Why Do I Find It So Difficult To Understand Sarcasm?

When I was in college, a 16 year old girl promised to marry me. She wanted to name our baby “Sachin”. I believed her.

When a policeman once asked me whether I’d like to get my passport on time, I smiled with gratitude and slammed the door on his face.

When I once read, “Ron Paul is a gynecologist, and he is self-taught.”, I did not understand why this evoked laughter in an audience. I still do not.

I’ve always had a tenuous understanding of sarcasm and double-speak. I take words literally. When I was a child, it took me many years to understand hidden insults. 

I’ve never had it any other way. I was not sarcastic as a child. I was too innocent to understand the art of insinuation. When a teacher was sarcastic to me at 9, I understood her only a year later. When I fully understood her, I felt numb, as if I were struck by lightning. I stood still, staring at my coconut tree. It was too late, because I’d left that city and moved into another school. There was nothing much I could do about this. This was deeply unsettling. Continue reading “Why Do I Find It So Difficult To Understand Sarcasm?”

How many batteries do you have?

How many batteries do you have?

I read a story about an eight-year-old Aspie boy in Tony Attwood’s “The Complete Guide To Asperger Syndrome”:

The door bell rang, heralding the arrival of another guest for Alicia’s birthday party. Her mother opened the door and looked down to see Jack, the last guest to arrive. It was her daughter’s ninth birthday and the invitation list had been for ten girls and one boy. Alicia’s mother had been surprised at this inclusion, thinking that girls her daughter’s age usually consider boys to be smelly and stupid, and not worthy of an invitation to a girl’s birthday party. But Alicia had said that Jack was different. His family had recently moved to Birmingham and Jack had been in her class for only a few weeks. Although he tried to join in with the other children, he hadn’t made any friends. The other boys teased him and wouldn’t let him join in any of their games. Last week he had sat next to Alicia while she was eating her lunch, and as she listened to him, she thought he was a kind and lonely boy who seemed bewildered by the noise and hectic activity of the playground. He looked cute, a younger Harry Potter, and he knew so much about so many things. Her heart went out to him and, despite the perplexed looks of her friends when she said he was invited to her party, she was determined he should come. And here he was, a solitary figure clutching a birthday card and present which he immediately gave to Alicia’s mother. She noticed he had written Alicia’s name on the envelope, but the writing was strangely illegible for an eight-year-old. ‘You must be Jack,’ she said and he simply replied with a blank face, ‘Yes’. Continue reading “How many batteries do you have?”

Aspies Are Superior Beings

A cat, not a defective dog.

The Urban Dictionary has some interesting definitions of the term “Aspie”:

A superior being, while deficient in chaotic morasses such as small-talk, inferior double-standard-laden customs and values trumpeted by Neurotypicals, and deciphering Neurotypical body-language, more than makes up for it with a sharp, penetrating mind that is highly adept at developing an intense focus on a subject giving them a near-savant level of proficiency, an inborn sense of principles that allows them to develop practically consistent characteristics and values, and an ability to reason independently, reducing their susceptibility to dogma, acceptance of groundless assertions, and the hazards of groupthink.

The eccentric man with the encyclopaedic knowledge, monotone voice, and static facial expression must be an Aspie.

An aspie is one who has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is believed to be part of the autism spectrum. Aspies, while being quite gifted verbally, have social, emotional, and sensory integration difficulties, among others. Aspie is an affectionate term, and is not meant as a put down.

My son is an aspie, so he’s not so great at making idle chit chat at parties, or even at being in crowds, but he can get us home from anywhere. He says he just consults the map in his brain. Continue reading “Aspies Are Superior Beings”

What Is Wrong With The Indian Newspapers?

The greatest problem the Indian newspaper industry faces is the sheer incompetence of people, and their tendency to get locked into a particular way of doing things. A mail I had once sent to the editors of the Business Standard is illustrative. They did not listen to this boy, but I am glad that my wonderful ex-colleagues think that this is hilarious. The newspaper content is in block quotes:

“Merry Christmas, dear editors. I often hear that I write like an essayist and that my stories read like opinion pieces. But, I think it is far more effective to see where my comparative advantage lies.

Let us take yesterday’s Business Standard. See the report: “Kingfisher seeks resumption of operation”. Read this sentence: “The license suspension will be revoked only after the stakeholders are convinced with the plan.”

A person is convinced “by the plan”, and not “with the plan”. Continue reading “What Is Wrong With The Indian Newspapers?”

What Do Our Journalists Say?

I have never read this before.

I have been hearing for long that reading the newspapers is the mark of a good boy. So, I have been reading the newspapers regularly to see what our salt-and-pepper-haired, intelligent people say. From what I hear, these are the people who know the ground reality. Their opinions do not come out of an ivory tower, like that of mine or that of academics.

