Sunday, August 13, 2017

An Average Conversation With An Average Cab Driver


So the other day I found myself in an Uber cab with a very chatty driver. I would like to think that I’m usually excellent conversation material, but after two hours of sweating it out in a dance class, I’m a sloth. I’m mute, and I’m slumped so hard I’m trying to fuse with the seat. Amidst my deliberate languor, the driver began to engage me in diatribes about terrible motorcycle riders and their recklessness. I harrumphed in agreement from time to time, all the time pondering how rude it would be to whip out my headphones and plug my ears in. I didn’t.

Something was to break me out of voicemail mode. I was still about a kilometre and a half from my house, when the driver nodded towards something, and said.

“Look at that. Isn’t that disgusting?”

Now, there’s a reason I’ve called this an average conversation, and the reason is that I've had conversations like these way too many times before. I knew where this was going, but I sat up in my seat to look. What I saw was a young woman standing by a shop talking to her friends. Right away, I could see what had offended the driver - it was that the young lady was wearing a dress. I pretended not to understand what was happening.

"I've been seeing this since morning. It's pathetic. I know what's behind this. It's that Shah Rukh movie. Have you seen it?" I shook my head, and this icon of male virility pressed on, undeterred.
"You should see the kind of clothes Anushka wears in the movie. Suddenly, all these girls want to copy her."

On other occasions, I might have let this pass, but something about this man's smug sanctimony really annoyed me. Moderating my tone only a little - and only because I firmly believe that shouting never convinced anybody - I said -

"What is your problem? Let her wear what she wants."

The driver was astounded at this statement. A drawn out "Siiiir" burst out as he gathered his thoughts.

"It's because of women like this that the reputation of Bangalore is getting spoilt. They wear clothes like these and when something happens to them, they cry rape." He didn't of course use the word 'rape' because naturally even the mention of that word would have shaken his delicate constitution.

If I was annoyed earlier, I was boiling at this point. This man didn't care that women were getting assaulted, and that the men assaulting women was a blight on Bangalore's name, but it was women's fashion that was intolerable? On that day though, I had decided to channel all my frustrations into reasoned argument.

"It's the men who're assaulting women that are besmirching Bangalore's good name though, isn't it?"

The driver smiled patronisingly and brought out one of Those Analogies, sparkled to a shine. I don't think he was quite at the point of doubting my masculinity, he probably just thought I was mentally deficient.
"You see, it's like with dogs. Dogs are perfectly OK as long as you don't go and stick your fingers in their mouths. If you do though, they'll bite."

This wasn't the first time I've been hit with one of Those Analogies. Among other beauties, I've heard women compared to beautiful flowers that needed to be covered to be protected from bees. I persisted with my approach though, likely only bolstering his belief that I was an overdeveloped child with a beard.

"Are you saying men are dogs? Are you saying that men have no self-control?" This, despite the fact that as a dog lover, his canino-phobic analogy made no sense to me at all.

He glanced sharply my way for a moment, before that oily smile restored itself on his face. "Siiir", he exclaimed. "That was only an example." Puffing up as much as anyone can in the confines of a Tata Indica, he pointed out that he would never ever do such a thing. He was a father to kids, and he had never, ever had a drop to drink in his life. He hadn't smoked either. In fact, he had rejected drink even when alcohol was pressed to his lips by his friends. That's the sort of man he was.

All this time, the one thought in my head was that traditional notions of morality in India - not drinking, not smoking, not swearing and so forth - were so far removed from my perspective. Where was equality, where was empathy? I wished to point out his hypocrisy, but did I mention that this whole conversation was in Hindi? An approximation to Hindi, in my case though, but expressing this thought was a bridge too far. I didn't even deign to nod at that self-indulgent peacockery.

Dropping his voice to a confidential whisper, the driver went on. "You know what, I see girls sitting around here drinking at night."
"I've actually told them several times not to do so, but they don't listen at all." Fatherly concern dripped from his voice, but I nearly burst out laughing at the irony of our situation. Just then, we were passing by one of the locality's shadiest - and most popular - watering holes, generally full to bursting with drunken men. This was in fact the sort of place that needed his moralizing on the harmful effects of drink. The thought hadn't even occurred to him.

"Look around you." I said, pointing to at least four different groups of men in tank tops and shorts.
"You tell me why you think these men are wearing shorts."

The driver didn't respond, apparently busy in flicking on an indicator switch, so I galloped on.

