January 07, 2013

Spectator

'Twas the heady autumn of '89, and the young One was sitting on a green, green lawn strewn with dry brown leaves alongside an older friend whom we shall call, for the sake of argument, Friend. If you had listened closely, you might have heard Friend asking about one's participation in the annual school sporting event, and one replying that one had, er, not really been selected for anything. One was not especially known for fleet-footedness or brute strength in those days (or for anything else, in fact).

"Ah, so you'll be among the audience", Friend had said.

A fairly innocuous remark, you aver. But, and this is a painful admission, the young One had never come across the term audience*. Perhaps, one thought, he had said oddians. Perhaps this was some sort of 80s coinage for the odd ones out. One pictured this bedraggled, rather pitiable, almost deviant bunch of kids who were largely un-athletic and generally unpopular and thus had not been chosen for any of the dozen or so events. ("What? Not even one event?") We oddians would sit in the stands, ostracized and forlorn, with only our water-bottles for company, and watch assorted Bobbys and Varuns propel their towering four-foot frames across the finish line to raucous cheers from the public. (And from Namrata. Damn.)

Weirdness was cool and all, but one was just not okay with being an oddian.

Mysterious illnesses were duly felt on the morning of Sports Day, illnesses which the astute Parents were quick to dismiss as imaginary. Honest pleas to Remain Absent were met with stern refusals and assertions that one should, at all costs, Remain Present. There really was no way out. One boarded the school bus with what is commonly called a sinking feeling.

Of course, said feeling turned out to be entirely unwarranted. The 'oddians', it emerged, comprised basically everyone, including the teachers**. (And Namrata had Remained Absent, so it hardly mattered that Varun beat Bobby and set a new primary-school record.) The sports meet turned out to be an entirely agreeable affair, featuring much full-throated cheering, loud proclamations of the general superiority of Class 3B over all other Classes, and cotton candy.

In any case, being part of the oddians was something one had to get used to. See what followed. Movie theatres, lectures, concert halls, meetings, the blogosphere, life in general. One has always, in one way or another, been among the oddians.



* Or, more likely, one had come across it in writing but never imagined that it would be pronounced that way. That happened fairly often, since the young One read far more English than he heard. One presumes that such quirks are much less prevalent among modern juveniles, given the glut of phoren TV shows these days.

** Although most of the teachers, bless them, were indeed somewhat peculiar.

December 27, 2009

On abstraction

Because Physics, you see, deals with forces, and matter, and motion. And for many kinds of system, the classical model of Physics provides us a clear, consistent picture and throws in reliable tools to predict future behaviour. The literature that defines the classical model is an imposing body of work, prepared by some of the greatest minds in history.

Yet, when we study complex interactions between exceedingly small particles, this model proves cumbersome. We find it difficult to cope with the sheer number of variables involved, with the errors in the measurement of each variable, and with the myriad parameters that remain entirely unaccounted for and yet interfere with the results that Physics predicts.

So, without entirely forsaking Physics, we try a new model to help us understand these interactions. This time we abstract a step higher. We consider collections of similar particles - substances - instead of their elementary constituents. We experiment, as the scientific method demands, and we develop this new model to explain the interaction between these substances. Soon enough, we find an entire discipline in front of us - this we call Chemistry.

When we apply Chemistry to intricate hydrocarbon molecules, however, we find it unequal to the task and decide that we must move to a newer model. We abstract a step higher and train ourselves to think in terms of organic structures, to which we give names in our new vocabulary, and whose behaviour we determine through observation, and soon enough we are in the realm of Biology.

Yet, when we try to analyse the neural system, notable for its heavily interconnected, highly convolved architecture, even Biology comes up short and we shift to the empirically-derived model of Psychology, abstracting away those fiddlesome neurons and dealing only with the consciousness that they engender.

But when a number of organisms interact, each consciousness distinct and yet influenced by others in unimaginably warped ways, Psychology too proves insufficient. We must now think in terms of the community and the choices it makes, and cease to consider the all-too-often irrational individual - we approach the social sciences, and the domain we call Economics.

