A Tibetan friend recently popped up on gchat in a mild panic. The university he was attending in the UK had sent him a contract for his accommodation. “I don’t understand half of it,” he said, “and the language is so intimidating.”
“That’s the point,” I replied. “They don’t want you to understand it. That way they can stiff you later.”
Please refer to section 8 paragraph ii where it mentions that the bedside table should not be moved more than 2.5 cms to the right except during equinoxes. Well, you get the idea.
This is the great British bureaucracy at its garbled patronizing best, the kind that regards everyone like criminally minded five year olds and speaks to them like their criminally minded robots. But there is no truer believer than a convert, and Britain’s constipated legacy is hard at work in India that now carries the distinction of being officially voted the worst bureaucracy in Asia, according to a report by Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, scoring 9.21 out of a possible 10. It slows down all manner of everyday social processes like cooking oil in a kitchen drain, creating scenarios that could make Kafka raise an eyebrow. One professor of literature told me that after her mother had died of stomach cancer, she had not been able to cook for three months because the gas board wouldn’t let her refill her kitchen gas cylinder. She had visited the concerned office six times to appeal, but the clerks kept telling her that her mother needed to come to make the payment.
On very rare occasions the small print can actually work in favour of the individual. Two years ago, I went for a meeting at the Gymkhana Club in New Delhi accompanied by another Indian friend. These clubs were set up by influential colonists in the late 19th century for the country’s ruling elite within a model of stiff upper class Britishness “to promote polo, hunting racing, tennis and other games, athletic sports and pastimes.” It now serves as a watering hole for India’s retired brigadier-generals, sports celebrities, wealthy industrialists, intelligence chiefs and the like. Elections for club president are as hotly contested as those at the national level (the one in 2013 was even reported in the international media, where ‘allegations of “dirty tricks” and claims some candidates are trying to lure supporters with glamorous drinks parties’). The language of choice is Queen’s English. We had only got as far as the lobby, before our presence caused an uproar. Seconds later, we were surrounded by no less than four staff members, all looking decidedly nervous and pointing at my friend’s feet.
“I’m sorry, sir” explained one, “we do not accept sandals”.
He then directed us to an ancient wooden signboard where the club’s dress code was handwritten in faded blue paint. The awkwardness of that moment was priceless. We were here to see an influential club member which made it even more confusing. They had boxes of spare ties for tie-less visitors, they explained, but did not have spare closed shoes. They fluttered around my friend, bending down, and anxiously examining the offending footwear with the stealth of a bomb disposal squad. My friend looked annoyed and embarrassed. And then, when I thought the tension might actually cause a spring to leap out of the desk clerk’s neck, he squealed.
“Sir! You have a backstrap!”
To which the rest clapped their hands with relief and ushered us in to the dining hall. Apparently, the small print in the club rule sheet stated that sandals could, in fact, be worn, as long as they had a backstrap. My friend’s legitimate presence in the establishment had been determined by a half-inch strip of leather. Although the situation was comical, there was no doubting the implicit social intimidation involved.
And if you think that you’ve got away with something, you’re probably fooling yourself. Once written, nothing is ever forgotten. Made in Britain bureaucracy writes in the blood of your children’s children. The giant forces of the small print will come and hunt you down, even centuries later, with exactly the same tenacity whether it’s student accommodation contracts or international treaties. Just look at the way the British government invoked the 14th century Treaty of Windsor (incidentally, the oldest diplomatic alliance in the world) to ensure that Portugal remained neutral in WWII and the UK could use the Azores as a military base, and again as a navy refueling station during the Falklands War.
Yesterday, I received a more or less incomprehensible end of tenancy agreement regarding a flat I’d moved out of in Oxford. At the end it read: If you don’t think this letter applies to you please disregard. I still haven’t replied, clinging to the fantasy that my inaction will make it go away. But the clause phantoms still taunt me in my dreams, wagging their stubby pen-filled fingers, and rubbing my nose in the small print.