.

On arriving, I was surprised at seeing a huge line of anxious people (around 100 metres long) snaking up towards a window manned by a cashier.  It was 11:30 am, and the sign above the payment counter indicated the payment timings to be from 8:30 am to 12:30 pm - just four hours!  On observing the slow pace of the payment process (around 5-10 minutes per customer) further slackened by willful tea breaks and brief gossip sessions on the part of the cashier, it was beyond me as to how the last person in the line would get to reach the window by even 6 pm!

The best informants in Government Offices are peons.  They have all the information on procedures, the right people to speak to, and above all - shortcuts.  Before I could think of where to find the peon, I felt a tap on my shoulder.  I turned around and was met with his toothless grin.  His uniform and knowing smile confirmed his identity.

"Do you want to pay your bill?" he asked.

"Yes," I replied.  "Do I have to get in line?"


"But the payment counter closes at 12:30 pm," I pointed out.  "How will I get there by then?"

"You won't.  Neither will any of these people.  The ticket counter will close at sharp 12:30 pm.  Those remaining in line will come back tomorrow and stand again.  This is the system."

A slow smile formed on his lips, which made his shaking of the head with disapproval seem unconvincing.

"But there is a solution," he said, his eyes lighting up.  "You can go up to the third floor and ask for Mr. X (name withheld to protect the innocent writer).  Pay him Rs. 100 and he will do your work.  And yes, mention that I sent to you."

A bribe!  And a cut for the peon from the officer!  A more systemized network for bill payment than the official BMC payment system!

Being a Mumbaikar, I was no stranger to the world of greasing palms.  In fact, my acquired expertise in slipping a note here and there had saved me a lot of time at various Government offices - RTO, MTNL, just to name a few.  But the entire Anna Hazare movement changed my entire outlook towards this previously seemingly harmless act.  I had resolved never to bribe anyone ever again.

Now I was in a dilemma.  On one hand, I ran the risk of my water supply being cut off (friends also said that it never happens, but it can) and spending days on end as one of the hopefuls trying to get to the ticket window.  On the other hand, I could solve the problem within minutes by delaying my newly acquired sense of ethics and proceed to the third floor.  I chose the latter.

Once I was face-to-face with Mr. X, I showed him my bill and cited my reference.  He smiled and nodded, asking me to wait, but showed no signs of taking any action on the issue at hand.  I understood that his palm would need to be greased.  From past experience, I knew that if I didn't do it then and there, he would cite some sort of problem with the bill and put me on the path to a different runaround.

So I took out a hundred rupee note, rolled it up in my fist, and offered him a handshake.  He took my handshake, discovered the note, and politely refused.  I understood that he couldn't blatantly accept a bribe (sting operations were on the rise), so added the safest line to accompany my purpose - "Something for the kids, Sir."  He smiled, accepted it as a gift, and solved my problem within minutes.

In a city like Mumbai where time is money, waiting for hours on end for a small task is a huge loss.  But my solution to saving all that time fuels corruption.  So am I a corrupt citizen?

Monday, August 27, 2012

From a Cough to a Cough and Cold!

I've had a bad cough for a few weeks.  This morning I finally decided to do something about it.  So I set out for the doctor's clinic, just a slight distance from where I live.

It was raining pretty heavily which further highlighted the dilapidated state of the road running the entire length outside his dispensary.  Honest to God, I have never seen so many potholes in one road (maybe I haven't been around much the city lately)!  But anyways, I had finally made it to the outside of the Doctor's office.  I couldn't step out of the autorickshaw immediately because of the small bodies of water that had filled the potholes.  The driver had to reverse and go forward twice to give my foot a clear landing, away from the puddles.

The clinic was on the other side of the road but was surrounded by water on all sides.  Despite my long legs, I had never been good at the long jump so I knew that attempting to leap across the muddly puddles wouldn't work for me.  I walked all around looking for some way to get into the clinic, literally a few steps away, but found none.  Balancing an umbrella in one hand, I pulled up my trousers slightly and stepped into the water.  With drippy feet and now cleansed slippers, I made it to the doctors office.

After a brief conversation and nods of understanding, the doctor sent me to take some tests at a lab closeby.  The first test was a blood test.  Instead of being administered (or extracted) by a credible lab attendant, a peon walked in and did the needful.  He literally jabbed the needle in and out, prompted by routine and a certain hurriedness to get to other unrelated office tasks that were also probably part of his job responsibilities.

Next, I was sent for a chest x-ray.  The attendant in there was a  young boy (not more than 21), who seemingly had too been elevated from an office boy position.  Even though he wore a labcoat, his language was a dead giveaway.  He instructed me to take off my shirt and amulets around my neck.  I wear two amulets - one of a fish and the other of an old British Indian coin that my wife bought from a flea market by the Embarcadero in San Francisco.  The fish had a hook, and came off easily.  The coin was held by a thick black thread knotted securely.  I didn't have long nails so tried unsuccessfully for ten minutes to unknot it.  It was only when the attendant lifted up a pair of scissors suggestively, did it it come off in an instant!

