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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Can I get the please?

Its easy to miss some people. You might be looking straight at them and yet look through them. Douglas Adams would define them as the biological forms of Somebody Else's Problem. They are just born that way. Some of them, like yours truly, would like to rechristen their middle name as 'Background' but they give up when even the Registrar for change in names doesnt take cognizance of their existence.

You can understand when you are constantly being ignored in a populous country like India. In fact, it might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. It just means that you are not at the cutting edge of genetic mutation that leapfrogs some people to the top of the queue without having to wait a single minute. You would have to wait like most others and longer than most others. It is just your way of life, your reason to be.

Being ignored isnt bad all the time. Definitely not when there is a brawl or when there is a roadblock or when your relatives are visiting or if you bunk a few corporate sessions or days. Most other times, it means waiting. It means waiting while accomodating others' unstated brusque requests to let them pass through. If you question them, they would likely look at you in horror as if you have suddenly materialized out of thin air. They would look you up and down, conclude that they are hallucinating and then continue to ignore you.

Waiting has its benefits. It teaches you patience and lets you observe. Although, being ignored could be a severe blow to one's misplaced ego but to survive you end up developing a rather peculiar sense of humor. You arrived at the airport three hours earlier and are still dangerously close to missing the flight; thats funny. You are waiting on the waiter; damning.

Being ignored could be a continuous, non-terminating, non-repeating event in restaurants. In math, they are called irrational numbers; in restaurants, they become irrational experiences. It is almost as if you have become invisible. You enter a restaurant, the sign asks you to wait to be seated and you do exactly that. After a few minutes of watching others seating themselves as you transfer your weight from one leg to another and then back again, you eventually take the matter in your hand and place it at the empty table closest to yourself. Then you realize that the table is not set and you perform a magic trick of swiftly moving to another one without being noticed. You need not have worried; everybody is busy ignoring you anyway. You take a deep breath, compose yourself and meekly raise your hand. At first, you do it with panache but you quickly make amends by waving your hands held high up your head. You could have been in a burning house. The rest of the world, however, is not so impressed and looks the other way.

Now, the genius that you are, you target a particular stewardess who, in your opinion, would succumb to your charm. She looks at you at that fleeting moment when your invisibility cloak has slipped, recognizes you for what you are and then makes a stupendous effort to ignore you for the rest of the lunch hour. In between, a gay steward comes to your rescue. You are so moved that you want to turn to the other side and marry him as a repayment for the generousity. Presently, an order is taken. A seasoned campaigner; you have chosen to keep things as simple as possible. Any bread will do. Chilli sauce will be good but not essential. No special requests from you except that bring it as soon as you can.

You watch with a drooling mouth and a grumbling tummy as the food is delivered to tables all around you, cheques are collected and happily fed folks walk out burping. You have had enough. The Aryan in you is enraged and you shower a passing steward with your complaints. He nods wisely which comforts you and goes on his way. You have been done in by the age-old diplomatic tactic of being listened to without any relief being offered. You contemplate walking away and lo, behold, the food arrives except its not what you ordered for. What the heck, you eat it anyway. It is and tastes horrible and even the worms in your stomach cringe. You cant wait to get out of here, get up and shout at the top of your lungs, "Can I have the cheque?". When nobody responds, you add, "Today please??". You notice somebody laughing in the background. You tell yourself that he is laughing at your joke and not at you. Afterall, the only person who can laugh at you would need to have a peculiar sense of humour and could only be you.

Friday, November 14, 2008

We are not narcissists; we connect

I have been lucky to have witnessed two cultural revolutions. One was the advent of personal mobile phones and the other was the march of internet. You can actually say that they are one and the same i.e. increasing connectivity. But they have led an entire generation towards a cultural change and the jury is yet to be out whether it is good or bad (The cultural change not the connectivity).

There were the simple old times when you mocked anybody who had a pen-pal or anybody who developed a face-book (Yes, it was actually called a face-book with fluffy designer paper spirally bound, on which your friends scribbled what they thought of you). In today's world, if you dont have a Facebook (F for the online forum) page, it may not be far-fetched for others to brand you as a pervert loner. And if you have a blog, active or inactive, then even better for your social status. And yet, what is a blog if not an interface allowing multiple pen-friendships!