But, when I read them, I feel that I have never read such highbrow English before. I have never read such lame theorizing before. But, it makes a lot of sense to read them because it is wrong to have such “prejudices”. It is wrong to dismiss people without giving their views a fair hearing. Let me read. I will begin with Mint-The WSJ, a newspaper of high editorial standards. Continue reading “What Do Our Journalists Say?”

April Fool’s Day

April Fool!

We were in Kindergarten, and our Summer vacations had just begun. On April 1st, when my little brother and I woke up in the morning and opened the door to play, we saw all our chairs hanging on a tree. On a placard, it was written large: “April Fool!” We stood there with an expression of astonishment on our faces. When we called our parents, they told us that it was the “April Fool’s Day”.

We intuited that some of my father’s students did that. I had seen these people. Once when my father gathered that they did not know the difference between Arabic numbers and Roman numerals, he called me and my brother. And then he said: “My children—They are in school. They know what it means.” After explaining it to them, I looked at them with intense disapproval, thinking: “I will never study with you, people.” Continue reading “April Fool’s Day”

Heads To Be Hung In Shame

Be man enough to respect a woman!

A Guest Post by Nosheen Kapoor

Shame is a very powerful emotion. It is a pity that it is not universal. Yes, this emotion, the first cousin of guilt, is bred in women long before they become women and is discouraged in men long before they become men. Ever heard of a man ashamed of his ‘manhood’? Every man learns to outgrow this emotion as he grows more manly, yet every women is conditioned to deem her being as a temple of shame and honor.

Perhaps this is the reason why even in this apparently progressive age, rape is still an unapologetic act of manly grandeur rather than a recognized cultural crime. It may be illegal to rape but surely it isn’t unmanly to do so. In fact, rape is one crime where the victim undergoes a lifelong trial and the criminal a temporary one all because of the politics of shame and our cultural aversion to the idea of sexually active women. A man’s sexuality is to be celebrated and satiated too but a women’s sexuality is to be hushed and repressed. Continue reading “Heads To Be Hung In Shame”

My Experiments With Truth

I keep wondering how Mahatma Gandhi became hip in this dishonest country!

Honesty is a precious virtue. Wimpy Kid’s experiences while practicing honest speech are quite illuminating: When he decided to obey his mother by being an honest child, it was a liberating experience for him.

When his friend Max Smedley started telling him about his grand plans on becoming a Pro basketball player when he grows up, Wimpy kid was a lot more truthful. He said: “Think again, Max! Neither one of your parents is taller than 5-foot-4, and you’re the only 150-pound six-year-old I have ever seen!”  Max started crying, “Waaaah”, while his father took him away. Wimpy Kid said smugly: “I cannot tell a lie!” When Rowley’s grandfather said in his birthday party that he wants a chocolate cake the next year, Wimpy Kid said to everyone’s embarrassment, “That is, if you are around next year.” adding “Hey, I am just trying to be honest.”

However, the hypocritical world around him did not appreciate his goodness. Wimpy Kid’s honesty angered everyone, including his mother. When she did not speak to him for a whole night, he decided that it was time for him to go back to how he was before.

Continue reading “My Experiments With Truth”

The Limits Of Persuasion

I think I know who is Cla.

A Facebook friend once told me that when she reads the comments on her wall, she feels like paying for their education. I did not disagree. I often read her wall. An Ayn Rand fan who recently landed in Delhi told me: “You cannot reason with these people.” True. I had learned this the hard way.

It is not open to argument whether that the greatest problem mankind faces is stupidity. Sentimentalists might tell you that it is “world poverty”, but that is a red herring, and merely a symptom of this deeper and more important problem. But then, they would also tell us that the problem doesn’t exist, and that we are all equal, wouldn’t they? Continue reading “The Limits Of Persuasion”

A Confederacy Of Dunces

One of the hallmarks of this blog is that it holds every rogue up for “analysis”. There is of course, a reason. The greatest motivating factor behind this blog is admittedly Wimpy Kid’s foresight:

“Later on, I will have better things to do than answer people’s stupid questions all day long. So, this blog is gonna come in handy.”

The only sense in which my career is remarkable is that all the five bosses I have worked with in my life were willing to roast in hell forever if I were to join them. When I walk out of my apartment, I look back and forth to make sure my detractors are not hiding somewhere behind the bushes. My detractors tend to be shorter than me, but they also tend to have access to stronger goons. If they frame me, or get me killed, this blog is gonna come in handy. The readers and the police will know who all are deserving of some healthy suspicion. Continue reading “A Confederacy Of Dunces”

Where We Found Our Baby Owl

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The clouds were glowing behind us when we saw our baby owl. I and my little brother knelt on the leaves, releasing our intertwined fingers to hold it in our hands. Before we knelt between the rubber trees, I whispered in his ear that we should keep this to ourselves. Our uncle walked ahead, making incisions across the latex vessels. He had not seen the beautiful pet animal of ours. While we released our fingers, mine trembled in the cold air. It was nautical dawn. I was six years old. He was four.

