The alphabetical ardour of life

by sidin in

Earlier this week, the night before the solar eclipse thingie happened, I am sitting at the barber shop in Dwarka under the KFC outlet. And I am feeling particularly unsettled. It is my first visit to this place you see. Style has no language

I have no idea if this true for all men, but I think it is. Guys hate going to strange, new barber shops. When we find a barber shop we are comfortable with, we like to stick with it forever. A hair cutting 'saloon', as it is called in any place in the world where there is a local Malayali population, is one of those low-mental-overhead decisions that guys make. We don't think about it, analyze it or agonize over it in any way whatsoever. Once we find a place that can cut hair, deliver a decent massage and has a reflected TV screen in the mirror in front of us at a convenient angle we are pleased. We drop mental anchor.

And this has nothing to do with the barbering process itself mind you. It's not like I plan my haircuts or need to have it done in a particularly artistic way. I am pretty sure that if I had the right combination of long arms, flexible elbows and curved mirrors I'd probably just cut my hair myself. And do it in the exact same way I first got it done when my mom realized my dad was old enough to take me to the local saloon unsupervised.

So unlike the missus, who is fraught with the turmoil of choice every time a haircut comes up, I just walk out of the house, entirely in autopilot, settle into a chair and say "Medium short, short sideburns, keep it short in front". And 99% of the time that is the entirety of my conversation with by barber. For the next half an hour or so I sit coma-like. Like a vegetable and my mind blanks out, leaping from thought to thought to thought in no particular order.

Even those conversations that men traditionally have in barber shops--politics, sports and such like--are entirely pointless and transient. If you ask us what we spoke about just 10 minutes after we step out of the air-conditioning we probably won't remember a thing. Barber shop conversation, from the male perspective, is like a screensaver for the mind.

Which is why, when you consider all the factors, that men and women have completely different conversations when it comes to haircuts.

Woman One: I am going to get a haircut Woman Two: Oh awesome! Where? Woman One: [Refers to a new haircutting place. Normally named after the ladies who own the place, i.e. 'Anamika and Anandavalli' if classy, or, if more edgy in an MTV sort of way, named after entirely unrelated concepts. For instance 'Sepsis'. Or 'Opticuts Prime'.] Woman Two: Oh wow Sepsis! Awesome. Ask for Vinod, He is the best. Woman One: Fingers crossed. I've asked for him. But apparently they can't be 100% sure. Woman Two: Best of luck. What cut are you getting? Woman One: I am thinking of getting a Deep U in the back with short bangs in front. Woman Two: Wow! Trendy and all! [NO WAY you can pull that off. But whatever. Fool.] Contrast with the following:

Husband: I am going to get a haircut Missus: Buy milk when you come

Which is why I was sitting in the saloon in Dwarka the other day super-aware. This was the first time I was partaking of the outlet. Nerves jangled. Everything felt a little strange. There was yet another shady brand of locally produced talcum powder on the counter, the swivel chair felt particularly unsteady and the TV, alas, could only be seen in double reflection off mirrors on the back and then front walls of the shop.

India TV was on. And had a complete pre-eclipse astrology package going on.

Which brings us to the real topic of this blog post. Excuse that bit about men and barber shops. Think of that bit as an AA Gill-ish rant.

And that topic is: The curse of alphabetical order in our lives.

Let me explain.

Having cornered the paranormally paranoid segment of the Indian TV viewing market, India TV had one of their staff astrologers in the studio explaining how the solar eclipse could impact your personal life. And in order to deliver true TV 2.0 personalized service the astrologer was doing this in order of first letter of name. And agonizingly slowly.

Through the entire course of my haircut and head massage, he only managed to go from A to C. Which meant that by the time he reached S, the first letter of my first name 'Stud', it would be well past midnight. And since the missus and I had already decided to catch up on Law and Order Special Victims Unit DVDs when I returned, I would miss my eclipse prophecies entirely.

So during the walk home after the cut, paper bag full of KFC in hand, I began to wonder about alphabetical order. About how, almost from the moment we are born, the alphabeticality of our names begin to haunt us. And finally, like a crazy weekend with a Facebook-account using friend, the experience haunts us for years after. With a first name starting with S and a second starting with V, that meant a lot of waiting for things to happen. And opportunities missed to Andrews, Anils, Deepaks and so on.

