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.

 

It’s Time to Get Smart With Plastic

Let’s be realistic, we are not going to stop using plastic. It can’t be un-invented, and even the most die-hard environmentalist would not want a world completely free of plastic.

Why?

Because without plastic we have no electronics other than very basic lighting and heating.

No computers. No phones.

None of the smart machines that help to keep us alive in hospital.

Forget aircraft, other than the wood, glue, wire, string and cross-your-fingers ones of the beginning of the 20th century. They’d be propeller-driven and trips to the other side of the world would be a thing of the past, other than for the very rich with lots of time on their hands.

Although that brings up another environmental question altogether, of course.

IMGP2288

No, I don’t know why I chose this picture either.

What we do need to do is to get smart with how we use plastic, and what we use it for.

Most importantly, single use plastic bags should go. Period. So should all plastic bottles. Just getting rid of those items would cut plastic waste enormously.

We should return to using paper to wrap food products, and linen or paper bags to carry them.

This would limit what could be shipped long distances, and our choices, but we need to accept that.

There will still be those who say ‘I demand freshly picked paradiddles from the rain forests of the Antarctic and I don’t care about the environment!’ but society has to learn to say ‘Well, you can’t have them!’

But might we be able to have our cake and eat it?

Or even our paradiddles?

Possibly…there are already excellent alternatives to plastic bags, in the form of bags made from corn-starch, which is similar to the plastic ‘traditional’ plastic bags are made from, but really is bio-degradable. In fact, they are bio-compostable, which is one step up from being merely bio-degradable, in that they break down into carbon dioxide and organic matter only. This means that to get rid of them you simply chuck them on your compost heap and they break down rapidly. * but see below

There are disposable cups, food storage containers and much more already in use. And even the thickest items, such as corn-starch cutlery, take only 6 months to decompose once thrown away.

Why is there not a greater push towards using these worldwide?

Dare I suggest vested interests?

 * I am now adding a rider to this!

It seems I didn’t do my homework thoroughly on this one. There are problems in disposing of corn-starch polymers in that they have to be separated out from all other plastics, which is totally impractical since they look much the same, and cannot be sent to landfill sites. And if mixed in with ‘normal’ plastics, they contaminate them and prevent their being re-cycled.

Pah – I thought it all seemed too simple!

Virtually at Everest – part 1

I’ve not commented much on anyone’s blogs, recently, as I’ve rather gone into my shell for a bit. I do this at times, I’m afraid…engagement feels difficult…

And I’m fed up with having to sit around all the time with my foot in plaster and bandages. Even reading and writing is becoming a bit boring. Probably those two things are connected.

For my previous post, I revived my spirits somewhat by taking a virtual train journey in Sri lanka, so perhaps I should try something a little more adventurous this time, and put my virtually healed foot to a bit of a virtual test.

What about a trek up to Everest base Camp, then? That’d certainly test it out. And since I’ve got all of this virtual time at my disposal, perhaps I’ll do it the hard way.

But to start with, I’ll have a few days in Kathmandu; I always feel better for that. Just walking around Thamel and browsing in the shops there, stopping occasionally for tea or a snack or a beer at the Rum Doodle, ending up with armfuls of books I didn’t really intend to buy, handmade paper to paint on, handmade notebooks with beautiful cloth covers, some wood carvings…

105a

Luckily, this is a virtual journey, so I don’t have to carry them around with me. I’ll send them back home in a virtual package. But before I do that, I’ll just nip into this inviting looking restaurant for some lunch.

Oh, hell’s bells! Here’s Bob! ‘What on earth are you doing here, Bob?’

‘I heard you were a bit bored, so I thought I’d come along to cheer you up.’

‘Oh, that’s most, er, kind of you, Bob. Where are you staying?’

‘Kathmandu Guest House, Mick. Same place as you. In fact, I got the room next to yours.’

‘Ah. How…nice. Um, have you eaten, yet?’

‘I was just going to order. Oh, they don’t seem to have pizza here.’

‘No, they don’t. there’s a restaurant nearby where you can get one, though. Would you like me to show you where it is?’