Of course, it's still essentially about forces, and matter, and motion. We realize that it is only the inadequacy of our models that, along with the feebleness of our computation and our inability to account for every single variable, prevents us from deriving economic laws from the first principles of physics. And each model, a venerable Science in its own right, is but a rough draft, constructed only to place our observations within a context, to create repositories of if-this-then-that axioms that prove valuable in some situations, repositories that we call Knowledge.

But Physics is a Science too, and a model - perhaps, then, reality is not fundamentally about forces and matter and motion at all. Perhaps these, too, are merely abstractions. Perhaps a model, whatever its level of granularity, is but a caricature of a deeper reality, and this reality a caricature of another, and so on ad infinitum, the interminably-cocooned Truth safe from prying eyes.

November 16, 2009

Telemarketing

Zero. He trudged back to his scooter, his office clothes a mess, his ears ringing from the insults that had been hurled at him like so many rotten tomatoes at a poor performer. It was pitch dark; the streetlights had stopped working a couple of months ago.

No hits today. Zero. He consoled himself: the insults weren't personal, were they? They weren't directed at him, only at his company, and at their marketing tactics perhaps. Only a few people had actually been rude, in any case. But the polite ones were worse: I'm sorry, I'm not interested. He knew that they, too, wanted to be rude, he just knew. Their courtesy was condescension, their sophistication mere sophistry. They mocked him, laughed at him; he heard their chuckles as they bragged to their associates and their families about how many telemarketers called them every day. He wanted people to be blunt, dismissive, offensive; he liked it when people shouted at him, abused him, because he could then claim vengeance by crossing their name out on the List. If they'd been especially nasty he would make the cross thick, grotesque, and disfigure the name beyond recognition, and efface their very identity, and sometimes press so hard on the pen that the paper would tear.

But the politest ones wouldn't say no at all: that meant he had to place their name back at the bottom of the List, and steel himself to suffer the same noncommittal, monosyllabic replies at some indeterminate point in the future. Yes, the politest ones were truly cruel - they kept that precious flicker of anticipation alive in his heart, and let it burn him from within, before extinguishing it with a 'sorry, not interested' a few months down the line.

It was difficult to leave with zero hits on his List – he had persevered well into the night. This Hope was a diabolical creature; it refused to die even when heart and nerve and sinew were long gone. Maybe, he'd been telling himself all day, maybe the next number would turn out lucky. People tend to be cheerful after dinner, he had reminded himself late in the evening. But some had started shouting at him for calling up so late, and he really didn’t want to disturb anyone's sleep or anything.

Almost as hopeless, and yet as hopeful, as asking someone if they love you.

October 30, 2009

Brown, wooden and angular

One takes this opportunity to speak
Of somebody one met last week.
She's an air-hostess (named Mary Jain)
One met within an aeroplane.

With a trolley full of things to eat
At thirty seven thousand feet
She asked One a question most bizarre:
"Wedge or Non-Wedge, sir you are?"

Now Wedge was a good option, sure
One is brown, wooden and angular.
To confirm that this hunch was true
One plainly asked the in-flight crew
Who looked at One in the strangest way
When there spoke up, to save the day
A chap you haven't heard from in a while
(He was seated right across the aisle.)

This maestro raised his compound head
Quickly interviewed the One, and said,
"Okay - you're a standard-issue software cynic,
Name and surname so Brahminic,
I shall proclaim, if I so may:
You're a Wedge, sir, plain as day!"

But he had not the faintest clue
That One had no intention to
Heed his words; in actual fact,
One had predetermined that
Whatever this worm might say,
One would go the other way
And choose the other thing instead;
The opposite of what he said.

(See, one was wary of this guy,
This adolescent butterfly.
For One once followed his advice
And paid, let's say, a heavy price.)

"So, Wedge or Non-Wedge?" Mary sighed.
"Non-Wedge," One suavely replied.
(Our worm heard, and would've fought
But lost himself in abstract thought.)

After the plane had safely landed
And Mary, worm and One disbanded
One made a silent, heartfelt pledge
To always remain a staunch Non-Wedge.
One now has a Reason To Be,
A real Group Identity.

We Non-Wedges are awesome folks,
We tell each other Non-Wedge jokes.
You might find the odd Wedge who's mildly cool
But, overall, Non-Wedges rule!