"The answer is simple. It's hot, and shorts are comfortable in hot weather."

He didn't agree of course. He insisted that women wear shorts just to expose bare flesh, debasing themselves and staining Bangalore's good name - inspired of course by Jab Harry Met Sejal. I was this close to giving up, when the driver pointed out yet another young woman. "See?!"

This time I was genuinely confused because even trying to see things with his eyes, I couldn't for the life of me see what he was upset about. Eventually, a dim bulb flickered hesitantly in my mind though. "Are you saying that because she's wearing a sleeveless top?"

"Yes! Such a shame they can't be dressed properly." I shut up at that point because reasoned argument had hit a brick wall, and banged itself into concussion on its unyielding hardness. The driver changed tack a little and began to point out examples of women who were dressed properly in his view, but given that I was completely unresponsive, he gave up after a bit. Presently, he mumbled something.
"What do I know, sir? You know much more than I do."

Despite myself, I almost broke into a smile. I had got under his skin! Never mind that I had set off hoping to change the man's mind, but this would do. Yay! Unreasonably thrilled, I got off where I had to, and pulled up the Uber app to give the driver a two star rating (I reserve one star for cosmic catastrophes), when I saw that this driver had received a whole bunch of badges for being an excellent conversationlist. Deflation was instant, and an image popped into my head - the same driver chatting with another passenger about this extremely strange male passenger he'd just ferried, and the two of them having a laugh about beta males and the moral decay of this country. I would like to think that the fact that this driver belonged to a certain religious community that was significantly more rigid in their definitions of gender roles - that's me being polite here - meant that he was more the exception than the norm, but that would just be me deluding myself.

This was only an average conversation with an average driver, and I'm so tired of it all.





Thursday, September 19, 2013

In Defence of the Sout Indian 'H'

It’s been forever since I posted something on this blog, so, naturally, it makes sense that my comeback post is one of such earth-shattering significance.

Yes, I’ve always wondered if the amount of bile, spit, venom and other inimical bodily fluids flung in the direction of Sout Indians by way of mockery for our choice to use those H’s with the T’s in our overly holy names, was rather disproportionate.

I’m sure those of you who have spent any amount of time pondering this gravely vexing question will have come to many of the same conclusions I have, except that most of you wouldn’t have pondered this gravely vexing question.

Anyway, without further ado, my argument stands thus.

In English, the letter group ‘th’ is almost always pronounced in one of two ways – the softer, hissier ‘thin’ and the thicker, tongueful ‘thus’. Given an unknown English word containing the letter group ‘th’, I’d be far more likely to ‘thin’ it rather than ‘thus’ it.

Now, the way most Indians pronounce the word ‘thin’ means that the ‘th’ letter group is the best possible way of representing the soft T sound we expect in say the name ‘Bharath’.

Sweeping statement #1
Unless it’s an Iberiano-Italian import, no English word ever pronounces the T soft.
So if you write ‘Bharat’, expect me and other proficient Anglophiles to read it as Buh-rat (‘rat’, like the mouse. Did I just kill off an entire colony of zoologists with that comment?)

I can already hear the counter argument: but it’s not an English word, is it? It’s not, but it’s written in English and in English we already have a letter group (the ‘th’) which is much closer to the sound you want me to make. Besides, it's not like the letter 't' in Indian languages is always pronounced soft, like in, say Spanish, that we can always assume that any Indian name written in English with a 't' should be pronounced soft.

There’s another counter argument to my counter argument to the first counter argument, and this one stems from a quirk of the Indian accent.

Sweeping statement #2
No self respecting Indian accent aspirates the right consonants.

Back to the counter-counter-counter argument, which is that the ‘th’ letter group indicates the aspirated T (the big T in Indian languages) and the plain T indicates the unaspirated T (the small T in Indian languages).

Now, here’s the thing. Almost all native English speakers aspirate (i.e. big Tee the T) the first consonants in words, and also possibly consonants in the middle of words.

We (noble practitioners of the Indian accent) don’t, and to compound our mistake, we believe that aspiration requires the addition of the letter ‘H’ to an otherwise unaspirated consonant.

This may well be a perfectly valid thing to do if the ‘th’ letter group didn’t occur so frequently in the English language already, and weren't pronounced completely differently! If it were the ‘bh’ letter group for example (cough Abhinav cough), it’d be perfectly fine to force aspiration using the 'h' as the letter grouping 'bh' almost never arises in English.

