Brainwashed

July 28th, 2011

A washing machine ad from 1910A friend visiting from Singapore told me a story from real life that sounds to me like far-out escapist fiction. Here it is. One morning a few days after she — let’s call her Shobha — landed in this comically tiny island capitalist paradise, the washing machine in her house stopped working. Being Indian, Shobha girded her loins as she called the maintenance line, expecting the usual tussle with customer service. “Are you home?” said the man on the line. “Yes,” said Shobha, “but in half an hour I have to go to work.” “No problem, I’ll come now.” And he was there in eight minutes.

Maintenance Man checked the machine quickly and carefully, decided it would have to be changed, and phoned an associate. Fifteen minutes later the new machine had been delivered, installed, checked and explained, and the malfunctioning one taken away. A brief thank-you not involving cash, and Maintenance Man and his crew were gone. Shobha left home on time, but mildly discombobulated at the ease and pace of service.

True story!

I was gritting my teeth and thinking of lucky Shobha as my own family in Delhi struggled with the AC company that made and is supposed to maintain our home ACs, and its idiotic, rude and venal employees. At different times, this split unit has leaked, rattled, banged, stunk, disagreed with its own remote control and, most recently, the rotating fan on its indoor unit has fallen off. (Really.) Like a fool I allowed the repairmen, who arrived days later and at the wrong time, to take away the old fan to compare for a new part — and now it’s gone and the company claims nobody took any part and that anyway spare parts are no longer made for that AC, which was bought only in 2005. Yuck!

But Shobha, having lived now in Singapore for a while, has become pessimistic about the many conveniences of living in that authoritarian nation-state. New flats, she tells me, are often built without kitchens — because eating out is so cheap, wholesome and easy. Public transport is ridiculously easy — though to board a bus you must have exact change, as no change will be given you. The weather hardly ever changes — it is always warm and sweaty — but when there is rain then the TV and radio airwaves come alive not with monsoonal thrill but with complaints from Singaporeans about interrupted shopping.

Are they mad? Is all that convenience and cleanliness and rule-following mentally juvenilising?

Poor Singaporeans. They will need their unusually far-sighted and cynically ruthless leaders, because those leaders haven’t left them anything real to complain about. Singaporeans’ political instincts must have gone totally blunt.

Lucky us in India. Here, things are either terribly imperfect or lavishly paid for. So our political senses are in rude health. Our stupid rulers haven’t yet realised that the less their citizens have to complain about, the safer and more indispensable they can make themselves.

With one exception: the rulers of the city-state of Delhi, who are slowly, slowly, doing a Singapore on their middle-class citizens. No wonder Sheila Dikshit has the safest chief ministerial seat in the country.

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