No gas for you!

February 22nd, 20112:31 pm @

One of the first jobs when moving into a new house in India is getting the gas connected. Back home in Sydney you’d just ring the gas company and if the stuff wasn’t flowing into your oven before you got off the phone it soon would be.

This, of course, isn’t Sydney.

Gas here comes in battered 17-kilo bottles, delivered to your door by a guy on a bicycle from the local government supplier. Getting to that stage, however, is a process that would have Kafka sitting in a corner rocking back and forth.

When we first moved into our apartment the landlords helpfully, and generously, gave us one of their half-full bottles to tide us over until we could sort out our own deliveries. Once we’d settled in my wife went to the gas office while I went to my office. Being prepared, she took our lease agreement with her – nothing, and I mean nothing, official happens in India without proof of address.

After filling out the requisite forms and providing the essential proof of identity and residence, they told her it would be a week or so until we got a gas bottle, which seemed fair enough – although having been burned by Indian delivery “schedules” before, we weren’t hopeful. Still, we had the gas the landlords had given us and we were sure we’d be fine.

The week came and went with no sign of the promised gas bottle, which meant another trip to the gas office for my wife, where the agent told her it would be “a few more days, madam”. Frustrated and angry at his condescending attitude towards her, she gave him have a spray. Predictably, the gas didn’t turn up and she returned, this time with our driver, hoping he’d be able to help. The official was having none of it and told our driver, Balbir, we’d get the gas in maybe 10 days.

By now we’d run out of gas and were resorting to cooking in the microwave or eating take away. We thought about going to the black market, but Balbir wasn’t keen on the idea. It would be more expensive and the bottles usually aren’t full. And besides, he said, they aren’t very nice people.

On the next trek to the office all three of us went along, hoping that through sheer force of numbers we could get a gas bottle off the guy. My wife was also sick of dealing with his patronising and arrogant attitude, a common trait among demi-officials in India. The more small-scale the official, the more jumped up the attitude.

This particular official – a small, pot-bellied man with thinning, sweaty hair and yellow stains under his armpits –┬ásat in a stuffy office at the back of a nearby market. “I’d like some gas, please,” I said, handing him our receipt.

He peered over his glasses at me and eventually took the receipt. “I told him 10 days,” he said, motioning towards Balbir, who was standing behind me. “No, today,” I said, snatching back the receipt. “We’ve been waiting nearly a month. You told us a week!”

Leaping from his chair he drew himself up to his full four feet something and yelled at me. “Don’t you snatch things from me. Don’t you know who I am? No gas for you!” I have no idea if he was a fan of 1990s American comedy, but the connection couldn’t be sheer coincidence. Either way, it was difficult no to laugh.

Despite that, I’d had enough. This jumped up little prick clearly enjoyed the fact that he, and only he, could give people gas and was going to make people’s lives difficult in the process – and earn a little on the side in the process. I held the gas receipt out and pointed to the logo on the top. “This address is your head office?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “So what?”

“My office is in the same building. I’m going there now. How do you think they’ll feel when I visit them and tell them you’ve been taking bribes from people to get gas?”

If snatching the receipt had got him worked up, this sent him positively incandescent and he started screaming at Balbir in Hindi, then at me in English.

“You people! You people come in here offering bribes. I never take bribes,” he screamed, disappearing into his office out the back.

I could swear that on an earlier visit he’d said a “consideration” could make the gas appear more quickly. Maybe I’d misremembered.

I stood in the front office with Balbir waiting for the next move. Eventually a voice came from the office. “Sardaji! Sardaji!” called our friend to Balbir, getting him to come out back. They spoke for a while in Hindi as I stood waiting. Eventually Balbir came out smirking.

“Gas tomorrow.”

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