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May 19, 1997


Farzana Versey

We must be mad to think we can find polished call-girls in the muck

I was at a dinner where everyone was talking about the Enron project and the stock market. Suddenly I was cornered by this gentleman who, presuming I might be the type who hates politicians, asked most enthusiastically how I would feel if bureaucrats were to rule this country.

"But," I asked, "don't they?"

"Oh, I mean quite upfront, not in the behind-the-scenes manner they are relegated to now. We need an educated ruling elite."

Sure we do, and bureaucrats are most certainly educated; in fact, in the dowry stakes, they are the most prized lot because their parents have apparently spent a lot of money on their education and want returns on their investment.

Frankly, unlike our former chief election commissioner, I would not even call them "polished call-girls" who are prostituting their position. I'd rather call them flea-ridden lazy mongrels.

I'll tell you why.

A few seasons ago I was at Mantralaya, the local government shop where all bureaucrats sell their wares, or, to get serious, where they try to do some work. I was meeting an acquaintance.

There he was in his plush room, with a mustard yellow carpet and upholstery and dull wood furniture. Discussing the plans of the day with him were about 10 people. I was hesitant to stay around while important matters of state were being discussed. But he would have none of it. "Come on, this is a friendly group carrying out the work of people you have elected." I had no argument to counteract that. Besides, it might be interesting to just sit back and watch.

It was. At first, I only heard their voices since I was pretending to read a book. Then, after being revived by a cup of hot government tea, I was ready to take on the world. Government tea has a history -- it has been brewed with the divine purpose of making all mortals appear equal. Specially when one of them offers you a little of the golden brown liquid in a saucer and you are expected to slurp it like a kitten.

Anyhow, the voices were like a stuck record -- call a committee, get the report, and round and round the mulberry bush. My friend, seated in the swivel chair, kept up the dialogue with a few "hmms". When he did bring in his delectable brand of humor, there were a few nervous laughs, the kind when you know there is a joke going but haven't quite understood it.

But when he asked for his itinerary for the next few days everybody had an answer. Their faces wreathed in beatific smiles of knowledge, they thought they were the only ones capable of taking their master anywhere near salvation.

Dressed in bush shirts that clung to them for dear life and hands held extremely close to bodies, it was obvious that work meant getting over with something. There was a lone woman seated next to me with flowers in her hair and sufficient gold ornaments to make her feel she mattered. At some point, she was asked, "What is the matter you wish to discuss?" She nodded her head vigorously, "No, no, no, nothing, I thought everyone was expected to be here."

Soon they realised that three-quarters of the people had come along without even knowing what it was for. And, finally, most of them trooped out together, probably retiring to their tables and tearing up the jottings they had made about nothing at all.

Of the three people who remained, one was very vocal. Discretion prevented me from turning around to look at him, but I gathered that he was trying to win his boss' confidence. He went on and on about completely non-essential things.

After he left, I did the next best thing that they do in government offices. I drank another cup of tea. Only this time it came in a fancy tray with dip, dip, dip tea bags. Somehow, it did not taste as good.

Perhaps, we will all have to await a storm in the teacup for a true revolution. But will that be potent? As Kafka said, "Every revolution evaporates, leaving behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy,"

We must be mad to think we can find polished call-girls in the muck.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

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Farzana Versey