Sunday, May 19, 2013

Attn: Incompetent, inaccurate mimics of the Malayalam accent

[on behalf of my long-suffering, eye-rolling, teeth-gnashing Malayalee sistaezhs and bruthaezhs]

No, it’s not as easy as you seem to think it is. You can’t just replace all Ps with Bs, all Ts with Ds, and all Ks with Gs, and think it’s done. For the minority among you (incompetents still, but somewhat less pathetic) who have given this a thought or two more, double displacement, which is a robust feature of most accents, will not meet the case fully either. By this I mean that you can’t replace Ts with Ds while cleverly replacing Ds with Ts, and think it’s done. There is much more to it, so get the wax and the prejudice out of your ears, and appear silent instead of stupid till you get it right.

There are at least 2 pronunciations of the letter L, and more than most people can ever train their vocal apparatus to accomplish of the nasal sounds. I mention L because there are 2 in the name of the language itself, and that’s where the mispronunciation (by non-Malayalees) begins. Avoiding all technical words, here’s a description: The first “l” is soft, and produced with your tongue flicking the back of your upper teeth. The second is more forceful, and produced by flicking your tongue against the roof of your mouth. This second will hereinafter be referred to as L. So non-Malayalees who say maLLu are already violating this rule. The word, if you must use it, is mallu. While on Malayalam, a word about the land: It is kay-ruh-La, not K-ray-la.

A few illustrations of the traps that ill-informed Malayalee mimics fall into, as well as some solutions, follow. Some of these shoes will fit. Wear them and cringe!

(i)           While in Talk-yoh (not Dock-yoh), the capital of the cundree (not guntry) Japan, you can dream about the oh-toes in India.

(ii)          You may well deposit money in a baang, but don’t expect to see a gangaroo in Australia.

(iii)        Trousers may be a paand, and briefs paandees, they are never a baand and baandees.

(iv)        Political intrigue may involve cone-spiracies, there are no gone-spiracies.

(v)          Kagadiyas may have ruled Warangal, Gagadiyas never did.

(vi)        Kyoons wear gault jwellery, aant take part in kyusses, vuhr bussers have to be pressed within a sekent after the kostin is asked. [Non-Malayalees, please don’t attempt.]

I have to mention that over-flogged dead donkey – the pronunciation of MOON. I call it a dead donkey because, contrary to the popular expectation, it is no horse. Find me a Malayalee who says Yum, Yo, (yet) Yanuther Yo, Yun, and I will show you a badly imitated Tamil. It’s the old old blunder that people make of classifying everyone south of the Vindhyas as Madraasi, and proceeding to make an appalling hash of all the accents.

Kindly don’t make fools of yourselves “imitating” the accent. It’s good to have the facts in any case, but imperative to have the facts when you are ridiculing something. So be more observend, and more skillful, else, you mo-rones, F-oaf.


Monday, May 06, 2013

Thank you for providing the details, Ms. Lakshmi.

The proliferation of telephone answerers – customer service agents, marketing agents, relationship agents, activation agents, and surely many more titles that I am unaware of – has led to everyone’s needing to talk to these faceless, and unfortunately often clueless, individuals every now and then.
These people have been trained in smoothness, never mind how important smoothness is, especially compared to effectiveness, or efficiency. One tenet of politeness in the contemporary world of high traffic of goods and services is the use of the name. “Learn and use the name of the persons you are communicating with to make them feel special/important” seems to be the guiding principle for agents in their telephone conversations with customers. Not a terrible idea in itself, and not bad if used very sparingly, so that, for instance, the customer doesn’t wonder if she/he has been in the middle of the resolution of someone else’s problem for the past 15 minutes. But a terrible idea the way it is used by many these days.

Typical experience:
I (after many minutes of listening to an unnaturally chirpy advertisement listing the various exciting discounts lined up by the company for me, or then to some listless music, after punching numbers in accordance with pre-recorded menus): Hello.

