Of Masks, Manoj and Survivor’s Benefits

It was around 11am. I was busy putting down some traps to kill a ravager in Horizon: Zero Dawn when Alok came in and told me that my father had asked me to get ready to go to the LIC office with him for some work. I am pretty used to these kinds of errands, so I got ready and we left. 

On the way I discovered the actual mission for the day – to update NEFT details in an insurance policy my mother had taken years ago in my name so that I can get survivor benefits. My father assured me that it was a two-minute thing. They would just ask for my details and update it into their system. It did make sense to me. I had no idea what was in store for me. 

We reached the office in Hazratganj. I walked up to the reception and there was a gentleman already there. 

“My policy has…”

“SIR PLEASE PUT ON YOUR MASK! WE ARE NOT ALLOWED TO TALK IF YOU DON’T HAVE A MASK ON” the lady at the reception roared. I was impressed by this. The man fiddled through his pockets and found a mask. He immediately put it on and continued. 

“Ma Povify hafhmmanured, faat dhu hai dhu naaw”

“What? I can’t understand what you’re saying sir”

“MA POVIFY HAFHMMANURED, FAAT DHU HAI DHU NAAW”

“Sir, I really can’t understand what you’re saying”

The man slides down his mask to his chin and screams “My policy has matured, what do I do now?”

“Oh! Why are you screaming then? Did you get it from here? Do you have the papers?”

“Yes, I have the papers”

“Okay so go inside, Mr. Asthana should be able to help you”

The man darts inside and I step up to present my case. I was wearing a mask and gloves just to be sure. 

“I have to update my N.E.F.T details in my policy”

“Sorry sir? What details?”

“N.E.F.T?”

“Sir? Okay what is the problem exactly?”

“I got this message that says I have pending survivor benefits”

“Is your NEFT updated in our records?” she said NEFT like a word not an acronym. 

“Ahh, no that’s exactly what I need to get updated”

“Oh! Then go to our branch 226 which is near Leela Cinema. They have our NEFT cell that will help with this” she said physically pointing in a direction. 

“Thank you!” 

Back to the car, I told my father what all happened. He was not very happy that I didn’t ask her about how many prior survivors benefits I had missed in the past. Nevertheless, I googled and found the branch to be in Halwasia Market, there was no trace of Leela Cinema on map and the map location for Halwasia market showed it in the middle of a street in Aminabad which I knew for sure was not where Halwasia market actually was. Unsure of what to do, we decided to head towards this marker and figure out. 

I called up the number on LIC website and nobody answered it. We reached the main junction of Aminabad and realized the lane it was pointing us to was very narrow. It just seemed like a really bad idea to even go there. After thinking for some time my father decided not to enter it and asked me to do some more research. Everyone that we asked on the way from Hazratganj to Aminabad about Leela cinema had no idea that the place even existed. Still both of us felt we have heard that name so many times in our past that it had to be a real place. 

A little more search revealed the address of a coaching center which said “Behind Leela cinema” so we figured we should try this. While going there, we passed the office we just went to and my father stopped the car asking me to go and ask that lady again for the exact directions to that place. I on the other hand had no such plan. 

“Let us try this marker, it is right here. If we don’t find it, I will come back and ask her”

So, we began moving again and then it struck me, we were going in the same direction she had pointed to. I jumped up and said, “Yes! We should go this way; it should be there somewhere” confusing my father as to how I suddenly got that epiphany. Just to be sure, my father stopped at a DTDC office and asked me to inquire. I did and the man at the desk confirmed that the lane behind the main Hazratganj lane has the LIC office right opposite the old Leela Cinema. 

It indeed was there. It was the correct branch. I sprinted up to the first floor and right at the lobby was a small desk with a sanitizer and a thermometer. Behind this desk sat a very thin man in his late twenties with Ajay Devgan hair and moustache, a white and beige check shirt tightly tucked in his blue denims. He seemed very busy but was pleasant to talk to. 

“Yes sir? Where do you have to go?”

“I have to update NEFT in my policy”

“Okay enter your details here in this register and then go that side” he told me very politely pointing to his right.

I followed along and entered an office so absolutely ancient that I wondered if these people were part time paleontologists as well.

“Sharma ji…yesterday I was looking for the policy document for that old lady whose husband died and look what I found!”

“Aaaaaah! Looks like from a Hypsilophodon from the early Cretaceous era”

“Oh well well! That makes sense, I thought it was from an Ornithomimus from Late Cretaceous” and both of them laughed.

Anyway, apart from old furniture, even older people and millions of wires that nobody knows where they go, there were just cabinets and cabinets of files with ghosts of people trapped in them still waiting for their claims. 

I looked around to find an approachable face. My eyes made contact with a couple of people just chilling at their desk but as soon as our eyes met, they swiftly started looking at their screen appearing to be very busy. Finally, I found one guy angrily stamping away documents on a desk with no computer so nothing to hide his face behind. 

“I need to get NEFT updated in my policy. Whom should I meet?”