April 24, 2009

Stream of consciousness

He is standing, quite still. It's not a river, really, just a muddy trickle, a silted creek that's probably more sewage than alluvium. The bridge is just a few feet above the water. It shall submerge if the rains are good this year, and then we will have to cross by boat.

The air is buzzing with insects. No, wait, they aren't insects at all. They are words, each in a different colour, each with a matching pair of wings. The ins and the withs dart merrily about, maneuver expertly around the ponderous bulk of 'maneuver', bump into 'merrily' without noticeable damage, and continue along their way, heading towards the source of the water, perhaps unaware that it is many miles away. 'It' and 'is', meanwhile, race each other, thrilled by their own velocity. 'Maneuver' and the equally ungainly 'ponderous' move slowly but noisily, like articulate bumblebees. 'Ungainly', despite his name, is a most nimble fellow, and navigates slickly through the aerial crowd, the tail of the 'y' acting as rudder.

He must capture these words, and string them together, and make them behave, but they seem to delight in eluding him; they remain just out of reach, the bulkier ones maintaining their height, the quicker ones (notably 'it' and 'is') occasionally taunting him by flying within reach, then flitting away. But capture them he must, even if it takes a lifetime of patience, for that is his destiny.

January 16, 2009

Metamorphosis

Despite much interaction with the Metropolis over the past decade or so, certain Facts about the city had escaped the One's keen eye. And these very Facts, gentle reader, were brought to one's notice on a curious winter evening, during one's annual pilgrimage to the Homeland.

In a minor miracle wrought by the lateness of the hour and the nefariousness of the times, the compartment was nearly empty. A young couple boarded at Mumbai Central with luggage in tow. Out-of-towners, their part-excited, part-bewildered expressions said, or would have said if their VIP suitcases hadn't said it first. Naturally they approached the One (who happened at that point to be leaning out of the door and making full Gujju use of the free breeze) for information, and perhaps for small talk or banter.

"Churchgate jayegi na?" asked the gentleman.

Easy question. One retracted self into train and replied, with some panache, "Bilkul jayegi, bhaiyaji. Samjho Churchgate aa hi gaya."

Following this succinct reassurance, one chose to enlighten bhaiyaji further.

"Yeh Fast Local hai. Fast Locals stop only at Fast Stations – Bandra, Dadar, Mumbai Central, Churchgate. So the next station is Churchgate," elucidated the One, your friendly neighbourhood mass-transit mastermind. "Next station, Churchgate", one then somewhat repetitively declared, for emphasis.

Four minutes later, the train came to an abrupt halt outside Grant Road Station.

"Woh signal ka problem hai, bhaiyaji", one observed, with an appropriately beseeching glance towards bhabhiji for support. "Apne ko, na, red signal diyela hai. Warna Churchgate aa gaya hota," one continued. Bhaiyaji seemed to buy neither one's wisdom nor one's Bambaiyya, for he was, in his own way, an astute individual.

Three minutes, and we were grinding to a stop outside Charni Road Station.

"Woh Saurashtra Express ko pehle jaaneko mangta na," hazarded the One, Walking Encyclopedia of the Western Railways. "Boley toh," one added for effect, at which point the train lurched into motion, with no Express, Saurashtra or otherwise, in sight.

South of Charni Road, the railway line follows the curve of Marine Drive in a most sensuous manner. ("And each individual track does slowly bend, like quills on the fretful porpentine," one murmured, much to bhaiyaji's consternation.)

Three minutes later we were standing, quite still, at Marine Lines.

Bhaiyaji, an admirable man on many counts, did not lose his patience and blow his top, if 'blow his top' is the correct expression. He instead chose to glare silently at the One. And one, having been subjected to such glares with regularity, took it all in one’s stride.

Such was the atmosphere in our little compartment for a few minutes, and then Churchgate actually did arrive. But, as anyone who has ever arrived at Churchgate in the last bogie of a 12-coach train will testify, said bogie stops so far from the roofed area that one could be forgiven for thinking that Churchgate had not arrived at all.

"Waise toh Churchgate almost aa gaya hai, bhaiyaji, lekin abhi train aur thodi aage jayegi. Let's get off when we're under the roof, suitcases bhi to hain," remarked the One in all thoughtfulness. Five minutes passed. The train began to travel, once again. Backwards.

