For a Good Cause

The unexpected happens to me quite often, and while I’ve gotten better at dealing with it, I still feel slightly shaken sometimes. Case in point:

*phone rings*

Me: “Hello?”
Caller: “Hello! This is X from Y hotel in Z! Do you remember, you once visited my hotel with your father?”

[Dad and I had visited this person’s hotel with the view of operating it. Needless to say, it didn’t work out.]

Me: “Uh.. Oh! Yes, I do remember. How are you?”
Caller: “Good good. Where are you? Still in Z?”
Me: “No, we shifted to Mumbai, two years ago.”
Caller: “How is dad? What is he doing these days?”
Me: “Consultancy, mostly. For projects.”
Caller: “Oh? What projects?”

[Understandably at this point, I thought he wanted to talk to my dad; not me.]

Me: “Can I get dad to call you instead? He’ll be in a better position to explain.”
Caller: “Yeah, sure. So, I am putting up a Gurudwara in Z, and the local newspaper has agreed to do a feature write up on it. Do you think you could edit it? It is for a good cause.”

Translation: do this work free for me.

The French Student

It was 2012, and I didn’t have a job as such. I worked as a freelance writer, but mostly spent my time pursuing my interests in a vague sort of way. One of those interests was French, and I joined Alliance as a student. This wasn’t my first brush with the language, and I already had intermediate qualifications, but the courses on offer were not at par, so I joined a fairly basic level. I figured it would be good practice.

Some months later, I blazed through the exams, and the director was impressed enough to offer me a part time role teaching there. I accepted, again thinking it would be excellent practice to teach the language. The compensation was absurd to the point of insulting, but then that was not my goal.

I had one batch to begin with; a weekend one with 3-hour classes on Saturdays and Sundays for about 12 weeks. I missed my first class because Alliance suggested I attend a conference of French teachers first, and so another colleague took that first class.

The next week, I stood in the classroom, teeth chattering uncontrollably, when the students started coming in. I was about an hour early due to to sheer nervousness. The students were surprised to see me, so I smiled reassuringly, and chatted with them till everyone arrived.

And then he walked in.

I was single at the time, although I had had some uncomfortable entanglements and acrimonious break-ups, which had sworn me off relationships. I was not looking for love; quite the opposite actually.

And then he walked in.

“May I come in?” (After he was already in, but the thought barely flitted across my mind when I turned to look at my last student.)

Tall. That struck me first. Really tall, at least for that small classroom. Tanned. That thought also fleetingly appeared and disappeared. Fit. Wow. Oh my God, so very fit. He had his tshirt tucked into tracks, and I could see his abs through his tshirt. I was dumbfounded.

The guy was arresting to say the least. Not pleasant, mind you, because he didn’t have even the tiniest smile on his face or in his eyes. Just a professional, very detached appearance. He screamed military, right from the haircut to the posture, the barely repressed strength in his mien, and finally the precise politeness.

He wasn’t even my ‘type’. I didn’t usually fall for looks or physiques. I liked humour and friendliness, and this stony-faced chap failed on both counts—at first look at least.

I must’ve said something along the lines of, “Yes, of course.”, because he entered and sat down. With a superhuman effort, I yanked my unruly mind from appraising this ridiculously magnetic creature, and got back to teaching.

I soon got into the groove, and finally managed to stop being acutely conscious of this bloke. But I did notice that he zoomed out of the classroom as soon as I said they could leave for the day.

The next weekend was similar. He spoke very little, answered direct questions, asked incisive questions, and left. Since our classes were 3 hours long, I had a 10-minute break in between, where we could chat and get to know one another. (It helps the pedagogical process, and there were a grand total of 6 students.)

During that break, during the second class, I started a conversation about football. (I was desperate—no one was talking!) And he said something so arresting. Wow, I thought, the guy was intelligent. Cue even more attraction. All in the space of three classes. This was unprecedented for me.

The third class, he told me he was being transferred to another city for work, for a short while. He wouldn’t be able to continue with the classes. I felt really disappointed, but he wasn’t the friendliest soul, so I figured it made no difference. And at the end of the class, he zoomed out for one last time.

Ten minutes later, a fellow teacher and a friend pointed out to a bike helmet in the corner of my classroom, “Quelqu’un a oublié son casque!” It was his helmet, and he wasn’t answering my repeated calls. Fair enough, I thought, he’s lost his helmet.

We locked up the classroom, and started walking down the stairs. Only to be confronted two minutes later with him charging up the stairs at full speed. I looked at him, and smiled. “You forgot your helmet.”