While walking back home, we insisted on taking the baby owl with us. We walked, holding it in our palms, taking turns, occasionally moving our fingers through its forehead. We had never seen an owl before. When an aunt once tried to put me to sleep telling the story of an owl, it made me “afraid”. To sleep, I had to get the owl out of my system. She quickly gathered that to put me to sleep, what it took was a warning that she will hand me over to an owl. It was, indeed, a credible threat of punishment.

When we reached home, our aunt said that we should leave the owl where we had taken it from. “Baby owl’s mother will be sad if it does not see its child.” she said, reaching for the owl. We withdrew our hands and said, “If you give it back to baby owl’s mother, we will be sad.” We succeeded in fighting her off for a long while, but it was a conflict that she won. She had always deliberately thwarted my wishes.

Once, rising onto my toes, I had asked her whether we could make Onion-Vadas without onions.  She asked, “How do we make Onion-Vadas without onions?” She was cutting onions, and there were tears in my eyes. I did not like the taste of onions. When I stood there watching the swift movement of her fingers, I saw the mist through the window.

I was three years old then. She was still a teenager. I remember that she called me a book-worm. If the word helplessness has ever had any definite meaning to me, it meant waking up at midnight, insisting that I wanted to sleep with her. To me, happiness meant being allowed to sleep with her. Children take delight in such petty vices. My mother knew this. When I grew up, once, when I talked to my class teacher in baby class, she felt that even today, decades later, I speak the same way I spoke to her when I was three. Within us, there is a child that refuses to grow up.

When I insisted that I wanted to join her when she bathed, she raised her hand as if she were trying to smack me. She never did that, but I stared at her palms, hoping against hope that she did. I remember someone who was unapologetic about it. Later, I lay on the bed counting the marks of her fingers wondering whether it was all a dream, or whether it really happened.

But, it took me decades to understand what she meant when she said that we cannot make onion-vadas without using onions. Two decades later, I told many “editors” that it would be great if the newspapers and newsmagazines do not carry news at all. They disagreed, much to my chagrin. I do not know whether it bore any resemblance to what I once demanded of my aunt. In many important ways, we do not change. There is often a conflict between how things are, and how things ought to be. Deep down, I was always attached to my vision of how things ought to be. But, I was attached to it only because I relished it. Even today, when I write, it is not about what happened at the corner saloon, but about the fundamental principles of human nature. When authors cite me in 4011 AD, I do not want them to tell their readers that this is a Neanderthal philosophy.

                                          ——————-

When I became aware of my own existence, I was lying on the bed holding the leg of my little brother, fearing that he might fall off the bed. My mother had asked me to watch over him while she bathed. As post-toddlers, we folded the bed to wrap each other, taking turns. The girls in the neighborhood took me to their houses to tell me how cute I was. In the afternoons, lying on the bed, I waited for my father to come back from college and read to me. In the night, I insisted that my mother lie near me till I fell asleep at Baby Standard Time. 9 O’ Clock. I was afraid of the dark.

I have always had scary dreams. When I was nineteen, in a dream, my mother spanked me for breaking the flower vase. I woke up, screaming. My mother came downstairs and asked, smiling: “Did you dream of being punished by me? Nothing happened. Sleep tight.” I never understood how she could sense it without my saying so. Women have such sharp intuitions. I had the same dream when I was seven years old. It was then I understood that deep down, I loved it. When I was a child, I often dreamt of rabbits. My mother said that it is because little children are innocent. I dreamt of snakes too. A girl in college said that it was because I was horny. I am not sure I agree with her, because those dreams were really scary.

When my mother kept me on the bed insisting that I sit still, I barely moved. I was not a noisy baby like the infants that infest the Delhi Metro. I do not want them inside my home. But even as a baby, I quickly gathered that the people around me were not really curious about the world. I watched the world without smiling, intensely. There was not a single word or incident that escaped my attention. When I spent many hours staring at the floor, my aunt once asked me what I was doing. I said, “I am thinking”.

When I came of age, my parents sent me to school. On the first day of Kindergarten, when my mom decreed that I go to school, I said ‘No’. I refused. When my mother smacked my behind firmly, I walked toward school, hushing my sobs. The upside was, of course, that it struck me that the authority figures that use force for my own good are worthy of my deepest suspicion. It was a lesson I would never need again.