Shirley was the first consequence of the alphabetical order of my name. I had to sit next to her on my first day in kindergarten and was quite traumatized by her pastimes of choice: playing with either a plastic toy camera, or nasal mucus... the latter not always her own. I was quite troubled at the time and would have left Kindergarten severely scarred if it wasn't for Jibu Jose who always shared his lunchbox. (Sausages in ketchup. Always. Awesome.)

(Note: Shirley later went on to grow up and look almost exactly like dusky hot shot model Nina Manuel. Jibu sadly did not.

Booger babe

Of course at that tender, innocent age it seldom occurs to the child's mind what's going on. When you are in kindergarten anything is possible. There is no systemic bias and human prejudice. As long as you ran to Jibu's seat immediately as the bell rang, you got sausage.

But reality began to seep in when, a year or so later, yours truly qualified for one of those poetry reciting competitions.

In the beginning being called on stage in order of first names seemed like a cool idea. Why be the first to go on stage and embarrass yourself when the audience is still alert? By the time Sidin Vadukut's turn comes along, the audience has long since disintegrated into several little Dumb Charades and Chinese Whispers games. Unless you screw up in spectacular fashion--forgetting all lines, peeing in shorts before going on stage, break down into tears and so on--no one will even realize you came and went.

But then Andrew M happened. Andrew M, who I am sure I have Whatay-ed about before, was the Sachin Tendulkar of poetry recitation.

No wait. No. What am I saying.

Andrew was the Bobby Darling of poetry recitation. The moment he walked on to stage the audience felt silent, the judges perked up ready to imprint 10s in the mark sheets, and the English teachers picked up the biggest prize parcel of wrapped up books and began writing his name on it.

That's because victory for Andrew M in any pursuit that required emotive speaking and a high pitched voice was just a matter of turning up. This boy made the BeeGees sounds like a sub-woofer. He could sing any word in the English language, ANY WORD, and people melted into little puddles. Andrew could stand in front of a mike and go "Gangreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeene" and the normally frozen Principal Sister Margarita would go open mouthed, roll up her eyeballs and collapse.

Which meant that Sidin Vadukut, who usually came four hours after Andrew M, could simply do nothing to out-recite the Falsetto Fiend. (Once we both chose to recite the exact same poem, something about a Snowman who'd eventually melt and die. Andrew ran around the stage like those Olympic ice dancers, arms flailing, tears welling up in his eyes. Later I stood in one place, LIKE A SNOWMAN YOU IDIOT FOOL JUDGES, and delivered my lines. Andrew won his eleventh copy of Wren and Martin later that evening.)

The months, years and competitions went by. But even as I could never reconcile with the Fiend, our class was declared old enough to use the student's library. This was a super-huge deal of course. Our library had the complete Hardy Boys, Nancy Drews, Jughead Double Digest and a sizeable archive of Young Times and Junior News. (Local children's newspaper supplements. Mostly posters of Milli Vanilli, Spot the Difference puzzles, recipes with yoghurt and banana, and Dennis the Menace and Shylock Fox comics.)

Alas once again I had to deal with the nomenclature nemesis.

Our school was (still is) run by nuns who imposed discipline and orderliness with a certain Burmese Junta elan. (Burmese Nunta? Ha!) If someone fainted during the morning assembly under the hot Middle Eastern sun they just left them there on the ground. Only to be trampled over later as we marched back to our classrooms to the beat of a mildly hypnotizing drum. (Ok I exaggerate. They sent a nurse to pick up the kids, who then took them to the medical room, drugged them and then sold them to this kidney racket out of Ras Al Khaimah.)

So in order to maintain quiet corridors, the nuns decided that classes would visit the library, once a week, in alphabetically ordered groups of five or six.

Woman on top

I NEVER EVER got a Hardy Boys issued from the library. As for Nandy Drew I think I only ever got that Secret of the Golden Pavilion book in the usual routine of things. The good books never lasted by the time it was the turn of the Ss, Ts and Vs.

