Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Taking the queue.

Indians have this reputation of ‘jumping’ queues, and – quite often- not forming one at all. Why can't we accept the simple fact that someone reached a particular spot before we did, and so is entitled to that space? Yesterday, while at the airport, I had the experience of being ‘jumped’ over quite a few times and ended up feeling like I was a piece in a game of Chinese checkers. While some did it brazenly, a lady sought my permission to move ahead of me, as she was late for the Delhi flight- incidentally the same flight I was going to board. Yet another guy shoved me aside at Security and pushed his bag through the scanner. Why? Why?

A paper ( or rather a draft of one) that I found on the net has this to say on the subject:

The queue is, effectively, a mechanism of social regulation in which a randomly assembled group of strangers is caused to act, quite counter-intuitively, in a particular way. Previously unrelated strangers are somehow persuaded to subscribe collectively to a normative code which they then police themselves.

Waiting in line is one of the great levellers of humankind. The queue is no respecter of persons. In the citizenship of the queue no rank is relevant other than the rank order of one’s position as determined by the coldly neutral datum of sequential arrival in the line. Within the queue, roles and relationships become ‘demystified and objectified’. Differences of background, class, reputation, education or socio-economic status count for nothing.The queue is one of the ultimate manifestations of the democratic impulse – in some jurisdictions almost the only evidence of democracy at work.

There is some evidence of a cultural or socio-legal affinity between the ultimately Anglo-Saxon conceptualism of estate ownership and the social discipline of the queue. The practice of queuing tends to be most strongly prevalent in jurisdictions which have always been familiar with the legal apparatus of ‘estates’ in land, that is, with the sequential arrangement of various grades of time-bounded ownership. It has been wickedly observed that ‘[a]n Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.

One intriguing study of queuing in Hong Kong’s Disneyland has also pointed to the strong resistance to queuing culture exhibited by mainland Chinese visitors to the park as compared with the greater degree of queue conformity evident amongst Hong Kong Chinese themselves. Nor is it without significance that the 15 million inhabitants of Beijing are currently being indoctrinated, through the medium of mobile phone text messages, in the practice of queuing. In preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games the Chinese Communist Party has designated the eleventh day of each month as ‘Queuing Day’

So, what explains our extreme reluctance to fall in line? Our relatively recent exposure to laws governing property rights? Our desire to increase the entropy of the Universe, which after all is the natural order? Because a queue gives us an opportunity to challenge hierarchies? Or we see it as a plain nuisance and a silly Western habit? Or all of you just ganging up on me and pushing me out of my rightful place in the queue?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Boys will be...

A news story in The Hindu today.

A boy who swam to reach the central hall of the temple tank located near the Kapaleeswarar Temple in Mylapore here on Monday drowned midway. According to police sources, the unidentified boy aged about 13 years was seen swimming towards the central hall of the tank holding a thermocol sheet around 7 a.m. A few metres ahead of the hall, he drowned.

It is sad that it had to end this way, but the boy deserves a salute for displaying the spirit of a…boy.

When one is a 13-year old boy, there is no such thing as ‘impossible’ or ‘too dangerous’. Doing things the ‘done’ way is unthinkable. Climbing down the stairs from the third floor is not an option, when a perfectly good system of sunshades and pipes exist. Tall trees need to be climbed to untangle kites, 8-ft high walls need to be jumped over to retrieve the cricket ball, cycles have to be monkey-pedalled, swings need to be subjected to rigorous testing to establish its escape velocity, dad’s razor sets have to be tried out and experienced, puddles must be dived into and water splashed all around, bee hives must be stoned at…. This is a very basic instinct hardwired in the brains of boys and, in the days when food had to be hunted, probably helped them prepare for the hard years ahead.

So, the boy who spotted the thermocol sheet near a water body must have immediately converted it into a raft and set sail for a distant land- the central hall of the tank in this case. It was the only logical thing to do. The thermocol sheet couldn’t have existed for any other purpose.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

To write stories, read poetry

If you aspire to be a good writer and a story teller, where do you get your ideas from? To begin with, says Ray Bradbury, you could read poetry every day of your life.

Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition. It keeps you aware of your nose, your eye, your ear, your tongue, your hand. And, above all, poetry is compacted metaphor or simile. Such metaphors, like Japanse paper flowers, may expand outward into gigantic shapes. Ideas lie everywhere through the poetry books, yet how rarely have I heard short story teachers recommend them for browsing.

My story, “The Shoreline at Sunset” is a direct result of reading Robert Hillyer’s lovely poem about finding a mermaid near Plymouth Rock. My story, “There will come Soft rains” is based on the poem of that title by Sarah Teasdale and the body of the story encompasses the theme of her poem. From Byron’s, “ And the Moon Be Still as Bright” came a chapter for my novel. “The Martian Chronicle’ which speaks for a dead race of Martians who will no longer prowl empty seas late at night. In these cases and dozens of others, I have had a metaphor jump at me, give me a spin and run me off to do a story.

What poetry? Any poetry that makes your hair stand up along your arms. Don’t force yourself too hard. Take it easy. Over the years you may catch up to, move even with, and pass T.S.Eliot on your way to other pastures. You say you don’t understand Dylan Thomas? Yes, but your ganglion does, and your secret wits, and all your unborn children. Read him as you can read a horse with your eyes, set free and charging over an endless green meadow on a windy day.

Diwali- 1836

Carey’s library of choice literature, published in 1836, carries this description of the Diwali festival in Benares:

In no part of Hindostan can one of the most beautiful of the native festivals be seen to so great an advantage as at Benares. The duwullee is celebrated there with the greatest splendour, and its magnificence is heightened by the situation of the city on the bank of the river, and the singular outlines of the buildings. The attraction of this annual festival consists in the illuminations : at the close of evening, small chiraugs (earthen lamps,) fed with oil which produces a bright white light, are placed, as closely together as possible, on every ledge of every building. Palace, temple, and tower seemed formed of stars. The city appears like the creation of the fire-king, the view from the water affording the most superb and romantic spectacle imaginable,—a scene of fairy splendour, far too brilliant for description.

Europeans embark in boats to enjoy the gorgeous pageant from the river; all the vessels are lighted up, and the buildings in the distance, covered with innumerable lamps, shine out in radiant beauty. European illuminations, with their coloured lamps, their transparencies, their crowns, stars, and initial letters, appear paltry when compared to the chaste grandeur of the Indian mode; the outlines of a whole city are marked in streams of fire, and the coruscations of light shoot up into the dark blue sky above, and tremble in long undulations on the rippling waves below. According to the native idea, everything that prospers on the evening of the duwalee will be sure to prosper throughout the year. Gamblers try their luck, and if they should be successful, pursue their fortune with redoubled confidence. Thieves also, anxious to secure an abundant supply of booty, labour diligently on this evening in their vocation : while others eat, drink, and are merry, in order that they may spend the ensuing period joyously.

This festival is instituted in honour of Luchmee, the goddess of wealth, and those who are anxiously desirous to obtain good fortune, seek for two things on the night of its celebration : the flowers of the goolur, a tree which bears fruit but never blossoms; and the soul of a snake, an animal which is supposed to deposit its spirit occasionally under a tree.

The whole of the Moosulman population arc abroad to witness the superb spectacle produced by the blaze of light which flames from every Hindoo building at the duwallee, and the festival being one of a very peaceable description, goes off without broil or bloodshed—and what is still more extraordinary, without occasioning the conflagration of half the houses;