Agent: Thank you for calling [company name]. This is [name blurted out]. May I know your [membership/account/telephone] number?

I: 12345678910

Agent (after a short pause in which the mystery person behind the said number is unveiled): Ms. Lakshmi?

I: Yes.
Agent: May I ask for some details, Ms. Lakshmi?
I: Yes.

Agent: Ms. Lakshmi, can you confirm your address/email/date of birth?
I (wondering why they don’t proceed to ask for time of birth/nakshatram/gotram) recite the answers.
Agent: Thank you for providing the details, Ms. Lakshmi. How can I help you, Ms. Lakshmi?
I: I have @##%^ problem. I called about it before, and was told that… etc.
Agent: Very sorry for the inconvenience, Ms. Lakshmi. May I place you on hold while I look into this, Ms. Lakshmi.
I: Okay.
Back to unnaturally enthusiastic advertisement or listless music, or worse, the call drops!
I (after many minutes of the rigmarole again): Hello.
Agent: Thank you for calling [company name]. This is [name blurted out]. May I know your [membership/account/telephone] number?
I: I just called, and went through this whole process. The call got disconnected, and I had to go through this again. You have my phone number. If the call drops again, can you call me?
Agent: I understand your problem, mam. Very sorry for the inconvenience, mam. But we cannot call, mam.
I: Why not?
Agent: We are not having the authority to call from here, mam. We can only receive calls, mam.
I: Do you have a direct number that I can call if this drops?
Agent: No, mam. You have to come through the customer service number only. May I know your [membership/account/telephone] number?
Back to the grind, then a transfer to some other department, more music or exciting offers, more risk of the call going off.
Later, a text message asking me to evaluate the transaction I just had.
It’s frustrating enough that my problem is confessedly in the hands of someone who doesn’t have much, or any, authority. Do I need to have this so-called politeness stuffed in my ears too?
If there’s any analyst actually going through the conversations that may be “monitored or recorded for quality control”, we may find out that my exasperated guess is correct – that if all the “Ms. Lakshmi”s were added up, the problem that I called about could have presumably been solved before the first call dropped.
Customer service agents, please note: There is (almost) no danger of my forgetting my own name. The danger is that you may forget it, which is not a catastrophe, but if you think it is, do this: As soon as I utter my name or you get it from the electronic record that pops up, keep it visible, on a note or on your screen. If in the conversation that follows, you are unable to find something to fill an empty second at the end of your assurance that my account is shipshape, utter my name. Else, let that empty second be.
Politeness is good. Actually, an absence of rudeness is good enough. The really important need is for the problem to be solved. Icing in the absence of a decent cake is not only no use, but also severely annoying. Once you solve my problem, call me Ms. Lakshmi as many times as your supervisor wants, while I hang up smiling. Till then, place a timer on your table that goes off every 3 minutes, and call me by name only when it goes off. If you’re really good, you won’t have to at all. If the resolution of my problem takes longer, at least you won’t have to say my name more frequently than every 3 minutes.
All this is not even considering that fact that when you attach a “Ms.” to my name, you might avoid leaving the name bald. But that’s another story altogether. For now, just don’t take my name in vain.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Dr., No

– on the inseverability of the title from certain graduates’ names

What is this (pre)fixation that Indian medical practitioners have with the prefix ‘doctor’? It is only a prefix, but quickly wriggles its way into the position of a praenomen, with both the individual in question and his/her associates taking every care to stuff it down people’s throats. Witness non-medical, social conversations such as –
(i) Caller: “Hello, could I speak to Sangeeta please? It’s about the matrimonial website profile.”
Responder (Raised eyebrows, (un)fortunately invisible to the caller): “Yes, this is Dr. Sangeeta speaking.”
Caller (unspoken): Ooh baby! You’re never going to be Dr. Mrs. Me!

