I have just arrived in Madras and already the madness of the world I have left behind - gun violence, racial tension, lunatic Presidential contenders, turbulent stock markets - has faded away like mist dissolving in sunlight. I find myself engulfed in a very different kind of madness, a uniquely Madras brand of craziness and chaos that reminds me with a visceral jolt every time I encounter it, of just how much I love this place and why I miss it so much when I’m away. And of how it drives me up the wall and forces me to reach deep into my Zen Zone and makes me discover and mine the rich vein of comedy that runs through the aggravating irritants of everyday life.
One day my mother tells me that I need to go to the bank. The work there will take no more than a minute, she assures me. All I have to do is update some passbooks, deposit some checks and pick up a letter. My heart sinks. I have been to this bank before and nothing gets done in a minute there.
A flight of steep, unevenly spaced steps leads me to the bank. Navigating those steps is good preparation for what lies ahead. Inside, there is a line of counters adorned with baffling signboards. TRC-09%-PPX-Q says one; PBC-&112-ABC says the next. A tinnily cheerful recorded voice announces, Token number 99, counter number 1; token number 37, counter number 2. The bank employees at the counters work hard to avoid eye contact with their patrons and squint furiously at their computer screens, the picture of concentration and dedication. A tea boy scurries around placing tiny glasses of steaming hot tea at every desk.
Nobody seems to pay any heed to the announcements as almost everybody has clustered around a particular counter where a young woman with a severely starched sari and immaculately groomed hair is talking on the phone, typing something into the computer, scolding her colleague at the next counter and shouting at the tea boy, seemingly all at once. The crowd spreads like a stain in front of her desk. I pick up a token from the token dispenser, a brand-new machine that is fiercely guarded by a flamboyantly mustachioed security man holding a rifle that must be of World War 1 vintage. It is his job to ensure that nobody takes more than one token, and he takes his responsibility with ferocious seriousness, watching with a menacing glare as I press the button for my token.
Token in hand, I decide to be clever and make my way to an empty counter. The person working there, a plump, middle-aged man whose forehead is liberally daubed with holy ash stares pointedly at his computer and without even looking up to see who I might be or what I might want, waves me over to the counter with the large crowd. There is no arguing with anybody. There is a set formula by which the place works and everybody but I seems to know what it is. I press myself towards the counter along with everybody else. Politeness and respect for personal space will get you nowhere here. Everyone is pressed closed to each other and the crowd moves as one. The staccato drumbeat of a stamp on paper indicates the end of a transaction and there is a surge of optimism and forward movement. Time ticks by, slowly, steadily. I force myself to calm down and resign myself to a long wait, and feel better at once. Eventually, it is my turn for an audience with the severely starched young lady. I am impressed by her efficiency. In a matter of minutes she has “done the needful” . Well, almost all of it. I need to return with a letter from my mother authorizing me to collect her letter.
I leave the bank and the world outside seems oddly silent. A moment later I realize why: the absence of the tinnily cheerful recorded voice announcing, with robotic efficiency and complete disregard for reality, Token number....counter number...... In the hour I have been in the bank, it has embedded itself into my subconscious.
I go back to the bank a week later with an officiously worded letter from my mother, bearing her signature and mine, requesting Whom It May Concern in the bank to hand over the letter to me. When I arrive I find that the entire operation has been moved downstairs, as if someone has lifted the whole upper floor and set it, lock, stock and barrel, on the ground floor. The setup is identical to how it was upstairs - the token-dispensing machine with its fiercely mustachioed guard; the tea boy, now snoozing in a corner having presumably completed his tea-dispensing duties; the tinnily cheerful recorded voice announcing token numbers and counter numbers that might make sense in another universe; the counters with their baffling signboards, which are now festooned with little streamers and adorned with dabs of kumkum and sandalwood paste. The counter personnel are all sitting in rigid positions that ensure no eye contact with the bank’s patrons; their eyes barely move from a fixed spot on their screens that they stare at, blinking only occasionally. Only the efficient, severely starched and immaculately groomed young lady is animated, performing multiple tasks and dealing with several people all at once. The crowd at her counter stretches all the way to the front door. It will take at least an hour to see her and today, I don’t have that kind of time to spare.
I watch the other bank personnel carefully and swoop in when one of them moves her eyes for the briefest of moments from her screen. My eyes catch hers and before she can look away I thrust my letter onto her desk and tell her, in the most fawning and beseeching tone I can muster, that all I need is to collect my mother’s letter, I have her authorization letter right here with me. With great diffidence, as if handling a distasteful object, she takes the letter from me and scrutinizes it. She gazes at me, gazes at the letter. She peers at the front of the letter, then turns it around and peers at the back. She holds it up to the light, as if it were a thousand rupee note, and examines it, front and back. She stares at me, unsmiling, and I stare back. I am seized with the urge to laugh but firmly quell the urge; laughter would ruin everything. Laughter in this place would be as alien as aliens or a chorus of caroling angels. Extreme reluctance shines like a 1000 watt bulb on her face; she is loath to disrupt her communion with her computer screen, yet it would be horribly unbecoming, unprofessional, to refuse a request as simple as mine.
She pulls out a thick, dog-eared ledger from a shelf behind her, finds the entry (a miracle!) pertaining to my mother’s letter and asks me to sign in a space that would accommodate an ant. I scrawl the best facsimile of my signature I can manage. The bank lady scrutinizes it and a look of triumphant glee spreads over her face. She points to my signature on the To Whom It May Concern letter and then to the one on her ledger. “They don’t match,” she says, “I can’t give you the letter”. I take a deep breath and point out that with so little space in the ledger, there is no way the two signatures will look identical. Already, her eyes are drifting back to her computer screen. I have to be firm, I have to be persistent. I thrust my letter in front of her face. “Look,” I say, straining to sound friendly and cheery, neither of which I feel, “both the K’s are the same, see? And see the curl over the D? They are the same in both signatures.” I hold my breath and watch as her eyes move from ledger to letter, letter to ledger. At last she arrives at a decision. Mercifully, it is in my favor. From a battered Godrej almirah behind the counters she pulls out a thick sheaf of envelopes that are held together with rubber bands. From that she extracts my mother’s letter and hands it over to me. She presses her stamp down hard on the ledger. There is no more satisfying sound than that staccato drumbeat.
I walk out into the brilliant sunshine, a spring in my step. Faintly, the tinnily cheerful recorded voice drifts out, Token number.....counter number.....”.