Saturday, 20 September 2014

Are you being served?

If the written word had measurable decibels, this would be one of my loudest posts. I don’t rant for I don’t trust myself with impassioned screaming where I may spell Punjabi expletives incorrectly (the ignominy!) I also calm my blood down before writing my opinions down because to have one’s genuine piece being read and rejected as Post Menstrual/Marital/Mid-age Stress is but the single biggest discouragement any writer can get. Plus, over-use of ‘annoying’ is so annoying.

I was asked a few moments back about my most tiring experiences as a customer. There are 2 which jumped red lights, broke their lane and came honking to mind with holy stickers on their wind shields. Sadly, these two are as regular in my day-to-day life as my milk man’s thin moustache every morning is. If you too like me stay in New Delhi, these may not be anything new for you. I would still like to ask you though – are you too being served thus?

Parking Fraud

Those young lads manning MCD parking areas all over the city know more about us than even we know. They know we are short of time, perhaps looking at how little we open our windows and how hurriedly snatch the tickets from their hands, before crumpling them and stuffing the ball into our top pockets. They also seem to have realized that we stopped caring for Rs. 10 long back, and especially now when it got converted to mere coins from full-blown currency notes. Why else will they tear the tickets as you see in the picture above? 

I got this parking ticket at PVR Naraina parking lot. Notice how it has been torn. While the rate for parking the car is Rs. 10, the counterfoil is torn such that Rs. 20 is what is visible, asked for and paid. At India Gate, the boards listing the expensive charges have been systematically defaced to "sell" this fraudulent idea. At New Delhi railway station, umbrellas and barricades are placed such that cars coming in are misled into entering the 'Premium Parking' area, where you pay Rs. 100 per entry. In Dilli Haat, the paid parking (with such tickets) even covers areas outside the legally designated areas for parking. Yes, you can park your big car where 'No Parking' boards exist. It’s everywhere!

At many levels, we are "promoting" this cheating at a massive scale pan Delhi. Either we have no idea, in case we do not notice the slip properly because the movie or the sale is about to begin. Or, we know the story but are too embarrassed to argue with the parking guys over a meagre Rs 10. What will the car behind us think, after all?

Try putting your foot down to be served right, instead of on the accelerator to find that elusive parking spot or vacating it for the next in line. Try asking him to check the part of the counterfoil he has left under the thick rubber band. See his face then, hand over the right amount, say good night and then sleep tight knowing a youngling is not discussing with his friends what an owl the Audi driver was. It feels good. 

Toffees for Change

Parents or no parents, the cashiers at so many stores seem better equipped to handle toddler tantrums and sudden urges for sweeties than most of us who popped real-life babies. Why else would they buy packets of Kissme toffees or Cadbury’s Eclairs to give you instead of change which they are always short of? Of course, one may say they are spreading sweetness but oh boy, try calculating what the store is making by giving you a sweet that cost it a paisa instead of the Re. 1 it hands over in exchange and with a smile that would put the frogs’ to shame. 

Our neighbourhood Safal – the one shop which promises fresh vegetables and executes its promise of freshness only once a week from 6 am to 6:30 am, be there or miss it! – is where you find a cash register full of coconut toffees. No matter what time of the day you get your vegetables billed there, they will never have spare change, though by God's grace, they will always have these toffees. 

Initially, I used to refuse taking them leaving behind the change which was my due. The shame-faced cashier used to produce a few coins from somewhere then. Gradually, as I saw through his scheme of things he saw through mine and I was asked to take-toffee-or-leave-it with the confidence of a politician in the Parliament. So, I had no option but to take toffees, and collect them. Yes, sir, I did collect them. (If they were popular ones, I would have bought a packet to add to the kitty) I collected them not just to see by how much an average customer was getting duped per visit but also because one fine day I wanted to take a handful back, in exchange for onions and potatoes and ginger. 

I did exactly that. Stumped, the cashier did not know how to ‘sell’ me the vegetables in exchange for sweeties, or how to refuse. Stumped, the old uncle who had just popped his into his mouth stopped sucking on it. And magically, the woman next in line raised her voice against this practice too. That she was diabetic and this was promoting sugar-intake was a little off the mark from the real reason to reject this phenomenon but it helped. Suddenly, there was the clink of coins and everyone got their change.

