In Quest of a Magic LB
It was a sad thing to happen to Unit-IV of Mandigarh: on a fine morning altogether ten families in a go woke up to find to their utter consternation that their telephones had been disconnected. And it happened because they did not pay their bills in time.
Of late the officials at the telephone exchange had become exceptionally strict on this issue. They would not spare any defaulters. Somehow they would wait patiently but until it was the last date for the payment. And then, depending on whether the bill had been paid or not, they would decide on which connections were to be spared and which ones not. If a particular connection was to be deactivated, they would not waste a minute and simply go on to pull the plug. They were now as ruthless as that!
The poor consumers of Mandigarh Unit-IV were confused. And they began voicing their helplessness, ‘Well, we’re ready to pay but how? Should we not get our bills in the first place?’
The Accounts Officer who was in charge of deciding whose connections would be snapped was a cautious person. According to him, the bills must be paid within a fortnight of their dispatch. Allowing time more than that was not prudent. His experience told him that there were consumers who were accustomed to inventing thousand alibis how to delay the payment of their bills, even though it was only for some days. On the other hand, if their connections were taken out of operation they would soon realise what constituted their duty under the situation. Then they would be punctual or even would not mind paying in advance.
Among those who were affected by the Accounts Officer’s decision to disconnect so many phones at a time, Karamchandji was one. He wondered how a regular customer like him who had an unblemished record of paying bills in time was chosen for such an insulting action! And, that too, without having a word with him! Thus he was quite worked up. Then he pored over the bill delivered late to him. He found the postmark on the article was quite distinct showing its date of delivery. Now he got the proof he was looking for. That the bill itself was delivered late after the last date for its payment was over was an evidence enough to prove his bona fides. Empowered with the fact that was clearly in his favour, a fuming Karamchandji went on to meet the senior officer of the telecommunication department.
The Director of Telecommunications Mr Abdur Rahim attentively listened to the complaint of Karamchandji. Then he responded, ‘Please, Karamchandji, what can we do if the post office delays delivering your bill? I’d rather advise you to meet the Superintendent of Post Offices, Mandigarh and obtain a letter certifying as well as explaining the delay. Then we’ll restore your connection. And we’ll allow the rebate due to you as mentioned in the bill.’
Karamchandji understood the advice of Mr Abdur Rahim, the Director of Telecommunications. Soon he rushed to meet the Superintendent of Post Offices Mr Ali Ahmed. While on the way to the office of Superintendent, Karamchandji decided that he was going to give the postal officer a piece of his mind. ‘It was necessary that the customer should express his anger and once he starts doing that, all his predicaments get automatically settled. In a way, it’s better to fight at least once than shuttling between offices many times.’
By the time Karamchandji reached the office of the Superintendent of Post Offices Mr Ali Ahmed, he found a few other inhabitants of his ward had already assembled there. All were busy criticising the deplorable postal services of the area. Mr Ahmed was trying his best to explain his position but the angry and affected customers were not in favour of lending him a patient ear. It was their demand that the Superintendent must give a certificate of delay to each of them immediately...and without any reservation.
Finding so many of them already busy in harassing an officer Karamchandji had to soften his stand. Now he was not in favour of intensifying the demand without allowing the officer to finish what he was trying hard to explain to the gathering. He appealed his fellow protesters to maintain silence. Then he went over to the Superintendent and listened to his version.
‘So, tell us how our bills suffered the delay,’ asked Karamchandji with due courtesy. In fact he was impressed by the composure of Mr Ahmed in front of an agitated mob. That was the reason why he no longer held on to his initial impression and showed interest in reaching a respectable solution to the issue.
‘Well, are you all interested in listening to the fact? So listen. Nowadays the telecommunication department is not tendering its bills at the post office to deliver them at its customers’ premises. It rather utilises the services of private couriers for the purpose. Now, why are you accusing us for the fault of others?’
The words spoken in the defence of the post office did not convince Karamchandji. He had in his possession something quite irrefutable as a proof. Quickly he shot back, ‘Look at this, Mr Ahmed. This particular bill has been delivered by your fellows. Then why do you bring private couriers in the middle?’
The Superintendent of Post Offices Mandigarh minutely examined the bill of Karamchandji. Actually it had the date stamp impression of the delivery post office. This was a surprising piece of discovery for him. And it was a puzzle before him too. He thought, ‘If the department of telecommunications is getting all its bills delivered by the private couriers, how did this particular bill get mingled with the genuine postal articles? Does it not hint at a possibility that the courier fellows have started entrusting such bills to the postal staff for their delivery? Is there really an unhealthy arrangement between the courier people and the staff of the local post office?’
