I was back at the office the very next day, and I suppose that I was ready to do my presentation. Well, the main reason I was unsure about presenting was because I didn't know my audience. I had considered that the panel of trainers would look for something more “technical” in terms of analysis of the examples I had used in my presentation. However, I also considered the fact that I had no clue what an “English Trainer” did really, but if my experience from being a trainee in my last job was anything to go by, it was going to be a whole lot of fun and games. It would still be another eight months before senior management at this company would issue the “Write It On The Board” directive, but I’m getting ahead of myself. I was back at the office, waiting in the conference room, which although not large, was a good enough place to slaughter a lamb, or a presenter gone horribly awry. I was waiting to meet the panel of trainers who would decide whether or not what I had to tell them was good enough for me to get a job here. Not sure of how this would turn out, I was banking on my sense of humor coming to my rescue. In fact, I was banking on it so heavily, I decided to let my sense of funny lead. .After all, maybe I hadn't really considered the fact these trainers were a fun-loving lot, tired to death of teaching language in the traditionally, dreary way..Faced with no other “real” choice, and only adding to my confusion, I was pacing up and down at the front of the conference room with the white board beside me, when I heard the door open.
“Good morning Rohin. How are you doing? All set?” began Saroja. I nodded and sputtered something in the region of “Yes thank you. Please go away.” I wasn’t trying to be rude, but I wasn’t much for conversation when there was something bigger that required my total concentration. Alright, I didn’t tell her to go away, but I was thinking it. I wished her a good morning and tried my level best not to faint or throw up. It felt like it’d been years since I'd been up in front of a group of people. But that was still no reason to act like my brain was short-circuiting, resulting in a string of bovine utterances rather than an intelligible human language. I said I was ready, and against my wanting to seem in control of the situation, I asked her where the men's room was.
Isn't it funny how sometimes you can find comfort in a place that many people dread having to visit unless it's life-or-death? Not to sing any “Odes of the Men's Room” or anything, but even the smelliest of them, and there have been some real nose-hair curlers that I've walked into, have offered me comfort if I've ever been in need. Or perhaps, ammonia is really a hallucinogen if inhaled. Either way, whatever peace of mind I had managed to gather in the little public toilet somewhere behind the receptionist's desk soon disappeared when I opened the door of the conference room. There before me, were five women, old enough to be my mother to add that level of complexity to the interview and selection process, all dressed in very fine Indian attire. It was a fashion bonanza of the most neatly kept, quite possibly starched to within an inch of becoming a plywood board, saris that I had seen in a long time. These were “professional” saris that Indira Gandhi herself would have been proud to sport, and they suddenly filled the room with the air of cold, steely death. Don't get me wrong, a couple of the ladies had on saris with a little more pizazz, and weren't afraid to show streaks of vibrant red and saffron, or deep, dark violet from under swathes of gun-metal gray and feisty black. On the whole, however, the air of anxious expectation that had almost gotten the better of me, was now replaced by one of certain death. As the ladies took up their positions at the far end of the small conference room, I could almost imagine one of them offering me a blindfold, you know, just in case I was afraid to witness my own end by a business-stylish, sari-clad firing squad.
“Uh...Girish, isn't it?” began one of them. I nodded in agreement. “Hi, my name is Naveena, and these are some of my colleagues,” at which point she shifted uneasily in her chair to turn towards the four others who were seated around her, but from where I was standing, they were seated in a neat semi-circle behind her. I've seen these kinds of panels adopt different ways of introducing themselves to their victims, and no matter how many times I do see it, it always makes me wonder what they were thinking when they adopted their strategy. At the moment, it seemed a little like Naveena was taking charge of proceedings, and the others were remaining intimidatingly aloof, on account of this being part of the interview process of a potential candidate. Naveena continued, after what seemed like an unnaturally silent passage of time between the word “colleagues” and she having achieved the appropriate posture, “Mamatha, Amanda, Swapna and Yukta.” With each name, Naveena would gesture at the lady whose name it was with an upward facing palm, and the lady in question either smiled and waved at me, or made a most uncomfortable effort to pretend to stand up where they were seated without so much as pushing their chair away to be able to do so. Remembering new names was of the utmost importance, especially in trying to make a good impression, so I thanked my brain for processing what had just passed as, “Hi, my name is blah....blah-di-blah, blah-di-blah, blah-blah and blah-blah.” Nice. As if not getting any of the names wasn't bad enough, my brain admonishing itself for not being more outgoing and introducing me earlier, compounded by trying to figure out another way to work around having to say, “I'm sorry, I know I was staring you in the face, but I didn't get your name,” I almost missed Nina's follow-up question, “So, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself?”
