Thursday, June 30

Mr. Chow

This post is based on a wager with Atul, which you can read about here.

When you wake up in the morning, what is the first thing you do? Stretch lazily, hop out of bed & head for the can, slouch on the bed & feel your toes gently brush the floor?

I force myself to smile... a big, toothy grin with which I try to convey eagerness, earnestness and friendliness. The right smile is important to me because customers who feel cared for order more food and booze... and leave more tips. The right smile ensures that my drunk, frustrated customers don’t try to prove their manhood by starting a fight with the one guy they think they can lord it over – Me.

The right smile is important to me because my life is exhausting and empty; a token existence in maximum city. Without that smile, I don't think I could get out of bed and face the world.

I'm a waiter in a restaurant in Mumbai. My smile is what could separate me from the other waiters and from the sea of humanity that washes through the doors of my workplace. In this city, it is very easy to become jaded and cynical. It is even easier to avoid having facial expressions. We’re all so tired you see, so why waste energy feeling anything or showing what we feel? Daily I see people, bent wearily over their drinks. I hear them, talking about their problems, failures and rarely, their successes. I think about their self-involvement and wonder if they notice anyone besides themselves and their lamentations.

My eyes are weak and I wear thick, unfashionable glasses. Even without them, I'd be able to see more than my customers.

A few rare regulars know me and take the time to say hello and enquire about my well-being. I don’t say much, but this is where the practice from every morning pays off. They think they’re making a connection and I think... that I’ll say whatever it takes to keep the orders coming in.

No matter what happens, I smile. I have to.

Song for the moment: Quiet Volcano - Artie Tatum

Wednesday, June 15

Never give up on a good thing

I have an indifferent relationship with cellphones. Since 2004, I've only ever owned two and family, friends and colleagues have cajoled, requested and almost threatened me to get a new one. I've thought about it but always come back to one simple point - I don't really use the phone that much, so it doesn't bother me that my phone looks like I took it out of a garbage pile. If appearances were that important in life, I'd be nowhere. Oh wait... Anyway, my supposed callousness came to a head the other day when I tried to make a rare phone call.

A polite but firm automated voice informed me that the yearly validity on the Airtel SIM card had expired and asked that I renew it if I wished to avail their services further. For the next 3 hours, that automated message was the only intelligent thing I could get out of the Airtel people and retailers. If their "Dil jo chhahe, paas laye" tag had any grain of truth, an axe or a bazooka would have manifested itself in my hands and well... you get the Idea. At least figuratively.

Basically, all I wanted to know was - To extend the validity, what amount do I recharge the card with? You'd think the answer would be 'any', but it isn't. No, some clever management clog decided that each plan has a specific charge to extend validity. Finding out what that amount is, is a Sisyphean task. The two local Airtel retailers I asked didn't know. The second bright boy even tried calling 198 from my phone to find out. Yes, the very same phone that I told him did not work 10 seconds before.

So I tried the number from a land line, laboured through the various options on the auto thingummy and was finally put in touch with a cheerful lady who promised to help. Like Moses promised the desert journey would be a short stroll. I gave her the various details and asked her the amount. She didn't know and directed me to call another number. I did, went through the same process and was greeted by another polite guy who, with his enthusiasm and zeal, was quite likely the telling difference between the Trojans losing to the Greeks because of his absence. He digested the information I gave, considered it and said he did not know the amount either. When asked why, he said he wasn't authorised to know the answer. Pressed further, he admitted that no one would know and that I should ask the local retailer. Or the chaps guarding the Coca Cola formula.

I tried to exit the conversation gracefully until the guy asked me to rate the service at which point I threw the kitchen sink at him and hung up. I then did the only sensible thing; I called our local grocer in Pune with whom we've kept a goods diary for the last 18 years. I've grown up being friends with the guys at Om Supermarket, to a point where I now go behind the counter and pick up whatever I need. Sometimes, I've even helped out other customers with their items. The point is, a simple, almost 2 decade long family relationship with these guys saved the day. The uncle manning the counter listened to my problem, said he'd call the local Airtel guy and asked me to call back in 10 minutes. Following which, he charged the phone for the correct amount and wrote the account in the diary as usual.

Although this is mainly a post about the sad state of affairs at the Airtel call centre, it also let me express my appreciation for the endangered kirana store. Fancy mega supermarkets and malls have proliferated in most cities in India and definitely in Pune. I guess that is some form of progress, so I'm saying nothing against them. But I'm willing to bet they wouldn't go out of their way to help someone who randomly calls them from another city; a person whom they met as a boy of 10 and know as a man of 28. They may not always stock every item I need, but they stock decency, humanity and friendship.

Not everything available in the store is on the shelf.

Song for the moment: Keep the customer satisfied - Simon & Garfunkel

P.S: The amount was Rs. 110, in case you were wondering