From food courts in popular malls to our favourite general stores, the toffee-for-coin is rampant. What does it take to see through the act? I know it takes quite a bit to refuse a kind hand handing you gooey chocolate filled toffees but look close. Apart from the parking guy’s pocket the vegetable cashier’s belly too is shaking in amused disbelief at its dumb customers. And you know as well as I do who they are.  

To be subtly swindled and served thus got my goat. Regularly and by the neck on bad hair days! So much so that finally the goat was ready to offer itself up as mutton to end the ordeal. Up until the day I left her at home, because I had decided to stand by my right to be served right. It’s very easy. It’s very important. It’s also as patriotic as painting a flag on your face every Independence day or for India's cricket match.

Are you being served right?

[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts. The prompt for today was - Are you being served? - What’s the most dreadful (or wonderful) experience you’ve ever had as a customer?]

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Book Review – Seduced by Murder by Saurbh Katyal

If books were to be judged by their covers, I would never have picked this one. An amateur attempt to show what the story within is about does not do justice to Saurbh Katyal’s ‘Seduced by Murder’. At best it (mis)leads you to believe that a smoking and hot woman is involved. What is this murder mystery about?

Vishal Bajaj is a corporate rat in a race which he wants to exit, because he wants to feel ‘content with being rather than becoming’. A maternal uncle’s death brings his way a one-room office and a desire to restore order in people’s lives, by wearing his uncle’s shoes and becoming a detective. ‘Cheating-husband jobs were my core competency’ up until his old flame, Aditi, seeks his help for investigating the murder of her husband’s brother. With Pranay, his sidekick and Babu, the police officer on call, Vishal works against time and the affected family’s desires to close the case in order to find the killer and stop the corpses from piling high. Spicing his need for alcohol with regular doses of wit, Vishal’s single-handed investigation forms the crux of Saurbh’s ‘Seduced by Murder’. Which means, both Vishal as a character and his methods of investigation form the premise this novel’s narration rests on. 

Vishal, the character

If the author did not have us believe that he works in the corporate world, I would have thought he is a private detective himself. Or is he, in his free time and on the sly? For how else would he be able to create such a well fleshed-out personality as that of Vishal's? 

In the protagonist of this novel we find a real and believable man; intelligent, of course, but also presented with all his vulnerabilities. There is nothing superhero-ish about him (except for two fight sequences, whose grandeur is forgotten the moment he catches a fever simply by getting wet in the rain). He unravels the mystery by relying purely on circumstantial evidence, logic, timely articulation and a regular supply of tongue-in-cheek humour. Not just who he is, but how he is characterized as the book progresses is something to notice too, as Saurbh gives equal space to the detective that he is without as the conflict-ridden person that he is within. His loves and his losses form a quiet backdrop to the action happening in the fore, especially Vishal’s relationships with his booze and with his past. Which essentially means – he is etched for the readers through his dialogues as well as his narration of the story.

However, what remains most impressive about this man is his power of observation, his eye for reading characters and his ability to make us see them through his portrayal. He speaks directly to the readers to reveal characters to us so convincingly that we trust him blindly. Even when he is driving and drinking!

The level of Mystery 

Think back to those old Bollywood movies where crimes were investigated by detectives who came built in with an articulate mind, a good degree of foresight and at the most a magnifying glass in their hands. Where footprints to tyre tracks and gestures to signals helped solve the most heinous crimes through the detectives’ hawk-like eyes. That is ‘Seduced by Murder’ for you, in print. By completely relying on the human ability to solve crimes sans gadgets and radars, GPS and supercomputers, Saurbh has created an authentic detective novel with a strong old-time flavour. Three things help maintain the level of mystery high at most points of the narration:

The one aspect that propels the story forward even more than incidents are the series of clues discovered at the scenes of crime or in peace time. Through eyes or vibes, noise and lights, gestures and objects; catching a standalone word or by noticing the missing grief on someone’s face; even sniffing the smell of deception or seeing a father’s swelling pride. Hints and clues inch the story-line forward at varying speeds and with different degrees of success, as Saurbh wills, of course.

