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Urban Junkie

Monday, October 31, 2005

Of crackers and compensation

The labs are irritated with me today.

We had a minor disagreement this morning, on the subject of the number of chew sticks they should be allowed to eat in a day. The usual, negotiated, limit is one a day. It goes up to two each on days of high stress (e.g. when I’m late getting back from work, when I want to go out in the evening, when the rain cuts short their walk, or when the Talking Lift has been particularly voluble). But more than two, it is now well acknowledged, is a road straight to hell in the guise of violently upset stomachs. Years of bitter experiences laced with spoonfuls of Dependal-M have eventually settled down to a more or less amicable agreement to adhere to the rule of two.

It was Boogie who led the assault this morning, with the argument that their particularly mature handling of the crackers this year called for a reward of some sort. It wasn’t just Diwali they were coping with, she reasoned, it was also multiple other irritants that have recently been introduced into our lives.

The Talking Lift, for example, is something that no self-respecting dog should be expected to adapt to at this late stage in life. Anything with a nasal robotic voice that belts out instructions to please-close-the-door every few minutes must be regarded with deep suspicion. As technology goes, this is definitely one of the world’s sorrier ideas. Mercifully, we don’t have to get into the blasted thing because we live on the ground floor. Even so, that voice is a particularly penetrating one and tries one’s patience. Besides, why don’t people listen to it and just close the silly door, Gypsy would like to know. Why must the door be left open to whine at us through the afternoon?

Then there is the Singing Doorbell. Now, nothing wrong in principle with a doorbell that sings, as long as you know that’s what it does. A dog likes to know what’s what – order and predictability are vital, according to Boogie – and if you’ve been brought up to expect doorbells to ring you can’t suddenly find them singing. And a different song each time, too. Leaves no room at all for the conditioned response to develop. Embarrassing for a dog to not realize the bell has rung (or sung, in this case) and not be the first one at the door.

And finally, the biggest outrage of all is that yappy Lhasa Apso upstairs. Never before has another dog lived in the same building as us. And not only does he have a strategic advantage, being on the top floor, says Gypsy indignantly, he is also smaller and furrier and therefore more popular with the younger kids. The only consolation in this sorry state of affairs is that he has to ride in the Talking Lift thrice a day.

Hmmm. It is obvious where this is leading, and I must admit I'm impressed by the force of the argument. They actually have me feeling vaguely guilty, the wily things. The subject of chew sticks has however remained non-negotiable so far. We’re sulking in our respective corners, neither side willing to yield an inch.

And they’ve been behaving perfectly today. No paw marks on the futon. No ball thrown under the bed for me to retrieve. No barking contest with Lhasa upstairs. No arguments with the Talking Lift. Damn.

Why do I have a feeling I’m going to crack under the strain soon?

Saturday, October 29, 2005


It does seem like we're living in particularly grey times, doesn't it? We barely resurface from one wave of tragic news that another one hits us harder ... if the water doesn't get you, the earth will - and if nature lets us be, it turns out that we're our own worst enemies.

Is it worse that some misguided, brainwashed miscreants decide to
kill a hundred fellow human beings amidst a celebration - or that a callous bus driver with no particular motive, godly or otherwise, drives right over someone already fighting for his life? Or that out of a crowd of people witness to that outrageous situation, only one courageous girl responds to the crisis?

Is it worse that no one believes it is their responsibility to help another suffering human being – or that whoever does help faces a backlash from the ‘system’ and from individuals alike? Why, when Varna is able to take courage in her hands and rush a dying man to the hospital, does she face only resistance from the keepers of our law and safety? Why, when Uma
sends out an appeal to help earthquake victims, is she subjected to an incomprehensible personal attack?

Is the fight against terrorism – or natural disasters – really the biggest challenge on our hands? Or is it our own sickening apathy, our disconnection from other human beings, our loss of compassion and our startling unwillingness to even support the few who do display some compassion?

There really aren’t any answers out there, are there?

Monday, October 24, 2005

Esoteric, obscure, or just plain useless?

I am often intrigued by the difficulty I have in explaining to people what it is that I do for a living. It is a truth sad but unyielding that outside of the relatively tiny network of people loosely described as the marketing fraternity, qualitative market research is a concept hard to comprehend. Or appreciate.

There is, for one thing, the problem of distinguishing it from its more widely known quantitative cousin. To do this while simultaneously maintaining at least a modicum of respectability is surprisingly difficult. Particularly when conversing with distant, long-unmet relatives, whose kids have all blossomed into astronauts.

