Write up from today’s meetup- unedited
It pains me deeply, he said, how disengaged we are as a society. How unconcerned. He said, sipping beer urgently.
There are people dying in Iraq. In Somalia. In Israel. While we’re sipping beer and drowning in soft music, young kids are starving to death, prepubescent kids are being sexually harassed. There is so much suffering in this world. He downed the rest of the beer in a go and placed the mug down with a thud.
Few weeks ago, over lunch, as usual, we sat with our eyes hooked over the TV, occasionally leaning down to check our phones, while the TV played and replayed the news of the missing mh370. One of my team mates, a dorky nerd, sniggered and said, “We ought to be searching the plane guys” He was greeted with an approving laughter. All I wanted to say then, was Fuck you. Fuck all of you or your gross sense of humour. But I contented myself with hitting the spoon on the plate hard. And in the evening that followed, I saw her, that straight haired uptight bitch who was struggling to find her place in the team, probing her monitor with intent. Which was unusual for one would only expect her to be so interested in the rectangular confines of her 4 inch piece of shit phone. So I went over to her, placed my hand on her shoulder gently enough for it to not be mistaken for sexual harassment, and asked “what are you doing?” at which point, she wheeled around dramatically, and said with a face lit with glee and sense of pride.” I’m looking for the plane in the Indian Ocean” and that is how she had made her way into our team, with a fucking inhuman joke about a massive tragedy. Moreover, she wasn’t even looking in the right section of the Indian Ocean. How fucking inhuman.
And weeks from then, we engage in a shitty exercise where our manager shows off his lame PowerPoint skills by walking us through, as he likes to call it in an all too paternal tone, by walking us through the report of the team engagement survey. And then they look at me. With all their eyes. Screaming with their lips shut, why did you give such low ratings for the team, Vinod? And I sit there, diminishing in my chair like a waning moon, with my ears blushing with warm blood, marvelling at the absurdity of it all. At the end of the meeting, the manager holds me by my shoulder and we walk into a deserted conference room. He looks at me with concern and asks, do you think you’ve improved… as a person. I know you’re a fantastic coder. But we need more than just technical skills. We need people who’re more.. warm. He says in a low voice. I just want you to be more.. Human. I count my options. I decide to follow Richas footsteps and make a lame mh370 joke. And then one about ufos abducting it. But it doesn’t work and so I walk out of the silent conference room, past the clatter of keystrokes, down the dreary lift, down to the dark basement and in a moment of orgasmic aggression, fling the identity card across. That’s when my manager calls. For a fucking status meeting. If only I could smash my phone and watch it sputter to death. It’s painful, painful world. ” he said and asked for a refill.
Liz had a ticklish boyfriend.
Dave. 24, happily unemployed, soft and round. Rumours were abound that he was incurably gay and but no one had see his young man spring up in excitement as Liz would spank his flabby thighs.
“Do you like it, baby?” she would ask and he’d nod in ecstasy. In the house next door, in the window facing Liz’s bedroom, past a wall of rain and a flowery red curtain stood Anne, observing intently. Much to the amusement of Anne’s, Liz liked to keep her windows open, even as it poured outside. In fact, especially when it poured outside.
Their first friendly exchanges had been made across their courtyard, whole it poured. Window talking. Liz had indeed been Anne’s window friend. She’d peek at the window next door, behind the yellow gauzy curtains flapping in the wind, at Liz at she dressed and undressed, as she buttoned and unbuttoned, as she slept and woke up. Liz, you bitchy angel, though Anne as she saw her mount Dave whose cheeks were as bloody red.
She’d walk with Dave down to the bookshop later during the night and discuss Kant or Nietzsche, watching him with admiration suffused with pity as he’d dig into a book, think with his eyes blindly open and scratch his head. They seldom talked about Liz.
It bothered Liz how Anne and Dave would talk over coffee at the library but not enough for her to question either Dave or Anne about it. Anne was a fine girl. Short, clumsy, red-haired. Dave was fine chap, soft, giggly and happy. Such pussies, she thought.