‘No, that’s okay. Tell you what, I’ll try whatever you’re having. I’ll have the same.’

‘Really?’ Bob is probably the last person I’d describe as adventurous. I’ve never known him try anything new, and I just can’t believe he’s actually come to Nepal. I’ll ask him why once we’ve ordered some lunch. ‘I’m having the thugpa*, Bob. And a lemon and ginger tea.’

‘Sounds good.’

I order, still slightly shocked, then turn back to Bob.

‘What on earth brought you to Nepal, Bob?’ He looks down at the tablecloth, and seems a little embarrassed by my question.

‘Ah, there was a little, um, confusion, there.’ I wait, but he seems reluctant to continue.

‘And?’

‘I was planning to go to Naples. I think the travel agent must have misheard me.’ He looks up. ‘But it was great to bump into you. We’re going to have a brilliant time!’

‘So it was nothing to do with me being bored, then.’ He looks hurt.

‘Oh, it was! I just thought you’d gone to Naples, too. That’s where your wife told me you’d gone.’ My wife is, indeed, under strict instructions not to tell Bob where I am, and Naples must have been the first place she thought of.

Such is life, though. We chat a little, and the food arrives. Bob looks down at his with an expression best described as ‘disappointed’.

‘They’ve brought us soup.’

‘It’s thugpa, Bob. What we ordered.’

‘But I…’

‘You said you’d have what I’m having,’ I say, firmly. ‘I’m having thugpa.’

‘Oh, okay.’ He watches me eat for a few moments, then asks ‘Can I have bread with it?’

‘You can ask.’

He asks. The waiter shakes his head. Bob argues. He doesn’t want rolls. He doesn’t want brown bread. The waiter disappears, and moments later a boy dashes out of the kitchen and out of the front door of the cafe. A few minutes later he is back with a small package wrapped in newspaper. He runs into the kitchen. After another minute the waiter is out again with a plate, holding two slices of white bread, a knife, and a small mountain of oily butter, which he places down in front of Bob. Then he gives Bob a look that I can only describe as ‘withering’ and returns to the kitchen.

‘See, I knew they’d have it,’ Bob says, triumphantly.

Afterwards, he suggests we go sightseeing. ‘Let’s go to Swayambunath,’ I say, ‘You’ll find that interesting, I’m sure.’

‘Oh, what’s that, is it a castle?’

‘They don’t have any castles here, Bob.’

‘None?’ Sightseeing for Bob means castles. Or gardens. ‘I’ve got my phone with me. Let me take a look.’

‘Oh, I was rather hoping you’d have left that at home.’

‘No fear! I don’t want to get lost in a strange place! Now, what was that name again?’

‘Don’t worry about that, Bob. We’ll get a taxi.’

‘Oh, great!’ His eyes seemed to light up at the thought. ‘I know all about that! You have to haggle, right? For everything. I’ll do that, Mick. leave it to me!’

Well, although I seem to be saddled with a virtual Bob, I’m not going to let that put me off. Although I am painfully aware of the potential for him to offend people left, right, and centre, and possibly cause an international incident.

I suppose we’d better find a taxi.

*thugpa is a Tibetan dish, usually a clear soup of noodles and vegetables

Time, Gentlemen, Please!

When I go out, I will frequently leave my phone at home. If I have no particular reason to take it with me, such as for work or awaiting an urgent call, then it is a real pleasure to be able to leave it behind.

I feel a release, not being in constant contact with everyone. I also rely upon it for the time, not possessing a wristwatch, so again, without it, I am freed from this small tyranny. Interestingly, I often know the time if I am asked, as long as I reply spontaneously, without thinking, but then, if I give it more thought, the gift disappears. I wonder if this is an instinct that we have largely lost. If so, and I ponder this train of thought, how did older, ancient peoples view the time? Presumably not as ‘nine’ or ‘three o’clock’ – morning, noon and afternoon? A time of waxing and waning light? Those more sedentary no doubt were as much tied to the sundial as we are to the clock.

