There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman? Woody Allen.
By any yardstick, insurance is a sound concept, predicated on the principle that should any misfortune befall one, be it health, life, property, accident, theft, fire – in fact, pretty much anything that you possess which is valuable and vulnerable to damage or loss, can be insured and you can claim compensation. Provided, of course, that you have not been tardy with your annual premium payments. It must be conceded that getting some money back after losing a limb or two in a road accident or being charred beyond recognition in a fire is scarce comfort, but it is something, the raison d’être for taking out an insurance policy in the first place. Then again, be of good cheer. You are also liable to benefit by something called ‘no claim bonus’ whereby, if you have been a good boy (or girl) and paid your premiums without making any claim year on year, the value of your insurance increases by leaps, if not bounds. That, as I am sure all of you know, was a thumbnail sketch of the basic principles of insurance and why every right-thinking individual should buy into it. I am not even getting into the area of big-time, big bucks corporate insurance involving space travel, airlines, railways, maritime and the like.
Insurance can also be taken out against specific body parts that can affect a person’s livelihood. Take musicians, for instance. The likes of Bruce Springsteen, Keith Richards, Tina Turner, Madonna and many others have insured their voices or their fingers (if one plays an instrument) for millions of dollars. Why, quite famously, country and western singer Dolly Parton insured her 40E breasts for a reported sum of $600,000. On the face of it, it would seem that Ms. Parton is more concerned about her décolletage than her singing voice. This (the insurance, not the décolletage) would apply equally to classical musicians and to top-of-the-line sportspersons who depend almost entirely on their hands and legs for their record-breaking performances. Similar information on celebrated Indian musicians, I have not been able to garner. Though it would not surprise me in the least if the likes of A.R. Rahman, Ilayaraja, the late Lata Mangeshkar and classical instrumentalists such as the late Pandit Ravishankar, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, the late Lalgudi Jayaraman and others had taken out specific insurance policies for their body parts specifically involved in earning them their livelihood. The fact that quite a few of those I mentioned are ‘late’ is neither here nor there. This is over and above the normal health and life insurance policies that these individuals would have taken. Musicians can also be insured for ‘opportunity loss’ should their engagements be cancelled due to factors beyond their control, resulting in loss of income. Presumably athletics, tennis, football, boxing and other sports superstars would have also taken out similar policies. Lest I forget, add personal vehicles to that list. Given its limitless scope, I am not sure if film producers can insure their productions against flops at the box office, though I doubt very much that the insurance Scrooges will give them the time of day.
It is perfectly understandable that among the poorer classes, it is very difficult to convince people to part with meagre, hard-earned cash towards insurance, which they merely see as money going out of their pockets towards an eventuality that they do not or cannot visualize happening. A bird in the hand is worth two in the insurance bush is their philosophy. At a crude level, this point of view is quite understandable. We took out an accident insurance policy for our driver, who thought it was a sheer waste of money that could have been better employed by raising his salary. Tragically, he was involved in a fatal road accident and lost his life. We now hope the money his family would get from the insurance company would go some way towards alleviating their financial, if not mental, distress. Which brings me to the second part of the insurance dilemma, which is the process of actually getting the compensation and the hellish paperwork and torture involved in convincing the insurance monoliths that compensation delayed is compensation denied. The struggle to get things moving actually makes you wonder if it was all worth the while.
It is well known that the insurance business works on the principle that the greater the volume of clients insured, the theory of probability will ensure that the number of clients they need to shell out money to will be far less than the numbers actually insured. It is a fail-safe business model. Except when there are natural calamities or pandemics such as we have witnessed recently, when they have to dig deep into their resources, if not actually scraping the bottom of the barrel. More often than not, the attention given by insurance agents, the enthusiasm shown and promises made prior to completing an insurance sale, is directly in inverse proportion to the service one receives when one faces serious health or injury issues and makes legitimate claims on the companies.
The other oddity about personal insurance is that, from the quantum of premiums to cost of medical treatment, things get impossibly hard when you grow old which, ironically, is when you are most likely to need help. The form-filling alone can drive one up the wall. When you are young, fit and healthy with not a care in the world, the insurance agents will be all over you like a swarm of bees buzzing around a pot of honey. Everything is an absolute doddle. They will even take care of the form-filling. It’s when those creaky, arthritic joints start playing up that you come up against the odds. Information overload kicks in. KYC, PAN card, Aadhaar, bank pass book, driving licence, voter ID, present address, previous address, nominees – the list is never-ending, and you probably need to be insured against wrist damage owing to all the writing involved. What is more, since everything is expected to be done online these days, there is no question of a friendly face from the not-so-friendly insurance company to come home and help you; you are glued to your smart phone from morning till night – dial 1 for English, 4 for complaints, 6 for claims, 8 if you are dead and 9 if you wish to talk to ‘one of our representatives’ which may take some time as all of them are busy talking to someone else. Not clear who you should complain to if ‘4 for complaints’ doesn’t respond. You then hold on while they play Handel’s or Chopin’s Funeral March (souped up by A.R. Rahman) interspersed with repetitive commercial messages about the benefits of taking out an insurance policy with said company.
Now I do realize I may not be projecting an entirely fair picture of our friends from the world of insurance. Sweeping generalizations can be misleading and cynicism comes easily. That said, we have had some pleasant experiences, only over our mobile phones of course. But these have been few and far between. Nowadays you can count yourself lucky if you manage to even get a clear enough signal to follow what the person at the other end is saying. For the most part, even Kafka could not have written a more accurate account of the average Joe and his dealings with the world of insurance. The adjective Kafkaesque could very well have originated from the existential master’s reflections on his dealings with insurance companies, but that might just be my imagination working overtime. I am guilty of going walkabout here, so let me get back to the point. I’ll say this for our insurance friends. They leave absolutely nothing to chance. There is this ‘Act of God’ provision cunningly tucked away in very small print somewhere in their dossier, hidden craftily to ensure you miss it. Allow me to explain.
If your wee home gets washed away by flash floods that may be deemed an Act of God, you may or may not be entitled to cash in. Read the small print with a powerful magnifying glass. It is mystifying why the blame for natural disasters that cannot be properly accounted for should be laid at God’s door and whether the Almighty concurs with this train of thought, but it is what it is. On the other hand, if your home is destroyed by fire due to an unattended electrical fault, the insurance blokes might be reluctantly willing to cough up provided the ‘unattended’ part escapes their eagle eyes. It’s all about how you evaluate risk and the importance you attach to it.
In the final analysis, insurance is a bit like having to take a strong and bitter medicine. It is supposed to be good for you, but is awful to swallow. Here’s Sylvia Plath, acclaimed poet and the tragic author of The Bell Jar, who was clinically depressed and took her own life,on the subject – ‘My mother had taught shorthand and typing to support us since my father died, and secretly she hated it and hated him for dying and leaving no money because he didn’t trust insurance salesmen.’
I rest my case.