He looked at me without breaking his rhythm and pointed in a direction with this nose and eyes. I confirmed if he was pointing towards the lady sitting at the absolute end of the row. He nodded still stamping. I took a deep breath because that lady had sensed this and was now very nervously clutching her mouse and her eyeballs were going bonkers on the screen like she was watching a tennis match on 4x. 

“Hello. I got a message that my survivor benefits could not be credited to my account because my NEFT was not updated. I need to update that”

“What is the policy number?”

I told her the number and she opened up a page and checked the details. 

“Your policy is fine. Just the NEFT is not updated. You should do that”

“Ahh! Yes, that is the plan, but I don’t know how to go about that”

“Go to the other side and meet Mr. Pal from NEFT cell. He will help you”

“And one more question, how many prior benefits have I missed?”

“I can’t tell you that right now. First update NEFT then we can sort that”

I got up and walked out of the office back to the Ajay Devgan lite who seemed like he would just break into “Ek aisi ladki thi…jise main pyaaaar karta tha” any moment. As I crossed him, he gave me a smile and continued what he was doing. I returned the smile and continued walking. 

I discovered a mirror image of what I saw earlier but with younger people. Mr. Pal however seemed like he had been here for a while. He had a swag, a kind of air around him that govt officials develop just by being in a position for many years. I think tube light lit damp offices with the stench of pan masala and dirty urinals, old furniture devoured by termites barely held together by the two hundred layers of varnish with their code hand painted on them in white, constant screaming of a dying dot matrix printer pleading to be euthanized, flickering CRT monitors with cards of solitaire burnt in the screen envious of the newer slimmer screens on certain computers, contribute a lot to that air, that character. 

He picked up his lunch box and stormed out brushing my shoulder while I locked eyes with the lady who was sitting right opposite his desk. She looked at her watch and smiled. 

“Oooooo Pal sir is hungry today. He left five minutes early. Why don’t you sit and wait because this will take some time” she told me with a very pleasant smile while working on her computer. 

“Won’t you all go for lunch now?”

“yeah we will…”

“How long is lunch here usually?”

“Ummm about 30mins but to be honest work doesn’t begin before 45mins”

“I guess I would come back later then”

I got back to the car and told my dad what happened. We decided we should go and finish some other tasks while these guys finish their lunch. We headed to the BSNL office to get our FTTH (fiber internet service) disconnected. 

We came back in an hour and to my dismay, Mr. Pal hadn’t returned from lunch while everyone else had come back. I asked the lady again if she knew when he would be back. 

“He should be back any minute now. I suggest you wait”

I plonked on the chair by his desk and waited for him. In about ten minutes, Mr. Pal showed up making a beeline towards his desk. 

“Hi. I would like to update my NEFT…” I began telling him my concern, but he seemed very busy just settling in and showed no sign of listening to me. I decided to wait till he settled down. He adjusted his chair about three to four times before finding that perfect spot, opened cabinet on his right and put his lunch box in it, sanitized his hands and switched on his monitor. For the next five minutes, he logged into various pages and systems by entering his username, password and fingerprint on the biometric sensor. He then picked up a stack of files from his right and neatly arranged them on the left of the monitor. Then he picked up a fresh stack of papers from the desk on his right and put it in front of him. I kept waiting expecting him to look at me and acknowledge my presence, but it didn’t seem to bother him that a person was sitting a couple of feet away from him.

“Excuse me? I need to update my NEFT in my policy. I have been told I should do it here.”

“What? NO! You don’t need to be here. Take a form from Manoj, he must be sitting outside at the entrance and HE WILL BRING IT TO ME!” he almost screamed at me without making eye contact. 

I walked back to Manoj furious that he made me run around when he could have just told this to me when I had walked in.

“Do you have the form for updating NEFT?”

“Ah! Yes, I do. Here..” he handed over the form to me along with a pen as politely as he could. I decided to hold back my anger and just get it done somehow. I filled up the form and gave it back to him. He gave it a good read.

“Now I just need a copy of your photo ID and a cancelled cheque”

I went back to the car, tore out the last cheque from my cheque-book thanking my stars that I had one left and came back up. I had photocopies of my Aadhaar Card. I handed it over to him and he gave it another thorough read. He dropped the form in a stack on his left and gestured to me that I was good to go.

Relieved I turned around and began walking away when I felt like I should have asked for some kind of receipt or evidence that I applied in the first place. I turned around again and asked him if there was a receipt involved and how much time it would take to get updated. He again picked up my form and read it thoroughly for the third time.

“Does this signature match with the one in your policy?”

“No. I am not sure actually. It is a very old policy.”

“How old?”

“I don’t know…pretty old I think”

“Well then it will be rejected if the signature doesn’t match.”

“Is there a way I could work something out? Please help me out” I asked him meaning every word of it because I did not want to come back here. 

“You’ll need to get the signature verified. Go in there and meet Mr. Saxena. He should be able to help you”

I went back to the old office and asked the angry stamping guy for Mr. Saxena. 

“Actually, you should meet Mr. Rastogi” he told me pointing to a cabin with a queue of people. I joined the queue. 

