The Venus Flytrap: Dial M For Misuse

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The government of Tamil Nadu launched an “integrated emergency care” scheme last week, which will make getting assistance during any emergency situation just a phone call away. Naturally, this is a welcome measure, especially since our national security has recently come under threat. The only problem is, an emergency is a relative thing.

A woman in Scotland, for instance, contacted her local version of the 108 because her pet rabbit’s ears weren’t floppy, as promised in a newspaper ad. Perhaps she was a believer in chaos theory – and the floppiness of her bunny’s ears directly correlated with, just guessing here, her sense of perspective. Other Scottish calls of interest and exasperation included a complaint about too many onions in a takeaway meal and at least two about being splashed with puddle water by passing vehicles. The Japanese police force, meanwhile, claims to have suffered 950,000 nuisance calls in 2007, among them some real crisis situations like wanting a lift home in a patrol car owing to not having enough money to take a taxi.

Since we do live in a most melodramatic country, and that too in a most melodramatic city, I’d wager that the new emergency response scheme is going to have its many hands and hotlines full.

To begin with, when I said that emergency is a relative thing, I really do mean that it is almost definitely going to be a relative thing. My parents once dropped by the neighbourhood police station because my sister didn’t pick up her phone for an hour. Now, they can just put the emergency number on speed dial.

Joining them, of course, will be all the usual suspects – the neighbourhood spies, the know-it-alls, the rumour-mongers, the jealous spouses, the even more jealous mothers-in-law, the in-fighting heirs… Make no mistake about it – this emergency number is going to take centrestage in quite a few misadventures of the Great Indian Guilt Trip variety. What’s a Tamil film without a scene involving cops? And what better way for life to imitate cinema, that old favourite Indian aspiration, than to have them at one’s beck and call to intervene in any commotion one feels like creating?

The demand could be so overwhelming that the emergency response hotline centre will become the new, trendier call centre. Hip youngsters with fake accents and non-existent curfews will make way for sensitive new age types with seductive stories about the latest cat they miaowed to over the phone and convinced to climb down a tree, or more entertainingly, about the Savita Bhabhi-esque damsel they sweet-talked out of her “hysteria” over missing her travelling husband. Chetan Bhagat wannabes galore will be spawned, derided, envied and made wealthy – only this time, with community awards to boot.

What’s more, 108 being a somewhat religion-friendly number, and the lot of us being somewhat superstitious people, I’m sure it won’t be long before someone gets it into his or her head that starting the day by dialing a sequence of auspicious numbers might be a good luck prescription. At least the person handling the call will be greeted by a serene voice, for a change.

All this frivolousness will make for some funny news stories. But as someone somewhere keeps the line engaged by crying wolf, someone else somewhere else could be in a real crisis. And all the floppy bunny ears in the world might not be able to get them out of that one. So spare a thought before you dial the hotline. After all, you wouldn’t want that aunt who goes through your call register to suspect a conspiracy.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

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