“Aaaah, survey type stuff …” nods your interrogator intelligently on hearing your opening explanation. “So you go house to house?”
Er, no … not exactly, you say. I actually call a few people over to one place and have a discussion with them.
“In one place? Isn’t that difficult? So many people coming over?”
Actually it’s not so many. Just 8-9 people usually.
“8 or 9? But how can you come to a conclusion just basis 8 or 9? What kind of a survey is that?”
This is where alarm bells should start to ring. But you forge right ahead. No, no, you say reassuringly, we have more than one such discussion. We usually do 2 or 3 in a city.
“I don’t understand. That’s still about 25 people. There are thousands of people in a city. What sort of survey are you doing?”

Hmmm … valid point, actually. What kind of a survey, indeed. There are two possible courses of action at this point. Withdraw gracefully, suitably reprimanded for lack of integrity, common sense, intelligence or whatever it is that you are seen as lacking in this pathetic attempt to take short-cuts in your job. Or pull out the dal analogy in your defense (you know, the one about not having to eat the entire bowl of dal to describe its taste and how one spoonful is enough). Neither option is wholly satisfactory, in my experience. The first one for obvious reasons; the second one because it never does come off sounding as forceful as it does in theory. At best, it is an embarrassingly transparent attempt at changing the subject; at worst, a fairly lame defense of your devious (deviant?) handling of your job.

Then, of course, there is the bigger issue of usefulness. One that arises with particular force in the company of artists, writers, dancers, mountaineers, social workers, diplomats … the list goes on, but essentially anyone doing anything without a crassly commercial motive. The need to imbue market research with a noble glow is understandably overwhelming here.

“Market researchers, you know, find out what people feel about various issues” you begin tentatively, and receive a startlingly enthusiastic response.
“Oh, that’s wonderful. Public opinion is so important, and people who help give it form are critical to the system”
you mumble, caught between gratitude and terror, keenly hoping that the conversation goes no further.

“So what are the ISSUES you research?” (The gods will not have mercy).
“Well, you know, about things that people use everyday … how happy they are with them, what changes they want …”
“Things? How do you mean? What kinds of things, exactly?”
“Ummm … toothpastes. Soft drinks. Mobile phones. Lots of things. Anything at all”
“Toothpastes??” Faintly puzzled, but clearly intrigued.
“Yes. And lots of other stuff.”
“But what about toothpastes? A dental health campaign?”
“In a broad way. We ask why they like a particular brand. What would they like in a new variant. What flavours, colours …”
Longer pause.

The strange thing is, it is straight from the heart, that ‘why’. There isn’t any malice there, or a put-down of any kind. It is simple bewilderment that a job like this could exist.

And looked at from an outside perspective, perhaps it is bewildering that a job like this could exist.

It is no wonder that I find my work shrinking in significance after every such conversation with someone outside the marketing spiral I exist in. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many of us live in such tiny, closed worlds – give the trivialities of our work so much more meaning than they need to have. Always takes an outside view, doesn’t it, to put things into perspective?

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The cover of medical science

The first time I came across the concept of Asperger’s Syndrome I wasn’t sure whether to be miffed, relieved or delighted. On one hand, here was an acceptable medical condition to hang my supposed eccentricities on. Then again, I’m not sure that a collection of minor personality quirks – that do no harm other than ruffling a few social feathers – need to be described as a ‘condition’.

But first, a quick quiz to classify you.

When someone you don’t quite recognize walks up and says “Hi, how are you?” do you respond with
a) A vague smile and “have we met?”
b) A vague smile and “Hi … I’m fine, thank you”
c) A delighted smile, a hearty slap on the back and “I’m great … How are you? Been a long time, where have you been?”

On observing the last kebab left on a platter being shared between friends, do you
a) Pick it up promptly and chomp into it
b) Offer it around, find that no one reaches for it, and then help yourself to it
c) Leave it on the platter to watch it being carefully ignored by everyone while it shrivels up and turns mouldy and is ultimately removed by the waiter

The average number of awkward pauses in your conversations with social acquaintances is

a) Slightly more than the number of words exchanged
b) About as many as the number of words exchanged
c) None

(This one’s for women only) When visiting the homes of elderly relatives and being asked what you want to drink, do you

a) Point immediately to the Single Malt
b) Say “whatever you’re drinking, uncle” and cast a significant look in the direction of the Single Malt
c) Say “whatever aunty is drinking” and resign yourself to watching your spouse knock back the Malt while you nurse a glass of nimbu pani, homemade wine or (if the gods shine on you and aunty is a closet lush) shandy.

For the competitive sorts who are more interested in maxing this test than in earnest introspection, it doesn’t take much to figure out that the ‘c’s are what you should be gunning for. For the others, however, a warning is only fair: any answer other than ‘c’ is likely to land you in ‘Asperger’s’ zone.