IMGP2641

At court, or in monasteries, or other relatively affluent places, they relied on candles, marked with hours, to tell the time, but the common people would have had no such thing. Here in England, the church might have possessed a clock that chimed the hour, so that those who lived near enough might have an idea of the time, but apparently these could be notoriously inaccurate, sometimes being wrong by perhaps several hours or more.

But this probably did not matter, for the rural worker would not need to know the time. The farm labourers would rise at dawn, eat something for breakfast, then make their way to the fields. Around noon they would eat lunch, and at dusk they would return home.

They had no need of timekeeping any more accurate than that.

Contrast that to today, when it almost seems necessary to justify every minute of the day. I think this is one of the attractions of taking a holiday; it seems such a treat to spend each day doing as much or as little as is desired, and not to have to justify it to anyone. And, by extension, perhaps it is vitally important that we take holidays now. Hundreds of years ago in those semi-mythical non time-dominated days, workers did not get holidays. They just had Sundays off. It is easy to suggest that we are softer now, but I think the fixation of time has contributed to lives vastly more dominated by stress, and overwork, and that holidays are essential for us all.

I know I damn well need one!

Stereotypes and Misunderstandings

In countries such as India, there is frequently an impression that Western visitors and therefore, by extension, all Westerners, own vast wealth and have massive amounts of leisure time at their disposal.

After all, they arrive on holiday, perhaps for a month or more, and they go around staying in places that are far beyond the means of the average Indian, spend the equivalent of several month’s wages on souvenirs, often hop on an aircraft to take a journey that would be one hundredth of the price by rail, flaunting expensive cameras and watches and phones and designer clothes. So who wouldn’t think that?

011a

This is not helped by the impressions given by many Western films and programs, where work seldom seems to get in the way of whatever action the film is depicting.

This often affects how local people interact with visitors, and their feelings about them.

I suspect it even drives a certain amount of international migration, too.

And so I think it very important to highlight a few facts;

Basically, the differences in exchange rates of different currencies give the impression of great wealth which is not, in fact, true.

A few numbers:

The average annual wage in the UK is currently £28,000, or $34,400. This sounds a lot (even to me!) but that hides a huge variation, of course.

It is quite hard to find figures that agree about the average annual Indian wage, with estimates varying from around $600, up to around $3500, although this may well reflect the massive difference between the rural worker and a worker in, for example, the IT industry. For sake of argument, I’m going to use the figure of $2000, which could still be slightly on the high side, looking at some of the sites I’ve gone to.

This would give the average UK worker a wage 17 times higher than the Indian. Sounds good for us, but the average cost of a house in the UK is now some £300,000 – that’s $369,000, and it is now almost impossible for young people to buy their own house unless they are helped by well-off parents, and they have very well-paid jobs. The average rent, otherwise, is around $12,300 per year. About a third of the average wage.

To find an average cost to rent in India is also difficult (for me!). I scoured a lot of sites, and seemed to come up with a figure of somewhere around $1,200 a year, although there were massive variations, both between cities and within them. If I have got these figures correct, that is around a half of the average wage.

The prices of basic commodities such as foodstuffs or power vary a lot between India and UK, too. Whereas I have bought street food in India for a rupee or two, making a lunch for perhaps 15 or 20 cents, it would cost me at least $2.50 to $3 in UK for the equivalent.

This isn’t to draw up an accurate comparison between the two – it would be quite a study to do that – but to try to make the point that the average person in the UK is better off (materially) than the average person in India, but not by nearly as much as many might think.

India has more of a problem with poverty, but the West has quite a bit, too. And whilst the poor in the West are emphatically not as badly off as their cousins in India, they still endure considerable hardship. Even with the existence of the supposed safety net of Social Security. There is homelessness. There is malnourishment.

Incidentally, and I pose this as a question to my Indian friends, I frequently read articles that focus on aid and development in poor (especially rural) areas of India, highlighting the fact that a large percentage of the population have to survive on around two dollars a day.

In the light of the above, I wonder whether this isn’t a little disingenuous, since that figure may not be as far below the average wage as many in the West believe, and wonder what you think?

I think it matters, because I believe this might distract attention from where work is needed more, such as improving sanitation, work conditions and medical care.