There are so many ways that this revolution impacts an ordinary man like me but most important of all, it allows me to hold multiple conversations and it allows me to talk to that aspect of a personality that I like. Let's talk a bit about this.

Every one of us has multiple aspects to our personalities. In acute cases, its scizophrenia while in moderate cases, it is called having a multi-faceted personality. In fact, in most of us, those aspects, sometimes, are so different from each other, that you could call them multiple mini-personalities attached to the same person. Now how would you talk to a person in the old world? You would likely talk to him/her in person and you would be talking to all those multiple personalities together and still you can have only one conversation at a time. Some people would call that a waste. Worse still, what if you had an argument with, say, your brother over cricket? You would simply not talk to him for weeks, not just on cricket, but on everything else. So many laughters that would go unheard, so many memories that would not be collected, so many triumphs that would not be witnessed.

In comes the connected world which offers you the ability to hold multiple concurrent conversations with the same person. You are talking to her about a book on your blog, about Arabic numerals on his blog or a picture on her Facebook profile or simply amused at his comical status message. The best part is that you get to choose which aspect of his/her personality do you want to engage in a conversation. You dont like photography, simply avoid her albums. You like his writing, pay him a compliment or better still expound upon his theories. It is almost an unwritten law that the other person will respond only on the subject you engaged them on. It is almost like that particular mini-personality has been turned on while others are put to sleep. This could be so much better as opposed to dinner-time conversations where things could go a little out of hand, at times.

To top it, all these conversations can happen at the same time. It is almost as if when you are engaged in one conversation, you forget that you have just been delivered an insult at another forum by the same person. You had a fight with your brother over cricinfo, no worries; you can still continue to play scrabulous with him on Facebook.

Despite such positives, I still prefer the simple old world where you deal with a multi-dimensional person and not with his two-dimensional cross-sections. But I would have to give in that the connectivity has definitely enhanced my experience.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Just putting it out there

The only thing scarier than a life without laughter is an attempted joke gone wrong. If you are like me who is a last word freak,who thinks he is witty and who wants the world to know that he is witty, you are bound to run into numerous instances when your joke of the day falls flat on its face. It is not entirely because you are dumb but also because of the law of averages. In such cases, you wish you were invisible or a ventriloquist or mute or all of them. Some special days, you have to wish you were still-born. Despite such frequent embarassments, you still want to volunteer your comments and jokes and by doing so, you give the world immense power over you as it decides whether to laugh or to frown or worse still, stare at you in condescension. In short, you are putting it out there; something that could steal the limelight or could be trampled upon or could so radically look like a toilet paper.

Now, where does this insane, almost masochistic, addiction to put it out there comes from? "Road less travelled" states that you have to go through multiple sessions of expensive psychotherapy to understand such drivers. Taking a short and cheap cut, I am going to conclude that it comes from a combination of being a last work freak and the drive to differentiate oneself from all the 'morons' out there. It makes you fearless, sometimes fearsome but largely you hop around with your foot in your mouth. Perhaps the right conclusion is that you have a toe-fetish. Who cares. The purpose of this post is, as the title suggests, to put it out there.

Lets look at some of these instances, actually the more cruel ones only since otherwise, I could keep writing. Sometimes, you are looking to make an impression. In your haste, you commit the criminal mistake of not evaluating the other person first, specifically in terms of attitude, receptivity and comprehension. The remark could fall flat because either the person is congenitally depressed, or is not really expecting a joke from you, or fails to understand the comment. Of course, largely it is because the joke is simply not funny, but you would come to understand that only at a later point in the day. Drawing on my experience, I have developed extremely simple bail-out strategies which consist of proven self-deprecatory remarks and I use one or the other, depending upon the situation viz.

"Could you please shoot me?"
"There I have done it. Get 10 bucks for a stupid statement. Not so bad after all."
"My foot is still in my mouth. isnt it?"
"If you are wondering why my foot is in my mouth, it is because I am only 6 months old."
"I would have found a hole to hide in but the rest of the world beat me to it."
"If I could get a penny for every such instance, I would be a millionaire."

