How my daily commute is the Ultimate Test of humanity. And how we’re all failing.

They say a great pain has to be the driver behind great art. Well, my feet hurt like hell. So here goes nothing. An ailing spouse whose hacking cough brought on by a too-cool-for-sweaters syndrome keeps you up 2 nights in a row. A bipolar housemaid who resigns and then responds next week to an ad for the vacancy thus created (true story). A 24×7 job that kicks all popular notions of “sarkaari naukari” in the gut. A pair of lovepigeons that just wouldn’t stop shitting, birthing, and that thing that comes before birthing, in your precious balcony. Yes, that’ll about do for a particularly artistic morning. Which brings me to where I am. Standing in the Delhi metro on my way to work. Admittedly, it is no Mumbai local (which is my personal favorite definition of purgatory). But we in the Delhi metro, have our own jostling body odours,  edgy tempers, and seasonal flu germs feasting on a human buffet of respiratory tracts. And, yes, feet trampling on feet. No prizes for guessing I lost on that elusive prize of resting one’s buttocks. Some days, though, the battle for the buttock rest just doesn’t seem worth fighting for. Correction. Make that most days. The non-existence or eventually fated breakdown of a queue foretells a stampede a la zombie attack as soon as the doors slide open. People shove, push and race mercilessly, unmindful of women, children, senior citizens and (I swear this happens) even people on crutches along the way. PA announcements pleading people to “Please allow passengers on the train to alight first” might as well be airing war cries, for all the good they do. The man who sits on a ladies’ seat is treated like a dog, the woman who makes him get up is eyed like a bitch. Makes you wonder if it is all that hard for us all to be humans.

Being Human(?)

Or may be this is how humans are programmed. May be our garb of humanity (by which I mean the notion that humans are capable of sensitivity for fellow beings) is a tenderly balanced house of cards, on a table of convenience. When the going gets tough, the people get rough. All it takes is a set of well-aligned disincentives. Pit high demands against limited resources and voilà, humanity becomes passé. Makes you worry about the future of the planet. Is this is a worldwide phenomenon or a special characteristic of Indians alone? I have commuted to work everyday for months in the London underground. I have seen orderly queues on the platform, patiently waiting for passengers aboard to alight first. For real. Crowds perform the role of a social audit, shaming any commuter who attempts to break this decorum. Is that a deeper cultural difference? Or is it just some cold demand-supply logic at work? If Indians were given enough seats, would they behave better? If Londoners were made to compete for a handful of seats, would they turn on one another too? There are exceptions, of course. Reassuring exceptions. The man who stands up for any visible lady standing, even at the other end of the compartment (My husband, by the way. #ProudWife.) The young girl who leaves her seat for an old lady. The lady who lets a woman carrying a child rest awhile. But there is still the majority that chooses to look the other way. Which pisses off the ones who don’t. During rush hour, squabbles and even fistfights are not uncommon. The male equivalent of cold stares and dirty looks in the ladies compartment.

Whose elbow is it anyway?

Whose elbow is it anyway?

***

What can we do about this?

 

A. Shaming the transgressors, London style: This strategy almost never works, given that one is almost always outnumbered by said transgressors. Which makes civil behavior the real transgression from the norm. Indians also have the amazing ability to react to shaming with aggression rather than shame. I should know. I once got yelled at by a guy for asking him to not throw a banana peel on the platform.

 

B. Gandhigiri:  Hum jahaan khade hote hain, line vahin se shuru hoti hai. Credits to Shri Bachchan for making civilized behavior uncool. The husband discovered the Gandhigiri way after strategy A failed spectacularly in the face of these everyday “heroes” on the platform. He started offering them the place in front of him in the queue. Day 1: He tried it on two men. One mumbled a sheepish apology, and took his place at the back of the queue. The other proudly accepted the offer, glad that the world was finally giving him his royal due. 50% success rate. Better than A, but unsustainable across people and time. Plus, an added risk of driving an aspiring Gandhian to violence.

 

C. Enforcement: The presence of security guards at every door of the incoming metros makes Rajiv Chowk the most orderly metro station in Delhi. Which is not an accident, as Rajiv Chowk is the most populous station of Delhi, with footfalls comparable to your average airport. If the Indian crowd were left to their own devices, things there would descend to a riot in no time.

Rajiv Chowk: Delhi's "orderly" pride.

Rajiv Chowk: Delhi’s “orderly” pride.

But is it reasonable to expect security at every station? Would we happily bear the fare hike it entailed? Worse, what does it say about us as a people that it takes burly guys with whistles and sticks to make us behave like civilized adults?

 

D. (Cultural) DNA: What is it about Indian – or indeed human – nature that it takes so little to make us behave like savages? One could say we are biologically wired for natural selection. Survival of the fittest. That could be an acceptable argument if we were playing The Hunger Games. But how come these basic instincts start dictating our behavior even when the stakes are as small as a buttock rests?