(ii) “Could I speak to Dr. Anjali*. This is Dr. Sunita’s* father calling.”
(*both young medical students, neither even technically a doctor yet)

(iii) Cameraman: “Sir, please say your name and designation, and then describe the programme.”
Interviewee: “Good afternoon. My name is Dr. Satyanarayana, director of the Board of Pseudohypertrophic Medicos.”

Not to mention the innumerable lists of names you will find of participants in many conferences: Dr. A, Dr. B, Dr. C, Dr. S, Dr. W, Dr. T, P, Q, F, and H. Evidently, P, Q, F, and H do not warrant any title – after all, they are not doctors.

Granted it is a “noble profession”. If there is any doctor who hasn’t heard this, obviously he/she didn’t go to medical college in India. People who fulfill needs are naturally popular, wanted, welcome, or respected, depending on the urgency and importance of the needs and sometimes the individual’s skill to address them. So it is that someone who can attend to your body in its distress is much wanted and more respected than someone who can design a comfortable house for you, or give you a dashing haircut. The noble aura of the profession comes from the tacit understanding that compassionate service will be provided, and ability and well-being restored, preferably without taxing the poor recipient to despair. This purported nobility is questionable, if the contemporary state of society and the current membership of medical colleges are examined. Private medical colleges are prohibitively expensive. An enrollee may be expected to slog and pass out (in more ways than one) and then devote him/herself to years of money-making to redeem the outlay for the course – not the most natural circumstance for a service orientation. Government medical colleges offer excellent and far more affordable education, but to whom? Only a sliver of the truly outstanding applicants; the rest of the places go to those who may not be there on the basis of “merit”, and could go on to make somewhat indifferent graduates. So, there is a good chance that many doctors out in society today are not all that brilliant, or not as focused on nurturing health as on cultivating money. So much for noble professions. Surely all of us have come across doctors who have surprised us with their narrow minds, poor observation skills, and suboptimal advice. With time, even the healthcare system, somewhat uncomplicated in the decades past, has taken on corporatized, commercial, discriminatory, and confusing shades, incorporating a complex rigmarole of unfriendly insurance schemes, exorbitant drug pricing, and medical philosophy hegemonies. To complicate matters further, consider the fact that the average doctor today is not a health specialist, but actually a disease specialist. Health is so much more than just a freedom from a long list of ailments – but this is something that most people, including doctors, don’t have the luxury of reflecting on, beset as they are by one or more of a long list of ailments!

To return to the wide popularity of doctors, a health practitioner is clearly the only emergency executive whom everyone sanctions – it is difficult to imagine a socially accepted call to a tailor / lawyer / carpenter / beautician / architect at 2 a.m. You might call a policeman at 2 a.m., but policemen aren’t generally scholarly, and seldom eliminate pain. In short, granted that doctors could do much. Train reservation forms ask for this information for just this reason.

From the origin of the term 'doctor' itself comes an understanding of another reason why doctors are respected – they are learned. The tradition continues. Through the centuries, doctors have been expected to be well-read, to remember truckloads, and to correlate concepts promptly. Arguably every profession has a great deal of knowledge and skill for practitioners to internalize and demonstrate, but the arenas for most skills are somewhat circumscribed compared to the arena for knowledge related to the human body. Not everyone has a mansion to landscape, a feast to cater, or a sibling to fight over a legacy, but everyone has a body, and most will claim, a troublesome body. And everyone is curious about its workings – even the fashion-unconscious stockbroker who doesn’t care about the recipe for mirchi ka saalan wants to know why a blow to the solar plexus could stun someone. There’s no end to the stage, or the mirror, for a doctor’s preening.