I didn't know it then, but an interview can be made or broken at this stage. I kept it brief though, without getting into what my mother had done with her life after she finished college and before she had gotten married. I stuck to what and where I had studied, and the little bit of English tutoring I had had the opportunity of doing while in college in the US., which was my USP, and I was sure would get me this job as an English Trainer. Don't know if that impressed her much, but she did seem to pause for a couple of seconds, as if to weigh the impact of what I had just said. Then, she looked up at me with a bit of surprise in her eyes, as if I hadn't said a word to her just a moment earlier, she asked me to begin my presentation. I cleared my throat a little, some of it to actually clear my throat, but most of it to appear like I was ready to begin. I was ready. Well, I guessed I was anyway. I had a joke lined up, and so I launched right into it. If you haven't heard this one before, the first person asks, “Why did the Malayalee go to college?” where 'college' is pronounced more like “KOHW-layj” than what we're normally used to. The second person usually responds with a “Why?” because he has no idea, which is when the first person will jump in with, “To gain more knowledge” (pronounced NOWH-layj). It's a joke about Malayalees mispronouncing things. It's one of the most common Malayalee jokes around. And, it used to piss me off that people made fun of Malayalees. We reasoned that it was because everyone else was jealous by how smart and prolific we are. Isn't there that joke about Kutappan and the Pope? What about that Mallu-chai-shop-on-the-moon joke? But, all I heard in return was silence. For a split second, I thought I heard a cricket in the background, immediately putting it down to my imagination adding a few details, for effect. The silence was deafening, made even worse by the fact that that this foolish Malayalee decided to tell a Malayalee joke, to a group that consisted of three Malayalee and two Bengali women. Still silent, I guess I was more confused at how that had failed to evoke a laugh, at least a slight chuckle of disdain for crying out loud! Instead, it looked like the ladies at the not-so-far end of the conference room were a little upset at this crude joke, lips curling backwards in horror and disgust in case there was more of the banal to follow. In a swan dive from grace, I stumbled, bumbled and mumbled, telling them that I had obviously overestimated the effect that joke would have, and moved directly into how there are several kinds of problems that people face with pronouncing words in other languages, including the lack of occurrence of a particular sound in a language. This seemed to mollify them, so I continued.
They first smiled when I presented my first example. I told them how many of the Asian students I worked with as an English Tutor in college would call me “Gileesh” with an “l” instead of the “r” sound. I even touched briefly on the fact that the for the native Hawaiian language could be represented in English using only 14 of the letters. This, I convinced them, led to some words being constructed completely of vowel sounds, and some that seemed to go on for miles and miles. I used the examples “Aiea”, an area just outside of downtown Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, and the name of the last queen of the islands, Queen Liliuokalani, a name I remember seeing on street signs in Waikiki. Finally, I ended with how in India we deal with people doing this on a daily basis, but with so much more variety. For example, where else can you have the opportunity to hear a national language, and often English too, being spoken in a plethora of dialects, all influenced by a different state or regional language, all in five minutes. The piece de resistance, although I hadn't intended on it playing this role and being a saving grace for this presentation at the same time, was when I went into my example, personal as it was to me and 60 percent of my audience, about how there are dialects in Malayalam that seem to be divided along lines of region, as well as religion. I ended with an, “I mean, where else in the world can you walk into town and have the Hindus, Christians and Muslims all speaking the same language, but differently?” ending with an added harrumph for effect, quite unlike anything I'd planned. It was obviously my mind, but I imagined that I heard a “There, there” here and a “Hear, hear” there, with a couple of the ladies even applauding. I was done. I was also breathing heavy, although nowhere nearly as heavily as when the opening joke crashed and burned. But, I was done, a little drenched with sweat, and dare I say it, pale in the face.
