The Cold Caller (3)

Previous parts can be found here (1) and here (2)

‘What is it, Sahil?’

‘It was a threatening client, sir.’

‘So, you know how to deal with them, don’t you?’

‘It is not so easy. He is very difficult, he knows me.’

‘I do not think that is likely. Why do you think it?’

‘He knows my name, sir! And he calls me! Even on my mobile!’ My voice had suddenly got much louder, and a couple of my colleagues turned around to look at me. I found myself shaking and knew that the supervisor saw it too. I had lost control.

‘Take the rest of the day off, Sahil,’ he said at last, coldly. It was clear that he did not believe me. ‘Go home and rest.’

‘Yes, Sir.’ I got to my feet and headed for the exit without another word. What could I say? At the door I passed Raveena’s brother, who smiled and said ‘Hi’, but I just mumbled a hello and pushed straight past him, hardly registering his presence. Once outside, I walked towards the metro station intending to go straight home, but decided I could not face getting on a train at the moment – perhaps it was the thought of being in a confined space – so I walked past and went into the Botanical Gardens. I switched off my phone and spent the next hour or so just walking around the gardens, hoping to clear my head.

When I had tired of that, I began walking towards my colony, eventually taking a taxi for the last part of the journey when my legs began to feel tired. As I walked up the steps to my door, I remembered my phone was on silent, and fished it out of my pocket. Glancing at the display, I saw I had half a dozen missed calls. ‘It can stay on silent for now, then,’ I thought, and went inside.

I made myself some supper, and after I had eaten it I sat watching the TV, until I realised I had no idea what the programmes were I had been watching, and switched it off. Then I took out my phone and began to scroll through the list of callers. As I had expected, the majority were from a caller who had withheld their number, but there was also one from Raveena and, after some hesitation, I switched my phone onto normal ringtone again. I thought of calling Raveena but decided that I could not face speaking to her that night. Then, as I sat looking down at the phone in my hand, it rang again. Automatically, I answered it.

‘Hallo?’

‘I am losing my patience with you, Sahil. Do you want me to make things really difficult for you?’

‘I…’

‘My…colleagues, shall I call them, are not as patient as I am. They would like to deal with you differently. They are not as polite as I am.’

‘What do you want me to do?’ He had broken me, and we both knew it.

‘Go home, Sahil. Go back to Delhi. There is no place for you here. Take your things and go. While you still can.’ He rang off, and I sat holding the phone in my hand, feeling terribly small and scared.

I jumped as the phone rang again. For a moment, I did not answer it, but then I saw that it was Raveena’s number. Still I hesitated, afraid that this fellow might even be able to make it appear that he was calling from her phone, but then I told myself that I was being ridiculous, and I answered it.

‘Sahil,’ Raveena’s voice was urgent, ‘I heard Kiraat calling you. He was in the next room. What is going on? I could not hear him very clearly, but it sounded as if he was threatening you. Please, what is going on? I am frightened by this!’

‘Kiraat? It was Kiraat calling me?’

‘Yes, I have told you so, Sahil.’

‘Are you certain?’

‘Oh, my goodness, Sahil! How many times must I say it? Yes, it was Kiraat.’ She lowered her voice. ‘He is still in the next room, talking with our father. What has he been saying to you?’

‘Just…give me a minute, Raveena, to think.’ I sat holding the phone as things dropped into place in my head. It was so simple, really. Kiraat was a software engineer in my own company. It would all have been so easy for him to do. I took a deep breath. ‘I will tell you everything.’

Raveena said that it was too late in the evening for me to go over to their house, and to leave it until the next day. But it seems she then put down her phone and walked straight into the next room and confronted her brother. He did not deny that he had been the caller and said that he agreed with his parents that she should marry a man of their choosing, and that I was not that man. They had quite a quarrel, and it was only when Raveena declared that she was quite prepared to move in with me without getting married first, that her father said ‘Okay, let us meet this boy of yours, tomorrow.’

I had thought my job interview had been tough, but it had nothing on that interview. I was surprised, then, when Raveena’s father said ‘Let us see, then, how your job goes and if all is well in a year’s time then maybe, just maybe, we will give you our blessing.’

At work, my supervisor informed me I would be under observation, as he put it, for a while, but I did not really notice any difference. No sooner had I arranged my desk and switched on my computer terminal, than he had disappeared to another part of the office. I lifted the receiver and called the number at the top of the list on my screen.