Medical education is expensive – in terms of time and effort, certainly, and all too often in terms of money too. Students who have breezed through over a decade of education from childhood to teenage, come up short at the first set of examinations and face the horror of sleep-robbing days of study, poring over model question papers, all academic snobbery discarded, some even turning theistic at this juncture, mentally crawling through the written, practical and oral trials just to bloody pass, forget first-class and distinction. Of course, the ignominy of failing an examination in a medical course isn’t too great – many wonderful people have trod that path. The next few waves of examinations are never as bad as the first, even if they’re tougher, because by now the student is tougher too. Anyway, after years of this, and torturous labs, and horrific hospital rounds, students feel that they’ve earned the title. So they have. But to use in a professional set up. Not to attend a wedding in. You may be Dr. So-and-so in a hospital, or in a healthcare conference. In a recreational club, a movie theatre, or your cousin’s house, you’re So-and-so, maybe even an insufferable old so-and-so. That’s it.

Rampant in India is the custom of calling people Dr./Mr./Ms. [first name], no initials or surname. This is an unintended sort of name-dropping that people do – analogous to going barefoot while wearing a three-piece suit. And it is fairly silly – when you take the trouble to attach a title such as "Dr." to the name, shouldn't you take the next (previous?) logical step and add the surname/initials too?

What about the universally recognized scholars? PhDs. A lot like medicos who go through the academic and clinical grind for years and emerge with the feeling that they might as well have been named “doctor” at birth, are the PhDs who once they get the coveted letters following their name feel affronted if anyone refers to them as “Ms./Mr.”. PhDs should ask themselves if they really are Dr. So-and-sos at a child’s birthday party, or just bloody gift-bearing, cake-chomping so-and-sos. Among PhDs is a strong feeling that only they deserve the title "doctor", or then medicos who have slogged for a comparable number of years and at least earned an MD. It irks many a PhD to find bachelors of medicine calling themselves doctors. This complex is complicated further in countries where there is no bachelor’s degree of medicine (e.g., USA), and where surgeons were traditionally not doctors (e.g., England), and therefore not addressed as “Dr.”, but instead as “Mr.” (female surgeons were obviously hard to come by in those days). However it must be noted that PhDs are better about confining their airs and affronts to their academic circles, and refrain from strewing their titles around as indiscriminately as medical graduates do, perhaps for some of the reasons outlined ibid.

There are situations in which the title “Dr.” can be parlayed to good use – such as in a diagnostic centre or hospital (when you are a visitor, and can have the benefit, and admittedly the pleasure, of being taken seriously instead of being herded around like sheep). Contemporary society is such that people have a reflex surge of respect for anyone with the title "doctor" (medical or not), and so it is a title that can be used to convey respect. Which is to say that if you want to register respect for a doctor, you can rightfully introduce her/him as “Dr.” But note that this is strictly one-way: Far from sounding respectful, and indeed respectable, it sounds pompous and overly self-important when you introduce yourself as “Dr.” And worse still when you say, “My name is Dr. So-and-so” rather than “I am Dr. So-and-so”. Surely you cannot mean to suggest with a straight face that your name is Doctor.
“What’s your name?”
“Dr. So-and-so.”
“Interesting name. What do you do?”
“D-uh, I’m a doctor.”
“Wow! Are your parents astrologers?”

Lighten up, doctors. Keep your profession in its place, and your stage name for use when you play the role. At other times, be Doctor? No.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Pay per napkin - the tissue issue

“Where do you keep your tissue paper?” my 10-year old niece asked me.
“Nowhere. There’s no tissue in this house,” I replied, and received a nonplussed expression in return.
Even though this relatively young kid had gathered over the years that I was somewhat strange, this was carrying things too far, her expression conveyed.

When did paper napkins become an integral part of an Indian household? And how, and why?

Arguably the biggest of the contemporary gods, Convenience is an inadequate explanation. Indians travel greater distances than ever before – on a daily basis and on longer trips for business or leisure. And travelling complicates many activities – eating, eliminating bodily wastes, sleeping, lazing, washing, even falling sick. Disposable cleaning agents come in here for some of us.

For some others though, they come in even when there’s no travelling with constrained provisions happening. For “hygiene”, it is said. Hygiene? In its broadly understood narrow sense, hygiene refers to physical cleanliness, and implies frequent washing and wiping. Cleansing has occurred for centuries, in fact, well before paper was invented. So, how this focus on paper napkins for hygiene? Flowing water, and a piece of cloth, or just dry air did the job, and did it pretty well, all this time.