I turned to my friend and said I would meet her downstairs, while we retrieved the helmet. We turned and walked slowly up the stairs, because my arms were laden with files and books.

The door to the classrooms were old and the locks were rusty. They didn’t open without a fight, and for the first ten seconds, we stood there in awkward silence while I fumbled with my books and the lock. Finally, I exasperatedly asked him to hold the load, while I attacked the lock some more. We then made small talk, where I learned he was single and yes, in the military.

The door finally opened, and we went in to get the helmet. As I locked up again, he had the common courtesy to wait, and walk down with me. I was expecting him to zoom off again.

We walked down slowly, talking about small random minutiae which makes up small talk. And we finally reached the ground floor. “Keep in touch,” I said, drawing upon the standard farewell. And he stood there awkwardly, not knowing what to respond. Increasingly awkwardly, I suggested Facebook, which he claimed not to use. He then said he sent emails, which I assumed was a way of asking for mine, so I gave him my card. And we finally parted ways. I was never going to see that fellow ever again.

Except, two weeks later, I receive an email from him. Very generic, but interesting nevertheless. I reply, and he replies to my reply. We became friends. The emails continuously increase in frequency, till the point we are emailing each other several times a day. He returns to town, and the emails become messages, and then the messages become calls.

A month or so later, I start my second (and last) batch of classes. And he is sitting in the front row. He attends for about a couple of weeks, but then stops abruptly after.

His logic was simple: why attend French classes, when you’re planning to marry the French teacher?

How Not To Apply

There is new (somewhat absurd) policy in my company, which states that I have to interview technical support staff. I suppose there is a grain of common sense involved, seeing as I am best equipped to gauge their communication skills.

So today, HR hooked me up with an interviewee. I received the Google meeting invite mid-morning, with an attached resume. Great. The meeting was in the evening, so I didn’t bother with it just right then.

Just as an aside, I set very little store by resumes. People either embellish them, or are so incapable of communicating well that they turn in ridiculously short summaries of their lives. I merely glance at them to get some ideas for conversation.

I was surprised to see that the resume was short. Really short. Half a page, if I’m being generous. Okaaaaay.

But the real kicker was when I looked at the last section, something along the lines of “What I learned at the the previous job.” I am paraphrasing here, because confidentiality and such. The description spanned two lines, and read:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat.

Proofread, people. It’s important. The odd typo is fine, but this? It lost the poor chap the job.

That One Time I Was a Waitress

I had the amazing good fortune (and great parents) to do my A-levels abroad – in the UK to be more precise. My folks were living in Dubai, and I, an absolutely clueless, brainless teenager, was studying there on my own. It was initially terrifying, but turned out to be 2 of the happiest years of my life. Without exaggeration.

My college was in a dinky little town called Scunthorpe, with a mostly local population. The entire migrant population consisted of international students at my college. The other students had grown up together, and thus went through school and then college in their established cliques. It was then fairly natural for the aliens (international students) to bond. And bond we did. Aside: At one point our group consisted of: several Omanis, a Qatari, two Sudanese, a Filipino, several Chinese – both Mandarin and Cantonese – , a Spaniard, and a Turkish dude. Oh and me, the Indian, shockingly the minority.

Apart from the Spanish girl and the Turkish dude, we came from conservative regions and thus we unused to the whole “student worker” concept. However, our other classmates all had jobs. OK, maybe not all, but the vast majority certainly.

My then best friend decided to jump on the bandwagon as well. For some extra pocket money to blow on clothes and the like. And she got a job at an Indian restaurant in town called Indian Ocean.

It had a signboard depicting a mermaid, clutching a pearl, and reclining suggestively in an oyster shell. It was a smidge above shady, with red velvet upholstery, and a blue carpet. There were brass lanterns lighting the tables, adding to the slightly dog-eared look, but possibly intended to lend atmosphere.

One fine day, she took me along as well. She worked there three nights a week, and she hardly had any time to hang out anymore. It was then we had an epiphany: I should work there too!

This decision wasn’t prompted by a great entrepreneurial spirit nor because of an impetus to learn. Not even with the thought of earning some pocket money to spend at TopShop. (OK, Claire’s.) The pay was minimum wage (or less, I think) and we were meant to work eight hours a day. So the lucre obviously wasn’t the attraction either. Working with my pal was the big draw.

I met the owner, a nice, older Bangladeshi man with a red beard. He was happy to have me work there, because I was enthusiastic and the only actual Indian in a restaurant owned and managed by Bangladeshis. And of course the cheap labour was awesome too.