Mr Ali Ahmed pleaded, ‘I’m not in a position to give an instant reply to your question, Karamchandji. I do have some rough explanations ready but first let me be sure about them before I utter anything. Please leave your bills here. I’ll do an inquiry with the help of this and reply you soon.’
If one had considered the literal meaning of what the Superintendent said, it would have meant simply an attempt on his part to cleverly gloss over the matter. But the demeanour of Mr Ali Ahmed was quite acceptable and that alone impressed Karamchandji. Then he agreed to allow the Superintendent a week’s time to explain the issue.
Mr Ahmed applied himself wholeheartedly to the job at hand. He went to the post office that used to deliver letters to the inhabitants of Unit-IV Mandigarh. As he began to ask questions to the staff of the office, matters became clear little by little.
The postmaster was present in the office. He recalled that some days ago a fellow from a private courier company had visited his post office. He was with a bunch of fifteen to twenty letters which had unclear address on them. The postmaster was interested in eliciting information from him on some points. So he engaged the courier fellow in discussion for a while.
Whatever information the postmaster could gather from the courier fellow, it left him utterly appalled. The company the courier fellow was working for was a fly-by-night organisation that was brought into existence for the sole purpose of delivering telephone bills. People employed in that used to get work only for ten days. And the salary they were getting was only one thousand rupees a month. They were told to start their work right away from the day one of their employment with practically no training worth the name. Despite that they were warned against any possible wrong delivery that might crop up owing to their lack of familiarity with the delivery area. There were times people lodged complaints for wrong deliveries and the fellows responsible for such mistake were being fired. Losing employment in this way was just a routine matter there, and there was no scope of excuse in their service.
After listening to all this, the postmaster had felt pity on the fellow. That had made him ponder, ‘Unemployment is the root of all evils but then where’s work for all in a big country of ours?’
While leaving the courier fellow had thought aloud, ‘To hell with this job, I’m going to….’ Most probably he had taken a grim decision to leave his job, for it was perhaps more honourable to quit than being fired. And his tone evinced an unmistakable sign of his determination.
In course of his investigation the Superintendent went to the sorting department. He found a couple of telephone bills in the pigeon-holes of the sorting case. The bills contained the impressions of “bearing” stamp. They were so taxed, as they had no stamps affixed on them in token of prepayment of postage. The receivers of the bills, on the other hand, were not willing to pay the penalty of ten rupees to get those bills when the mistake of not affixing postage stamps on them was attributable to the telephone office. Hence the bills landed there in the post office pigeon-holes as the ones to be delivered back to the sender.
Now the whole issue became clear to Mr Ali Ahmed. The courier company in question used to bring bundles of telephone bills from the telephone office and entrust them to its poor and pathetically unskilled employees for distribution. The fellows hardly knew the locality and help to them from all possible corners including the post office was also not available. So it was a foregone conclusion that they would finally fail to deliver all the bills. So what was the option available to them? Some of them used to locate a letterbox in the locality to drop all such bills as were undeliverable by them. Some were clever enough to choose a different letterbox every time; some used to drop them in more than one letterboxes splitting them into several smaller bunches; some used to drop the entire bunch in one letterbox. That was their habit, nay their survival strategy.
Enlightened by this realisation about the shape of things happening around him, Mr Ahmed now regretted his earlier impression on his own staff. His people did not even allow a private courier fellow to enter the postal premises, let alone cooperating with them.
The question still remained as to how the bill of Karamchandji got the delivery postmark. As the head of an important postal division Mr Ahmed knew it all too well, how the work of mail processing got performed in a post office. When somebody detailed for impressing stamps on postal articles occupied his seat behind the heap of mails, he used to pick up speed in no moment and the speed would make him a machine of sorts. Anything that came before him was bound to get postmarked. How a letter found its way from the channel of the courier to that of the post office could be investigated in more details, but for the present Mr Ahmed zeroed in on the possibility that the courier’s delivery personnel had dropped his bunch of bills in a letterbox. In the process Karamchandji’s telephone bill got impressed with a delivery postmark—the superintendent was only too convinced about this.
Presently Mr Ahmed went into the matter in greater depth. This time he was not thinking of his mundane affairs but something different. Agreed, he was an experienced person with a great deal of practical commonsense but then now he could not help thinking about a magic object. ‘Why not we design a letterbox that would automatically detect a letter dropped by a courier fellow or even before it is actually dropped? And why not fit it with a sensor and programme it suitably so as to get shut on such occasions? Well, it’s feasible, both mechanically and magically. When the need is so acute, its discovery should be just round the corner. Isn’t necessity the mother of all inventions? And magically speaking, why not? There are many things more intricate than this that are being accomplished by Harry Potter. Ah! Why can’t we design a magic LB?’