Then, answers are sought scientifically and unravelled with clinical precision, from point to point. This leaves very little room for dramatic situations and personae. Each character is serving a sane role in the scheme of things, without running amok with a knife in hand or surprising you with a gun shot in the head. This also helps in keeping the plausibility of the story from dropping. For this reason, 'Seduced by Murder' does not aim to thrill or chill but keep you firmly grounded in intelligent investigation.

I recently learnt about points of tension/twist which need to be present as well as be spread apart just right in order to keep the reader involved. On the 25th page itself Vishal announces ‘this meant … the murderer was staring at me right now’. The reader is instantly set thinking. Then, with just 25 pages to go, we hear ‘It was all so evident that I was surprised I had missed it’ and we wonder if we had been on a wild goose chase all along too. Throughout, as Vishal changes tracks, he keeps you on your toes too. Multiple such turns, many intentionally misleading, keep you engrossed and guessing till the very end. When Vishal finally and with full conviction 'locks eyes with the murderer, and he pales,’ another heart beat of a fully-involved reader is skipped. The mystery still remains far from solved!   

Alas! I smell some problems.

Vishal and Pranay’s relationship is portrayed so well at the start of the book. Standing in direct contrast to each other, the two as a team would have made a perfect Indian answer for foreign detective-duo imports. It was not to be, because somewhere in the beginning of the action Pranay takes a back seat, and goes missing. Mysteriously! Why? Is it to aggrandize Vishal and keep the limelight on him from getting diluted? Or, did Saurbh forget the absent-minded, bumbling yet endearing role Pranay played in Vishal’s investigative life? I wish I had seen more of Pranay.

Babu, the police officer, comes across as a type borrowed from a comedy movie rather than one investigating such a high profile crime. He seems too na├»ve with ‘I got … carried away’ being his best defence for derailing the investigation at multiple points. He could have served as a foil to Vishal in so many ways. Not that that would make his lack of investigative “skills” any plausible as a man heading this murder's trail.

I don’t know what the last chapter is doing there, especially since Aditi’s seductive presence has either been missing from the scenes or been immensely unhelpful in carrying the story forward. For that exact reason, I would have titled the book differently too. Or was the title an attempt to mislead, making this, my comment, a spoiler?  

Finally ...

Seduced by Murder’ is a brave risk at writing a murder mystery, not just because it is old-fashioned in its execution but also because it is so sparsely populated by characters that it runs the risk of getting predictable. I could not predict the end because the continuous stream of the narration left no time for me to think, which speaks for how well the sequencing of events is done. What makes me happy to see is how Saurbh has lent a proper Indian flavour to this murder mystery –  the characters, the habits of the police, the real estate trade, the socio-economic ramifications of murder in a high-class family and even the way the press hungers for scoops. The book is simple (not simplistic), interesting and unpretentious. For those of us who enjoyed detectives with magnifying glasses in their hands will enjoy this book. At this point all I can say is 'I have a hunch … let’s see’, as Vishal would say.

Author: Saurbh Katyal
Publisher: Bluejay

[This review was commissioned by the author. All views are my own.]

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Oldies Online and a Silly Switch

Mickey Mouse in his modern Clubhouse has a Silly Switch, which is essentially a multi-coloured lever with an ‘up’ and a ‘down’, the handle pilots use to fly planes faster in the storm when snakes, aliens or terrorists hijack them. Now, when this silly switch is switched on in this Clubhouse, silly things start happening all around. Think of H. E. Wilkinson’s poem ‘Topsy Turvy Land’ and multiply it by 10. That silly! Loony hell breaks loose. Tea pots start dancing, pairs of shoes elope and gadgets develop a mind of their own. The only thing that helps is finally pulling the lever down and stopping the silliness. 

While someone from Mickey’s brigade manages to do that sooner than later, it seems the young blood of today wonders if a Goofy has pulled the Silly Switch lever full way up in the world of chubsy-tubsy Oldies and their newly found retirement plan - the Internet. I will explain, but first some background. 