A runny nose, and/or watering eyes: (a) An infection? Some may argue that this calls for disposable towels because real, enthusiastic germs are at large. I would stick to a couple of handkerchiefs – one for the eyes and another for the nose – and wash them frequently. (b) An allergy? Then there isn’t even anything dangerous that could be spread. So why the stack of tissues?

It’s remarkable how hand hygiene – all the rage in the prevention and control of communicable diseases – frankly demands disposable paper. Campaign after campaign describes in great detail how you ought to rinse, soap, scrub and rinse again using warm water, and then use a paper towel to wipe your hands, and another paper towel to turn the tap off! What’s the fuss about? Why are we treating our (healthy) body parts like vulnerable convalescents? What’s the problem with dousing the tap with a palmful of water at the end of the washing session? What’s the problem with the quick wipe on a personal handkerchief  or a moderately public towel, or even the swipe on the dupatta/ pallu/ skirt/ trouser leg? How do we come to treat everything we are exposed to as a potential threat, a paper napkin as a neutral agent, and the discarding of a used napkin as summary freedom from dirt and infection?

One clue lies in the appearance of the paper napkin. Carefully constructed to resemble cloth, and almost always white to indicate purity. But is white always pure? White is not exactly a natural shade for cloth or paper; it is achieved through bleaching – with strong chemicals that do not exclude your body from their sphere of influence. Besides snow, salt, milk, chalk, and curd, I can barely think of anything that’s naturally white. And even this list is sometimes off-white, or “half white” as some prefer to call it! Most white substances in daily use, e.g., sugar, cloth, paper, and certainly disposable napkins, are bleached – with something strong enough to erase the natural colour of an organic entity. Is your skin or mucous membrane as tough? Really? Still, if white equals pure in the mind of the contemporary person, here’s my next question: Is “pure” always the best thing to have? But this is an avenue for another trip.

Why not use the real thing – cloth that shows grime in time so it can be cleaned promptly? How do we come to associate use-and-throw with cleanliness? Why are we unable to use a scrubber or a brush on a surface and rinse it later? Why this drive to use a paper towel and then eliminate it from view?

Going beyond the physical acts of washing, disinfecting and drying, consider where paper napkins often play a role in “health” – as an oil-blotter. Too many quick and easy recipes that end in complex, well-presented, and supposedly salubrious dishes call for paper napkins to soak up excess oil from deep-frying. Why not ditch deep-frying? Okay, okay. Why not at least use a colander to let the oil through into another receptacle?

How can makeshift sheds on the highway, ramshackle food carts on busy city roads, and rather more upscale restaurants sprinkled across every residential and commercial area, all have bunches of paper napkins on offer, in addition to the blue drum and water jug/used paint bucket and steel glass/ miniscule wash basin with Lifebuoy soap/marble washrooms with sensor-equipped taps? The quality may vary, but paper napkins are cheap. Too cheap to have taken into account the colossal dent they make in the environment in their sourcing and manufacture. And too cheap to have considered the unaesthetic mess they make in their thoughtless disposal. If paper napkins were priced in consonance with their environmental cost, people would discover in a blinding flash that they could rinse their hands with water from a blue drum, or skim over a Lifebuoy soap and under a tap, and let their hands dry, without perturbing either their schedule or their ideal of hygiene.

Back to my niece. I asked why she wanted tissue, so I could make an offer from a range, mostly of cloth: Handkerchief? Mop? Towel? Counter-wipe? Dust cloth? My own palm to be washed later? 
She complied, for the moment. She needed a mop, and got it. 

I have no hope of weaning her away from paper napkins though – she’s surrounded by the benighted things at home, at school, in restaurants, at friends’ homes, at social gatherings, in short, everywhere but in my house. 
‘Can’t wash my hands off this one…