Wednesday, March 2, 2011

This "Fix" Question


If you have not already read it, you should read it now. I read the funny piece “What´s new around Kathmandu - or not” by Jeff Greenwald in San Fransico Cronicle (October 12, 2008). In this article, the award-winning American travel writer proudly describes “the Nepalese ability to fix anything”.

Why, we can’t even fix our politics; and this talk about our ability to fix anything! This is a natural reaction in any society where politics makes the bulk of that “anything”.

Every time Greenwald visits Nepal, a place he calls his “second home”, he usually comes with a suitcase filled with broken, discard-able items which include anything from old lighters, leaking ThermaRest pad, carry-on computer case, jacket, shoes to a variety of electronic gadgets. 

It all started, he writes, in the late 1980s, when he delighted in snapping photos of umbrella repair stands and disposable lighter refilling stations on the sidewalks or alleys of Kathmandu. It is not just the cost (local electrician, he notes, can fix everything from toasters to laser printers for Rs 50) but the ability of our repairmen to actually fix things that he finds exceptionally admirable. And, there is the constant adjustment taking place. These crafty repairmen, he observes, learn to fix new gadgets like iPods and CFC-free refrigerators as they hit the market.
This ability in mending things, Greenwald finds reflected in the professional domains as well. For example, our physicians and doctors help fix body parts with ease, and who impress the visitor with their imaging procedures and replacement lenses, often for an incredibly small cost.

It gets even more interesting when the writer extrapolates his argument to include space science as yet another potential domain for our kaligads. He concludes that the US could save millions of dollars by finding and recruiting the most ingenious and efficient Nepali street repairmen as astronauts: “In orbit, they could repair anything - from faulty space station toilets to the Hubble Space Telescope - using needle nose pliers and few paper clips, for about the cost of a new toaster.” The sad truth is, he suspects, the Chinese will probably get to us first, not the US.

Enough of this satire, some may respond, for this is an utter exaggeration of our abilities; the truth is many of these street repairmen are actually migrant workers from India. Also, who isn’t already familiar with the less-than impressive records of the Indian space program for their repeated failures in satellite launches, as compared to the Chinese or American space adventures?

In reverse, some may also argue that the travel writer’s must be an oblique critique of Nepali inability to fix anything, in the first place. Our experience tells us that in recent years, we have been too good at spoiling things than fixing them, better at striking discords than accords. And for all this, our tortuous politics sucks!

Yet, at a deeper level, I find Greenwald’s take reassuring, optimistic and right on something about this unique talent (from Nepal or India) that we don’t as much appreciate as we should do. Thanks goodness for our elasticity, at least we are not in total denial of this ability in politics. Haven’t we reminded ourselves, come what may, our leaders will manage to hammer out a midnight agreement just when any negotiation process is about to collapse? And we have seen that time and again.

If nothing else, merely the awareness of this ability to mend things serves us a safety valve to impending disasters. Knowing in advance that something will be worked out, that things will always go bad but somehow they will be sorted out, that our ingenious repairmen will fix things, however imperfectly or impermanent it may be, is the immediate and constant relief we are blessed with all the time in this land of ours. Greenwald describes this relief as “a strange sense of liberation that comes from knowing that anything can be fixed.”

Yes, I have bought the services of the cobblers from Tukucha near Bag Bazaar and got my completely broken umbrella and badly ruptured trail-able wheels of a backpack fixed for as little at Rs 70 (after some bargaining). Yes, I am reusing my waist belt that I almost discarded simply because a brilliant repairman helped to replace its broken buckle with a new one in perfect shape. I could not fix a Dell laptop in America after its two-year warranty expired. Many years later, I am still using that computer. Yes, where else, but in Kathamandu that I got it fixed.

Unfortunately, as you have, I also have waited in the long lines at public utility departments, and we know that nothing can be fixed that easily, and fairly. Our water lines, gas lines, power lines and phone lines are in constant need of fixing with little help or relief coming our way. Add to these our decaying highway lanes. Now that the new school season will begin soon, you will have a hard time chasing the leads to better placements and fruitful enrolment lines. I mean the system, not the items, because the system is the sum total of the items. If the total is bleak, in the larger scheme of things for the largest number of people, the particulars amount to nothing. They only serve as show pieces.

This brings me to the sinister side of the “fix” issue. You may consult a dictionary; this word goes beyond repair, mend, adjust, arrange, or to make firm or stable. It also implies intoxication, and also means “an illegal arrangement”, secured typically through bribery or influence, or an outcome prearranged dishonestly. In this, money is the key instrument of change, the means of a twisted genius, a perverted ability.

Not long ago, we saw how two leading politicians fixed a very appalling price for the post of prime minister, behind closed doors. And we also saw a long drama of fixing the PM election with reports of foreign cash pouring in. Soon next month, as the SLC exams will start, we will see exam centers sold to the highest bidders, who are on a race to excel other competitors by any means. Our public licensing regime will do you all favors; it will even deliver a driver’s license without any tests to your personal door, if you are willing to shortchange the system. We also know much about our fraudulent tax evasions and our unpredictable taxi cab meters. These things make a vicious circle. We are a permanently fixed nation.

These fixtures have become as natural as the air we breathe, or as a drug to an addict. Yet, despite their serious implications for our immediate tasks and lives, they do not seem as serious an issue as the test fixing scandals in cricket or speculative transactions in New York on Shanghai. If any thing can fix this menace, it is the reworking of our very twisted ability to find a way around this deceptive public system.

Perhaps it’s time to take our repairing business further, to the level of real expertise. Now it merely thrives among the craftsmen. Craft is more intuitive with the possibility of many flaws or gaps in knowledge or skills. It may fix our practices, for good or bad reasons, but a fix implies a never ending cycle of imperfect, impermanent arrangements. It implies the constant fear that there will be a breakdown any minute, hence, never fully reassuring. I, already, have had to take my backpack back for repair again and not to forget, I also have had to reformat my computer again in order to fix the glitches, residues from the last imperfect repair using pirated software.

Expertise, on the other hand, implies connecting the gaps in knowledge or skills. It helps identify our pressure point-- that hold, that grip, where we can stand still and stable for the long run. Both craft and expertise combined, we may get through the cacophony of abstract talks and agenda of a nation in change and get on the real business of fixing the things that matter in everyday life—water, garbage, electricity, schools, and perhaps the most important, jobs for all.

Here is a question we may consider again more seriously: Do we have the ability to really fix anything, or do we want to start afresh?

Published in the Republica, March 2, 2011


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