A hasty disembarkation did then ensue, and VIP luggage was thrown down in true filmi style, and one was subjected to further cold glares, stares and suchlike perusals.

Thus, gentle reader, one bequeaths to you two Facts this frabjous day. Firstly: when a southbound train stops three minutes after leaving Marine Lines, you are at Churchgate and should alight without unduly worrying about where the roof begins. And secondly: the line (conceptual, not railway) separating Fast Locals and Slow Locals is not nearly as well-defined as we may think. The Fast Local, after screaming through the suburbs like a banshee on steroids, is tamed by Mumbai Central and becomes a Slow Local, after which it chugs along in the meekest possible manner, and stops at the smallest stations and at several signals besides. And sometimes, they say, it has to wait for the Saurashtra Express too.

December 07, 2008

A sample business-school application

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am interested in joining your esteemed business school this year. I have perused your website and I am sure that I am a good candidate for the MBA program. I attach my application form herewith, and I address some potential concerns below.

I do not see the need to tell you my university grades, for they are but fragments of opinion; each mark but a human (and therefore necessarily flawed) estimate of my ability. Moreover, a transcript is a miserably one-sided conclusion: it lacks the opinion I personally hold regarding these estimates, which is, to say the least, uncharitable.

I am also apparently required to submit the results of certain competitive examinations. I have not bothered to sit for them; I have discovered that they are meaningless evaluations of verbal and mathematical skill, pedantic quantifications of the intrinsically unquantifiable. I refuse to suffer the indignity of being assessed in these matters by individuals that I neither know nor respect.

I do not have the time or the inclination to write those four 1000-word essays you seem to expect me to give you. It appears that you wish to know personal things about me, to understand the inner workings of my mind, to "know what makes me tick", as you so abhorrently put it. I do not, however, wish to tell you personal things about me, or to tutor you in the inner workings of my mind; I have better things to do, like watching my new Star Wars DVDs. They’re digitally remastered and all. Well, not the prequel movies, which were already kind of remastered because they came out so recently; but the sequels, by virtue of having come out so long ago, did need some touching up, like the scene at Mos Eisley where those aliens .. but we digress. You want to know what I intend to do after finishing your wretched little course? What insufferable audacity. You should be thanking your stars that I even considered your school, dammit.

And what be this fee you speak of, vermin? What diabolic spirit hath possessed your feeble brain that you quote amounts so random, and yet so astronomic? Let me get this straight. I'm the one who is expected to drag self halfway across the planet, study diligently, do those obnoxious assignments, stay up late - and I have to pay you for it? Greedy little weasel, aren't we? The way I see it, you should be the one paying me. For flying over, for staying in your godforsaken little town, for doing all those little Powerpoint presentations and cost-benefit analyses and whatever else it is you folks pretend to do.

Thank you kindly for your time and consideration. I hope to hear from you at the soonest.

October 02, 2008

Oil, slick

So in the course of what we shall loosely refer to as an education, the young One was told of huge ships constantly patrolling the maritime borders of the Motherland. This, the teacher opined, was the reason one was able to sleep soundly at night. While her apparent knowledge of one's private life was disturbing, what caused greater concern was this: one pictured a sturdy fleet of tankers spouting petrol into the ocean with the intent of demarcating the nation's territory.

To begin with, one felt this was a rather crude (so to speak) method of establishing jurisdiction: since the oil would all wash away, the ships would have to turn back at some point and re-petrol the same stretch of ocean. With the fact of re-petrolling even the teacher seemed to agree: we all reached consensus that this was a thankless sort of activity.

Of course, one surmised, soldiers petrolled the land borders, and petrol tends to stay longer on soil – this explained those dark lines between countries in the Concise World Atlas. It all Fell into Place, clear as fractional distillation. And those soldiers were clever, hardworking chaps – between states and districts, they painstakingly made dashed petrol-lines and sometimes dotted-dashed, dotted-dotted-dashed, and dotted-dashed-dotted ones.*

And thus were matters well understood. But the young One, never one to accept received wisdom without a probing analysis, realized that petrol was not the best medium for the purpose. For petrol was flammable, and it was expensive. Clearly, the order of the day was to consider Suitable Alternatives.