Also, in English, the aspirated and the unaspirated versions of consonants are allophones - this means that the state of aspiration of a consonant in a word doesn’t ever change the word itself. (This is of course is why we can still claim we’re speaking English when we’re actually speaking Inglish, because we’d otherwise be completely unintelligible with our aspirophobia.)

If my fumbling attempts at conveying the idea of aspiration have got through your thick skulls, then you’ll immediately see that aspirated and unaspirated consonants are not allophones in Indian languages. I mean, the aspirated T and the unaspirated T are two entirely different letters of the alphabet after all in most Indian languages (just like the aspirated and unspirated D, the aspirated and the unaspirated P and so on).

That’s sort of a rationalization of the mocking Nort Indian’s mind, I think, because you can see why they’d try to differentiate between the aspirated and unaspirated versions of consonants by adding an ‘H’.

Repeat after me - ‘th’ doesn’t aspirate the ‘t’!

Knowing all that, I still can’t help be utterly confounded to read the Hindi translation of the word ‘sit’ written as ‘baitho’. Again, a mistaken attempt at aspirating the T by adding an H – I have to spend an entirely unwarranted amount of brain cycles stopping myself from reading the ‘th’ in there like the ‘th’ in thin. I mean, come on. How little English must these Norties have read to expect us to read ‘baitho’ with a hard, aspirated T?! (
)

Now that I’ve established my argument, let me take it apart bit by bit because you know, I’m fair like that. Recall how I said earlier that “the way Indians pronounce the ‘th’ in thin” corresponds almost exactly to the expected sound in Bharath.

There’s a tricky little caveat I buried in there, because the way Indians pronounce ‘thin’ is not quite the way native English speakers pronounce it. The best way to understand how they do it is to imagine somebody with a lisp saying the word ‘sin’. That’s exactly it.

Even so, even so, I’d still contend that a native English speaker pronunciation of the word Bharath (lispy Bharas) is much, much closer to the real thing than Bharat, with the inevitably hard T.
I really don’t like rats by the way.

PS: There's an instance where Nort Indians, Sout Indians, everybody respects the way a certain letter group is generally pronounced in English, and in fact rely on it. That, ladies and gentlemen is the 'ch' sound - of Archit(h), Rachit(h), Chit(h)ra fame. See? We don't expect the 'h' to aspirate the 'c' do we? Ha. (I know the counter argument to my postscript by the way. Don't bother. Never let the truth get in the way of a good argument, eh?)



Sunday, April 15, 2012

Vertiginous Stuff


Things, dear readers, have been mildly interesting the last couple of months. Stuff’s been happening. For starters, our very own favourite uber-cool auto-AC city has decided to turn itself off just to spite us. I knew we’d jinx it eventually, what with our continual boasts and preening and strutting about how you have absolutely no idea what it’s like to be living in the best city in the world. But I was kinda hoping it’d happen after my time. Apparently, when Bangalore gets spiteful, she does a proper job of it, with a real venom-spewing, acid-regurgitating malice that I didn’t know demure little Bangalore had in her, because I’m back to my favourite Pilani pastime. Flying.

Yes, flying. I’m sure every one of you that’s not living in Scandinavia has experienced the masochistic joy of making existence a non-contact sport. No comprendo? Well, I’m talking about that uniquely miserable sensation of knowing that if any part of your body is to make any sort of contact with anything at all for any amount of time, you’ll find that particular part dripping in sweat before you can blink and say ‘Bloody heat’. Or something stronger.

Sleeping’s when the surface area of contact is maximum, so that’s out. You don’t sleep anymore. Sitting is OK to a point, but you really don’t want to be sweating in the places you’ll end up sweating. Standing’s better, but feet love to stink and if you push it you’ll find yourself sorely tempted to amputate yourself at the ankles. Flying, it is then. Well, I’ll not lie here. You have a few other options. You could, for example, do a Kate Winslet and spend your days walking around on your toe tips. (Scratch that; walking’s sweaty business. Spend your days standing motionless on your toe tips then.) Or you could find a big enough fridge and crawl into it and die, hopefully to be awakened when the first rains hit. I’m not a ballerina, and I don’t do fridges so I’m sticking to flying.

