Sunday, June 1, 2014

The problem with first impressions (even when they’re true).

I don’t make a good first impression. For starters, I’m vertically challenged and it is a proven fact that it’s the tall people who get noticed first; followed by medium-sized people, and by the time they get down to noticing me, something interesting has happened or someone has said something hilarious and everyone’s now busy focusing on that. Now this situation could be easily fixed if I were Eva Longoria (we share the same height) but I’m not.
That’s all right though, we can still find a way out. All I need is a big, colourful personality.
You know all those people who walk into a room as if everyone’s gathered there just to hear them speak? Yeah, them. Are you picturing someone right now? It helps if you picture them. They can talk about anything – it doesn’t have to make sense or even be particularly funny. And many people even secretly admit to finding their constant need for the spotlight, annoying, after a while. BUT. They make a good first impression. A chance that is entirely denied to us introverted, socially-awkward folk.

So. I have to rely heavily on such things as good nature and my ability to sustain deep, meaningful conversations and relationships. Everything has to be about depth and meaning because clearly, I’m completely lacking on the cosmetic front. This is why I don’t even bother putting my back into small talk. People mistakenly conclude that this is because I must be some kind of snob, but it’s completely untrue. It’s because I need time.

 See, unlike all those flashy, charming people who will swoop right in, bowl you over and disappear before you can pick yourself up, I will take my time to grow on you. Sure, I can’t hold a party together, dance to save my life and no, rooms do not get brighter when I walk into them.

But give me some time, and I’ll know all your faces, all your noises, your defence mechanisms, your weird things, your annoying traits - and unlike most people who will give up on you at this stage, I’ll just be getting started.
And suddenly, you won’t even remember what you thought when you first met me because by now, we’d have the kind of friendship that actually matters. And all the party chit-chat in the world will not be able to replace it. If you’re a sucker, this might even cloud your judgment and make you think I’m kind of pretty. Deep and meaningful with even a healthy amount of delusion. What’s not to like?

It’s because I’m not trying to make an impression to begin with. I’m looking for people worth investing in. In some ways I feel like this has a lot to do with the fact that I’ve lived in Chennai all my life. It just strikes me as a quintessentially Chennai trait. I mean, while all the colourful complaints about this place might be true, I also suspect it’s because people might be looking at it with all the wrong expectations. Because as almost anyone who has adopted this city would tell you, it does not make a good first impression.  But it has a way of sneaking up on you, getting under your skin and much to your surprise, you realize that you don’t even want to shake it off.

It doesn’t have Bombay’s appetite for constant excitement or Bangalore’s fabulous weather, but for some unfathomable reason, it’s the one place you want to rush to when you’ve spent more than a few weeks anywhere else. Because while all those other cities are great for small talk, Chennai is the one that really gets you. And not the you-in-high-heels-blowing-page-3-style-air-kisses, it gets the you-in-pyjamas-listening-to-Ricky-Martin-in-secret-shame. And it loves you anyway. So you reciprocate in the only way you possibly can – you call it home.

As I recently overheard a twenty-something guy describe Chennai– ‘It’s like the not-very-good-looking-but-sweet chick you ignore at first, but end up marrying.’

Yeah, sounds about right.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The New Law of Reciprocation

Someone recently enlightened me about how teenagers in London, say hello to each other. I’m cutting the story short here, but it involves two teenage girls in the tube, having a casual exchange that goes something like this: ‘He sent me a naked picture.’ ‘Oh. What did you do?’ ‘(Shrugs) Sent him back one of mine.’ ‘How do you know him again?’ ‘Met him just once at a party.’ ‘You said you didn’t like him right?’ ‘Yes, but I didn’t want to be rude.’

Oh.

After discussing it with a few others here in India, I realized that it’s how it is here as well. It’s probably not yet a norm for politeness, but it does exist. I responded to this in three ways: As a person, I was appalled. As a parent, anxious. And as a writer, curious.

When I was a teenager back in the 90s, playing hard-to-get was still in vogue. Girls gave boys a good long run before they expressed any interest in them and the boys, in turn, seemed to appreciate this because it made them feel like they had won something. But like all cute traditions involving teenagers, this one also came with a rule. A rule that no one spoke of, but understood. And in my case, learned after several embarrassing situations. And the rule went like this: The length of time a boy chases you, is directly proportional to how good looking and popular you are. And oh, how much the other boys want you.
So. I learned politeness early.

I learned not to be shrewish and fussy, to not take anyone’s interest in me for granted and to always appreciate the nice things that people did for me. But most of all, I learned to reciprocate – a trait that has served me well in adulthood. Of course, reciprocation in the 90s didn’t always have to be in the same capacity. So if a boy liked me ‘like that’ but I didn’t, I responded by being nice to him and treating him like a friend. Because the rule of reciprocation went like this: You can’t like everyone ‘like that,’ but you can still be nice.  