The most evident alternative, largely by virtue of it being under consumption during a reflective moment in class**, was Kala-Khatta Rasna. The more one thought about it, the more it made sense. This most exalted beverage would, to the untrained eye, be indistinguishable from gasoline. Rasna was not particularly flammable, as proven by numerous kitchen experiments and a ruined cigarette lighter. It was cheap, since a single packet would make untold gallons of Kala-Khatta, at least if you didn't mind it being a bit watery, and that should hardly be a concern when it was to be pumped right into the sea anyway. Add to that some clever spindoctoring about sweetening international relations, and that should be that. (One was also on the verge of coming up with an environmentally-conscious argument before one realized that Kala-Khatta Rasna was, in the long run, the more important resource.)

Perhaps it was the impending examinations***, or perhaps it was WWF Summerslam – one does not remember exactly what stunted the progress of this line of reasoning. But, like ol' Leonardo's helicopter, this was yet another groundbreaking idea that never made it to the limelight. It's too late now to tell people about it – they probably use lasers or something nowadays, and Google maps has international borders all figured out anyway. But every time one sees a navy ship on the History Channel, one does try to spot a hidden nozzle patriotically squirting a stream of crude into the high seas. Or maybe it was Rasna all along.



* Later in life one developed a theory about how it's all part of an international conspiracy involving Morse code.

** Consumption of Kala-Khatta Rasna, as an activity, was forbidden in class and carried the same sort of stigma as Talking. The motive could however be met by peering into the schoolbag with the ostensible purpose of retrieving a stray notebook, while surreptitiously consuming the beverage from the water-bottle within. You needed to have a water-bottle with a straw-like mechanism, the details of which one would like to dwell on, but perhaps we shall do that some other time.

*** One never actually studied for exams, but they were a great excuse to not do anything else.

June 17, 2008

O Caption! My Caption!

Are you an obsessive reader, gentle Reader? Let us presume that you are. Don't you think your life would be much simpler if you weren't?

One is a compulsive reader. Always been so. If only this compulsion had been channeled wisely towards the classics, towards the Epics, towards the formidable Western Canon, one might have become a Learned Person. But right from the stripling stage one chose instead to target juice cartons and cereal boxes and FMCG-type items in general, consequently acquiring a profound (and purely theoretical) knowledge of Maggi preparation, a sibling-like familiarity with the child on the Parle-G packet, and considerable insight into the composition of Kissan's Mixed Fruit Jam.

What of it, you ask. These matters are trivial, but what one would essentially like to convey is that one has this habit. One has managed to get by, just about, and made it this far. But an unexpected matter has recently arisen, from a fairly innocuous quarter.

As the retentive reader would recollect, one often repairs to the local cinema hall to view the latest Bollywood offering. These being Phoren Lands, the films are annotated with subtitles for the benefit of those who do not speak Bollytongue. And there lies what has been referred to as the Rub. Because reading these captions, one finds, is severely detrimental to the film-viewing experience. Particularly for us connoisseurs, who should not be distracted for even a moment from cogitating over camera angles and dialogue delivery and suchlike.

So ignore the subtitles, one hears the gentle reader point out. But, as one has been trying to explain, one cannot. The written word has maintained an eerie grip, a Vaderean force-choke, on the One ever since one's Maggi days. One must, absolutely must read each subtitle. One must, absolutely must ruminate over perceived mistranslations and come up with superior alternatives, and one must, absolutely must explain one's entire line of reasoning to any unfortunate soul/s who might have accompanied the One to the silver-screen experience.

But let us not dwell on how these infernal subtitles have affected the already-deficient Social Life. Nor shall we focus on how they have reduced entire three-hour K. Johar candyfloss parades to exercises in interlingual jugglery. For matters of far greater consequence are in what is called the Offing. Yes. These subtitles might, in fact, precipitate the End of Bollywood As We Know It! *

To adequately grasp the mechanism by which these devious annotations operate, we must first acquaint ourselves with certain key concepts:

1) There are in most films a few Jokes. Let us illustrate by means of an example Joke:

Arrey bhai, kya body hai! Bachpan se hai ya baad mein banayi?
(Subtitle: "Hey brother, what a body! Have you had it since childhood or did you develop it later?")
- Partner, 2007

2) There are in this world two types of mortal. The Fast Reader Lexicus alacritus, alumnus of Rapidex English Comprehension and pride of his CAT coaching class, naturally looks somewhat askance at the Slow Reader Lexicus sluggiferus. Even L. sluggiferus, however, can generally finish reading the subtitle before the dialogue is actually delivered.

