Anupam Krishnamurthy

The complaint box

It was lunchtime at the canteen in my office building. The canteen served several neighbouring buildings, and was often crowded at this hour. We were gathered around, colleagues from the same team, for lunch. The canteen would showcase the food that was on offer that day on a glass counter, and we would stare at the dishes like boring, dull exhibits in an old museum, every single day - even during instances when exotic choices were available. It was our favourite pastime to complain about the quality of food served at the canteen. We would almost use any excuse to get away from the canteen to eat elsewhere. If there was a line that seemed long and demanded a three minute waiting time, we would walk across a couple of streets to a restaurant 10 minutes away, and wait patiently for food that we would then order. If anybody in the group saw some dish that mildly disgusted their sensibilities, eating at the canteen would be vetoed, and replaced by pre-cooked, reheated meals that were served at a bakery nearby. Any discontent we would experience through the course of our lives would somehow be channelled into our disdain for the food offered at the canteen, perhaps because the meals on offer could not protest readily at the aspersions we often cast at them. As we stood waiting in the line, I cast my eyes on the suggestion box in the corner, which looked like an appendage to the room that most people would not know existed. In two years of visiting the canteen, this was the first time I had noticed it. It was inconspicuously tucked away in a corner.

Three of us sat down at the lunch table - Anand, a manager and the leader of our team, along with another analyst like me. Anand had several admirable qualities as a leader. He was precise and clear with his communication, and always provided context before assigning a particular task so that greater meaning was attached to it, regardless of how insignificant the task seemed by itself. He was also constructive in his criticism and composed in the face of circumstances that did not materialize as he envisioned them. He made detailed notes and took great care to point out even the smallest mistakes that his team made, so that they could actively learn from feedback he gave them. His attention to detail was impeccable. He had learned the art of ensuring that the manner in which he operated resulted in excellence for every assignment he took up. To top this all off, he had an excellent sense of humour. I looked up to Anand, and tried to model my work and portions of my personality after him. Someday, I hoped to be a fraction as good as he was.

On finishing a quick lunch, we walked around the compound of our office complex. The concrete surfaces gleamed with the rays of the sun like dimly polished mirrors, contrasting with the dark, shadowed basement spaces. We proceeded to walk within the shaded space created by the office building - Anand insisted that we carefully trace our paths to avoid direct contact with the fierce rays of the sun. A few minutes later - these walks in the midst of Hyderabad's harsh summer really did not last very long - we got back to our desks, and the comfort of our office space. A cool curtain of air greeted me as I entered the air-conditioned building, rapidly drying the beads of perspiration that had formed on the ridges of my forehead. It was time to get back to work.

I sat down at the cubicle and glanced to the left, where I could see innumerable other desks with people hunched over their computer screens, trawling the internet, looking through files and churning out information that kept the wheels of my multinational employer spinning. I sat down with the satisfaction that it was a light Friday afternoon after an intense work week. As I logged back into my laptop, I observed an email notification that informed me about a new assignment, which was due that very evening. As my eyes grazed across the sentences, my mind was thinking about how this meant sacrificing my plans of going for a bicycle ride, having to eat takeaway fast-food for dinner, or worse, having to settle for leftovers at the canteen. Moreover, the email was from Anand, and the stakes were high. I took a deep breath and sighed. My mind had the unhelpful habit of wandering off on contemplative journeys precisely during moments that I should rather have been hard at work - when tight deadlines loomed large. I looked around the office floor and briefly contemplated the purpose of it all - the need for thousands of human beings hunched over computer screens in starkly homogeneous office spaces to slave away, typing away furiously at laptops on a Friday evening.

