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Monday, September 27, 2010

Siding With Stupidity

Growing up, or at least one of the things that I remember about growing up, is being taught to do and say the “right” thing. On the surface of things, it may not be much to complain about, but being ‘older’ now I suppose I am in a better position to compare the potential pros and cons of an ingrained modus operandi aimed at turning me into some sort of “upstanding citizen”. However, I never really understood what that meant. And, on that note, perhaps because of genetics or maybe just the psychological make-up of the homestead, I seemed to be naturally malleable when it came to following orders. Still, something didn’t sit quite right with all of this, and with each passing day I noticed the incongruous existence of living to standards that other people either had no clue about, or consistently made an effort to not uphold.

At the risk of sounding obvious, you know, about how an individual’s version of “the world” is quite unlike the state of things out there, it’s often plagued me that what I’ve learned and thought about is hardly ever reflected in the daily “rat race”. Seems to be a good time for an example, so let us examine the statement, “All good things come to those who wait.” Okay, so it sounds a little Biblical when I say it like that, but the idea is that you should wait your turn and conduct yourself as a civilized human being at most places where you may have to wait to be served, such as trying to buy tickets for something, or even standing in line at the supermarket. This is one side of the equation, namely the person looking to acquire something should be well-behaved because this will move things along in an orderly fashion, and life will continue to be beautiful. This is what they taught us in school. This is what they taught me at home. This is the way the world was made out to be. Anything else was considered to be “course”, even “uncouth” behavior not becoming of a potential ‘gentleman’. All in all, the general idea was to be true to your ‘cultured’ self in spite of any and all persecution you may face for holding on to your I’m-standing-in-line-because-this-is-how-we-should-all-behave ideal.

In reality, and not just because I’m from India, this is hardly ever the case. There are always a minimum of three queues in front of any ticket counter. There are always 50 people who suddenly remembered that they were standing in the spot right in front of you, or making some other lame excuse to try and cut the line. And, when you ask your nearest policeman about why he notices nothing amiss, you usually get one of two responses: 1) The Infamous Indian “Shoulder Shrug” or 2) The “You Please Wait” Approach. The first response is as good as sticking a knife in your neck and hoping for the best. Those of you who have encountered it can attest to feelings of uncontrollable rage that make you want to rip the head that lies between the shrugging shoulders, clean off. The latter, albeit attempted politesse, is only a more aggressive form of the first response. Whereas the initial attempt to thwart your questioning mind with a nondescript shrug may have failed, the impeccable ill-logic of “You please wait” will have you baffled motionless. One second ago you were just another guy in line, fighting it out with the best of them to try and get what was rightfully yours, while stocks last of course. Now, just because you dared to open your mouth and question the injustice all around you, you become the villain. For all those around you, witnessing a policeman admonish you for your apparent haste is the equivalent of witnessing some form of petty theft gone wrong, resulting in my arrest. The fact that something like this can backfire on a person is beyond my comprehension, not only because it happens to me but because I’ve seen it happen to others like me. And this doesn’t seem right at all. For all the times that I’ve answered back to some surly cop to complain about his lack of logic, or every time I’ve sent someone to the back of the line for trying to weasel their way to the middle, the positive returns are far outweighed by an inexplicable apathy towards changing the status quo. In favor of the ‘customers’, no less. Customer Service this surely is not, but I guarantee you if you had a genuine conversation with anyone at a place where there is a queue of people trying to obtain something, and after the infamous shoulder shrug, they’ll give you a sob story about how nothing ever improves, but that at the same time how things tend to work out for everyone involved. Fate. The final frontier in any logical argument you can throw at any Indian establishment, whether they struggle to meet and provide basic terms of service, or if they’re experiencing previously unheard of profit levels year-on-year. The unshakable faith in the fact that “fate” rules aspects of one’s life ranging from whether or not you’ll pass your pop quiz in class on a certain day, to finding a bride/groom who will turn out to be like every fantasy that you have had, or have had imposed on you, is quite possibly the wall that logic will never manage to scale. And then, after you manage to wait for what seems to be an eternity, and you finally conclude your business, the voice inside your head seems to shout out, “Well, that was stupid. Why didn’t you just do what everyone else was doing, and leave like an hour ago?” That’s when it strikes you. Everything you’ve ever known to be, every instance in which you rose to the occasion to be all the gentleman that you could be, all of it was a waste of time. No one cares. And no one is about to shed a tear for you because you happen to care and haven’t ever had your “kind deeds” paid back to you. You’re the idiot, with ideals. In fact, you’re probably the reason they invented the “I’m With Stupid ®” t-shirt. And, while you were sitting pretty with your manners and your impeccable etiquette, everyone else was taking care of their business and getting on with their lives. Now, pushing for successful completion of my third decade alive, I often turn back in my mind, to see if I can catch a glimpse of my parents, and perhaps some a hint of what to do next. You know, because the man behind the counter won’t look at me, even though I am being the epitome of politeness.

