Sunday, September 16, 2012

Men and Machines

The letter received by post looked somewhat unusual. The paper bore a shade of dull white with pale green patches running through the page in stripes of uniform width. The type print was meticulously neat and the get-up was something which I had not seen earlier. (Later on, I came to know that it was a computer print out. No wonder, it appeared unfamiliar for a computer illiterate like me.)

The letter started this way:
Dear Sir,
   Re: Your application seeking admission for your son/daughter/ward
On preliminary scrutiny, your application has been rejected for the following reason(s).
Various reasons were listed below in serial order and serial number 7 bore a  tick mark made by a pen. The reason cited was:
'The application is incomplete.'
There was no elaboration of this point anywhere below. The letter ended with a rubber stamp of the principal of the school.
I could not make much of the letter. I decided to meet the principal in person.

There was a long line of visitors outside the principal's room, waiting for an interview with the most important person of the school admission season. After an insufferably long wait, my turn came and I was ushered into his room by his assistant. In reality, I was given a not-so-gentle a push, apparently to deliver a message to me that I was not to take too much of the principal's time, the most precious commodity of the day. Silently suffering the humiliation, I entered the room and greeted the principal. While returning the greetings, there was a frown on his face. "Your face looks familiar. Perhaps we have met earlier, not recently though."
"Yes, sir. We have met, in the same room. But it was two years back, in connection with the admission of my elder son. It is good of you to remember meeting me even after two years."
"Well, I remember meeting you all right, but I am unable to recall the meeting itself. Anyway, what can I do for you now?" He turned business-like without wasting further time on pleasantries.
I produced the letter received by me from the school.
He called the peon and got my application taken out.
As he was about to scrutinize it, the phone rang. He handed the application to me and attended to the phone after quickly telling me, "please check whether any item is left unfilled."
I checked. The form was completely  filled in - well, almost completely!
I waited for him to complete his telephone talk.
As he put down the receiver, he asked me "Have you checked?"
"Yes, I have. But I don't think it's incomplete in any manner."
He took back the application from me and after quickly browsing through the pages, he put his finger on a line, turned the application towards me and said in an annoyed tone, "What is this? You have not filled in item number 7."
"Is it essential that I fill it up?"
He looked at me with an expression that showed both surprise and irritation and asked, "What is your problem in filling up that one?"
"There is no problem, of course. But I feel that I needn't answer a question about my caste."
"Well..I  think you have not understood the question correctly. You don't have to mention your caste. It's enough for you to indicate you belong to which category of caste - SC, ST, OBC* or ....    "
"Excuse me, sir!" I interrupted, "My question is why I should answer a question about my caste."
He looked into my eyes for a few seconds. Suddenly, there was a sparkle in his eyes. He said with some excitement, "Now I remember our previous meeting. We have discussed the same issue earlier, haven't we?"
"Yes, sir., you are right. As I told you already, I had met you two years back in connection with the admission of my elder son."
"Now I am able to recall the scene in its entirety. The scene appears in my mind as vividly as a motion picture. At that time also, you had not filled in the information about your caste."
He stopped for a while and closed his eyes, as if replaying the scene on his mind's screen.
My mind also travelled back in time.
*                     *                     *                      *                     *                     *                     *                    *
"Why should I mention my caste?" I protested.
"Well.., in case you belong to a caste that is offered some concessions in future, you will be able to claim the benefits only when the caste is specified in the school records." The principal sounded more apologetic than convincing.
" But I do not want my son to get any benefit based on his caste. I am fairly well off and I don't see any need for my son to use crutches that may be offered to him by the government, when he is strong enough to stand on his own legs and walk freely. Do you still insist that I mention my caste identity.?"
He was not one to give up easily. "Even otherwise, the government may require this information for statistical purposes," he persisted.
I would not yield to him either."The government should be interested in collecting information about people who need concessions. Why should it bother about people who do not want any concessions from the government?"
He gave up ultimately."Ok. I don't think I can convince you on this. I would only like to say that this application was not designed by me. So if you are not happy about this question, don't blame me for posing this question to you!" He smiled, attempting to ease the situation.
"I don't intend to blame you, sir. I can understand that you are only playing your role. My growse is only against the Government. On the one hand, the Government swears by a casteless society and on the other, it does everything to perpetuate the caste system by constantly reminding people of their caste identities, by asking them to spell out their caste in every application whether it is an application for a family card or an explosive license! I am not against the government coming to the help of the oppressed or deprived sections of the society. But everyone who has to fill an application for any service is confronted with the question, "To which caste do you belong to?" I just don't want to submit myself to this kind of questioning. If I declare that I don't want to seek or avail of any concessions given on the basis of my caste,  I should not be asked to answer questions concerning my caste. Forgive me if I have hurt you. I was just speaking out my mind."
"Not at all," said the principal gracefully." I appreciate your position whether I agree with you or not. Since this is a matter to be disposed of at my level, I will accept the application without insisting on your filling in the information about your caste."
I admired his broad outlook, magnanimous attitude, objective approach and the courage to take a decision using his discretion, and thanked him profusely.
*                     *                       *                      *                      *                      *                     *                *
It appeared strange and surprising to both of us that we should be discussing the same issue after two years.
"Can I take it that you will maintain the same stand that you took last time?" I asked.
But he looked uncomfortable and even apologetic in his hesitation to respond to my question. When he did, his voice was subdued under the weight of the genuine regret felt by him. " I am sorry but I can't take that stand today."
"Why not?" I asked in a voice that sounded angry, the anger being only a camouflage of disappointment and  frustration.
"Did you find anything different about this letter compared to the one you had received last time?"
I looked at the letter once again. Yes, it was different and I had noticed it even at the time of receiving it. But what did that have to do with this issue?
The principal went on to explain. " This time the applications are screened by the computer.The computer will read each and every line and if any line is kept blank, it will consider the application incomplete and will refuse to process it. I can take up the application for consideration only after the application passes this scrutiny. As a human being, I can accept your explanation and take it up for consideration. This is what I did last time. But the computer will not accept the application even if there is some insignificant omission. At present, computers don't have the intelligence to use their discretion!. You can now understand that I can take up the application for processing only after it is first cleared by the computer.. And the computer will not clear your application unless..."
He paused expecting that I would understand what I should do. I understood what he wanted me to and as I  did, a streak of concern pierced through my mind about the oft-repeated statements by many people about our standing at the threshold of a computer era.

* SC, ST, OBC  etc. are the names of caste groups used by the Government

(Written in the year 1988)


  1. Well, if he doesn't want to disclose his caste, he could always specify it as Gen, as Gen category does not requires any certificate of proof, as well as no benefits from Govt. Enjoyed reading the story though.

  2. Thanks for your comments. The point of this story is that automation sometimes introduces a kind of rigidity. Answering 'General' is giving an answer to the question. The person is opposed to answering this question, in principle.