Now that sounds like I am going into some deep philosophical ruminations on the meaning and consequences of that…what shall we call it… “quality”. But my intention here is somewhat more pedestrian. Personal. Born of this curiosity about something I experience (or some would prefer to say am “victim of”) time and again.
Take the most recent case of attempted hoodwinking. I’ve been buying milk from the same person for several years now. For the past year the milk has been delivered by this young boy, maybe around 14 or 15, who comes whizzing in on his bicycle every morning and, once a month, he stops a little longer to give me the bill and collect the payment. Usually, I just take the bill, look at the amount, and pay him. I’ve never checked the bill or scrutinized it closely. This month, my daughter happened to receive the bill and she found that the numbers didn’t quite add up. It was clear that the total had been overwritten to make it a full one thousand over the actual sum. I called the agent to tell him he’d made a mistake and after a short conversation we realized that someone had altered the total after he had issued the bill—a 2 written in black ink had been changed to 3 with a blue pen. Of course, the boy denied any such fudging when his boss called him out, but maybe he was put on notice. It made me wonder how many months I had overpaid, simply because I hadn’t bothered to check the bill carefully—simply trusting that it would be the correct amount. But it also made me wonder what made the body think that he could get away with it. It made me wonder if, somehow, the word had got out that I was easy target.
I’m not being paranoid here. It’s just that…well…I’ve been hoodwinked before.
It’s a Saturday morning, and I’m in the middle of cooking something complicated (why I choose to do that on a weekend, don’t ask). The bell rings and these two men are at the door. They hand me a leaflet that details some chemical-free plant medicine that will rid my fruit trees and flowering bushes of “root pests”. Rs 80 for a sachet of the bio-fertilizer and Rs 90 for the accompanying “injection” that accompanies it. But first, they say, they will check to see how my plants are doing and based on that tell me the dosage. I’m sold, because the guavas have been falling off the tree before they ripen, and the mango tree looks like it might be infected. I follow them down and after a bit of digging they pull out a nice fat bug from the base of the guava tree. “This needs some medicine,” they say. As they begin to empty a sachet into the soil, I run up to check on my cooking. In the five minutes it takes me to return, they have moved on, to the mango tree and then a couple of hibiscus and rose bushes, and show me a bunch of empty sachets and tell me they’ve matched those with a number of injections. They present me with a whopping bill (the amount shall remain unspecified lest you think me a bigger fool than I know I am) and while they watch me stagger, tell me that they will check on the garden regularly for the next year, that the fee includes this monthly monitoring. When I tell them I was not prepared to spend this huge amount, they firmly tell me I can pay with a bearer cheque which they can encash right away…after all, they have already delivered the medicine and there is no way I can refuse to pay for what has been consumed (by my plants). I go ahead and pay, kicking myself for not having insisted on a prior estimate, for not having asked more questions, for not having first discussed it with the more vigilant and naturally suspicious people in the house, and for having stepped away while they, without notice, emptied all those sachets (hundreds of them) into the soil.
Needless to say, in the four months since the medication, my plants have not seen those men again. The telephone number they left with me is unreachable.
And…er…yes, there have been multiple other instances.
Like the man who came to my door asking to change a thousand-rupee note. I gave him the change which took, and then ran down telling me he was going to get the note…and disappeared.
Like a former driver who gave me a story about an emergency medical situation that needed a big payout, and I later learned he used the money to elope, and that there had been no medical emergency.
I wonder if stories get around (“hey, there’s this stupid lady in this house who is so gullible you won’t believe it”). I wonder if there’s something about my face that has “will be taken in” written all over it.
But I remember thinking to myself at some point, that there are two ways in which one can approach people, and the world in general. With trust. Or with suspicion. With the belief that people are by and large, well meaning. Or with the conviction that there may be something beneath every surface that needs to be scrutinized. I'd like to think that I operate on trust.
Still. There’s something to be said for checking things—bills, estimates, plans, reports—carefully, not because people intend to put one over you, but because people do make mistakes, even when working with the best of intentions.
I told someone today that I was too old to change my ways. However, I have a sneaky feeling that this is probably just a convenient (and simplistic) answer. I would like to think it’s about trust. But what if it’s nothing more than laziness? Being suspicious takes a lot of energy, because it demands that you look closely and critically—not at people really, but at the things they do. Not because you think they are up to no good, but because you believe they can do better, and their output deserves that scrutiny that allows flaws to be exposed.
After all, this is how I approach my work as a teacher—the critical eye is applied in order to make student work better.
So perhaps I should look at other things in the same way? After all, it doesn't have to be about giving up trust, but about honing one’s ability to discriminate…between truth and falsehood, between good and not-so-good, between honesty and fakery.
So the next story that comes knocking on my door is going to have a harder time getting through.
But what if it is true?