I was thrilled, and leapt into action. My ‘training’ lasted about half an hour, most of which was spent learning how to pull pints without filling the glass with just foam. My friend balked at the thought of serving alcohol, because she was Muslim. I, being Hindu, had no such qualms.

It was very exciting; my very first job! My friend and I stumbled out exhausted by the end of it, but it was magnificent fun.

It lasted a few weeks. I realised very much in retrospect that there was only one rather glaring problem. I was 15, and wasn’t legally allowed to drink alcohol, let alone sell it.

Oops.

Why I Became a Vegetarian

I was born into a non-vegetarian household, where my mum couldn’t cook purely vegetarian meals and my father couldn’t eat pure vegetarian meals. In spite of being devout Hindus, we consumed beef and pork, among other sundry meaty delicacies. Roast beef remains one of my favourite flavours to date; prawns in a butter garlic sauce coming in a close second.

My childhood equally consisted of a deep love and affinity for animals. I grew up with dogs, cats, parakeets, budgerigars, turtles, fish, rabbits, and even a duck at one point. The little duckling imprinted on my mother, and before she died in a tragic mishap, she followed my mother all around the house. It was adorable, and the upshot was that my mother couldn’t ever look at duck meat without feeling ill again. Same with us and rabbits, and obviously dogs and cats. The thought of eating an animal I had as a pet made me physically ill. But, we were still non-vegetarians.

For the longest time, there was a disconnect between the animal and the food on our plate. Of course, many people would say that, as moderately intelligent people, we should’ve known better. While that is absolutely true, the fact is that we didn’t.

My first encounter with this reality came at a fish market in Goa. Till then, I imagined fields of happy cows and sheep, led into a shed, where they were humanely killed. That morning, my dad and I had gone to buy fish and vegetables, at the adjoining vegetable market. I waited for the fish to be cleaned, a process which took place behind the market stalls.

Just adjacent, there were blocks in a line. The dampness and smell indicated habitual slaughter of chickens. The odd forlorn feather remained stuck to bloody patches on the floor and on the walls. It was a grim sight. I looked away, only to see that a few feet further, there were chicken sellers. I saw a lady point to one of the trussed birds laid out in front of a vendor. And the man reached forward, and undid a bird from the bundle. It was then I realised to my mounting horror and nausea that the birds were still alive. I was in the fish market; there are dead fish, so this unconscious thought had extended to the chickens in my mind. Except they weren’t dead. They were alive, with their feet tied together in bunches of 5-6 birds, some laid out flat, and some hung from hooks extending down from the ceiling.

The bird started squawking, held aloft by its legs, desperately flapping its wings. The man ignored all of this — probably used to this — and walked purposefully towards the butcher’s blocks. My stomach bailed at this point, and I turned to flee. But not before I heard the swish and thud of the knife, the swiftly silenced squawking, and the blood pooling onto the floor. I took the car keys from my dad, and sat in the car, rocking back and forth in shock and horror.

That moment, the connection had been indelibly forged. I instantly gave up meat — but not fish. I still imagined that death was painless.

Many months later, I started eating meat again, because it had become difficult for my mother to manage meals. The horror had also passed a little, and although the images were still carved into my psyche, I let it go. I just didn’t think about it any longer.

This year though, that overwhelming disgust came back, and this time my whole family had the same epiphany.

My dad was working in a different city, and my mom was planning to fly down to be with him for a few weeks. I had work, so I was staying put at home. The night before my mother’s flight, we realised that our bathroom had a mouse.

After freaking out and wringing our hands pointlessly for some time, we decided to break out an ancient (humane) rat trap and some blocks of poison. Yes, I realise those methods are in direct contradiction with each other, but honestly, we were completely in over our heads.

We put down the poison, and set up the trap. And the next morning, my mom left. Over the course of the week — I survived a week with a resident mouse — I saw the poison disappear, and the trap remain untouched. Until one day, I heard the trap shut with a loud snap. And I heard panicked screeching.

At that point, I knew the mouse was frightened out of its mind, but I was a ball of terrified tension as well. I looked at the trap and, sure enough, there it was — a tiny, dark brown creature with small pink paws and a long tail. It was clutching the bars of the trap, and every time I took a infinitesimal, scared step towards it, it went into a frenzy, flinging itself again the walls of the trap.

I started crying because I was so scared. Obviously not as scared as the mouse, but I was trying hard to imagine how I was going to get that trap out of the house, out of the building, and release the creature. In the middle of all these considerations, the mouse decided to fling itself against the right door, and the trap sprang open and it ran out. And I ran away screaming.