There are still millions of parents around India, and even the world, who are constantly chiding their children for being too boisterous, “loud”, and other things that were prohibited to them when why were children. They continue to perpetuate the myth of “civility” in modern day human civilization. Truth be told, this was the story of my life till I turned 21. Scary, for sure, but it always ensured that I kept my parents happy if you stuck to prescribed behavior patterns. Well, that was until I noticed that after this age in my life, my apparent inability to stand in line and get things done without having to wait all day, was being looked down upon. All of a sudden, a rapid pace was of the essence. It was one thing to be well-mannered and orderly, but if you didn’t open your mouth and shove your money, or forms, or an empty hand demanding some forms through the little fist-sized hole in the plexi-glass, you were never going to get anything done. Talk about shock! I’d just spent the better part of my life curbing any uncouth behavior that I may be prone to display -- I could always blame that on poor genetics -- and here I was being asked to delve into the belly of the beast I’d long since put to rest. To top it off, I began to really observe my parents in these situations, and what I found was rather startling. They were equally inept at handling long queues with people trying to cut in front of them. They often folded under pressure and reciprocated a shoulder shrug with one of their own. And, after all of this, they would turn around to me and give me one too, no charge. What? So, true to my curious self, I’d often reciprocate with a “What the hell do you mean *shrug*?” to which I’d receive one more, again free of cost. And I found this to be true for a lot of the other things that had been beaten out of me, either physically or mentally. For example, not speaking out of turn now gave way to, “Shout at the top of your lungs.” Similarly, “Wait your turn,” whether in conversation or standing in line, “Always be on your best behavior,” and “Honesty is the best policy” were all modified to now read “Get in there and throw your weight around,” “Save your best behavior for when it really matters,” and “Honesty is relative, if you think about it.” My world had just been turned upside down. In one fell swoop, ‘fortitude of character’ had been turned into ‘social ineptitude.’ And where was I going to look for answers? To the same people who had turned me into a feeble freak of nature? Surely not. No, I decided to look around at the children of this day and age, and to see how many of the parents were now raising their kids. 

What did I find? Children were being raised as children. Curiosity was allowed to blossom, until of course it involved tiny fingers and an exposed electrical socket. Loud-mouthed-ness was being encouraged as ‘cute’, even though at times some of the kids were shouting at the tops of their lungs about how ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’ had been up all night fighting. And last but not least, any damage as a result of horsing around, whether in the house or at the supermarket, was often attributed to kids having more energy than they knew what do with. Having witnessed these situations time and time again, I was pleasantly surprised at first. Then, the reality of having been forced out of this kind of behavior as a child because of the prevailing levels of ‘stupidity’ of the time, or perhaps the place, it began to tug at my heart strings. There was no turning back for me now. No. I couldn’t just wake up one morning and turn into an uncouth, uncivilized beast. Everyone around me would probably give me a day or two to get back to normal, before either calling up the local mental asylum to haul me away, or find it within their reach to stick a gun to my head and put me out of my misery. I mean, when I saw little children being let loose inside supermarkets like Carre Four with their 50 check-out counters, knocking down carefully set up displays, only to see their parents giving them a stern look, or scolding them in a manner that was easily mistakable for encouragement, it boggled my mind. Cut back to my childhood, and even if I had to managed to take three steps in quick succession towards a shelf with the kind of candy that I wanted, I’d have been cut down by my mother’s suddenly octopus-like reach smacking me upside the head. If I had actually managed to make it far enough and knock something down, by mistake even, then all of the other patrons of the supermarket would have witnessed a human sacrifice in the name of all that is “well behaved”.

