<%-- Page Title--%> Weekend Musings <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 129 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

November 7, 2003

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The 'Sofa' and your Telephone Call

Mahfuz Anam

I think all our readers know how frustrating it is to get somebody on the phone. And if that somebody is a high official in our epitome of inefficiency-the secretariat- then of course you will need to be extremely lucky to actually get the person on the other end of your call. First, your line could be out of order. If you are fortunate, then the line of the person you are calling could be 'dead'. If, in the rare case, both your lines are ok, then the person could be out, could be busy, could be doing a thousand things- most often in meetings- for which your effort could be completely fruitless.

But there is another reason why your frantic effort or your heartrending pleas to be connected could fail. When you have crossed all hurdles and when the all powerful PA has put you on hold and said “I will connect you to Sir…” even then it may not work because --(you can only guess if you call the secretariat often enough) the person you have called is in 'his sofa'. What has sofa got to do with your being able to talk to the person you called? Apparently everything.

If you call some bara shaheb (big shot) in our government offices (it does not happen in private offices) and when you have crossed all the PSs and PA s and when your heart is beating fast to hear that all important voice on the other side, suddenly you may be told “Ooni akhon sofai aachen, tai aaponar shangey katha boltey parben na. Apnee porey phone koren” (he is on the sofa now and so cannot answer the phone at the moment. Try later). You try to appeal to a sense of pity in the heart of the PA and say “I have been trying for days and after so many calls I have finally got him, please, please see if you can connect. It would help me greatly.
The passive voice, with a hint that you are unable to understand the gravity of the situation, will say Aaha ballam tao, ooni sofai aachen, akhon line deya jabe na (I have told you he is on the sofa. I cannot connect him now).

Readers who never call the secretariat deserve an explanation. As one becomes a senior in our bureaucracy his (her) office room and desk get bigger, the cushion on his chair gets thicker (with an all important towel to cover the backrest. I have often wondered about the towel. What is its purpose or function? I guess that it was to prevent the headrest from becoming soaked with hair oil. But who puts that much hair oil nowadays? So why the towel? Surely it cannot be a status symbol. But from the way a peon gets told off if the towel ever gets misplaced, I am forced to conclude that there is some magic to that towel that we, non-bureaucrats, don't know about). The number of telephones on his desk increases (five/six sets are not uncommon with the all important 'red phone'- the ultimate status symbol of every aspiring bureaucrat-placed in the centre), number of chairs surrounding his desk go up and he gets- and this relevant for our story- a sofa-set where he can conduct business with his important visitors. This sofa-set is usually placed away from his work desk and there is no telephone line there. Therefore if the official you called happens to entertain his guests at his sofa then he becomes out of reach on the phone. And the higher the official, the more he gets important visitors and more he uses his sofa. So your chances of getting him out of his sofa gets slimmer according to the level of the official you called.

Yet if an officer is high enough and important enough to be given three/four/five telephones for his work, then why can't extension cords be provided so that he can take calls when sitting on his sofa? At least one could be a cordless set. Imagine an international caller being told that his call cannot be answered because the person he called is on his sofa. The caller may have heard of a psychiatrist's couch but to be told of a bureaucrat's sofa will definitely make him wonder about the nature of our bureaucrat's work. Now we wouldn't want his imagination to fly, do we?

Jokes aside, we think there is an issue here which needs to be addressed-namely accessibility of our officials over telephone. In most developed countries-I think the US is the most advanced in this regard where you can practically do everything over phone-- telephones help you to accomplish most of your work. In Bangladesh if we learn to use our telephones better I think we can save the exchequer a lot of money in wasted official time in meeting people and the countless hours wasted in trying to meet high level officials.

Think of the revolution mobile phones have brought into our lives. So much of time, money and energy are saved because we can now communicate with relevant people before deciding on our course of action. Millions of hours of meeting time have been saved because so much can now be accomplished over the mobile phones.

For that to happen we need to greatly increase phone accessibility among all social strata and of course, we must ensure that once given accessibility that our phones work. Tall order? We don't think so. The technology is there. Only our mindset is not.





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