Clearly, the law of reciprocation has been drastically revised since. And yes, I understand that it is the bane of every generation to attempt to exorcise the demons of the previous one, thereby begetting new demons. But what I don’t understand is this: What did these kids find so wrong with our hellos that they had to take such an extreme step?

Perhaps they recognized all societal norms to be a farce. They noticed that hellos between boys and girls are often loaded with sexual tension. And where there is tension, there is always an agenda.
Maybe, at a subconscious level, all they’re really looking for are friendships without hidden motives. And this is just their way of freeing themselves of said motives – by getting the sexual tension out of the way in the very beginning. And what better way to say ‘All right, get it over with and then we can be friends’ than sending naked selfies to boys you barely know and don’t really like? It’s kind of brilliant when you think about it. Right?

Hahaha, no. I’m messing with you. It’s warped, freaky and in every sense, a cry for help. We need to fix this. But how? Especially since it’s established that no generation has ever listened to the previous one. But what is also established is that they are programmed to go in the opposite direction. SO. I’m thinking, we should go completely cuckoo on them. Like, 90s-grunge cuckoo. Show up with weird hairdos, walk around in ripped jeans, break things for no reason, stay perennially high, appear promiscuous and generally act angry and misunderstood. They won’t know what hit them.


And they’ll learn to reciprocate by living on a freakishly high moral plane. If they don’t, we’ll start twerking. Just as soon as we find out what it means.

Monday, February 24, 2014

New People vs Old People (and the science of small talk)

People are always talking about how they like to meet new people. And they always say it like it's something they really like about themselves. Like, 'Oh, I just luuuuuurv meeting new people. It keeps things interesting' and 'I get a rush out of meeting and making friends with new people.' This bothers me. It's okay to like meeting people and all that, but why this over emphasis on NEW people? I mean, what about the old people? Now, I'm not against new friendships at all and I agree that newness is always exciting. But for me, the rush is in discovering new layers in people I thought I had completely figured out. You know? That moment when someone you've known for years, turns around and says or does something so out of character, that it makes you dig deeper. And then, upon digging, you find this whole story attached to this trait that's so familiar to you, and yet it's so different from the story you told yourself. It's like every person in your life comes with an infinite number of Easter eggs that are revealed to you from time to time if you won't stop looking. How cool is that. So yeah, for once in my life, I'd like to see a social media profile that reads 'I like hanging out with people I already know.' 

But then again, I'm on the other extreme of this situation. I'm so supremely happy with the alarmingly few people in my life, that I need to be pushed, bribed or blackmailed into putting myself in a situation that would involve small talk with new people. I'm like the fox in that episode of Full House where Jesse and Joey go into the forest to film the 'fast fox' for a Fast Fox Fax commercial (heh). And they sit there all night making vague noises, trying to coax the fox out of its hole, but it refuses to surface. And after a whole night of no-show, they start singing Happy Trails in their desperation and the fox finally comes out. Yeah, it takes a lot of effort and most people pack up and leave. 

But see, this is not because I'm snooty. It's because I really don't get the science of small talk. And it’s a science, mind you. An exclusive science that everyone but me seems to be in on. I've tried and I don't get it. Everything about it makes me anxious. Like, when people you've just met, look you squarely in the eye and say "Let's keep in touch." See, now everyone agrees that this is just plain, old fashioned manners, but I just don't get it. Because for me, keeping in touch is an entirely spontaneous process that I give no thought to. I meet you at some vague party, we talk for sometime, we do okay, we leave. Then we randomly bump into each other again, talk some more, find that we get along good. Then we end up working together on something and this time, we really hit it off and suddenly, tada! We’re friends.
SO. I get very nervous when people just DECLARE it like that – Let’s keep in touch. Because then, it becomes a plan. And when something is a plan, my brain goes off into OCD mode. I need to know everything about the plan so I can decide if I’m on board with it. So I want to ask this unsuspecting, friendly new person I’ve just met, a few questions about this PLAN. Like, how are we going to do this? Are you going to  call me or am I supposed to call you? If I don’t call, will you think I’m ignoring you? Also, what will we talk about when we’re keeping in touch? So many questions.

Of course, I refrain. It is never OKAY to unleash the crazies on someone you’ve just met. You should wait at least 3-6 months and see if they’ll pass the test. This is why old friends rock. Because they’ve seen you go batshit  and for some unfathomable reason, they’ve decided to stick with you. And since their expectations are so low, it can only go uphill from here, see? This is just logic.

Some people argue that you never know what to expect around new people and the whole unpredictability of it all is what they find so exciting. And then they'll annoy you with that overused sentence "because I'm a very adventurous person." I don't get it. If adventure is what you want, why not jump off a plane with a half-broken parachute? That way, you might even make it to the front page. But using new friendships as some sort of bungee jumping exercise? That's just uncool, dude. 