I’ve asked my parents this, on occasion, about what they think of the way kids are being raised these days. At times, I’ve even joked to my mother about being over-protective, and how she wouldn’t let me touch any surface in any public facility, be it on a bus or even at the airport. Her biggest fear was that I would fall ill, and having been a rather unhealthy baby with several medical issues earlier on in my life, this was understandable. However, when I contrast this Bubble-Boy-like existence to how there are many kids who roam around their neighborhoods looking for piles of sand intended for construction, and having a blast on these mini sand dunes, often putting their hands in their mouths and back on the sand again in seemingly rapid succession, my mother smiles. I point out how they never seem to fall ill, and that in fact, they probably have better equipped immune systems because their bodies are being assaulted with all sorts of germs and bacteria -- things that I’ve learned to become more comfortable with in my immediate environment. Their response? Shrug. Well, that and the fact that they only did what they knew, or thought to be the best thing in the world to do. If they had known any different, they would have behaved and raised me differently. Wow! Just when I thought nothing could top Indian ill-logic, my own parents dish out the total opposite -- Pure Logic -- and totally floor me. And that’s where this matter of “Raising Rohin Right?” was finally laid to rest. This was the best they could do. And, in the midst of growing up, I was supposed to be clever enough to figure out what was really going on, and to steer clear of things that would have led to a far more comprehensible life, if nothing else. Well, I wasn’t. Dammit! And, thanks to a lovely upbringing, I never had the confidence to know when I was doing well, always second-guessing myself because you know you can always be better. But, after all this is said and done, the one thing that I can never ever dispute, ever, is the fact that this life has been one hell of an interesting journey, by far. I wouldn’t have had it any other way, I don’t think. No, not even in spite of these kinds of things potentially screwing things up.

So, now I’m making a conscious effort to not side with stupidity in the first place. I make it a point to be a little more rude, a little more raucous and crude in the way I speak, or bark as the case may be, and definitely a lot more uncouth and clumsy. You know, things like clambering up over people and stepping on all ten toes, and maybe even squeezing in a couple of swift kicks to the shins. Sorry, still thinking of climbing into a crowded Indian bus, at least in those states where you don’t have to look for a place to sit on top of the bus. It’s alright. I’ve always loved the quote, “Some days you’re the bird, and some days you’re the statue.” Nowadays, I just try and be the bird on as many days as possible. And to me, that requires a little less “Mr. Nice Guy” and a lot more of the inner Neanderthal. And, although it may not be smart of me to do this, I’ve begun to preach this message of “getting while the getting’s on”. Don’t worry about anyone else but yourself, and do what you have to to get what you want. Sure it sounds like I’m setting up for some purely bestial carnage. But think about it, we’ve already established the fact that we have too many people on this planet. And going by that thinking, some kind of human extinction is inevitable. All we have is the here and now, for us. There’s no time to be nice because the more you waste time doing it, the less time you have living your dreams, however insane they may be. And that’s okay. Just as long as you remember to give every day your all, and to not have anything to blame not being able to live like this on. Definitely don’t be pushing 30 and have things to blame on a confused upbringing. It’s an old story, and the more times you tell it, or I tell it as seems to be the case, it only gets older. And more tiresome. So, seek out stupidity, and fight it where you find it.

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