The next test was the urine sample.  I really don't want to talk about it.

But now that I mentioned it, I think it's only fair that I share something from the uneventful experience.  Let's just say that the incident saw me balancing a small sealed plastic jar of identifiable liquid past a line of disapproving onlookers.  I had to walk the length of an entire floor, down a flight of stairs within the lab, and another short distance to another lab attendant.  When I tried to offer her the liquid, she refused to take it immediately.    First she made me reassure her, through two successive demonstrations, that the container was sealed, after which she told me to drop it in a plastic bag which she held open.  Once done, she treated the bag like a ticking bomb, holding it in her fingertips and at an arm's length.

It was raining heavily outside, and fortunately I had one of those heavyset umbrellas which offer protection on all sides.  As I prepared to step into the rain, I noticed an elderly gentleman huddled up in a corner outside the lab in wait for the rain to lessen to a safer pace, so that he could get to a rickshaw without getting completely drenched.  I looked upon this as an opportunity to do my good deed for the day and offered him a lift to the main road.

In my experience of a lift (have only given car lifts), the passenger gets in the passenger seat in the front or sits in the back.  He/She doesn't displace the driver and take over the steering wheel of the car.

But Uncle here, took control of the umbrella keeping it to his level (of 5.5" against my height of 6.1") trying to ensure that none of his clothes got wet.  In the process, I found myself bumping my head into the spokes of the umbrella while unsuccessfully trying to protect myself from the rain.

Yes, I got home drenched.  When I left home, I only had a cough.  Now I have both a cough and cold.:)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A feel of 'Once Upon the Tracks of Mumbai.'

A synopsis and a book cover can only say so much about the book.  It's only after a person has read it, can he/she get 'a feel' of it.

By 'feel', I mean flavour.  'Once Upon the Tracks of Mumbai' is a story about love, heartbreak, adventure, and courage, set in a magnificently complex city Mumbai that has as many hues and moods as the colourful characters that headline in the book.  I thought - what better way to give people an insight into the book than visually?!

So I decided to shoot a promo.  Having written and directed in the film and television industry and worked as a Promo Producer, apart from being the author of the book, I felt that I had no excuse not to create one myself.  So I stepped on the local train, armed with my iPhone HD camera in the direction of Bandra Station (where 'Once Upon the Tracks of Mumbai' is set).  I felt that a Sony HD handicam could attract attention and might prove cumbersome while shooting inside a train.

It was Eid in Mumbai, a bank holiday, so the station and trains were less crowded as compared to a normal working day.  This worked to my advantage as I was able to take my shots without being pushed by the hustle-bustle characteristic of the busy Bandra Station.  

I captured my shots inside the train, on the platform, the footbridge, and all over the busy Bandra Station Road.  Next I went to other places around Bandra Station, to capture the spirit of the people operating out of shops in and around the area.  But the main shot I needed was a clear static shot of the railway tracks, highlighting its mystery and endlessness.

Given safety concerns, going into the middle of the railway tracks (as Babloo has done in the book) wouldn't be a wise decision so I didn't even entertain that thought as it crossed my mind.  And for some reason, I wanted the shot to be only of the Bandra Railway Tracks (as opposed to any other Station) since those particular tracks are a main character in 'Once Upon the Tracks of Mumbai.'

I walked along the entire length of the Bandra Station road, following the railway tracks and found my opening close to the Gaiety-Galaxy Multiplex.  'Ek Tha Tiger' was playing on one of the screens, so the place was packed with people.  Amongst angry cars and anxious people, I pushed myself through the human obstacles till I found my way to the clearing.  Since I have a long arm, I didn't have to lean over the rusted metal fence dangerously and was able to obliterate peering faces that were trying to get into the picture.  And soon enough, I got my shot.

A day before, I spoke to music directors Sangeet and Siddharth Haldipur and asked them for a track for this promo.  To give you a brief insight into the background of this talented duo, Sangeet and Siddharth were initiated into music at a very young age.  So you could say that music is in their blood.  They each play a couple of instruments and are trained and talented vocalists, having done playback singing for various ad films and feature films, among others.  They are also recognized as successful Indi-Pop singers.  Siddharth is a member of the popular group 'Band of Boys' while Sangeet is a part of the adored Pop foursome 'Aasma' having been selected by a nation-wide talent hunt on Channel V.  As music director duo for the big screen, they go by the name of Sangeet & Siddharth having many successful films under their belt, the most recent being 'Murder 2.'

They heard my brief once and asked for a few hours.  When they got back to me and made me listen to what they had designed, I was completely blown away!  They hadn't even read the book yet, but yet got the essential flavour of the book.  Now that's what I call talent!