‘Hello, Mr Cuthill? My name is David, and I am calling you from the Technical Support department of Windows.’

‘No, you’re not!’ I caught my breath, and felt icy fingers creeping up my spine. ‘You’re probably called Kapil or Ravi or something like that. You’re in India, aren’t you?’

Slowly I released my breath.

‘Mr Cuthill, this is most important! I am calling you because your computer is running slowly and there is a problem with it that you must address!’

It was good to be back to normal.

If you enjoyed this story, you can find more in The Night Bus, my collection of short stories and poetry available on Amazon, along with Making Friends with the Crocodile, a novel about how society treats women in India. Both can be found here.

 

The Cold Caller (1)

I was reading something about telephone scams yesterday, and it reminded me I wrote this short story a few years ago on that subject. Perhaps you will find it amusing:

The Cold Caller (part 1 of 3)

‘Hello, Mr Williams?’ I began. ‘My name is David, and I am calling you from the Technical Support department of Windows.’

‘No, you’re not. Your name is Sahil and you are in 142nd Cross Road, Bangalore, on the second floor of the Maheli Building. You have your back to the window, but if you were to turn around you would have an excellent view out over Lal Bagh Tank and the Botanical Gardens.’

There was a very long silence.

‘Hello? Sahil? Are you still there?’

I very softly put down the receiver, as though I were afraid to disturb something dangerous.

I have a first class degree in English from a very good university, but it is still very difficult to get one of the better jobs. There is so much competition. So, like many of my contemporaries, I have ended up working in a call centre. Here we are required to have a degree, and we are required to speak English like a native, so I am well suited to this job.

I don’t really need to know anything about computers although, like most of my educated peers, I actually know quite a lot about them. But there is always a script. We are trained for two weeks, during which time we have to learn our scripts at home, and then for the first week we always have a supervisor close at hand to help us. The pay is okay, although to earn any good money you must make a set number of sales each day.

How do we make our sales? The customer will buy a Download to fix their computer, which is running too slowly.

And how do we get our information? It is a fairly sophisticated process. Let us say that you are on your computer, and that you open an email that purports to be something that it is not. When you do this, you will download a Trojan – a cookie, really – that does no more than monitor things like speeds and C.P.U. usage on your machine. Don’t worry, that is all that it does. We aren’t in the business of infecting machines with viruses and causing damage to anyone. But this cookie will send us information on the efficiency of your computer.

If your machine is obviously running slowly, then we call you. Telephone number and name from your machine when it was originally registered, extracted by the cookie, of course, plus the machine number. A number and name comes up on my screen, and I call.

Our fix will actually speed up the machine a bit – enough for the user to notice, at least.

I had been doing the job for five months, and doing it quite well, when this happened. I admit that I was quite scared by the episode. After I had put the phone down I sat there for a while, staring ahead, but not really seeing anything. After a few minutes, my supervisor came over to ask me if there was a problem, but I just shook my head and said no, I was taking a couple of minutes’ breather, and he went away again. I went and got myself a coffee from the machine, and then I carried on with my work.

I like Bangalore. So much here is new and modern. It is symbolic of the new India. I’ve got no time for the old superstitions, and I hate the filth and poverty. I left all that behind when I moved here. My parents still live in Delhi, in the house that I was brought up in with my brother and my two sisters. It is in a nice area, but all around this area there is ghastly squalor; the streets are piled with mounds of stinking refuse, the gutters run with sewage and the houses are unworthy of the name.

My father has a good job in a bank, which is how he was able to pay for my brother and I to go to university, but otherwise I suppose that he is typical of the old India. Every morning he makes puja, the ritual laid out by thousands of years of practice, praying to Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, for success in his daily undertakings. The flower petals, the bowls, the bell, the incense, the rice…everything has to be just so, otherwise the ceremony will have no meaning.

And this superstition pervades every part of our lives. My parents insist that they will choose a bride for me, as they have already done for my brother. I will have very little say in the matter; at most I can veto their decision if I can show good reason. But the traditions that still have a powerful hold over our society say that she must be of the right caste, of good family, and that our horoscopes must be compatible. And when all of that has been dealt with, she must bring our family a large dowry.