The gist of Asperger’s, as far as I can see, is an inability to make small talk and a slight tendency to be oblivious to social sensitivities. I’m not quite sure whether or not to be offended that this is considered deserving of medical attention. But the more I think about it, the more I regard it as a blessing. Having lived with various labels over the years - 'painfully shy', 'a bit quiet', 'slightly aloof', 'a bit weird' and just plain 'rude', I find that the Asperger's label has a lot going for it. There is, of course, the slight unease of living with a chronic medical condition. But consider the advantages. A solid, scientific medical explanation to take cover behind. No longer having to rack your brains to remember who that vaguely familiar face belongs to, while trying valiantly to keep the chatty bonhomie afloat. No longer having to carry around lists of interesting things to say to keep conversations going. Never again having to watch the last kebab wilt on the tray, having been kicked under the table by a well-meaning friend and prevented from reaching out for it. Getting to the Single Malt with minimum fuss, bypassing forever the homemade wine and shandy. Spending as much time as you want on the net without getting friends and family in a twist.

Like I said … the more I think about it, the more it seems like we’re onto a good thing here. Fellow sufferers, what do you say?

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Shouting out loud

I've been following this story for a few days, and perhaps I'm late to the party. But late or not, it needs to be said. As revolted as I am by the distasteful personal attack on a fellow blogger, I am stunned by the rallying cry it has evoked in the blogging world. Not that I doubted the strength of the sentiment that would exist against any behaviour so clearly unjust and reprehensible. But I am awed, moved - and, in a strange way, humbled - by the force with which this collective scorn has been ground into the faces of the offenders.

So this is what it means, to be part of the blogging world. This is what it means, to be able to have your say. To voice an opinion and be heard, to respect every other person's right to do exactly that. To have a platform for debate, exchange and conversation. Civilized conversation. This is what it's all about. Not just freedom of speech, but the right to be heard. Not just being a lone voice in the wilderness, but being an emphatic, resonating force, supported by likeminded voices wherever they can be reached.

If I sound like a novice, it is because I am one. My new toy, which was just about being cool and telling a few funny stories, has revealed itself to be a powerful tool that must be handled with care. It's great to have fun with, but when it bares its teeth it does mean business.

My deepest respects - and a round of heartfelt applause - to all of you. To Rashmi, to Gaurav, and to everyone who has thrown their hats into the ring in support of basic civility and respect for the rules of the game.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Hide and seek

I want to know why cities are laid out the way they are. Why one-ways always lead away from the direction you want to go in. Why they change direction overnight just when you’ve managed to crack the code. Why U-turns are so few and far between and always creep up when you’re on the extreme left of the road. Why house numbering systems are so virulently illogical. And why a right turn is not allowed just on the street you want to turn into. Having arrived there, need I add, after a long, befuddling and frustrating journey.

As you can see, it has been an unrewarding day.

And this is an ode to all those who have ever set off in search of an unknown address in our maliciously designed cities. May the force be with you. There are many, many tricks our city planners have up their sleeves to lead you astray.

Take, for example, the odds-and-evens game. You will usually encounter this if you are hunting for house number 55 and find yourself in front of number 54. That’s when you hear your malicious city planner say ‘gotcha!’ Because – of course! – this is the ‘evens’ street and number 55 is on the ‘odds’ street across the road. For victims of this game, there is consolation in the thought that there are worse plights. There is, for example (shudder) the-road-ends-at-the-house-before-the-one-I-want scenario. How roads can end just before any house you are looking for is beyond me … they are obviously designed to alter themselves in accordance with (or in opposition to) the needs of any house hunters in the vicinity.

Then there is the skip-an-alphabet game, especially popular in Delhi. If you happen to be looking for P-55, you can be pretty sure that P does not exist at the place where it is supposed to. This is where O ends, that is where Q begins … shouldn’t P be somewhere right here? Aaaah, you poor naïve thing. There is no explanation for this, but P is located right after K, in a completely different colony.

As a child I lived in a house in the unfortunate block P. No one could ever find their way to my house because it was the only block that was an aberration in the otherwise neatly alphabetical sequence. As a result I had very few friends. Kids who couldn’t find their way to my birthday parties imagined I had played a nasty prank on them. When I was older, of course, I learned how to use this unfortunate location to my advantage – but the trauma of childhood never does fade.

And, of course, there is the renumber-the-houses game, especially popular in Bangalore. Stunning in its audacity, this one is designed to outwit the few talented house-finders who do manage to get past previous obstacles. If you happen to successfully find your way to house number 1274, you will in high probability find yourself face to face with an elderly lady who looks quite different from the person you were expecting to meet. Isn’t this 1274, you ask in bewilderment. Yes, she says, equally puzzled. Until light dawns and she asks – “oh, but are you looking for the old 1274 or the new one?” This, you see, is the new one. When people give you addresses that go ‘old 75, new 11’ disregard them not. There is a hidden message there.

I know there is a meaning to this, which will dawn on me some day. Meanwhile, I am becoming skilled at the game, having abandoned the alphabet, numerics and logic in favor of the best direction-finder of them all : instinct.

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