And now, let us examine in some detail what happens during a Joke Scene. Also, let us continue in Pointwise Form because we have taken rather a fancy to it:

1. (t-3 sec) Appearance of joke subtitle. Immediately, the population of the cinema hall is conceptually divided into the two aforementioned species of mortal.
2. (t-2 sec) L. alacritus finishes reading subtitle and commences laughter.
3. (t-1 sec) L. sluggiferus commences laughter, either by virtue of having read and comprehended subtitle, or because L. alacritus is laughing.
4. (t) Punchwords are delivered, but drowned out in general roar of laughter.

It is hence clear that audible punchwords are no longer a requirement for NRI cinema. The astute reader can doubtless extrapolate that with content of an emotional nature, a nearly identical sequence of events shall ensue, with laughter replaced by convulsive weeping of roughly the same auditory magnitude. Eventually, we may choose to eliminate the audio entirely and come to rely exclusively on subtitles.

And thus shall subtitles take over the world. One shall protest, of course, but ultimately one must, absolutely must give in and meekly read them.


* That is to say, The End of (Bollywood As We Know It). Not (The End of Bollywood) As We Know It, because we do not know the End of Bollywood yet.

March 09, 2008

Unfaithful

Breaking up is always hard, especially when you've been together for years and years. When you've stuck together through thick and thin, ups and downs, highs and lows.

After much introspection, extensive correspondence with leading agony aunts and repeated viewings of Oprah, the decision was made. Enough was enough, and it was time to move on. One clearly needed a new barber.

The lowest of the lows, by all accounts, was the haircut that was administered on the sixteenth of November last year. It was then that the first seeds of doubt were sown in the ol' subconscious. These feelings tend to fester, dear Reader, and these seeds tend to germinate, until drastic measures are taken.

So, after some deliberation, one went to Another Barber (whom we shall refer to as AB) who runs his shop with his son (whom we shall call AB junior). Ten minutes later, it was complete. A trim of impressive quality.

So that, you may have thought, would be that. Except, of course, that it wasn't. Because the Ex-Barber's shop lies strategically en route to almost everything (i.e. office and pub). And so it was the very next morning that one found oneself walking by the Ex-Barbershop. And hence the Ex himself.

Now barbers, as the astute reader may have noticed, are sensitive folks. They're also observant, and they're as sharp as, well, razors. His eyes immediately darted toward the ol' cranium. It dawned on him, gently as a receding hairline, that there had been a Cut. Locks had been hewn, curls had evidently been sheared. And, the end result being rather uniform and admittedly rather dashing, it was clearly not his own work.

He looked at the One in wounded scrutiny, betrayal writ large upon his countenance. How, those eyes seemed to implore, could one have gone elsewhere? Did one not enjoy his earnest banter? Did one object to his ludicrous prices? Or, horror of horrors, had a Lady Barber come between us?

One did what one most often does in these situations. One chose to lie. One turned the ol' laptop-bag around, letting the artfully-positioned Air India tag loom as large as possible. One was what you might call 'outstation', one conveyed through a helpless look. I don't know what 'outstation' means, his eyes beseeched right back. It means one was visiting the Homeland, one ocularly elucidated. And Patel Hair Art charges about a twentienth of what you charge, one added disdainfully. He seemed satisfied at this, for Homeland visits are the One Exception to the Rule of Barber-Loyalty. And that was, in fact, that.

One can't keep lying forever, of course. Eventually he shall realize that he has been, how shall we say, Replaced. Never mind, dear Reader. He will cope.

And the agony aunt types have taught us much. It's like this : if one returns to the Ex-Barber, then one shall be his forever. And, if one never returns to him, then one was never his to begin with. Et cetera.

And one doesn't know how long one will stick with the ABs either. You see, there happens to be a rather fetching Lady Barber just down the road.