He climbed the stairs quietly, opened the rickety aluminium door with great care and stepped onto the terrace. After hours of evening rain, the sky had cleared, leaving solitary puffs of clouds scattered all over. The moon was a pale smudge. A quiet wind brushed past his wet hair, and past his bare calves. He walked to the edge of the terrace and looked over the city in the distance beyond the dark lump of a lake. Quiet shimmering lights like the muffled voices from the neighbouring apartment where tiny people lived in tiny boxes, running through the list of errands that constituted their lives. Lamenting about their jobs. Watching TV. Doing the dishes. Facebook. Setting wake up alarms only to snooze them the morning after.
He eyed the ladder that led to a smaller terrace, flanked by the water tank. He took a step and then another, climbing towards the sky. Halfway up, he rested his bum on the metal bar. He liked it thus. He remembered how, long long ago, he had brought the swing to a halt be jamming his legs onto the grass and how, when he had lifted his legs an inch above the ground, barely touching the edge of a delicately tall blade of grass, the swing had shook a little. A gentle sway. A moment of blissful suspension.
A few thoughts later, he climbed atop the smaller terrace. He could see the other side of the city from here. The glitter of malls and swanky apartment buildings dimming down for a nights sleep. A stream of lights snaking through them.
He took off his t-shirt and lay down on the rough prickly floor. He soaked in the stars before closing eyes and feeling the sweet pain of a hundred pointy bits of concrete dig into his back. He lifted his right arm, moist and heavy, and rested it on his chest, where he could hear his heart beat, thud after thud.
He thought of Maya and the long walks in the park by the library at night. He saw her sitting next to him across a table in the library, where they always sat and discussed. What did they talk about? He remembered her eyes and her soft hands and how they would blushed as he’d squeeze. She was a soft fruit with a juicy core. Of all the people he had met, she was the only one whom he remembered being distinctly alive. As though their long walks and talks across cities and towns and library corridors had been one long walk in a cemetery, where he now lay alone, with his bare hand over his bare chest and eyes shut.
In a rather cogent post, a sound minded friend argued in favour of men who asked women to dress ‘appropriately’ to avoid getting treated inappropriately. It was, by all means, a fair claim in itself. But it was written in the context of an image that showed a girl holding a poster that read something like this: no matter what a woman wears, nobody has the right to harass her sexually. I phrased it rather bluntly here, the verbiage on the poster was suitably more witty and convincing. That said, the image and the accompanying post and comments left me with a bunch of interesting thoughts.
First of all, I think it’s an admirable stance to try and change the status quo. What is the status quo, you ask? The status quo is that it’s collectively understood that a woman donning revealing attire is more vulnerable to being sexually harassed and prevalent wisdom requires a woman to acquiesce to the social expectation of dressing modestly. Of course, I agree that being reckless about the sexual implications of her dressing choices could be risky for any woman. And this campaign addresses just that. Like most social campaigns, this campaign may also be viewed as a form of disobedience or non conformance. By wearing revealing clothes unabashedly, they’re in effect, playing against some unspoken rules and they’re playing it right.
New rules are created when old rules are broken by the majority.
One of the other interesting topic that came up was that of evolutionary psychology being used to explain or validate social behaviour. Cuteness was an evolved characteristic in babies to enable them to be loved and be looked after their parents. But can one argue that a baby is being cute because it wants to be loved and looked after by its parents? That’d be ridiculous. Along the same lines, there are studies that suggest that women might have evolved a proclivity to delay sex because obligatory parental investment for women is higher than it is for men. This trait evolved through the years when our ancestors didn’t have access to modern contraception tools and techniques. But modern men and women have access to contraceptives. Do we still see this behaviour then? This is a more difficult question to answer. We don’t know, or rather, I don’t know whether there’s substantial proof to the claim that we’re hardwired in many ways to act in the ways we do. Can we not rise above our instinctual drives, sometimes? Besides, there’s another point here that I want to make. If our deep subconscious instinctual drives purportedly make us act in certain ways, does that validate any statements that ascribe our instinctual intent as our intent? Aren’t we more than just creatures of instinct? Haven’t we risen to greater heights, wherein our lives are impacted and controlled, in as much an amount if not more, by unspoken and spoken cultural rules and personal value systems?
