Saturday, January 7, 2012

Lining Up

I haven’t read it but I’ve read about it, Russian author, Vladimir’s Sorokin’s highly acclaimed post-modern novel, The Queue. The novel’s setting and characters are collectively one long line of people waiting to collect something or the other in Soviet-era Russia. A blurb taken from a review of the book, published in Publisher’s Weekly, says –

Sorokin creates a brilliant set piece, conveying the absurdity, the dehumanization and, above all, the inevitability of waiting in line."

Last week, I’m at the passport office waiting to apply for a passport for my son and I find myself in not so much as a queue but an informal arrangement of people all waiting to get a number which will inform you when to come back to join a line to get your documents processed. Somewhere between the exposure of the tit stuffed into the baby’s mouth and the Rastafarian gentleman questioning the logic of denying him access due to his wearing the same three-quarter pants he had on before he was sent away earlier to collect a missing document, a peculiar type of familiar anxiety kicks in.

I have an almost deep-seated animosity to lines. In a line, I get nervous, tense at times to the point where I feel that blood pressure induced pain at the backof my neck. There is indeed something absurd about a concept that seems so practical, so necessary, yet so indicative of the very opposite of those things.

My most intimate memories of queuing up came from the seven years I spent at President’s College. Like most schools, we would line up for morning assembly – unlike most schools, however, being residential students, we had to line up for everything else: for meals, for snacks, to bathe in the morning, to go over to school, before you entered the bus on school trips, for study period in the evenings.

There was an earlier precedent, my primary school days, when I could not have been more than ten years old at the time. I remember going to a place at the back of Guyhoc Park, something that only registered in my young mind as the phonetic rendering of what I later learned was the abbreviation, K.S.I – or Knowledge Sharing Institute. I distinctly remember scant and dusty shelves boasting cassavas, eddoes, plantains and polythene bags of sugar with the metal pint cups and these huge scales with the different pound weights to balance them, and the inevitable lines at the cashier’s counter.

Twenty years later, we’ve switched from lining up for basic items provided under the control of the State, to lining up for basic services provided by the State. In more developed societies - developed in terms of both economy and polity - the queue is an anomaly, necessary not for basic goods and services but for luxuries, swanky clubs, designer goods, successful movie franchises, hit video games, objets du desir. In Guyana, we do it to get passports, and ID cards, and for the privilege of paying utility bills.

To stand up in a queue and wait for something you need that is owed to you by the State, even as you are abused and otherwise dehumanised by the agents of the State, takes a certain capacity for intellectual stasis and timidity, something you either are born with or have had conditioned into you by way of a Pavlovian repetition and Orwellian ubiquity.

The lines of 1984 have not moved, they’ve simply shifted; from the tedious queues for basic goods at the KSIs to the tedious queues for basic services everywhere, there has been little evolution in terms of the fundamental psychological mechanism that makes lines part of the things we accept and put up with in Guyana. It is easy to see the bureaucratic efficiency or mismanagement or whatever as the causative factor in all this but really it is simply a symptom of our conditioning – the mind that will not put up with that sort of inefficiency and complementary arrogance that we find in the typical state agency is the mind that penalizes these things by transforming the system.

A little over a month ago, we basically queued up in front of our televisions to be subjected to not a small amount of arrogance and at times disdain from GECOM, its Chairman Dr. Steve Surjujbally, in particular, in its presentation of the results of the national elections. Contrast that with the timeliness of the release of results in two fellow CARICOM territories – St.Lucia and Jamaica – look at their per capita GDP compared to ours, and you have an at least circumstantial statement on the correlative relationship between civil acquiescence and development.

As long as we accept without question the need to line up for hours to collect as basic a thing as a passport or an ID card, we are collectively saying that we accept inefficiency and the abusive authority of the State as part of what we expect from the people we hire to serve us: we’re saying that we’re okay with petty bureaucratic tyranny in the place of public service.

It is not to say of course that the absurdity of certain lines are apparent only in state institutions – a few weeks ago, a friend and I went to Palm Court. She decided to make an early night of it and after following her back to her car, I tried to get in again, only to be met by a line that I had to join again in order to get back into the club.

The lines at the Passport Office have their parallel of sorts in the new phenomenon of the lines in front of Palm Court. At a fundamental level, the basic psychological mechanism is the same: – at the Passport Office, you collect a booklet, at Palm Court you collect a paper wristband; both represent having been processed and documented for migration from one place to another. And in both cases there are people for whom the line does not matter: at the Passport Office, a big vehicle pulled up and a high-level member of society calmly walked passed everyone and went straight in; at the club, a big vehicle pulled up and a high-level member of society calmly walked passed everyone and went straight in.

The difference lies at a more fundamental level– we are all born with the inherent right to citizenship and by extension a fundamental right to free and unrestricted travel and the provision of the documents that would allow us to do so, provided by the State; but the privilege of participation in luxury overpriced entertainment at a private club is something that you will not find in any national constitution or international charter of human rights.

In Guyana, the mind that accepts the conformity that is foisted upon us by the State, the mind that toes the line, so to speak, is the mind that progresses in the society but only at the pace that the hierarchs approve of – the line here is not just a mechanism for efficiency, but a mechanism for control and, to some degree, social stratification. If the Ukrainian comedian, to cite another Soviet-era satirist, Yakov Smirnoff had ever had the privilege of an hour in the line at the Passport Office in this place, I could easily imagine him adding another one to his now famous reversal jokes, one which would go like this: in Soviet Guyana, you don't form line – line form you.


  1. "Soviet Guyana. ...line form you." very Joycean, and very telling. excellent writing. brilliant thinking. that place is too stultifying for your intelligence and creativity, man. get out.