In 1961 Joseph Heller wrote a great novel, 'Catch 22'. In it, he portrays a character who is terrified of undertaking dangerous missions in a fighter plane. The only way to avoid it is to be insane. But anyone who declares himself insane in order not to undertake those missions is obviously sane. So he has to fly. Thus 'Catch 22' means a dilemma from which there is no escape because of usually conflicting conditions.
I have been in three Catch 22 situations in the last three weeks. The first was in Goa, where I had been trying to persuade Goa Telecom to install a land line in my house. We had bought the house 15 years ago, and my wife and I decided that it would be a retreat where we would take a complete break from our lives elsewhere. We would have no telephone, no television, no air-conditioning, and no newspapers.
All this changed when our first grandchild came to Goa, at the age of six months, in December 2001. His parents left him with us, and went off to Kerala. We were worried about needing a doctor for him, and our mobile phone, which we had just acquired, could not receive a signal inside the house. So we applied for a land line immediately.
Nothing happened for 15 months. So this March I met the officers of Goa Telecom. The reasons given for not installing my phone were wonderful: they couldn't find my house, no cable capacity, junction not functioning, repairman gone on leave...
I found the repairman, picked him up and his tools, and drove him to where there was a purported fault. I picked up a labourer and a pickaxe, to dig a channel for laying the underground cable. I bought a telephone instrument. Eventually it was connected to the cable.
After all this they said, "You can't use the phone." I had to provide identification and proof of residence. "Can you bring your ration card," they enquired. "No, my main residence is in Bombay," I answered. "Can you bring your voter's ID," they asked. "No, my main residence is in Bombay," I repeated. Then a brilliant thought struck the telecom guy. "Why don't you bring your phone bill?" When I recovered, I explained that since I did not have a phone I did not have a phone bill. Catch 22.
If you think that his happens only in government departments, then think again. Recently I went to a foreign bank, with a global reach. I introduced myself to two senior "Relationship Managers". I told them I did not have a bank account, so I wanted to open one. They made me fill up forms, and attach copies of IDs (passport, phone bill, driving licence), and signed photographs.
I offered Rs. 2,000 in cash to open the account. They refused it. "We cannot accept cash to open an account because, you see, terrorism is so widespread. We must know the source of funds. Why don't you give us a cheque?" I said that I had just informed them that I did not have a bank account. So how could I issue a cheque? No answer. Catch 22.
Then they said thoughtfully, "If you transfer funds, and give us the details, we can open your account." How do I transfer funds to an account which hasn't been opened? Catch 22. By now I was experienced (just back from Goa Telecom's training program), and it was they who were in shock and awe. They opened the account!