Sunday, August 24, 2008


What would you do if you suddenly found your house on fire one night? What if everything you had of value, everything you priced more than your own life, whatever you were prepared to give it for, whatever you loved and adored was suddenly ablaze, you denied even one last look at it because of the cruel, enormous fire that’s around?

One. You could jump from your bed, run around frantic, or look for the nearest source of water, or shout out for your neighbours, or dial 101, or try to find a piece of cloth to douse your dearest belongings with. Or something else.

Two. You could sit on your bed calmly, or maybe replace yourself to safety, and then, without panicking, without losing yourself, watch all that was yours burn in front of your eyes, watch it happening, accept it, come to terms with it, do nothing.

Sometimes, when the world around you is on fire, preserving your peace of mind and not losing yourself in the whole trick is the best you can do. And in the longer run, perhaps that alone matters more than anything else ever will.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Angrez Chale Gaye...

On my way to Delhi a few days ago, while I waited to get my boarding pass at the airline counter, it was rather hard not to observe and not be amused by the man just ahead of me in the queue. He seemed like one around forty years of age, clean shaven, wearing an impeccable suit and tie, looking all prim and proper like all these senior company executives do. He was talking to the girl at the counter.

‘I would like an aisle seat. Just see if one’s available’, he declared to her, his voice and tone heavy and commanding, which took the girl by surprise a little.

‘Just a moment, Sir. I’ll just check if one is’, she replied quickly, getting on the keyboard.

‘Yeah. If you don’t have that, give me a window seat. But not one in the middle in any case’, out came the second declaration, by which time the lady was jumping frantically on the keys.

Her hurried behaviour seemed rather odd at first; she would be used to hearing a hundred such requests in a day. But what was special about this one was that it wasn’t really a request, it was a declaration, almost an order. It wasn’t its nature but the tone with which it was delivered was what took her aback that little bit.

The man was an executive, a confident, self-assured executive, who knew where he stood, who knew what the pomp and exuding self-belief in his deliverance of the English language meant and signified, that it would impress and rattle the young, naïve-looking female airline employee, and that it would definitely be enough to get him the best seat possible. He knew everything, at the back of his mind at least, if not entirely consciously. He never as much looked at her in the eye, looking hither and thither all throughout. That was part of the game, the performance.

A few moments later, in the flight, having got an undesired middle seat for myself, I started with the novel I was wisely carrying. On my right, by the window, was a middle-aged, mustached man with a rather healthy paunch. One look at his face suggested that he was either very upset or very angry with something. He kept looking at the air-hostesses that passed by, shifting nervously in his seat throughout, as if not sure what posture would look most respectable, and would also be most comfortable at the same time.

Now, it happened that by the time they reached our row for serving dinner, all the non-vegetarian meals they had were finished. In crisp, air-hostessque English, one of the girls explained to him that as they had run short of the non-vegetarian meals, to take the vegetarian one was the only option he had. At this, the man’s already unpleasant expression turned even more so. He looked offended, as if being subjected to a gross injustice.

‘Non-veg nahi hai aapke paas? Yeh kaise ho sakta hai?’, he barked at her, more of an outburst than a question.

‘Sorry Sir. Lekin kuchh problem ho gayi hai. Galti se vegetarian khana zyada aa gaya, aur non-veg kam.’

This apology was all he needed. He didn’t really abhor vegetarian food, after all. Now sated, he murmured something incoherently, to which the girl didn’t reply and handed him the food plate quietly.

After she had left, he laughed and murmured something more to me. I couldn’t get anything of what it was, and only nodded slightly in return, thinking it would be enough to quieten him down. It was. Having embarrassed the hostess as he intended to, and visibly pleased with his performance, he now started with the food in front.

He had surely needed this little tantrum, without which his feeling of dislocation would only have been accentuated. To have this brief argument with the hostess, and that too in the language he was most comfortable in, was his way of getting level with the people around him, all of whom, as he must have noticed, were looking much more ‘sophisticated’ then he, and therefore superior in his eyes.

The English language is, as they say, the best thing the British ever gave us, and in that, I would agree with them. But on occasions (which, by the way, are not rare), it acts as a sheer monstrosity. One that cannot just be ignored.