I looked up at the ladies, and for some strange reason there were all looking back at me. Strange. So, I repeated my closing statement – “That's all for this presentation. Thank you.” – and hoped repetition would do the trick. At least, I hoped, it would wake them up from their wide-eyed daydreaming. Seconds became almost half a minute, when suddenly one of them, without moving or altering her earlier posture, not even to make communicative eye contact with her peers, spoke. “I have a question, if you don't mind. Where did you say you were from?” she asked me. I told her I was from Kerala, but my mind was racing to try and figure out if she hadn't heard anything past my name, or if she was trying to put two and two together by matching me to my Malayalee examples. “So,” she began, “That would explain your inside knowledge of the Malayalee dialects,” with which she proceeded to laugh. As the other ladies joined in, I stood there, baffled. What had just happened? No time to worry about it, I thought, so I joined in the laughter, with a few choice guffaws of my own.
Naveena spoke first, after the giggles had subsided, saying, “Well, that was an interesting presentation.” glancing at her peers momentarily, for effect. “We're going to have our discussion and get back to Saroja with your feedback, so I guess you can wait in here or come back when Saroja asked you to, to collect your results.” Sounded alright. But I simply had to be sure, so I asked her if she was supposed to give me the feedback, once the group had come out of its huddle, or if she was going to give it to Saroja. If I remembered correctly, Saroja did say “After they give you feedback” when referring to the next steps in the interview process. Naveena paused. The other ladies went silent. Then, they turned to face each other, proceeding to engage each other in a game of serious eye-darting, in a very me-against-all style of game play.
About eight seconds later, Naveena turned to me, having gotten a round of vigorous nods in agreement, and said, “Oh, I think she have made a slight mistake,” vindicating what I had thought yesterday. “We moved to a new system last week, and many of us are still getting used to the system,” again ending in laughter, but this time a little more tentative. I smiled in acknowledgment, and then pointed out that it only solved half the problem. In this muddled up bit of information, I hadn't received instructions about whether I should stay because Saroja could let me know in a short while, or if I should come back later, perhaps tomorrow, if there was some particular way in which feedback was to be given. I even offered to take their feedback right then and there, claiming that it was a surefire way to help me become a better trainer, if not human being.
Puzzle and alarm stared each other in the face for a second. I was puzzled at why initial question about “Who gets the feedback first?” had caused more than a significant flutter in the group, and I was staring at them with a bit of a skeptical scowl, I was sure. They were alarmed, for some reason that seemed to me to indicate that not only had I not “made the cut”, but apparently I had missed some invisible cue letting me know that we had moved into “awkward moment” time as far as being in each other's company was concerned.
In fact, so uncomfortable was Naveena, that she blurted out an, “I'll just check with Saroja and tell you,” dashed out of the room like greased lightning, with four slightly more sluggish colleagues in tow, all eager to make it out of the now claustrophobic conference room with their lives. As the door closed behind them, I pulled up a chair and plonked myself down on it. I was aghast! Alright, so I hadn't come in here with anywhere near the amount of preparation I was supposed to have, and I was being a bit callous and cheeky every now and then. But, after a flopped joke, I thought I'd recovered pretty well to end on a seemingly matter-of-fact note. But was it good enough? As I sat there, waiting for the inevitable shake of the head with a fake frown that preceded the, “I'm sorry, but you didn't make it” line, my thoughts went back to all the other job opportunities I had circled in today's paper.
I didn't know how long I had been staring at my feet, but when I looked up I saw Saroja heading down the hall towards the conference room. Well, at least I couldn't say that I tried too hard to end up feeling devastated at not getting the job, right?