Let pundits and patriots gloat over India overtaking China's growth rate, becoming a scientific superpower and challenging American technological achievements. What matters at the humdrum level of daily living is the debasement of values, vulgarization of taste, deteriorating services and disintegration of institutions like the post and telegraph department, which is 'celebrating' 150 years of existence. Its collapse is all the more depressing for the pinnacle that it once occupied.
Perhaps things are worse in West Bengal than elsewhere. But the degradation is nationwide. Paeans of praise for the reopened Flury's recall how Delhi's Wengers has also fallen. Cheap showiness, shoddy service, indifferent fare and inflated prices pass unnoticed because people have forgotten quality and no longer expect it. That is also why we rave over tacky shopping malls that compare poorly with the vanished elegance of Hall and Anderson's or Whiteaway Laidlaw. It's like the West Bengal government allowing Rawdon Square to decline into a dump and then saying that since it was no longer a park, it could be sold to one of the ruling party's business partners in another bit of shady commerce.
Such examples extend to every sphere as India forges ahead while Indians lag behind. Money and position are the ultimate arbiters everywhere, but those without either are not so totally ignored in other societies that claim the modern label. In a conversation with Rajiv Gandhi many years ago, he suggested that a strong consumer movement could solve many problems. But the prescription is useless without an honest police force, law courts that briskly dispense impartial justice, active civil servants and caring politicians. In the absence of this follow-up, Renuka Ray's brave demonstrations were quickly forgotten.
This disregard of ordinary folk ' which many Telegraph readers might not credit ' prompts hilarious exchanges whenever I have to telephone someone in authority. I ask to speak to a functionary and am asked my name in return, which is fair enough. To the inevitable next question, 'Where are you speaking from' I reply, 'My home.' Baffled, they then grope around to discover where I work. I say I am unemployed. Why do I want to speak to the great man' I explain I have a complaint/ problem/request. Unfailingly, he is busy/on the telephone/at a meeting.
These are the hazards of ordinariness. Ironically, that same functionary and his minions were all gracious attention when I, too, boasted a corporate identity. This responsiveness only to money and position is a major reason for widespread avoidance of duty and a host of abuses including growing corruption.
A complaint on which Calcutta's Banking Ombudsman has taken a commendably strong stand highlights how the small man ' woman in this instance ' is at the mercy of a system that encourages criminal exploitation. Last November, a man in London posted a cheque for Rs 4,77,000 drawn in favour of a female relative here on his NRO account at UTI Bank, Gol Park. Alarmed when the cheque did not reach her, the woman got in touch with the sender whose inquiries from London revealed that it had been cleared and deposited at the ICICI Bank in Vivekananda Road. Further inquiries disclosed that Rs 3,00,000 had already been withdrawn.
How could this happen' Quite simply, apparently. First, the cheque was stolen from the postal system. Then the thief obtained a forged voter's card in the payee's name but using an address in Shibpur, whereas the woman herself lives in Ballygunge. (The Howrah police later confirmed that no such name or address figures in the voter's list.) Then they took the card as proof of identity to the ICICI bank, opened an account with no other verification and deposited the cheque for Rs 4,77,000 in it. The bank obligingly issued an automatic teller machine card, replete with personal identification number, on the spot. Three days later, the account holder merrily used the card to withdraw Rs 3,00,000.
None of this would have been possible without the initial theft in an enterprise that evokes memories of the legendary Scinde Dawk, the magic of Rudyard Kipling's 'Overland Mail' and Salil Chowdhury's stirring rhythm in 'Runner'. No doubt in recognition of this august past, the president received 150 postmen in Rashtrapati Bhavan on Republic Day. But India must be the only country in the world where sending a letter abroad is so complicated, as I rediscovered the other day. First, the long queue to have my envelope weighed by a surly clerk who flung it back at me, barking out the cost. Then another queue to buy stamps. The woman in charge ' she seemed to have just woken up ' needed considerable coaxing to produce stamps of the right denomination and change for my hundred-rupee note between yawns that she did not even bother to hide. Back to the weighing man who was by then brandishing a bottle of water.
'There,' he said, indicating with a slight lift of one eyebrow a small pile on the counter. To my timid 'Won't you cancel it' he snapped, 'When I am free.' Afraid to point out that he looked free enough, I hesitantly suggested that cancellation wouldn't take more than a few seconds. It would be nicer if done while I was there. 'Why' he demanded. 'Don't you trust me'
This being the crux of the matter, I explained that if the post ran on trust, I should be able to drop my letter in the pillar-box outside, as in most civilized countries. Here, letters must be cancelled before our eyes to prevent postal employees peeling off the stamps. Reluctantly, the man heaved himself forward and picked up the seal.
Villagers working in town hanging about long-distance bus-stops to entrust their remittances to acquaintances rather than send money orders similarly indict the system. Airmail stickers have disappeared. So has express delivery, presumably because the surcharge made no difference. My Time magazine is stolen week after week, and Ballygunge post office refuses even to acknowledge a complaint.
It returns my letters saying 'Addressee unknown' though this has been my address since 1946. Letters that are delivered are sometimes in tatters. Some are left in neighbouring houses. Other people's letters ' often about money matters ' are dumped in mine. I took a bunch to the post office where a terrified assistant postmaster pleaded with me to have a word with the delivery peon. He did not dare to investigate. When I collared the postmaster himself with a sheaf of torn and crumpled envelopes I had received, he stared surprised before murmuring, 'We don't deliver letters like this' almost as if I had done the damage. Told that his reception had refused to accept a complaint, he was even more incredulous. 'Why shouldn't they' he asked. Why indeed. No wonder private courier services are doing roaring business.
Not that the system is always callous. In the dim past, an investigating inspector from the postmaster general's office kept permanent watch on my mail so that the Observer colour magazines I received from London were not stolen. I could call an ex-directory number if an issue was missing. Those were the days when the telephone exchange also called religiously every morning to check that my line was operational. Such service should be everyone's right.
Like John Kenneth Galbraith's 'post office socialism', post-office collapse is also symptomatic of something deeper. As I contemplate that even the imperfect worlds of Britain, Singapore and the US, the only other countries of which I have direct experience, are far less mindful of wealth and rank, it occurs to me that the opportunity to air grievance is also a privilege. Its use is sanctioned only by the hope that those who don't have privilege might also benefit if someone in authority notes the steady disintegration of every system we inherited.