Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Number game

We know how to play with numbers and we are extremely good at it. Our children are pushed into this number game at the age of 4, when most children around the world are still learning to put plastic shapes together. We breathe and walk the numbers and seem to hit a dead end the moment numbers disappear. That is all we seem to know, numbers and nothing else.

The top front page of the newspaper was full of stories of people flocking the movie theaters in huge numbers to watch a movie, defying the protest called by a right wing organization. It talked at length about the security provided by the local government for the theaters playing the movie in the way of adding security personnel from other cities and even cancelling vacation plans of the security personnel. Some politicians have praised the people for defying the protest and have even called it a victory of the good over the evil. The movie fraternity on its part was all thanks, now that the movie has created record in the overseas market. There were also pictures of the movie theaters guarded by the security people and happy faces of the movie goers.

The lower part of the newspaper carried 2 news bits. The first was about a bomb blast where more than 8 people, mostly civilians have died. The literature has the details from the eye witnesses and people who were present in the vicinity when the gory incident took place. It also carries statements of the government officials promising to investigate the unfortunate incident and bring the culprits to book at the earliest. The opposition parties have called it an intelligence failure and have criticized the government and the security machinery. The second news was related to another unfortunate incident where more than 20 policemen have been brutally killed by the naxals. The literature is pretty much same as the blast one. It starts with the first hand description from the eye witnesses and people who were in the vicinity. The government officials have condemned the incident and have promised to investigate and bring the culprits to book at the earliest. The opposition parties on their part have faithfully criticized the government and the security infrastructure.

I don’t want to get into a debate regarding how long it would take before the culprits are actually brought to book; neither do I want to debate on how effective successive governments have been and how effective our security systems are, in preventing such incidents. But what I am unable to stop thinking about is the appalling attitude of our people. Incidents such as these are not new to us. We seem to have become used to reading our fellow countrymen die. We stop to think and talk about such incidents when they happen, [probably over a cup of coffee or while travelling in the bus] criticize the government and the security machinery and get back to our lives. I don’t think this is because we are peace loving and easy going people. We do protest, when the prices of onions or milk goes up by a rupee or when petrol prices are hiked by the government. We sometimes even take law into our own hands; stone buses and burn effigies, because we understand the value of these commodities which are represented in numbers. But we mostly keep quiet when people die because life cannot be given a number. We understand that a movie has to be provided security because there is huge money riding on the movie stars; but we cannot understand the pain a security personnel’s family goes through when his vacation is cancelled, as pain is not a number. A friend and I, had once debated the effectiveness of the TV News, seeing a bit where a man was frantically searching for his lost dog, in a small city on the Canadian border. When I think of it now, I cannot help but laugh at my immaturity for debating about the effectiveness of the TV News, when I could not even understand the importance of the dog in that man’s life.

~Narendra V Joshi

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Why can’t we, just be we?

I faced a service outage this morning and called the customer support contact for help. The support person who answered, pleasantly greeted and gave his name. It was an unmistakable Indian name but his accent was anything but Indian. I explained the problem and gave him my consumer identification number. He pulled my information and spelt my full name for confirmation. There was no hesitation and it was without a glitch. This was the first time I had heard a non-Indian spell my first name correctly. I immediately doubted if he really was a non-Indian. Our conversation went on, and all through I could hear faint voices of people in the background and every now and then I could hear people speaking in I think Telugu. I was pretty much convinced that the call had been routed to a call center in India but his accent still kept me guessing. I was especially surprised with a sentence he said almost at the end of the call, still clueless of the solution to the issue I was facing – “I don’t know nothing of this problem”. A sentence constructed with 2 negatives is something I have heard only in the US. It might be his company policy to put that accent, but he won it hands down. If not for his name and importantly the background conversations, I would have not even thought he might be an Indian.

My afterthoughts reminded me of an incident which happened some weeks back. I was in Chennai and had called for a cab to drop me at the airport to catch my early morning flight to Bangalore. I had asked the security to direct the cab to the rear gate of the building which was closer to my room. As I approached, the driver got down the cab and offered to put my bag in the boot. He said something in Tamil for which I replied in Hindi expressing my ignorance of Tamil. He immediately said “No problems sir. I main gate only standing; watch man telling stand here”. I nodded but could not hide my smile. Once we were in the car, he asked “Mumbai or Delhi flight sir” for which I replied “Bangalore”. After a few minutes of silence, he asked me something in Tamil mixed English. I could not decipher but thought he was asking me if it was my first visit to Chennai. I replied in Hindi saying I had been in Chennai before. Not sure if he understood; he immediately put his next question – “Chennai negative Bangalore negative?” which scared the daylights out of me. I was somewhere in Chennai with no knowledge of Tamil and was posed this question. Unsure of how to react, I responded in a way to make it look like I did not understand his question all the while thinking of what to answer. He put the same question again - “Chennai negative Bangalore negative?” I then assumed a meaning and replied “Bangalore native”, for which he said “ok”. I think he just wanted to know which my native place is. Whatever was his question, my remaining journey went fine. He voluntarily started explaining me our route to the airport. Whenever we approached any building he would explain its importance. He took great pride in explaining the things around and how good Chennai is, but all his explanation was in English and not in Hindi. I asked him a few questions purposely in Hindi, using long sentences at times. In spite of my repeated tries, he struck to his English and did not utter a single word in Hindi.

I reached the Bangalore airport and called a cab to drop me home. It was a different situation with the cab driver in Bangalore. He started the conversation in English and I responded in Kannada. For quite some time he stuck to English while I would purposely respond in Kannada. This went on for a while until he finally gave up and started responding in Kannada.

I was thinking – “Why can’t we, just be we?” In the name of employer and customer satisfaction we adapt to things so quickly which are unnatural to us and also stick to them. I have come across many, who, not sure have adapted or just show off, but seem to genuinely take pains to look and speak different or maybe act as a non-Indian. We seem to be fascinated with all other things except our own. I don’t mean to disrespect other languages or cultures but let’s not ignore our own in the process. I think we should learn about other cultures and languages and importantly we should also learn to respect our own. I remember somebody telling me, in India from more than 1600 spoken languages in 1960s, the count reduced to less than 1000 by 1990s. I sincerely hope the count is not reduced to 2 digits by the time my daughter, who is 7 months old now, joins college.

~Narendra V Joshi