Sometimes, your desire to be original overcomes your rational self and you try something different on the spur. In one such instance, I had cracked a comment on concentration camps to a Polish friend. The comment was of a good quality and when he gave me the look, I realized my mistake and tried to make amends for my insensitivity by saying, "I am really sorry, mate. I didnt realize. I rather wish I was in a concentration camp now." He almost punched me then. Thankfully, we parted on good terms. But it may not happen in your case. So, it is advisable to stick with proven techniques otherwise you may just be replacing whichever foot was previously in your mouth.

All bets are off when you are a public speaker. You try to break the ice with a funny comment and in the process, you could end up freezing the air solid. If it doesnt work, it is total humiliation and you would rather relinquish your life than be at the podium. Of course, the above mentioned strategies can work in such a setting as well but at such a moment, you are under so much strain that you are well-advised to just move on without making amends. Dont save your face and die another day.

The best thing about such situations is also the worst thing i.e. nobody laughs at your witty remark which means that you will think about that moment for eternity and laugh at yourself in solitude. Not really eternity because as soon as you land yourself in similar situation again, your soliloquy immediately acquires a different tune. In some chronic cases, you laugh at yourself for different reasons every night. Not bad, eh?

Monday, November 03, 2008

Flying To The Future

This article is inspired by a chance conversation, full of wit, with a few friends and a few strangers (now acquaintances) over delicious crepe as the ubiquitous fountain gurgled next to us inside a shopping mall. I have missed such conversations and so to that extent, I have missed Singapore.

One of the participants recently travelled to Brazil and to her dismay, she found out that she was expected to carry her own headphones if she wanted to take full advantage of the in-flight entertainment system. Alternately, she could watch the screen without dialogues. She is now training to be able to read the lips. Another recounted the horror story of having to pay for blankets and pillows on a long distance flight. His fall-back plan is now to dress as an Eskimo every time he boards a plane. I don’t blame him, given the arctic temperature they normally maintain inside the cabin.

Almost all the airlines in India are doing everything within their powers, short of shutting down the operations, to turn into black, including downsizing, salary cuts and price-hikes. One international airline fired thirteen employees as they engaged into a discussion on facebook criticizing their employers and the presence of cockroaches on-board. Presumably, that airline ran out of excuses to fire employees. Thankfully, the cockroaches’ jobs were still intact at the time of writing this article.

Looking at the above disjoint pieces of information, it didn’t take too much imagination to look at the future of flying. Let’s start from the beginning. You may or may not have a seat number. You may not even have a seat. In fact, there might not be any seats at all. You will be allowed one cabin luggage and one checked-in luggage. If you don’t find the checked-in luggage at arrival, there is no need to panic for it will be lying exactly where you left it and you can claim it upon your return or alternately file a police report for the same. The airlines liability will be limited to what it feels like.

If you want to avail of the in-flight entertainment system, you will have to bring your own DVDs that you can play on your own laptop. You don’t really have to ensure that your laptop is fully charged before boarding as long as you are willing to pay for the limited number of electrical outlets. You will have to bid for them like everyone else and you cannot share your laptop screen with anyone else. Same goes for blankets. Pillows are to be replaced by your own elbows or your fellow passengers’ shoulders as you deem comfortable.

It will be highly advisable to stuff yourself with food before the boarding because once in air, the airlines are susceptible to wide-spread famine. The limited ration will go first towards the pilot, then to the flight attendants, if there are any. The rest of the food supplies will be stored for the next flight. Owing to frequent instances of food poisoning, it is in your own interest to buy food for your pilot as well, although not mandatory. You should reduce your liquid intake as much as possible because the toilets service will come at a premium.

In case of turbulence, the oxygen masks will not spring out automatically. You will have to calmly insert coins, to the exact change, in the overhead slot. If you don’t have sufficient coins, you will need to continue to remain calm as you will still have the option to swipe your credit card at the adjacent magnetic chip reader. In case, your card is declined or the particular airline in question doesn’t accept, say American Express cards, that will be as good a time as any to start praying.

In case of emergency landing or a mid-air explosion or any other such eventuality, the economy class passengers’ right to live shall cease. The business class passengers, on the other hand, can avail of the life-jacket by bequeathing half of their net-worth in the name of the airline. This contract will be valid irrespective of their survival.

Happy flying.