I was convinced that mouse was going to be a permanent fixture, because (secretly to my relief) the poison didn’t seem to be working. A week passed, and then one day, the mouse didn’t run away when I went into the bathroom. It slowly edged towards its nest, and I felt deep sorrow at having been the cause of its distress. The poison had worked. It was dying. And I was surprisingly in tears.

The mouse went away the way it came, and I never saw it again. And I was depressed for days because I killed a creature that did nothing wrong. It didn’t know that I was afraid of it, that the stuff it was wrecking was mine.

My mum spoke to me on the phone, and she had recently decided to be a vegetarian. She asked me, ever so gently, whether I was sure I wanted to continue being a non-vegetarian, seeing as I felt so badly about being responsible for the death of a mouse.

She was right. I stopped eating non-vegetarian food entirely. No meat, no fish, nothing. At least I am no longer conflicted about the morsels I put into my mouth. And I feel a little more at peace.

Overcoming a Natural Tendency to be Timid

All the people in my life from the last few years would laugh hysterically if I told them I used to be a shy little mouse, consumed with anxiety and self-doubt. When I look in the mirror, I can see why. I have my physical flaws obviously — but the fact is that I now radiate confidence. Not the obnoxious kind that overpowers everyone in sight, but the quiet sort where I look comfortable with myself. And then I wonder what changed.

I had a quiet childhood — loving parents, a home filled with pets, toys overflowing from every crevice, books of every size and shape. I was very lucky, and I embrace that luck with all my heart. But I was lonely. Being an only child, with working parents, doesn’t really teach one the kind of social skills that life expects. I grew up a sheltered, shy and happy little mouse.

Then high school came along, and puberty was an unpleasant experience. It turned my classmates (and me) into teenagers. Except for a select fortunate few, many of us can vibe with the desire to ‘fit in’ and be accepted by the general populace of the popular crowd. Needless to say, it didn’t happen for me. Added to that, familial issues rocked our happy little boat, and the lack of understanding from my peers and teachers made me withdraw further into an already impregnable shell.

College wasn’t much different, because being different makes one stand out. And that’s the last thing I wanted. I wanted to blend in, disappear, melt into the surroundings. Eventually I managed it. Initially it was better than the constant glare of judgmental attention. But the crippling loneliness then set in.

It took a long time for the loneliness to become a solace; a comforting state of peace, where I could spend time with books and people I met online. My interactions became few but meaningful, and that’s when I started being comfortable with myself. Differences were celebrated and became the very foundation of my friendships. I learnt to have real compassion, and to truly respect people’s individual personalities and opinions. Those were the first flutters of my metamorphosis. I was finally comfortable with myself.

However it was work that healed my crippling anxiety. The fillip of becoming financially independent is tremendous. But that was only the first step. I always melded happily into my workplace, connecting with other colleagues easily and comfortably. I didn’t always like them, but I was nice (sometimes blandly so) and thus the equation worked. I became a people-pleaser.

This state of affairs continued for a while. It is only now I realised that the desire to please people stems from great insecurity. At the time, I was being ‘nice’. Upheaval in my home life and love life changed all that. Gone was the security of being in a relationship, albeit a terrible one. The rug had been pulled from under my feet, and I was stunned to see that I was happier. The confidence-draining parasite that was my ex had gone, and I was my own person. It was a liberating feeling.

I moved to different, much tougher metro city from a small, bucolic village town. The electrifying pace of life infused me with purpose — even though sometimes the purpose was to somehow survive the frenetic pace without being trampled underfoot. And slowly, I came to my own.

It was the commute that made me strong. Initially, I played nice here too, expecting people to adhere to the common courtesies I took so much for granted. That misconception didn’t last a day. Aggressiveness became my mien, born out of a primal desire to protect myself from a continuous onslaught. I became the very opposite of a people-pleaser.

Neither of the two extremes are healthy. My new-found aggressiveness didn’t sit well with my family. There were fights and arguments, and of course I saw that I had to change. So I did.

The final change came through when I stopped using any emotional crutches. No anger, no aggression, no timidity, no self-effacement. I made a decision to be calm, yet strong. To be kind, yet hold fast to my principles. To be open to ideas and thoughts, but to make up my own mind.

To answer my own question: I made a decision to change. Everyone else around me is just the same. They too are battling inner demons, worrying about problems and solutions, suffering the pangs of emotional turmoil. They too experience love and joy, happiness and contentment.

We are all perfect and flawed, and by accepting my frailties, I have learnt to accept those of others. Doing so has created kinship, and I can be myself with those I consider — so to speak — kin.