I heard someone cross from my left and reach Mr. Rastogi’s desk like there was no queue. 

“Have I made some mistake?” he asked Mr. Rastogi who now seemed like a deer in front of headlights. 

“Arey, hello sir! How are you?”

“No, I was wondering if you’re upset or something. I have been calling you since yesterday, sent you messages. Neither did you answer my calls, nor did you reply to my messages. So, I thought I would rather check on you personally”

Mr. Rastogi had indeed been just avoiding his calls. It was all over his face. It took him a minute to gather himself, smile and come up with an excuse.

“Arey sir! This whole Corona thing has been driving me crazy. I don’t touch my phone without sanitizing my hands and the phone. So often I don’t answer it because I can’t just keep sanitizing it over and over again”

“That’s alright. But I need an update on the thing we talked about. It is kind of important. The client has been asking”

“What were the amounts?”

“One was around 50lakhs and another about 84lakhs”

“Yeah, I will get that sorted today itself”

“Please answer my call next time” the man told him with a big menacing smile. Mr. Rastogi returned an anxious smile and continued to solve the problem of the first man in the queue. 

I figured I should check with him in case I discovered end of the line that he wasn’t the right person. I told him I wanted to get my signature verified to update NEFT on my policy. He immediately pointed to a lady at the end of the room opposite the lady I met earlier. I thought I should may be check back with the lady I spoke to in the beginning. 

“I need to verify the signature for this form” 

“She will do it” she pointed me to the lady Mr. Rastogi pointed me towards. I went to her and explained my situation. 

“Nothing will work today. The servers are down. And anyway, it isn’t my job. Mr. Saxena does it”

“Where does he sit?”

“Oh, he has been transferred to another branch”

“Who has replaced him?”

“No one yet”

“So, basically this can’t be done at all till someone joins?”

“I don’t know about that. Please come again later when the servers are working”

I took a deep breath furious at so many things and walked out. 

As soon as I sat in my car, my father understood that something was wrong. I still had the documents in my hand. I told him what happened. 

“But it is a quick thing. In my branch, he just asked me and typed it out in the computer. It was done. No forms, no cheque, no fuss!”

“Can we then go to your branch?”

“No, this policy is from this branch and can only be updated from here”

“But they don’t want to. I don’t even know how the signature looks like or when was the policy taken or what kind policy it is”

“Can’t they just input the policy number and check all that out?”

“But why don’t we call the person who gave us policy?”

“Arey let’s not go there. Let me call my branch manager and see if he can help”

He called his manager Mr. Nigam who assured him that Mr. Rastogi should be the right person to talk to. My father just stepped out of the car.

“Let me see how they don’t do it”

He stormed in the office, without any entry in the register or any conversation with Manoj. I guided him through to Mr. Rastogi’s desk which still had a long queue. My father just walked past the queue straight to his desk. 

“Mr. Nigam asked me to speak to you. I need to update NEFT details for my policy number *********” my father just recited it out like a schoolboy reading in the morning assembly. 

Mr. Rastogi lifted his head up, gave me a very dirty look that clearly said, “You didn’t have to get your father involved!”. He extended his hand, took the document from my father, opened a page on his computer, showed me the signature, which was very close to my signature, but I could tell someone while filing the policy had copied it. He then circled it on the form, stamped it, signed on it and scribbled something.

“There you go. Your signature is verified. Drop it by Manoj and you’re done”

“Can you also please tell me if we have missed any prior survivor benefits?”

“Sorry, the server is down today. You can come back another day and I would be able to check that for you but not today”

My father took the form, walked back to Manoj, gave him the form who happily nodded reading it again and added it to a pile on his left. He then took out a receipt book, wrote a receipt and gave it to me. Mr. Rastogi stepped out just then and stopped by to talk to my father. 

“Take my number. In case this doesn’t get through, call me up. Although, it would be done in a week. I usually don’t answer my calls because of this whole Corona thing but you can try and also drop in a message maybe.” 

My father saved his number, thanked him, took the receipt and walked back to the car with an air of victory. I walked close by still wondering what just happened. While I was being all polite and following the protocol, my father stormed in with authority looking like someone who would make a call and get Mr. Rastogi transferred to Balia or Bahraich and he got away with it. I suddenly felt like an alien in the city I grew up in. 

“He took you for a kid and thus was harassing you. Did you see how he just did it when he saw me?”

“Look at me! I am a 33year old man with a bald head and more gray than black in my beard. How does anyone take me for a kid? People mistake me for a forty-year-old but never a young kid. Even if I was a kid, why would they harass a kid?”

“It is not how you look son! It is how you speak to them. If you’re unsure and polite, they think you don’t know things yet…”

“Well then henceforth, if there is anything to do with the government, you are doing it not me”

“Deal!”

It was almost 4pm and I was dying of hunger. In a normal situation we would have eaten something out but that was not an option. My father sprayed sanitizer generously on my hands, his hands and everywhere else he could, started the car and we drove back home. 

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