Instead I had to make do with the terrible, imported from India or [shudder] donated by well-wisher books that sucked. My first ever library book was, for instance, 'The Sign of The Snake Tattoo'. A terrible book with an anatomically impossible oil painting of a turbanned man on the cover. He looked to one side, with his slightly dislocated shoulder, floating independently from the rest of his body, thrust in the opposite direction. The upper arm had a, GASP, snake tattoo on it just in case the title wasn't emphatic enough. I remember nothing about the book except for a chase scene in it through 'the bazaar of Agra'.

Sidin, Shirley, Sunil, Sneha (wonder where she is), Vincent and company all had to make do with the detritus left by then or wait till the end of the academic year by when everyone had already read the good stuff.

Soon a black barter market developed in library books.

We identified suitably named Elsa, Delbert, Franklin types in the class who cared nothing at all for books. And bribed them to go earlier and bring us the good stuff. (Later in life we did MBAs and became management consultants. The suitably named inherited their father's footwear chain and bought Maybachs.)

Of course I am not saying that the Dreaded Alphabet Curse (DAC) did not come with a few benefits. It was, in fact, helpful in several cases. For instance when the nuns decided that EVERYONE must try out for the sports day teams. They lined us up in DAC order and made us all do the long jump. (Andrew M landed on his face. Which was awesome. But then he began to cry in pain, like that Coldplay fellow, and the girls went wild. Which sucked.)

By the time I landed in the sand with the grace of a birthing giraffe, no one had any mocking laughter left.

Also later in high school when he had John B. the psycho maths teacher, being Sidin helped. He'd take the attendance register and go down the list one by one asking each fellow the homework problem. By the time he reached me I'd have done my homework in the interim. Or at least managed to give an answer that was no stupider than anyone else's. (The idea in high school pressure situations, of course, is to never ever stand out. Always, always get punished collectively.) John B.: What is Gauss-Jordan Elimination? Santosh: Gauss-Jordan elimination is a process to scientifically eliminate, after proper calculation with requisite data and mathematical... John B.: Next! Sidin: Gauss-Jordan elimination is a method to mathematically resolve, after adequate processing with necessary numbers and quantitative... John B.: NEXT! Santosh and Sidin: Under the table high five!

Now you'd think that DAC would go away by the time you reach business school right?

He overcame

V for very. W for wrong.

I spent all of first term sitting in the last row, in an extreme corner of our amphitheater-like classroom. Way over professor radar, mostly making faces at other people across the classroom over professors' heads.

It was awesome. While it lasted.

In second term they flipped the order and I found myself in the bottom of the class where I stayed for the rest of my 'diploma equivalent to an MBA'.

In the years hence DAC has continued to haunt me occasionally. There is that embarrassing moment outside bars and clubs as the bouncer looks for my surname in the list of authorized invitees. (It doesn't matter if your name is Zalim Zardozi Zabaglione. The bouncer will always begin with Aarti A. Aravindan and work his way down.)

During things like campus placement, interviewers are so exhausted by the time they come to Vadukut, that any above-mediocre joke is enough to grab their attention and get a second round call. By then their bodies are beginning to shut down having heard 400 people tell them that "my goal in life is to learn enough on the job and then set up my own company". (This because the Professor in charge of Placements said at the seminar that a good strategy is to tell companies that "your goal in life is to learn enough on the job and then set up your own company. This will make you stand apart and look uniquely risk-taking!". 400 people noted this line down verbatim diligently.)

In my case DAC has taught me patience while I wait, the ability to think on my feet as John B. worked his way down the name list, and a disturbing Harman Baweja-esque ease with performing in front of an audience that does not care. It also gave me something that all of us strive our entire lives to find: something entirely outside our control to blame all our failures on.

So all these thoughts were going through my mind as I walked home from the barber's. And I thought I should share this with you guys. Because, who knows? Perhaps you are an Aditya or a Bernard who had your own set of troubles when you were in school. Do tell what it feels like to be first by default.

But then I'd forgotten to buy milk from the market and I had to go back again.

Note: Barber shop photo from