In Ten Sentences Or Less [3] – Happy to Help

Unlike a David who, with just a slingshot, cleverly disguised audaciousness and the element of surprise, brought an oversized, overconfident and, possibly, out-of-match-practice Goliath to his knees, I always tend to come away second-best – defeated, diddled and devastated – when I have to deal with the faceless behemoths – Goliaths in their own right – that pass for customer care centres of the service providers – telecom and television, to name two of the largest – that have become such an ubiquitous influence on our lives.

To start with, the helpline number blazoned across my wonderful-to-have-you-with-us invitation letter is rarely the one that’s active, if the definition of ‘active’ is to be greeted by a robotic voice trying – and failing miserably – to be warm and hospitable and being put on a perennial hold during which I am informed, with irritating regularity in-between repeated snatches of a remarkably tuneless jingle, that my call is important to them, whoever they might be, and that I should hang on till a customer care representative gets to me even if that means my giving up whatever else I was planning to do for the rest of the day, like meeting my editor’s deadline for this piece which I’ve missed twice already.

After an opening salvo that might have deterred a lesser opponent, which I believe myself not to be, the robot changes tack and asks me to press 1 for English, 2 for Hindi, 3 for Bengali, 4 for Tamil, 5 for Telegu and so on till it’s 9 to hear the menu all over again, which it inevitably is since, by then, I’ve forgotten the sequence of language options, although, as subsequent events reveal, I needn’t have bothered to remember them in the first place. Irrespective of the number I press, the language is always Hindi, which I have no problem with except to wonder why was so much effort and time is wasted to make me believe I actually have a choice when I really don’t have any?

The first couple of times this happens, when my perverse choice of English is ignored and I am identified by a mispronounced and almost unrecognizable version of my name in a guttural Hindi that, no doubt, emanates from some faraway office in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, where real estate is significantly cheaper than it is in Delhi, I demand that I be spoken to in the language I have chosen. I quickly realize that this is a mistake: it only tends to prolong my agony because the English on offer, when it is at all recognizable – requiring as it does frequent repetition, interpretation and, inevitably, translation back into Hindi – only means that I am wasting twice the time I would have if I had pressed 2 in the first place (or any number for that matter because, as I am soon to discover, all roads lead to the same destination, much as it did, in older times, to Rome).

Having finally reached someone who by the sound of it, though there is no conclusive evidence to confirm it beyond all reasonable doubt, is not a robot and overcoming my initial discomfort at the way he pronounces my name or the inordinate time he takes to list my address because Bengali street names and Kolkata’s geography are as alien to him as would be Greek ones to me, I finally get to report the problem I am facing. Even before I have quite finished, he regrets, with obvious insincerity, the inconvenience I have been caused and puts me back on hold while he goes off to retrieve my case, as if I am some unrepentant, repeat offender which, in his book, I might well be for having deigned to complain at all.

Patience frayed at the edges, teeth on edge, brain riddled with sales messages and tuneless jingles, I am nearing the end of my tether when he returns to the ether Siberia I’d been consigned to and, with grating ebullience, announces that my problem requires a site visit, which he’d be pleased to organize for me if I’d reconfirm my name and address and while I’m doing that is there anything else he might assist me with because, if I hadn’t noticed already, he is so very happy to help?

“Have a good day!”


In Ten Sentences Or Less [2] – Golf and I (aka My Golf Handicap)

One disadvantage – no doubt, among several – of being a gentleman of leisure – which is a more dignified way of saying, “unemployed” or “prematurely retired” – is that when you are spotted walking your dogs every morning at the sporting Club you’ve been a longstanding member of, idle minds construe, as idle minds are prone to, that if there is someone still sprightly enough, despite physical evidence to the contrary, to keep two Beagles with minds of their own and wild adventure in their hearts in check, then here is someone supremely qualified to take up golf – the one sport guaranteed to keep gentlemen of leisure out of the hair of their family for the hours they’d rather be on their own, which, for the unemployed, unemployable and prematurely retired is pretty much all the time.

As any casual reader might have culled from the preceding paragraph, I’ve not been an advocate, enthusiastic or otherwise, of a game that requires one to repeatedly hit a ball and then go ambling after it over dale, down, sand-trap and the occasional pond, till a final premeditated and painstakingly executed nudge takes it into a hole (a process repeated not once but 18 times) that even Alice would not have ventured into despite the promise of Wonderland. Unsurprisingly, this point of view, like any other, has had its many detractors prominent among whom have been not professional practitioners of the game, as one would have imagined, they having more invested in it and, therefore, more to be fanatical about, but advanced-age amateurs who’ve thought to justify their playing the game, if indeed any justification were needed, on the grounds that Golf (with a capital G) built Character (with a capital C) and the golf course was where real business was done and, therefore, as much a part of one’s corporate job responsibility as going to office, which, in retrospect, is probably true and would go a long way to explain my current state of premature retirement.

But that was before the keen eye of a predatory pro saw me walking my Beagle bitches religiously and his idle mind, being the devil’s workshop that it was, manufactured a vision of me in Adidas polo-T, Blackberry (the live apparel brand, not the dead smartphone) khakis, Nike Tech Swoosh hat and Reebok spike-less golfing shoes, swinging a Callaway Big Bertha merrily and sending little white balls to places where the sky met the horizon, an image that must have been more seductive to me than it was to the person who conjured it because breaking down the hard-shell, crustacean resistance of decades, it recently took me to my Club’s state-of-the-art driving range.