Piece written at the last meetup, unedited:
Priyanka doesn’t remember the first time she grieved her mother’s death. Indeed, she was barely two and a half when her mother had passed away under rather mysterious circumstances and it was only until she was twelve that she had seen her photograph, stashed beneath a pile of yellow documents in her father’s drawer in his room. Her first impression of her mother was that she looked like someone who had had a bad day- day after day. She stood next to a door of a nondescript building, squinting her eyes against the sun.
That evening she had talked to her father about it. He had in his distinctively evasive ways told her a story of a baby elephant who’d wandered into a zoo. She couldn’t quite make the connection. And so she had cried. At first, she took it that she missed her mother whom she had recently discovered in her dad’s drawer but that seemed stupidly absurd. The next time she had sobbed over a thought of her mother’s was when her father had passed away under entirely non mysterious circumstances. He had collapsed on the sofa at 2 pm while watching news – drenched in sweat. He had yelped out a muffled cry before dying. Her hands trembling, she had dialled the number of the only family member she hadn’t met in person. Her mother’s younger sister, Veena , who lived 200 miles down the coast in Mangalore.
She disliked her at first sight. She was tall, slim and ostentatious in her ways. She flicked her hair often. She talked more words than were required. She smiled often baring her perfect white teeth. She wore jewellery that clinked as she moved around all too briskly for no particular reason. Priyanka avoided talking to her but since the house was empty, it was decided on her behalf that Veena was to stay at home until things fell in place. Priyanka didn’t have the slightest idea what the things were or the places they were to fall into. What she knew, however, was that Veena had disturbed the tranquillity that her home bore.
Her father had been quiet man speaking only when absolutely necessary and with great care. The only time the TV blared in the house was from 2 to 3 when he watched the news. He didn’t smile often. In fact, Priyanka remembers the few smiles. The first one was on a hazy morning long long ago when upon waking up too early she had marched into the kitchen and attempted to make coffee. The coffee had turned out abysmally bitter. He had withdrawn slightly before smiling. The next time was when she had hugged him by the water fountain. It had been a sunny day. He had smiled and pushed her away gently. He wasn’t the kind of man who liked being touched. He toiled his hours away in his room pouring over hefty journals under the tubelight.
Veena was as unlike her father as anybody could have been. She asked her how her day had been on returning from college. She asked her if she had any boyfriend.
“Anyone special? ” she had asked pointedly over breakfast while chewing gum.
What bothered her the most was that here was her mom’s sister. Thirty something. Single and uncouth and without a stable job. Was her mother anything like her? She feared asking that question.
Veena, it appeared to Priyanka had developed something akin to affection for her. She never looked at her pitifully or talked about her father. She seemed more interested in the undulations of her daily life.
Everything had been bearably unwell until one evening Priyanka returned home to find a burly man in his forties stomp out of the gates. The fro the door was open. The house was quiet. A low whimper emerged from the kitchen. Her eyes were red and swollen. She smiled wistfully and asked how her day had been. When priyanka asked who the man was, she preferred to stay quiet and not smile. They ate the Maggi in silence until Priyanka switched the TV on. They took turns cleaning the dishes and before 11 they were in bed together.
Priyanka imagined the quiet night around them stretching across the city, across roads lined with closed shops and still trees.
“What was my mother like? ” she asked. She couldn’t tell whether Veena had heard her voice for she remained silent in the darkness.
They woke up to a bright Sunday morning. Veena wasn’t quite herself yet. She smiled often and flicked her hair just as much but her eyes looked tired.
Priyanka thought of the night before. She had teetered her way to the edge of what might have been a tearjerking moment of damp sobfest. Clearly she would have talked about her mother at length elaborating the gory details at length. Why did she die? She remembered the story that her father told her then. The one about the baby elephant in the zoo.
Once upon a time, he had begun, there lived a beautiful baby elephant in a grassland across the hills. She was playful and frisky and loved to wander by herself. One day she wandered into a zoo across the hills. She liked the people she met. She loved playing the ball and got so used to the sound of applause that she couldn’t make up her mind about going back home. But in one final moment on a rainy evening the madness of the zoo got to her. She hated the applause. She hated the ball. That night, the caretaker watched her walk across the winding path beyond the hills. He called her once. He called her twice. But she had disappeared in the darkness.
“What are you thinking about? “ Veena asked her. Priyanka smiled and flipped her hair and said “Nothing. Nothing at all“ Her voice a notch higher.