***

Is there a systemic solution to this? More sophisticated urban planning? Fines and punishments? Awareness and behavior change campaigns? Design solutions for public transport utilities? Better moral education at school level, inculcating a sense of empathy, compassion for our fellow beings or even basic civility at an early age? Or will nothing less than whistles and sticks work on us? Everyone likes to park their behinds. But let’s not use that as an excuse to trample on our own humanity. Trust me, it looks nothing like my feet.

Vanity Inc

Stock disclaimer: I am quite happy I was born Punjabi. We are the most fun race that I know of. Alu paranthe, bhangra, lassi, Santa-Banta jokes – I love the whole deal. So let not this post be taken as an anti-Punjabi one. The Gujju brides face their Solah Somvaars even before they are legal. The Tam ladies have to sing and dance for Appa-in-law. We Dilli vaale Punjabis have our own funny pre-marital quirks. All that this post (and probably more to come in this series) seeks to do is to point them out. If you’re a Punjabi, laugh at yourself. You know how to. That is part of what makes you awesome.

——

Sample this conversation I had with a Concerned Punjabi Aunty (CPA) almost a decade ago:

CPA: What’s that on your face, dear?
Me (feels face*): What… Oh, that… Pimple, I guess.
CPA: Ah. So what did the doctor say?
Me (aloud): Uh… I… didn’t go to one.
Me (in my head):  I AM A FRIGGING TEENAGER WITH A PIMPLE, LADY, NOT A CANCER PATIENT!

Dus saal baad, the acne has mercifully relented, but little has changed otherwise. One of the many occupational hazards of being a Punjabi bride-to-be is mandatory objectification at the hands of the ‘beauty parlour’ lady. The universe of the ‘parlour’ goes by diverse names these days. From the old western style ‘Salon’ to the uber chic ‘Beauty Clinic’ – this is a one-stop breeding ground for complexes of all shapes and sizes.

From I’m-too-fat to my-skin-pigmentation-is-going-to-be-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it, this place feeds on your fears. Yes, you may burn yourself during the pouring of the hot wax that seems to solve all the banes of womanhood in one one glorious ripping of the epidermis. Yes, you see women yelling hoarse about how that burgundy shade of hair color made them go Miley Twerking Cyrus bald. But all that is just the price you pay in order to look good for other people on your big day. People you last saw that time when you were all of 6 months old and peed all over their shirt. A fact they will not forget to mention on your wedding day as you try to smile through seventeen different layers of Bridal Radiance Grime that your face will be buried under.

But, I digress. This is meant to be a guide for the uninitiated into the deep dark dungeons of bridal vanity. The beauty parlour is supposed to be a second-home for the Dilli ki dulhan. I have been avoiding that impending visit with all my excusatory might. But the wedding season is upon us, and for Delhi’s Vanity Incs, this is sparta. You can run, but you cannot hide. The cosmos soon put an end to my protest with a free ‘beauty treatments’ voucher sneakily provided with my ticket at a PVR. I never knew beauty was a treatment-meriting ailment. And, with that, ended my short-lived satyagraha against Vanity Inc as I was dragged by my pigmented ear to the holy Mecca of manicures and gold facials.

beauty_clinic

A list of all of God’s manufacturing defects that some of these magic-workers correct.

On a fateful Sunday after that, I found myself in the waiting room of a squeaky new Beauty Clinic seducing new customers through free voucher carrots. A world of dieticians and skin expert dementors hovering over people who feel that there is something wrong with them.

They help. They send these people back home, convinced that there is, in fact, a lot wrong with them. Go in for a routine procedure, come out feeling you need plastic surgery. As much as sit in the waiting room, and the dementors float in, magnanimously hawking weight losses by the kilo.

“We have a new lipo machine, ma’am. Latest German technology. You could lose 2 inches in one sitting!”

The good lord be praised, salvation is here!

As I sit, trying to tune out the generous offers, a guy my brother’s age walks in. He informs the receptionist that his friend met with a road accident and tragically passed away yesterday. You can imagine how distraught he was since this made him miss his Body Polishing and Stretch Marks Lightening Treatment appointment. He requests her to let him have his session today instead. She apologises and shows him a time table packed with fellow defective humans. But he wants his treatment, and he wants it now. He proceeds with what I can only imagine was his version of flirting with the receptionist and tries to bribe her with an apple (yes, the fruit, not even the phone) that he apparently brought just for her. Behind him, the staff giggles and pulls the leg of their colleague who will be allocated the unenviable task of lightening our man’s stretch marks.

As the air fills with the stench of ammonia and bleach curing someone of their pigments, something tells me satyagraha against this was not such a bad idea after all.

stunning-smile-bg

Or, don’t.

The Ordeal of Vacationing

“Wow! You’re going to Europe? Again? That’s so awesome!”, exclaims my hyper-excited friend from work when I tell her why she is rid of me for the next 15 days. Little does she know.