But they aren't the worst offenders. It's the ones who are out there "networking." I think networking is perfectly legit as long as you make your intentions known. Then it becomes a purely professional exercise for both individuals. But meeting people, pretending to be their friend, regularly keeping in touch with them and then referring to them as a "good contact" behind their backs? I will never get that. 

But that's all perfectly OKAY. As long as you're adventurous and like to meet new people. 


Sunday, January 26, 2014

When Sophie Met Sid (The Weirdly Fictitious Post).

So. Yashodara Lal Sharma, the lovely author of Just Married, Please Excuse, has come out with her second novel - Sorting out Sid. She asked me sometime back if we could get our lead characters (Sid from her novel and Sophie from my second novel, Sophie Says: Memoirs of a Breakup Coach) to meet, and I thought it would be a fun experiment. So we had a short exchange the other day, as our characters (She was Sid and I was Sophie), on Google Talk and I have to say, I'm enjoying every second of this MPD thing. It was so much fun fake-drunk flirting as a fictional woman with a fictional man written by a woman.

Schizophrenia is company. MPD is a party ;-)

         ***

Setting: A Bar in Chennai. Lights Dim. A guy and a girl find themselves sitting next to each other at the counter. Both are on their third or fourth drinks.

Sid: (Preens, trying to get her to notice his newly sprouting French Beard. He refuses to be the one to say something first even though he feels like a conversation. It would be too forward of him.)

Sophie: And this is a day I never thought I'd see in Chennai..

Sid: (Hoping she isn't one of those crazies who end up in places like this) Excuse me?

Sophie: (completely ignoring his cautious approach) Nothing, I find it charming that you think you're being subtle checking me out.

Sid: ( sputters and chokes-he was in the middle of taking another swig of his Beer. Recovers and says with as much dignity as possible). Madam. I assure you I was not. I was merely looking at MYSELF in the mirror to see how my new French Beard is coming along. I apologize if you thought I was looking at you. (He adds) I am very much a married man. Married fifteen long years, actually. (Shows her his ring to convince her of the fact.)

Sophie: (rolling eyes) Okay, relax, take a breath and all that, Gilderoy Lockhart. (a beat, speaking more to herself ) Wow, so there's hope for that sinking institution after all…

Sid: Gilderoy..who? Oh I see. I understand. I'm sometimes mistaken for a foreigner. Well, it happened once. Oh, but that's when I was in China, so I guess I was a foreigner only (Shakes head to clear it). Anyway. My name is Sid. Siddharth, actually, but everyone calls me Sid. And you are...?

Sophie: Never mind. You might be too old for a Harry Potter reference anyway (quickly realizes she's too old as well and tries to change the subject). I'm Sophie. And everyone calls me Sophie. Or The Breakup Coach.

Sid: (shocked) A ...break up coach? I didn't know there was such a thing. How unusual (Suddenly realizes she was making a barb at his age). Hey. I'm only 36. I've been TRYING to look older because I might soon become a VP at my company. And I'll have you know that my marriage is JUST FINE. No sinking institution at all. (Sinks lower in his chair, trying to keep thoughts of his last fight at home at bay)

Sophie: I was actually commenting on marriage as an institution and not your marriage specifically, but interesting response (looks at him like she's making a psycho analytic observation). Also, VP at 36, huh? Good for you. I'm 31, fashionably quit my job a few months ago because it wasn't "fulfilling" and now I have nooooo idea what I want to do… (smiles vaguely, looking straight ahead.) (a long pause). You know, at this point, it is polite to offer a sad fact about your life.

Sid: (caught off guard) Sad fact...well, I would except that my life is fine, FINE. It's Rockin'! (thinks for a bit, realizing he may be overdoing it) Well, I suppose...it could get better. Mandira and I have been ...er, having differences of opinion rather a lot. But that's normal in any relationship, right? (Changes track, embarrassed at having opened up to this strange girl, although she is kind of cute. But he's married!) So, no job eh? A free bird-types?! I'm sure joblessness has its moments. Doesn't it?

Sophie: (noticing he's embarrassed about opening up and getting a kick out of making him feel worse): Whoa, whoa, Sid…too much information.. It's not cool to discuss fights with your wife with strange women at the bar, you know? (impish smile)
Sid (feeling uncomfortable) Yes, yes...well, you're the one who started with the whole break up, sinking institution thing. Never mind. Wait, so you're not really jobless then, right? You do that...Break up Engineering thing?

Sophie: (laughing) You're so cute... (Doing a Sid impression) "you're the one who started it..nananana" (chuckling again)..sorry, sorry,  I'm 4 margaritas down. And yeah the Breakup "Engineering" thing is more of a blog I write. It's called Sophie Says. Hey, you should look it up on Facebook! Uhh, not that you need it or anything.