“Good. “ Veena said nodding in response. “I’m glad you didn’t ask “she added.
Priyanka observed the many lines on her face. Her long eyelashes. The deep hollow of her collarbone. Her deep black eyes. Her curly hair. The old and ornamental earnings resting on her shoulder. Her unpainted toenails. The tattoo of a toad on her left arm. How her mouth remained slightly open as she watched her now.
And she thought to herself “I don’t know. Because I don’t want to.”
Every morning he promised himself to stay happy. Every morning, as he would walk down the aisles with coffee in his hand, through the maze of cubicles, he would remind himself to be happy. He didn’t know why it meant so much – being happy, or what it meant. But he would tell himself, as he believed everybody else did, perhaps not as often, to be happy. And then he’d settle down and code and fake a laugh or two until lunch. The elevator – that sordid enclosure full of old men with lunch boxes lifted people but not spirits. He would quietly eat the lunch, stealing glances at the cute TV reporter and at the curly haired girl among the giggly gang of girls playing foosball. He would come back to his cubicle and fight the mounting pressure of yawns, downing cups of coffee, answering phone calls. He would wonder about the futility of his work. A vividly enthralling universe spread all around him while he wrapped his brain around why a few disgruntled customers across the oceans couldn’t see some of their credit card transactions. He would briefly open few tabs – on philosophy, photography, food, fitness, travelling – all the things he yearned for, all the things which he believed he had been denied the pleasure of enjoying by someone. He would view them in small windows of chrome and close them swiftly as the manager would pass. He would doodle his notepad away during late evening meetings only to later throw away the crumpled sheets in the same bin that held used coffee cups. He would then call his mom and talk about how the day had been realising with grave sickness the quotidian nature of his life. He would remind himself of at least trying to feel okay. He would take the cab back home reminiscing his childhood days – the sunny days by the river, the football in the rain and the cricket matches under the scorching sun. He would then order food, laugh over YouTube videos munching on food that only reminded him of the food back home, stacked in the purple refrigerator by the dining table and of the pokemon sticker stuck near its handle. He would then plop open the laptop and attend the calls. The distant rambling of people across the oceans – of missing credit card transactions and incorrect Express Card disclosure verbiage. He would then lie on the bed staring at the ceiling above, exhausted and unhappy.
He would then promise himself to be happy the day after, brushing off the nagging notion that the day after would be very much like today.
He would then dream dreams. He would walk across meadows, play Frisbee with his dog or fall from the sky. He would then wake up, with barely any memory of the dream.
He would examine himself in the mirror while he brushed, observing his receding hairline and bulging paunch. He would spit it out, splash water over his face and while taking his dump and checking emails, he would remind himself to a least try and be happy.
People’s salaries get talked about quite a bit especially when they appear exorbitantly high. It’s often that one hears of people questioning whether they actually deserve the money they get. I have a problem with the word deserve. It’s glaringly misleading when used in the wrong context. In fact, the idea of justice when invoked to validate or invalidate claims is unsettling.
Here’s why. When a simple blue collar worker produces goods, it’s easy for us to map the value of the goods produced with the salary he’s given and make claims about whether he deserves such a salary or not. But as we ascend to higher salaried individuals we begin to realise that we need a dramatic shift in our understanding of ‘value’. In an illuminating answer on quora, the author explained the incremental value addition to a company in choosing one ceo over another. These value additions are not tangible. The concept of value at the higher end of spectrum is very abstract and vague.
The devolving concept of value came to fore, as it often does with technology companies, in case of a recent kickstarter idea for a potato salad for which a very enviable sum was raised. One is also reminded of the Yo app which recently received some serious funding. The valuations of these and other similar entities is rather inexplicable. It certainly does not align well with our fundamental understanding of utility and value.
Claims about whether someone deserved something or not are further subverted by various other random factors that one simply does not take into account. A level playing field is only a hypothetical construct on which players with varying genetic compositions and socio-economic and cultural backgrounds play. Of course it would be foolish of me to entirely discount the idea of a level playing field but it’d be equally foolish to turn a blind eye to the realities of the rather uneven playing field. That said, how do we say, with absolute confidence, whether someone deserved to win or achieve something?