But I have insisted that I will marry the woman who I love, not somebody chosen for me by others. And, indeed, I have already chosen. This woman, my beloved Raveena, is the sister of one of our software engineers. We met when a group of us had lunch during Diwali last year. Her family, like mine, are traditional, but we represent the modern India; she also has a good job, in a telecommunications company, and between us we will have enough to be comfortable and eventually to raise a family. Of course, our hope is that our parents will come to soften a little when they have grandchildren.

At night, I look out at the lights of all the other apartments in my colony, and I imagine the day that I will bring my wife home. There must be a wedding, of course, for even in modern India that is the way. It may be, though, that ours will be a small affair, with simply a few friends and relatives present. We both know that there will be many in both of our families who will refuse to attend. This saddens me, I admit, for I would love a large, traditional, Indian wedding. We Indians do weddings so much better than anyone else.

Parts 2 and 3 to follow

International Women’s Day

Today, on International Women’s Day, it seems appropriate to re-post this piece I put up several years ago. It seems that nothing has changed.

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It would be impossible to document all of the humiliations, injustices and degradations that women throughout the centuries have had to put up with in almost every part of the world. That they should continue to do so, even in the 21st century, is an absolute disgrace. The way the Taliban treat and regard women is well documented and needs little further comment. They routinely deny women education, healthcare or any freedoms. They can be bought and sold and married against their will. They have no legal rights. They can be killed with impunity. It is difficult to imagine how a society in which women are actually treated worse could ever be constructed.

However, the so-called Islamic State go one step further than this, and are happy to buy and sell captured women in slave markets as sex slaves, surely the ultimate degradation.

Yet, over a huge part of the globe, women are subject to treatment little better than this, and there is probably no country where they can be said to be genuinely equal to men. Certainly in the west, we like to think of ourselves as modern, liberal, forward looking and fair, so how can it be that such a situation still exists?

There are three basic reasons why men have always been able to regard and treat women as inferiors:

1) They have controlled and governed communities and societies through their greater physical strength. This, in turn, has led to their creation and codifying of the rules surrounding and governing these societies, and, in turn, the creation of their religious books that gave an even greater authority for the subjugation of women. This strength also effectively prevents any ‘rebellion’ by women.

2) Men’s stronger sexual urges. This (the ‘testosterone effect’ in male teenagers, for example), coupled with their greater strength, has allowed men to both physically dominate women and also to subject them to almost constant pregnancy and motherhood.

3) Women bear children. Neither pregnancy nor motherhood are helpful in resisting men’s dominance.

In the west, centuries of brainwashing have led to a situation where, although women no longer daily face a physically perilous existence, inequality lives on in other, often demeaning, ways. Although no longer in danger of being burnt as witches, being sold into servitude or (generally) forced into marriage, they are still way behind men when it comes to the labour market. It is comparatively recently that they have been allowed to train as front line troops in the army or join the clergy in the Church of England, and still encounter stiff resistance if they wish to do so. The Catholic Church still forbids them to hold any post and so we see an exodus of many ‘traditional’ members of the Church of England to the Catholic fold, which has enterprisingly created a ‘special’ niche for those who cannot bear to see women treated as equals.

There are still comparatively few women in high-powered jobs, and those who are still struggle to earn pay similar to a man in a comparable job. Interestingly, the reason often given for that is that ‘market forces’ dictate these pay scales. This is, naturally, a male-dominated market. Women are vastly over-represented, however, in low-paid and part time jobs.

Centuries of brainwashing have also trained them for a role as mannequins, or Barbie dolls; putting on make-up is essential before they go to work, attend meetings, go on a date or almost anything else. Their natural selves are not fit to show men. And if there is anyone who might be in any doubt about this, they need only take a glance at the blizzard of adverts on television or in magazines. And high heels are the obvious descendants of oriental foot-binding; a painful, dangerous and degrading practice designed solely to appeal to men and make running away impossible. I do not understand why any woman still falls for it. And those magazines; the ones aimed at women still manage to create the impression that life is all about make-up and home-making.

In many other parts of the world, though, life as a woman is not only demeaning but can still be ‘nasty, brutish and short’. One of the most common ways to control women, is to deny them the right to work. This might be justified as being degrading for the woman and her husband, or that she must be kept away from other men (because she will ‘stray’), or that she needs to be at home to raise children. This effectively means that she is then working full-time at home, but obviously without any financial reward or freedom. Along with refusing females education, this is another way to force them to remain at home in a state of virtual slavery. Commonly, they will have to work on any land that the family have – weeding and planting, looking after animals, etc – yet will be denied the chance to earn a wage.

