Sunday, November 12, 2006

Fixing it

One of India's advantages is widely held to be the service sector, and I agree. They don't greet you with a dazzling American smile and leave you with "Have a nice day", but they do their job. Repairs and servicing are prompt (hours rather than days), and generally reliable. I bought my car (a used 1999 Fiat Uno) incredibly cheap, because of Fiat's lousy reputation for after-sales service (since then, they have tied up with the Tatas for sales and service, which seems to be helping); but my unauthorised neighbourhood garage is doing a great job of keeping the car in shape. My laptop screen's backlight went kaput, and HP's service centre took a day to re-attach it and didn't even charge me (warranty had expired months earlier). When it happened again, they found they needed to replace it; they took 3 days and charged me a very modest service charge, plus the cost of the screen (which also was a fraction of what I'd expected -- about US$ 300, where I'd been led to believe it would be $1000 in the US, but no doubt that's how they sell you extended warranties).

It can get a bit overwhelming. Yesterday we went to a shop to seek advice on insect screening, and the manager talked to us at length, exploring various options, and for the most part suggesting solutions that he himself did not deal in and pointing out shortcomings in the solution that he did deal in. After a slightly surreal half an hour, we arrived at a scheme combining his material and another vendor's.

In the west, you buy cheap flatpack furniture at Ikea, load it into your car, take it home and assemble it yourself. Here, we bought a flatpack desk at Godrej (Ikea hasn't arrived here yet). They shipped it to our home, and said someone would be along the next day to assemble it. Being the DIY types, we assembled it ourselves. It was a bit trickier than Ikea stuff, but not all that hard. The next day the guy who's supposed to assemble it calls and we say we've done it ourselves. Stunned silence. Are we sure? Yes. Can he come and check anyway? No, really, we're not at home now but we've done it right. Five minutes later, he calls again. His boss wants him to come home and check we've done it right. We finally managed to convince him that he doesn't have to come.

But the annoyance at the intrusiveness is fleeting; generally, I'm grateful for the quality of workmanship here. In New York, the battery of my watch (a gift from my parents) ran out. I took it to a shop there, and the guy opened it, fiddled around, and told me that the battery is fine but the mechanism is kaput and he can't do anything. Whether it was or not kaput before, it was when he gave it back: I couldn't even adjust the time with the pin. I switched to my backup watch, put this one away and forgot about it...

...until the battery of my backup watch ran out too. By this time I was at my present location in Chennai. I walked a few metres up the road to a random watch repair guy I'd noticed earlier, and gave him both watches. He took all of 45 seconds to replace the battery of the backup watch, then opened the other one. Hm, he said. It's been tampered with, some parts are missing. Can you fix it, I asked. Sure, he said. Incredibly dexterous hands got to work, manipulating tweezers and miniature screwdrivers to take apart the thing in seconds, replacing a couple of missing parts, putting it back together, applying a microdroplet of oil here and there, and finally replacing the battery and closing the back. Good as new, and it all took about five minutes. I'm still wearing it, through rain and shine, a year later.

And what did he charge me? Rs 10 (that's under 25 cents) for the parts the New York shop stole, Rs 20 for the battery, and Rs 10 for labour. Total cost under a dollar.

More recently, I picked up a handy little keychain LED torch (this one) in Paris. It's a tiny cylinder, less than a centimetre in diameter and about six centimetres in length, with a bright white LED, focused by a lens, powered by four watch-type lithium button batteries. It worked nicely for a while, then stopped lighting up, or lit up very dimly. Assuming the batteries had run out (though they were supposed to last 100 hours) I took it to the watch guy to replace. He checked them and they were fine. But he was very intrigued by the torch (he didn't even realise that's what it was) and asked if he could look at it. After a bit of probing he figured out how to pull out the tiny little LED through the length of the tube with his tweezers, located a broken contact in the circuitry, soldered it, and put it back. It took about twenty minutes. During that time, three or four other customers came in with minor watch complaints; he spent about five to ten seconds on each of them before returning to my torch.

I asked whether he does anything other than watch repair and he said no, this keeps him busy enough. He's a youngish guy who's been doing this for about 11 years, and seems to be doing well, and having fun at what he does.

I hope they're all having fun.

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