The affable and unflappable customer service representative I’ve known for years. On this day she looked particularly hassled dealing with a woman who insisted she had a phone line that wasn’t in SLT’s system. Eavesdropping on conversations in government offices reveals as much about the state of country, community and context as it does about the nature of government service and the individuals in it. As my number was called, a random individual occupied chair to ask how to get a slip in order to occupy the chair. This was told, and said person promptly got up, grinned at me, and left the building. It is unclear whether the instruction was understood or whether the journey to SLT was to ascertain this vital nugget of information for someone else. After the mandatory exchange of pleasantries, I requested an SLT fibre connection and dutifully located my house on Google Maps. I left with the assurance that someone would attend to the matter promptly. That was around four weeks ago. To be fair by SLT, many have attended to my application with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but nothing has progressed.
Every week since the first Monday I lodged my application, I’ve made a pilgrimage to the Ratmalana SLT to ascertain progress. The first week I was told it was in the process of being processed – an entirely unhelpful answer delivered with a smile and shrug, suggesting karma had more a role in the fibre connection’s processing than SLT itself. Accepting this universal truth, I left with a silent prayer to the Buddha to access my karma reserves and withdraw whatever sum needed to get me my connection. It turns out karma doesn’t work like an ATM or I didn’t have enough in my account for the Buddha to withdraw. Either way, the next Monday, I coincidentally met with the same woman who took helped with the application. Appalled I hadn’t got my connection, she was visibly angry and said that everything from SLT was approved and authorised. The delay was with Huawei. A note to the Manager would be penned. A complaint would be lodged. Lamentations of having wasted my time and apologies for the delay ensued. I had taken a liking to this woman’s honesty of a system that she had no real control over. A week later, a three-wheeler with three men turned up, walked around my garden and house, and left. I was told they would call. They didn’t call. When I called them, they said my house needed a pole to draw the wire from the road. I accepted this and asked if I needed to do anything in order to hasten the process of getting the connection. I was assured I didn’t have to do a thing, and that everything would be done from their end.
A week later, I went back to SLT. Thought I had a ticket several numbers down from the sequence of customers called to the counters, the woman who had lodged my application saw me and called me over. Her face was a mix of dread and disappointment. Hurried keystrokes and muttering ensued. I asked her to not get angry, a role reversal from the usual interaction over the counter at government offices. A man’s name was mentioned as the engineer from Huawei responsible for putting poles and giving new connections. I asked where he was located. I was told he was in the next building on the first floor. His phone wasn’t working, so I was asked to go over and ascertain what was going on, noting that I was sent across by SLT. This I did. The man was courteous and unhurried. I was asked for my number. I asked him which number he wanted. I was told I had a number from SLT. I said I did not. This, he said, was impossible – I should have been given a number. I said I wasn’t. Now looking entirely confused, hurried keystrokes ensued, only to be followed by the assurance that I would have been given a number. I again assured him I wasn’t given a number, and asked if my NIC number could be used to determine this mysterious number. This I was told he couldn’t do from his terminal. I was asked to go back to SLT and get this number. So I went back to SLT. The woman asked me what number he wanted. I said I didn’t know, but that he said she would know. She said she didn’t know. She tried him again on the phone, which didn’t work. Then she hunted for my initial written application in a thick folder of other applications. I saw her face turned a deep shade of red, realising that this number – whatever it was – hadn’t been written down. Seconds before, there were loud threats to go with me to her Manager in order to complain about the man from Huawei. Once the mistake was discovered, however, there was a meek admission that the number requested was actually one that SLT should have provided me weeks ago. Armed with this number, and another mysterious number for good measure written on the corner of an SLT brochure that featured only very fair Sri Lankans, I went again to the building next door and up the first floor. My smartwatch congratulated me on the number of steps I was taking and the flights of stairs I was ascending. I mentally thanked SLT for this vital contribution to my health.
The Huawei man, now armed with my number, proceeded to tell another colleague, seated next to him, to take down details from his screen. This was shouted across with such volume that the entire office was privy to my details, not unlike a polling centre. The other man dutifully noted down a string of numbers and dashes. This was then repeated to the man I met, who upon punching in the codes, assured me someone would be around to fix the pole.
A man did arrive on a motorcycle the next day. I wasn’t sure how he could alone, and on a bike, fix a pole. But it turned out he was a pole scout for Huawei, who assured me that I actually didn’t need one. The ensuing conversation was surreal. I was asked if the team that told me I needed a pole came in a blue-three wheeler. I said I couldn’t remember the colour of the three-wheeler that came. He then warned me, with great concern and grave face, that a team in a blue three-wheeler from SLT was going around telling prospective fibre customers that they needed poles, when they did not. As evidence of this assertaion, I was shown a box on the road from which a wire could be drawn. I nodded, gravely. I was then told where he had to go to vote, because it was important. Not having asked him anything about the election, I nevertheless agreed with the sentiment. The gentleman promptly left on his motorcycle, blaming, vociferously, Huawei for sending a box from some unheard of town to road next to mine, assuring me that the box could have come from somewhere closer, asking me if I had lived anywhere else, and telling me he would return after the election.
I closed the gate pinching myself to see if I was dreaming.
Four weeks and counting, I am none the wiser as to when I will get my new SLT fibre connection. This Sunday, Sri Lanka will have a new President. He inherits a profoundly dysfunctional country. He will not fix it. Beyond and beneath the veneer of glossy ads, facades, promises, launches, press releases and celebrity openings, Sri Lanka is a country where who you know, and what you know about them, still matters. Every single citizen-facing facility, form and farce, favours those in and with power.
I hope, someday, we vote to change that.
First published in The Sunday Island, 16 November 2019.