This segregation is invariably justified on the grounds that women are sexually provocative and evil. They are temptresses that must be kept away from the eyes of all men except the husband. Hence they are dressed from head to toe in all-enveloping clothing, they are not allowed to speak to any males except close relatives, they are locked up in Zenana – women’s quarters, where they have to peer out at the world through heavily carved screens, whilst men are free to go around at will. Even in more humble dwellings, they are largely confined to the house, having to hide when male visitors come. Hence they cannot go out and work within the society. And this attitude, that women are naturally evil, tempting men against their will, is reflected in the punishments that many societies mete out to those that break their taboos.

The most extreme example is that where, in one or two societies, if a man is accused of rape, the woman is commonly held to be culpable since she must have tempted the man concerned, otherwise the incident would not have happened. The woman then is sometimes executed, although being the victim, whilst the perpetrator is either set free or given a minimal sentence. Rape, also, is frequently used in war situations to ‘control’ a population. Another medieval survival is the practice of confining women to their quarters during menstruation, on the grounds that they are ‘unclean’. Although the ‘punishment’ is not particularly onerous, the insult is that it further demeans women for simply being women. And then, while it tends to be perfectly permissible for men to walk around with bare arms and head, and frequently torso and legs, women that do not cover up from head to foot will feel the full rigour of society’s displeasure – usually physical punishments such as lashing or incarceration.

Suttee – who would still believe that the practice still exists? Yet there have been cases comparatively recently of women being forced onto the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands, possibly due more to the family not wanting an inconvenient daughter in law in the house, than to any religious urges. There are also still cases of bride murders, when the dowry has not been up to the expectations of the groom’s family. That the dowry system still exists at all is an insult; the bride’s family having to pay the groom’s family for taking an ‘unproductive’ woman into the household.

Then there is the lack of healthcare, education or voting rights, the forced marriages, the child brides purchased by the old men, the genital mutilation, the sexual trafficking…the list seems depressingly endless. 1975 was designated International Women’s Year by the United Nations – 44 years ago. Not much seems to have changed since then.

Abusive Relationships

It was International Women’s Day last week.

Large numbers of people all over the world live in abusive relationships. This is not a phenomenon of the East or the West, it is not something that is confined to those who live in poverty, or are relatively uneducated. It is something that can be found in all layers of all societies.

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Many do not even recognise that they are in such a relationship.

The most obvious indicator of such a relationship is physical violence, but it is not always the only abusive behaviour present and, sometimes, may not be present at all. Sometimes there is just the implied threat of physical abuse. Sometimes just emotional abuse.

If you are belittled all the time, made to feel inadequate, you are in such a relationship.

If you are not allowed to make your own decisions, you are in such a relationship.

If you are not allowed to control your own money, have your own friends, see your own family, decide what you wear, have a job or go out when and where you wish, then you are in an abusive relationship.

One barrier in the way of reducing the incidence of abusive relationships is society itself. By declaring that men were superior to women, our society used to effectively sanction such a relationship and, in many societies today, it still does. This takes the form of making the victim feel that it is ‘okay’ to be treated that way, or even ‘right’. It also puts barriers in the way of reporting abusive behaviour to authority or to helping the victim. Religions have also sanctioned these behaviours, since they are reflecting the societies that created them in the first place.

Female genital mutilation is a good example of a societal abusive relationship. It is a tool used by a male-dominated society to keep a woman subjugated to males. The victim is mutilated in such a way that sexual intercourse becomes painful and undesirable, with the intention that she will not ‘stray’. Of course, there is nothing to stop the male from straying and, anyway, it is still convenient to blame the woman even if she is the victim of rape.

And it goes by different names; bullying, controlling behaviour, amongst others. But does it sound any less serious if we use these terms? Could it almost be trivialising it?

(It is also important to recognise that a surprisingly large number of victims are male.)

How do we tackle it?

First, we need to call it out. Call it by its proper name. Abuse is abuse. Victims need support, perpetrators need to be exposed and prosecuted.

Nobody has the ‘right’ to act that way within a relationship.

FGM is NOT acceptable. It is NOT a ‘tradition’ that we have no right to interfere in – by education, and by legislation, it needs to be totally eradicated. Those sorts of ‘tradition’, like forced marriages and beating children, have no place in today’s world.

We can all offer support if someone needs it.