Before the criblogpost begins, the customary disclaimers. I am quite the travel-o-holic. Its an occupational hazard of being a traveling consult-woman (unrecognizably ripped off from the Traveling Salesman). Every morning when I wake up, I need a millisecond to acclimatize myself to the new hotel room I am in and to try and work out which city this hotel room might possibly be situated in. Living out of the suitcase is pretty much the only way I live now. The maid at home in Mumbai is used to washing clothes in a pipeline of bursts. As is the iron-man. (Yes, yes, my sense of humour primarily rests on the rock solid foundation of cheap rip-offs and puns.)

But planning a vacation for family – trust me, that’s a whole other ballgame. Many posts ago, I chronicled the, well, ‘economical’ ways of living we swore by in Europe. I went there as a student, with many partners in crime. The ‘student’ tag was largely restricted to the visa. And used extensively for hoarding student discounts. That apart, it was 3 unforgettable months of poor-hungry-Indian-travels. Between spending nights on city route buses, getting thrown out of railway platforms and using McDonald’s as a public restroom, our travel logs would give the Lonely Planet publishers some serious competition. (Oh, that reminds me. I need to download an e-book copy of ‘Europe on a Shoestring’. Any links in the audience?)

Sadly, when you travel with your family, you have to bid a somber farewell to those masterpiece tactics. When you travel with family, you have to be responsible. You have to look up places you want to show them. You have to figure out the best and most comfortable ways to get there. You have to ensure a roof over their heads and a bed under them, every night in every city on the itinerary. When you travel with family, you have to HAVE an itinerary!

And with the need of an itinerary, arises the need for that necessary evil – the TravelAgent-man. This is a superhero who, for all the money laundering talents he possesses, may well have spearheaded many a hawalas in his day. Keeping a watch on him soon becomes your full-time occupation. For, if left unattended, this man is quite capable of booking the Buckingham Palace for your overnight stopover in London. And then secretively telling you how he ‘had to pull many strings’ to get you a free buffet breakfast for just 150 euros a night. Note that he would say this in a manner that makes you feel obliged to get down on your knees and swear your eternal gratitude to him.

You dodge some bullets from the TravelAgent-man menace. And pray that the number he did manage to hit you with is a small one. Feeling like a blindfolded target in a shooting arena – certainly not the best start to that heavenly vacation.

The good thing about vacation planning is that it does not leave you with time to dwell on bullet wounds. So you brush the feeling aside and roll up your sleeves for Stage 2 – packing. Now, being the compulsive traveler that I am, packing is second nature to me. “So this should be easy”, I tell myself, “right?” Wrong. When you pack for Europe, it’s nothing like packing for Nasik, Balugaon (don’t ask) or Delhi – the kind that you are used to. This is no domestic trip where you throw in some sets of your everyday clothes, an extra toothbrush and expect to be all set. This trip demands shopping. Shopping. My Achilles’ heel. Somehow, while he was assembling the perfect woman as part of my creation, my Maker left a slight manufacturing defect. He forgot to add the shopping gene he has blessed most women with. I musts confess that I quite enjoy the feeling of diversity this gives me, not to mention the favour with the gentlemen. But it’s at times like these that this defect leaves me in the cold. Winter gear, boots, backpacks – somehow all the stuff from the last EuroTrip has been devoured by the monster in the attic and I have to do it all over again. Screw you, Murphy.

You find a friend better equipped at this sort of stuff. You bribe him with a KFC burger (what can I say, my friends come just as cheap as I do). And you get him to do all the shopping while you trudge along behind him, holding the bags and the credit card.

The final lap – the documentation. With the family in Delhi and you in Mumbai, this is an act of utmost co-ordination. It involves ugly-ass photographs you hide immediately once the job is done, forms filled in the triplicate, passports being couriered back and forth several times, and, of course, TravelAgent-man manning the entire mission. This stage involves a Visa interview where the scary-moustache-uncle peers suspiciously at you with his X-ray vision from behind that 60-inch thick glass. Just for some added fun, he mumbles his questions in the most inaudible volume. You bite back the urge to request permission to go get your pet African Elephant, as you read somewhere that they can hear infrasonic frequencies. Something about this gentleman tells you that sarcasm might not go down very well with him. So you muster that last ounce of superhuman hearing you hope to subconsciously possess and try to answer his questions best. It all ends with a friendly I-will-take-your-fingerprints-now and duly complete the exercise of making you feel like a sentenced convict. Just 2 more hours of waiting in the room where no mobiles, no iPods and no magazines are allowed. Just 2 more hours of enduring and inflicting some very uncomfortable staring contests with fellow convicts and you are done.

With that Holy Grail stamp on your passport, you are now officially ready to embark upon the journey of a lifetime. As easy as that. Or so my friend from work would think. Little does she know.

“A vacation is where tired people go to get exhausted.”