Sid: (Tips of his ears turning pink at having been called cute. But wait, she's just making fun of him) Yeah. I definitely, so definitely don't need your services. (Doesn't like the way that sounds) Er, what I mean is ... yeah, my marriage is fine, but still. What do you do exactly? I would look it up, but I'm not much on Facebook. I don't get the time at work, busy long days, meetings, emails, important stuff, you know. Plus (confessing a little shamefacedly) They keep using some Firewall thingy to block it at office.

Sophie: (laughs) Well, as a Breakup Coach, I get to slap some sense into Breakees. Uh, Breakees is a word I coined for people who get dumped. You know Relationship Junkies who think they're entitled to whine all over town, throw tantrums and boil your bunny because you dumped them? Yeah, I like to fix those losers. Kind of like a contribution to society and all. Also, this whole thing is built around the philosophy that it is the Breakers who suffer more at the end of a relationship and NOT the Breakees who have friends, countless tubs of Baskin Robbins and good old fashioned self-pity to fall back on…(Looks at Sid thoughtfully).Also, you keep saying that your marriage is fine A LOT. Just an observation. Feel free to ignore it. But you know, you strike me as the king of denial.

Sid: (defensive) That's because it is Fine. A LOT. That's just how it is. I am so totally NOT the king of Denial. That's just ( Realizing he's denying it too hard) ...And I have no idea what this Breaker and Breakee business is. Isn't it possible for two people to just mutually decide that it's not working, at some point? ( He takes another large swig to fortify himself. This conversation is taking a toll on him. Looks at her, with almost a plea in his eyes this time) Doesn't that EVER happen?

Sophie: Like I said, just an observation. But I feel like you're very all-caps-y every time you talk about your marriage, you know?  (she sighs, there's a pause) And I wait for that day as much as you…the day when the breaker and the breakee deal with their own problems…(examines her glass. it's empty.) So tell me, mysterious stranger with too many unresolved issues, should I order another one or are you afraid you might fall in love with me? (drunk laughs).

Sid: ( trying to suppress the strange attraction he feels towards her. Come on, you're the master of suppressing things, he tells himself) I'll take that chance. (turns away from her)  Bhaiiya! I mean Waiter! We'll have another refill, this lovely young lady and I.( Searches his head for a safe topic) So...are you from Chennai?

Sophie: (thinking to herself: Oh, crap. What did I do. I already have a Ryan and a Yatan to deal with and after all the grief I gave Bonnie about the married guy… oh, please God..I've learnt my lesson! I shall never judge again!) (Smiles). Yup. Been here all my wife. Er, life. You?

Sid: I'm from Delhi. Er, well, I'm actually from Lucknow but now I live in Delhi. Used to be in Bombay, but my wife got a great job opportunity in Delhi so we moved there. Good for me, though! Doing very well at work. The VP thing you know. ( Realizes he sounds like a bit of an ass but it's too late to backtrack)

Sophie:  I was just at that point in my margarita buzz when I had gotten past my existential pain. But now that you've reminded me again about what an unaccomplished mess I am what with that VP thing you keep bringing up and all.. (pouts at the mirror, trying to see if she can appear girly for a change) Anyway… this has been peculiar, Sid. I never thought I'd see the day in Chennai.. when a cute guy would check me out at a bar and then tell me that he was only checking out his new french beard. (smiles)

Sid: (Humorless laugh) Okay! Fine! You want to hear it? I will TELL YOU (getting very loud)...I'm a VP at my company, all right...BUT YOU HAVEN'T ASKED WHAT WE MAKE!
WE MAKE TOILET CLEANERS. YOU KNOW...STAIN REMOVAL FOR WESTERN AND INDIAN STYLE BOTH. NEW PERFUMED VARIANT. I WENT FOR THE PRODUCT RESEARCHES MYSELF. IT WAS ENLIGHTENING! HAHAHAHAHAHA

Sophie: Ohh-kay. My girl erection just went down.

Sid: So You're not the one with existential problems! I'm the LOSER! Ha ha! I WIN! (suddenly realizes what she just said, and looks hopeful) You mean I could have...we could have...can we rewind and maybe ...

Sophie: (laughs) I think this is the point in that drunk cocky boy meets drunk damaged girl scenario, where they should both get up and leave. (Leans in to whisper to him mock-seductively) You know? Since your marriage is FINE and all? (picks up her bag to leave, flashes him a smile.) This has been sweet, Sid. But let's NOT keep in touch on Facebook. (winks).

Sid: (calls after her) I wasn't interested anyway! You're not  my type after all! And I'm too loyal! My MARRIAGE IS FINE! ( Sees he is now alone except for the waiter staring at him with arms crossed. Looks at him haughtily) One more, Bhaiiya! (Slumps over the bar)


*** 
You can pick up your copy of Sorting Out Sid here and Sophie Says here