Anyway, flying’s one part of what’s been interesting lately. The other part involves climbing. Recently, I found myself, against my will – I fought tooth and nail, honest – shoved a rung up the corporate ladder. No biggie? It shouldn’t have been, but I’d been strongly advised by sane people not to - never to - look up when that happened. That’s just what I did, of course. Apparently, corporate ladders have so many rungs, you’ll suffer from a sort of inverse vertigo trying to catch a glimpse of the top. Invertigo’s ten times worse than vertigo because it not only turns your legs to jelly and reduces your body to a shivering wreck, but fries your brain. There’s this part of you that’s trying to tell you that you’re being irrational. You’re only a foot off the ground - you cannot possibly be dizzy! Then there’s the other part of you that’s seductively whispering in your ear that everything you know about everything is false. Gravity is a lie. You’re going to fall off the bottom rung into an endless nothingness while the ones at the top – the ones you can’t see because they’re so shrouded in a dazzling whiteness – they’re safe as houses. That’s when your brain decides to ooze out of your ear.

I have to admit though, that euphoria trumped sanity for a little while. That’s when the company decided to entertain itself by chopping off rungs in the ladder randomly, hoping for a giggle or two when the whole endlessly snaky contraption shudders and shakes and dances and ultimately collapses in a senseless heap far, far below. There must have been other reasons – written on the rungs up top, I’ve been told – but the dazzling whiteness makes it hard to read. Anyway, sanity was restored soon, as you can see from the articulate and sensible things I’ve had to say in this blog post.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Clutter

Dear Most People I Know, here’s a friendly bit of advice,
There is such a thing as having lots and lots of things around, and yet being neat, orderly and not cluttered at all.

There is such a thing as a nearly bare room that’s messy as hell.

To borrow a phraseology from MySQL (you know – the thing to do with databases - those fictitious objects that are jam packed with stuff, and are yet orderly and all that), Quantity <> Clutter.

You know what’s worse than getting stabbed in the guts and bleeding to a slow, inevitable death? It’s having your room (or your cubicle, since I’m corporatized now) called ‘dirty’ after you’ve just spent a week locked in without food and water and air, sorting your monstrous collection of novels alphabetically.

First time I heard such a reaction, being the naturally humble person I am, I assumed I’d missed something cleaning up, and so made a very humble mental note to strive to do things better next time.

Well, humility only gets you so far when you hear the same things over and over again; there eventually comes a point where you stop blaming yourself, and start blaming the other guy.

‘OK, so what exactly do you think is dirty about my room?’ you ask, all bluster and a not a little defensiveness. But before your enemy speaks:

‘By the way, those perfectly sorted piles books in the corner are arranged by genre, and within each pile alphabetically by title. You’re welcome to borrow a couple. Those bedsheets that I’ve neatly folded in ascending order of the hexadecimal representations of their dominant colours, however, please don’t borrow any. I’m running short.’
‘Sorry, you were going to explain why you think my room’s dirty.’

The response will invariably go along these lines:
‘Oh, I don’t know. Just look at all the stuff you have lying around.’

You bristle of course. Understandably.
‘That stuff’s not lying around. Those there are all the writing instruments I’ve got, arranged in increasing order of cost. Those, on the other hand…’

‘Alright, alright. But so much stuff? It looks so cluttered.’

That word, he used that word! That’s the point where you, like all normal people, turn your BeastFace on and bash the other guy’s skull in.

After much deliberation as to the origin of this widespread affliction, I can only conclude that some people’s brains are just wired differently, and I’m being polite here. These people are different in the way three-headed people, two-nosed people and people that have hair growing out of their fingernails are. All hope is not lost, though. I have reason to believe that pictorially augmented repetitive subliminal impartment of corrective information can cure the problem a wee bit. For starters,


Repeat after me slowly: 'This is neat, orderly and not cluttered at all!'

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Humour Me Back!

It’s funny how being funny has become so hard.

Humour’s easy when you don’t have a conscience. A homophobic comment here, a racist remark there, a sexist jibe here and you’re done. The odd anecdotes about fat people and too-narrow aeroplane seats won’t ever go amiss either. There’ll be people judging you, certainly, and people hating you if you take this route, but there won’t be people not sniggering.

Humour’s easy when you’re not prudish because like in everything else, sex sells. You don’t even have to try, really. Why, I distinctly recall chuckling away at my class ten biology teacher’s totally dry description of the human reproductive process. Make that small mental step up to American Pie, and you’ll see the nearly limitless comedic potential here. Pity prudishness is hereditary and contagious.