If we were to calculate the number of old people socially networking and those in queue waiting for the password to come to their minds from two hours ago, I am sure we will arrive at a mind-boggling figure. Those lovely pastimes of yore like gardening, knitting, sewing, walking and staring into infinity on park benches are gradually making way for a new found love lovingly called ‘doing the Internet’. Of course, there is a time for everything so surfing the web will probably mean post-medicines and after Philips Top 10 re-runs, but can be adjusted before cleaning the dentures, because teeth we don’t need in the www. So progressive, futuristic and so very cute! 

That is exactly why the youth of today are not amused.

With children either settled abroad or as far away as is needed to keep nostalgia alive but trips back home expensive, parents running free and wild online are becoming embarrassing, time consuming, reputation-downing and even heart-breaking for the sons and daughters of the said hexa-hepta-octa-genarians. While the old men and women were unavailable for comment (it must be www time), I spoke to some youngsters on why they seem so disturbed with their parents opening Gmail accounts and ‘coming on’ FB, for instance.

Says a 28-year-old woman (name withheld) working in the private sector – ‘My mother started using the internet a few months back. I was home for a holiday and for the first time ever she was more interested in ‘learning the net’ than rolling besan ladoos for me.  I opened her accounts, made the necessary flow charts, painted the CPU button red so she could locate it and came back to my working life without home-made achaar, ghee and nighties. My train was yet to reach when a Facebook notification said she had posted on my timeline. My moment full of pride turned dreary when I read ‘You have left two bras and one matching panty hanging on the clothes line. Please buy new ones. Only cotton, okay? Make sure you check the elastic. Bye Chunchun.’ At that moment, my phone lost signal. Needless to say, going back to office was a feat worthy of a bravery award. Clearly, she had not understood the concept of a private message. Still hasn’t. I catch her publicly having a private gossip conversation about a third party on the third party’s wall. How silly is that! No, I am not going home for Diwali this time. She can anyway email me spam forwards on how to keep my skin glowing, how to be a grateful daughter and how to find the right match. That is, if she is not posting them on my timeline.’

Zach (name forged) a 19-year-old college student shares his experience with utmost honesty, spiky hair and a hole in his jeans. ‘My dad is becoming an internet addict, man. It’s beyond me why he doesn’t want to read the newspaper any more, or, or talk to his other chums or something about cricket or whatever. It’s like every time I see him he’s sitting in front of the computer, with his nose touching the screen. Gosh, what could he be up to? I saw him on Twitter the other day. A ‘RampModelGal’ was talking about types of balls and he was discussing cricket with her. To think that my coach from school follows him. Shucks. Help me, man. I worry for him. He even sent a ‘namastey ji, have a blast ji’ to Savita Bhabhi thinking she’s his office senior’s wife celebrating her 50th birthday. He even accepted the invitation and RT-ed it when she said ‘my place, tonight ji.’ I am so screwed. To top it all, he will reason it out with me why this is the same Savita who I rode when I was a baby by poring over her picture. WTH, dude! He just doesn’t get it. Get him off!’

The Silly Switch is fully up, indeed.

Horrifically silly tales of oldies on the web can be heard from all corners of the world. A hypochondriac woman had a mild anxiety attack when her son screamed at her for getting a virus into the system. In the US of A, a man confused Google Plus with his insulin injection’s name and forgot he was yet to take it. He had spent 4 hours joining well-being communities there. A woman who won a spam lottery got so over-excited that her coronary arteries made her faint, come to, faint, come to and finally faint in the neighbour’s driveway. She could inform her friend only after gaining consciousness.  

This is not all. Oldie BPs are rising sky high looking at how impolite the youth of today are (even error messages are better mannered) refusing to troubleshoot ageing parents’ www-problems in the dusk of their lives. ‘Sorry, I’m busy’ is what the children have to say in answer to simple questions like ‘where is the key to the keyboard?’ and ‘Shared your diaper pics on your timeline. How do I tag my kitty friends now?’

Youngsters are not amused. Why else will they even refuse to respond to their parents’ calls beginning with a merrily innocent ‘Whatsapp, puttar!’ with no net-strings attached? Last I checked, such abused children were looking to form an underground organization for finding Mickey The Mouse. Why? To turn the Silly Switch down, of course. 

Disclaimer – Age is just a number. Do not take offence. I speak from the horse’s mouth.

[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts. The prompt for today was - Sorry, I’m busy - Tell us about a time when you should have helped someone… but didn’t.] 

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