I thought about our lunch conversation from earlier that day. During lunch, it was usually considered unsavoury to talk about anything more thought provoking than the banal messages and scenes from the 24 hour news channel, playing on loop on huge, wall mounted TV screens. Anand was presiding over that day's topic of conversation. "Did you hear about what the HRD minister had to say recently?” He asked us this question with a straight face, but his eyes betrayed a gleam with a hint of mischief. "He has spoken highly of the therapeutic potential of cow dung in curing depression." A smile settled on our faces, as we watched him narrate with a straight face. "He added that the condition was on the rise among youth as they were giving up the ancient Indian tradition of smearing cow dung ash on their forehead." We doubled over in laughter at this statement - laughing at the sheer nonsense that we had heard. Presently, I sat at my desk thinking about how powerless we were in face of so many things that comprised our existence - our politicians, insipid khichdi at the canteen and uninvited assignments that intrude into our Friday evenings. A faint memory of the suggestion box had flashed in my mind for a moment. I snapped back to the reality of the tight deadlines I faced. At this point, I noticed my mobile phone ringing with a call from an unrecognized number.

"Good afternoon, sir. I am calling from your mobile operator. I have come for address verification, and I am waiting outside your apartments."

Irritated by this unwelcome interruption, I answered with a stern tone that I was at work, and that I had asked for the verification to be carried out during the weekend.

"Sorry sir, it has written here that Friday afternoon you are available",

I reminded the voice with a strong Telugu accent, that the documents also stated details about my employment, and it did not require rare genius to infer that Fridays are working days for people employed by the organized sector. I asked him if he could go to the neighbour's house, as they could vouch for my residence with their signature. He explained that the strict security at the apartment would accompany him inside the apartment and only let him go to my doorstep. I recollected how the security guards at my apartments could be surprisingly authoritative in dealing with people perceived to be from a lower strata of society, such as the address verification official. I could ask the official to come over to the office complex, which is only about 3 Km away, but I really had too much to deal with, that afternoon. Besides, I was a valuable, post-paid customer, and I deserved customer service that was better than sudden interruptions for frivolous requests in the middle of busy work afternoons. I asked him to come at 11 AM on Saturday morning, when I was sure to be at home, and that was that. After a small pause, there was a reply from the other end.

"No problem, sir! I will come Saturday morning at 11".

I hung up the phone and proceeded to meet my tight deadlines, with single minded resolve.

It was late in the evening, by the time I had finished all of my assignments for the day. As I had feared, I was forced to settle for leftovers during the last few hours of operations at the canteen. Most items on the menu - the relatively less unsavoury options - were already finished. I settled for a plate of plain curd rice and sat down at a table, alone with my thoughts. The assignment that Anand had given had gone well. It required quite a lot of rework, and Anand had meticulously pointed the places where he thought it could be improved, and it had finally resulted in work whose quality gave me quiet satisfaction. I stared at the insipid bowl of curd rice that lay on the table before me. My life was comfortable - a standard of living that I felt entitled to. As a middle class Indian, I had sprinted through the academic rat race and emerged with a good university degree. This degree secured me employment at an international firm, with managers like Anand, where quality and excellence were emphasized ahead of everything else. I lived in an apartment complex in the outskirts of Hyderabad, with several amenities - a well paved concrete running track, a supermarket complex, neatly manicured garden landscapes with gazebos, bird baths and fountains, and a whole variety of sporting facilities - two swimming pools, two gyms, tennis, badminton and table tennis courts. The apartment also had a security force that, through their precise, albeit questionable methods, had ensured that the complex was an estate of safety for its residents. However, I paid a hefty rent, spent long hours at work, and was cultivating a habit of constantly delivering excellent output, so that I could rightfully secure these comforts.

As I thought of this, my mind drifted back to the plate of curd rice that I had almost finished. The rice could have used a little more cooking – the grains were still a little separated from the curd. The curd itself was a touch too sour for my taste. I had run out of pickle midway through the dish, and did go back for a second helping, as I was sure that this would attract a look of disapproval from the man at the serving counter. I glanced at him briefly, as he stood about five tables away, looking just as bored and uninterested as the curd rice that he had doled out to me.

It just did not seem fair that we were subjected to the terrible food that the canteen offered us. It was not without reason that I had languished for late hours at the office complex that night, sacrificing other plans on a Friday evening. It seemed as if the canteen was in stark contrast with the values that my employer exacted from the rest of the workforce. Besides, my friends working in other companies, had access to luxurious cafeterias with a wide variety of food, open even on weekends, just in case they wanted to walk in for a free meal. I proceeded to channel this torrent of frustration onto verses on a piece of paper.