And then there’re toilet jokes. Everybody disparages them, but it’s astounding how the most tasteless joke about methane-induced global warming can lead to uncontrollable laughter. In a room full of suits. Sigh.

It’s OK if you can’t do any of the above, or even if you’re about as witty as a rock, really, if you’ve got a mouth dirty enough to corrode one. Write up the most unimaginative rant ever, but pepper it with the choicest collection of profanities you can think of, and you’ll have got yourself an audience, and one in splits. I’ll concede a point here. Well, two actually – you can get creative at insulting somebody’s mother, improbable as that sounds, and if you can get creative at something it may even qualify as a legitimate art form. Second, it’s possible that your audience is not laughing at what you said, but at you.

I never could do all of that, but I don’t recall ever feeling witless. Surely you can’t run out of things to joke about? I mean, aren’t there an endless supply of Bong jokes to feed on, for example? There are, and I still regretfully recall the good old days when I could churn twenty stereotype jokes a minute, but I’m cut off now because Kant happened. Yes, Immanuel Kant.

(Did you laugh? Perhaps unintended humour is an area I can work on, because that wasn’t a joke. Wait no, the contradictions are obvious. I can’t work on improving something that can only be mastered by being perfectly awful at it. On the other hand, I can still master just the appearance of unintendedness right? I’d have to hide this from my brain because of course it’s my brain that the ‘unintended’ bit applies to, so I’ll have to wrap my awareness of the fraud in a cloak of subliminality. That’d still… Right, back to Kant.)

Kant said anything you do must be universalizable: before you do something, imagine how the world would look if everyone did what you’re thinking of doing, and if you like that world, do it. You can see the appeal of this idea as a moral guide. You’d never murder and jump red lights, for example.

Anyway, the moment I started putting myself in the shoes of the people I was making fun of, the jokes died. They didn’t struggle and writhe, kicking and lashing for hours before finally going limp. One fine day something switched off, and they were just… gone. Half the light of my world was taken away from me.

The deaths didn’t end there though. At about approximately the same time – or perhaps earlier, too many catastrophes have fuzzed my memories – my ability to crack what I call ‘ignorance’ jokes was flushed down the toilet. The name’s sort of self-explanatory, but if you’re dumb, these are the jokes you tell other dumb people about things you don’t understand, but – here’s the trick – they don’t either.

‘You know – apparently we were all fish once. Then, just like this – cue wild gesticulation that’s halfway between flapping and clapping but ends with a snapping of the fingers – we transformed into us.
‘Har har.’

You could laugh at this joke and still not be dumb if - it's the Jedi nous trick again - you’re laughing at them rather than the joke itself. (Lots of people don’t dig evolution. They probably dig their noses though, snotty lot that they are.)

Even this doesn’t work for me because of er.. compassion. If you want to joke about other people, you cannot be a nice guy. Especially so if you’re laughing at their perceived stupidity. You want an offence-free show? Sorry, that joke’s out.

Wait, wait. What about in jokes? You know, those about memes, xkcd, and that DSA lab on a cold December’s evening. Ah, good old in jokes. Half the stuff I laugh at, I laugh at because I think most other people don’t get it. Don’t ask me to explain. All I know is that this works.

The caveat is obvious: you need an in group for in jokes. If your in-group goes away and you’re stuck with an out-group that only talks Biggg Boss, the best joke about Python swallowing your heart will at best draw blank looks. (At worst: solicitous looks. You know they think you’re a retard.) Naturally, you’ll withdraw gracefully from the conversation and focus on the food, maintaining a sombre dignity all the while.

Alright, here's my last attempt: nonsense jokes. People generally don’t understand the funny in random gibberish but laugh anyway. In fact, I firmly believe nonsense jokes are the perfect jokes. You laugh because you don't get the joke!
Nonsense jokes are like highly specific in jokes that appear ‘in’ to everyone who hears them. It’s hard to spout nonsense all the time and appear sane though, and that's not good for - let me sort out your priorities - your love life.

You see where I’m going here, don’t you? Falling off a steep cliff that’s where. Falling into an endless, humourless dark that’s darker than pitch. It only gets darker when I run into happy, grinning people paragliding who console me with this:

‘You only have to speak a four letter word, son, and you'll get all your powers back. Since you appear mentally challenged I’ll give you a clue. It doesn’t start with an L.’

(Self-deprecation always works.)