Before I begin this story, I must warn you – if you are the kind that believes Calcutta/Kolkata is flawless then you better avoid reading this article. I too love that city but I know its faults (in today’s world that will immediately bring forth the remark ‘what about YOUR Chennai? Do you think it is perfect?’ – No, I don’t think Chennai is perfect either and it has its flaws). I am told the Kolkata of today is not the Calcutta that was and things are much improved and that may be so. Here, I write of the time when the city was Calcutta.
Most shopkeepers in the second city of the British Empire, namely Calcutta, hated customers. If you went to buy something, you were invariably fobbed off with a ‘not abhailable.’ If you pointed out the product was on the display shelf, it would be rather grudgingly brought forth. As for billing, as late as 2016 it was a manual process in some the retail outlets in the Gariahat. The shop was a place where sales assistants went to brood on Marx and the bourgeois bhadralok kalchaar. Sales if they happened were by the way.
London I notice is not all that different post Brexit. I am told that all the hard-working East Europeans and Bangladeshis have left and so the city is faced with a crippling shortage of labour. Everywhere you go there are notices saying Sorry, Our Service will be Slow as we don’t have staff. Railway stations in the countryside have notices that state that owing to shortage of staff, the enquiry counters will open only on specific days of the week. Ticket sales, thank god, is automated anyway. Heathrow is perhaps the greatest casualty. The luggage carousels break down frequently, and the automated passport readers don’t work. “They never do,” said the man at the immigration counter smilingly, as he waved me in.
Baggage is pulled off the carousels by the labour that is available and piled all around. Passengers who have been delayed while getting off aircraft or at immigration will have to locate their suitcases among these piles – it is exactly like a refugee colony. Oh, where are all those beefy East Europeans (am I being racist?) who handled these things in them good old days?
The same goes for shops. Rather like in Tamil Nadu, where I am told owing to upward mobility of the locals (I don’t think so but then who am I anyway), all menial and lower level white collar activity is by people from up north, England for years got along with those who came from elsewhere so to speak. Everybody made fun of their accents but then they did do the janitorial work. Now the Brits have to do all this by themselves and boy, do they hate it. They bring all the enthusiasm of the old sales assistants of Calcutta to their jobs.
All of this was several times reinforced while I was in London last fortnight but none more so than an experience at a famous bookstore chain. I was browsing at their Garrick Street outlet when I found they had Ross King’s Leonardo’s Last Supper. This is an author I venerate, for his writings on Renaissance Art are just fabulous. I picked up the book and went to the counter to pay where a long queue was rather desultorily moving. My turn came and then I suddenly recollected that my copy of the same author’s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling was lost – I had foolishly lent it to a friend who’s art-loving dog chewed the book. I asked if the store had a copy and sure enough they had, only I had to fetch it myself as there was no staff. I left the Last Supper at the counter, having informed the sales assistant at the till. After some search I found the Michaelangelo and as a bonus also located Brunelleschi’s Dome by the same author. I came back to the counter, stood in the queue and waited my turn. When I eventually reached the counter, the Last Supper had vanished. There was a search of sorts and then the sales assistant told me she had probably billed it to some other customer by mistake! I was amazed that neither she nor the customer had noticed. “Oh they will bring it back,”she said.
“What about my copy then?”
This clearly had not been thought out and after some looking elsewhere no doubt with the hope that I would go away if she paid no attention, she eventually had a brainwave.
” I will check with our Charing Cross branch if they have a copy. They will reserve it for you and you just need to go and collect it.”
Now Charing Cross being just five minutes from Garrick Street, I had to agree. A call was placed to the other showroom and after an interminable wait someone answered (shortage of staff you see). There was some plainly audible grumbling and then eventually the answer came that there was a copy. I could go to the shop and collect it on giving my name at the counter. After paying for the Michelangelo and the Brunelleschi I left in search of Leonardo.
I eventually reached the Charing Cross showroom where of course, as was to be expected, nobody had heard of Michelangelo or of a Mr Sriram coming to buy a book. I asked if someone could please call Garrick Street to check? Ah no, you see there is a shortage of…
And then someone said, wait, was I looking for the Charing Cross branch? You see, this was the Trafalgar Square branch and for the Charing Cross office I needed to walk further down the road. And so I did. Of course, the Charing Cross office categorically assured me that no call had come from Garrick Street regarding a book for me. When I said it was made in my presence I was met with a look that seemed to suggest it was my worry. By now I was getting somewhat worked up and someone did notice.
“You see sir, we are having a shortage of staff at the moment but since you are so keen on having the book, we can see if there is a copy.”
There was and of course I had to hunt for it myself owing to the shortage of staff. But I did locate it and finally became the proud owner of a copy. I sometimes feel that if I displayed in other walks of life one tenth the tenacity I show in buying books , I would have become a lot more successful.
Coming away, I could not marvel at the sheer inefficiency of the system – it was positively Calcuttan. I also recalled a favourite anecdote of industrialist Suresh Krishna – he was visiting the Lucas factory in England several years ago and while in conversation with the Chairman, Sir Bertram Waring, asked as to how many people worked there.
“Oh, around 50% at any point of time,” came the answer.