Oh canteen, My canteen

Oh canteen, my canteen, our wellspring of succour,
Your lunches, oh my! Induce daily stupor
With the mouth-watering array of dishes on display,
So difficult to choose from, every single day.

Should I pick the gravy, its glowing orange tinge
Bright enough to make an orangutan cringe?
Or the biriyani, whose paneer does well to grace us
With memories of childhood - chewing gum and erasers.

In an event as rare as a plane landing on a river,
If the coriander chutney, with delight, makes me quiver,
For a quick revisit, I needn't crave and worry,
For at dinner, it would reappear as Thai green curry.

Why? Oh why are we bound at our hips by fate?
Let me do my best then, in resignation to this state
I bow to you, in rendering me indifferent to taste.
Oh canteen, my unwitting teacher, stoic and chaste.

These words came through in a torrent, and in ten minutes I had scrawled them down in a notebook. I read it and re-read it until I was filled with a sense of satisfaction that my indignation had found an outlet. I thought of how I could read it aloud at our table, inviting laughter and approval, before slipping it into the neglected suggestion box. I was happy that I had channelled all our rightful anger into something that we could collectively cherish, every single day as we were subjected to terrible food. I could picture Anand's wide smile as I would read out the verse to the group during our next lunch session together.

The next day, I woke up rather late, went for a quick run around the apartment complex. When the sun had come out, and it was too hot to continue running, I ended it, and thought about lunch that I could cook for myself. I lived alone and enjoyed cooking tasty dishes when I could afford the opportunity. That day, I had a craving for a dish made from spiced eggplant. I set out to the supermarket nearby to get myself some fresh eggplant and coriander - my mouth watered in anticipation. No sooner than I stepped into the supermarket, my phone rang. It was precisely 11 AM.

"Sir, I am calling from your mobile operator, and have come for address verification. Are you at home? Please tell the security to let me in."

It was the address verification official - it had not struck me until then that I had asked him to come to the apartment at 11 AM. By this time, I was already at the supermarket, and told the official politely to wait for about 15 mins.

"No problem sir!”

As I hung up, I felt I was right in being polite, but not apologetic. At the end of the day, I was a valuable customer, and was entitled to a little flexibility. I returned to the apartment gate at 11:30 AM, where the official was waiting for me outside the gate. He must have recognized me from the photo in the documents he carried, because he flashed a wide smile at me as I approached the gate, laden with the contents of my shopping trip. I greeted him, and informed the security that he was an authorized visitor. About 5 more minutes were spent, where the security thoroughly searched him and issued a pink slip that allowed him to enter the apartment complex and stay there for the next hour. We then walked up to my flat, where I had a few documents that the official wanted to examine.

On reaching the flat, the official waited at the entrance of the door, all the while with a pleasant smile. What struck me the most was that there was no hint of bitterness either in his tone or in his body language. He transacted with me in broken English, determined to practice a language that he had clearly learnt as an adult. He was systematic in going through the procedure, ensuring that all the required boxes were checked and all the required signatures were secured. At the end of the entire process, he told me cheerfully that the process was done, and that I would have nothing further to worry about. As he started to depart, I asked him his name, and where he came from.

"My name is Rasheed, sir", he replied, "and I live in Shamirpet, a small village near Secunderabad".

Secunderabad was Hyderabad's twin city, and lay far to the east side of the western reaches of Hyderabad that I inhabited. I apologized for making him wait, and he replied with a statement that I could now readily associate with his voice and persona:

"No problem sir!"

He bid me farewell, and as he walked away, several thoughts came crashing through. Against - all the odds that life had dealt him, Rasheed had taken the efforts to learn English, practice it while walking door-to-door in Hyderabad during peak summer and authorizing mobile connections. Most importantly, all of this was done with an understated, accommodating and cheerful disposition that aimed only to serve - one that was free from any feeling of entitlement.

I walked across to my balcony that overlooked the main gate of the apartment complex, and my thoughts wandered back to the poem I had penned the evening before with all the indignation and anger that I could muster. I thought about it, as I noticed the security guards thoroughly search Rasheed on his way out of the complex.