The stray wisp or two of black feather that you might now see around my lips, if you were to make the mistake of looking too closely, is me eating humble crow – not one, but a murder of them!  I also take back every pompous, supercilious and derogatory remark that I might have made about golf, including quotations that my superior and, possibly, malevolent attitude towards the game and its practitioners made me particularly partial to, for example, “Golf is popular simply because it is the best game in the world at which to be bad.”

This retraction that completely reverses my, possibly, unjustified and irrational beliefs about the game comes after one – note, just one – 50-minute session at the driving range under the surprisingly patient tutelage of a pro who, as he saw a ball stutter drunkenly off the tee and die ingloriously at his feet or disappear into areas uncharted, unintended and quite unimaginable or remain resolutely standing, unperturbed and untouched even after several vigorous swipes of a wildly wielded No. 6, must have begun to question the sanity of having persuaded me to take up the game even when his every professional instinct was telling him not to.

Now that I come to think of it, he probably wanted me to keep my head down and my eyes on the ball only so that I wouldn’t see him rolling with uncontrolled laughter at my uncoordinated bodily contortions or, alternately, weeping with frustration at my inability to understand and execute one fundamental golfing premise – that the ball is there to be hit, not air-kissed, air-brushed or just plain ignored. After this first session, I’m beginning to think that P.G. Wodehouse was probably right when he wrote: “Golf, like the measles, should be caught young for, if postponed to riper years, the results can be quite serious.”

But, then, if one allows one’s pessimism to slip a little one realizes that there might still be some advantage in starting late, if it is only not to feel like the gentleman who said: “Golf is a fascinating game; it has taken me forty years to discover that I can’t play it.”

In Ten Sentences Or Less [1] – The Midnight Call That Wasn’t

The Midnight Call That Wasn’t

The call didn’t quite come at midnight, although it’s always so much more fun to say that it did because, after all, 12 a.m. is the witching hour, when, as is commonly speculated, nocturnal creatures – ghosts, witches, demons and the like – are thought to appear and be at their most active, fiendishly concocting magic of the darker variety, if you believe in that kind of thing, which I do whenever, in the guise of creative liberty, I use an embellished lie to trump a mundane truth, as in this case, though, for the sake of salving my conscience, I can always claim that when the call came it must have been midnight somewhere in the world even if it was closer to mid-morning in mine.

Though it emerged from the mists of an almost-forgotten past and was intermittently accompanied by the staccato, unsynchronised barking of dogs – three, as I was later informed – I recognised it to belong to the editor of this publication, although, at the time we had that first conversation, she didn’t exist, not as a practicing editor at least. Nor did this magazine, except as a concept in her mind, which, as I was quick to point out above the sound of canine conversation, appeared somewhat impaired if she were contemplating a new print publication at a time when magazines found accommodation only in doctors’ reception rooms and, that too, if they were at least six months old and the doctor was a dentist who wanted you to get used to the pain before he got to your teeth.

Subscriptions are bought more for the gifts that accompany them – the Black & Decker DIY drill kit, the collapsible telescope to see the stars even if you can’t ever reach them, the Weber BBQ grill to impress your friends with on warm summer nights and the chance, however remote, of realising the dream of owning a Mercedes Benz S-Class or taking a Caribbean cruise aboard a luxury liner – than the contents of the magazine itself, I told her, warming to my pet peeve of how television and the Web’s ready access to every form of news and entertainment at the mere punch of a few keys had killed the reading habit for anything that you could smell, swat flies with, turn the pages of and keep the sun out of your eyes with, magazines and books alike. “Ah,” she countered forcefully, amidst a renewed bout of barking that probably indicated that even the dogs eavesdropping on our conversation disagreed with my line of thinking, “the unfortunate state of serious publications can’t be compared with the gossamer, insubstantial, unimportant, whimsical, superficial, lighthearted and, in a word (if one more were needed), trivial stuff that this publication will be about and for which there’ll always be a place. If it was something significant, scholarly, consequential, profound, meaningful and, in a word (if one more were needed) serious stuff I was looking for,” she asked, sealing her argument and my fate, “would I have approached you to do the last page?”

Suitably chastised, adequately chastened and deeply appreciative of the onerous responsibility of writing a page that is almost always the first after the cover that one looks at while browsing through a magazine at a newsstand before, almost inevitably, replacing it in the stack and buying something less taxing, or while apprehensively leafing through it in a dentist’s den imagining the pain to follow even before the actual drilling begins, I ventured to ask what the last page would be about. “About anything and everything and nothing, or whatever catches your fancy, as long as you say what you have to say in ten sentences or less,” she said, with what seemed to be ambiguity at first hearing but wasn’t abstruse at all if you remembered that Seinfeld was a TV show about nothing that lasted seven seasons, set a new bar for audience appreciation and might well have continued for several years longer if the creators hadn’t cleverly decided to bail out at the height of its popularity.

“If you last even half as long as Seinfeld did, my cup would runneth over,” said my editor-to-be and, in appreciation of the solemn moment that a contract was verbally and wirelessly entered into, even her dogs kept their peace.

With one sentence to spare and, as is my wont, wishing to spread the responsibility for enduring the tests of time and circulation, I had the luxury of the last word: “I will, if you will,” I said.