I still remember my first day in Kindergarten. The sky was clouded when I stepped out of my house. When it rained, I stood beneath the black plum tree near the school gate. The wind blew, splashing the fruits over my school uniform. But, there was nothing much I could do about it. I was left unarmed in a room of nearly fifty children, most of them crying and whining. A child stood near the door of the classroom, peeping out. Separation from their parents was a source of intense anxiety, and helplessness for those post-toddlers.  

My class teacher was a pretty Gujarati lady. I do not know why she enjoyed punishing the soft child that I was. I am not lying. I do not think I deserved it. But, this was by no means the norm. The other teachers had ridiculous reasons to punish children. When I was walking back home after my first day at school, I noticed that a child was crying. The older kids were amused, and said in a singsong voice: “Shame, Shame!” I would have been more at peace with the proceedings in a concentration camp.

I once said, “School teachers are duds.” in the hearing distance of my class teacher. I do not remember why I said the obvious. But, I remember that she never forgave me for speaking the unspeakable. I have always wondered why this soft, silent boy was always eager to state the truths that were better left unsaid. It was never to inflict pain, because even the sign of the slightest pain in others made me feel terrible.

I did not look forward to the parent-teacher meetings because deep down, I always knew that I had some history with her. There were of course, other reasons. Once, at a parent-teacher meeting, my classmate Anjali told my mother that I always dumped my lunch in the dustbin. When my mother came back home, she was really angry. I do not intend to write about what happened that evening. I suspect that it was Anjali who ratted on me. She had dark eyes, pigtails and everything.

Once, when I went to the beach with my parents, I met my class teacher. She gave me chocolates and said that I should say “Thank You”. I said “Thank You”, with a shy smile on my face. I bent my head and stood there staring at the sands of the beach. When I occasionally raised my head, behind her, I saw the tides rising and falling while the evening sun set. At that moment, all I wanted was to escape from her and the beach. Even after two decades, I cannot get over my crush on her.

While walking back home, I saw a sea shell washed upon the beach. I held it close to my ear, and heard the roar of the waves rolling onto the shore. With an expression of astonishment on my face, I held it close to my little brother’s ear. He smiled. When I reached home, I walked toward our childhood friend Honey—for such was her name—to let her “hear the sea”. But, she claimed that it was hers. I told her that she was lying.

Honey was our neighbor’s daughter. In one of those days, I and my little brother found a baby crow near our house. When we tried to take it in our hands along with Honey, the bigger crows hounded us, and drove us back home. We stayed inside and watched them nervously when the crows were roving around our home. In the afternoons, Honey crawled into our bed to listen to our mother’s stories. When our mother slept, three of us went out to play.

Nothing of her subsists in my memory, but it is hard for me to forget the doll my parents wanted to gift her. It had blue eyes. But, soon my little brother confessed to me that he did not want to play with her anymore because she was fundamentally different from us. I do not remember whether I was overwhelmed, because I myself had considered ditching her. She was too melodramatic for my tastes. We kept the doll with us. But, it was hard for us to like it.

When our father started teaching in another city, we packed our bags and left. While packing, I had noticed that our doll was missing. To me, that was a problem to be solved, because there was nothing else that was missing. We had not taken the kitten that used to open the door for us, but, that was intentional. Years later, when we attended a wedding in her house, I stared at her shelf. I could not believe my eyes. It was our doll. When I pointed out the doll to my mother, she whispered in my ears that I need not tell anyone. I was silent for the rest of the evening, but I felt vaguely uncomfortable.

It was in Kindergarten that I learned to say that I “loved” school. One morning, while taking me back home on the day of a strike when the whole city came to a standstill, my father asked me, “Do you like school?” I said that I loved school. When he asked me, “How do you feel today?” I said that I was sad.

When I was still crawling, my parents had conned me into thinking that I would have a swell time in school. A few hours in school were enough to convince me that it was moonshine. I soon started looking forward to summer vacations. But, I should have known better than to take their words at face value. Once, my mother said that she was cooking Aviyal—and that I would probably love it. I waited, and waited and waited. But, it tasted so awful that I developed an aversion toward anything that looks messy. I hear that now there is a rock bank called Aviyal.

On the day the summer vacations began, I and my little brother woke up in the morning and opened the door to “play”. But, we saw all our chairs hanging on a tree. On a placard, it was written large: “April Fool!” We stood there with an expression of astonishment on our faces. When we called our parents, they said that it was the “April Fool’s Day”. They intuited that some of my father’s students did that. I had seen them. Once when my father gathered that they did not know the difference between Arabic numbers and Roman numerals, he called me and my brother. He then said: “They are in school. They know what it means.” I glanced at them contemptuously. They were bored to death when the university compelled them to read the great classics of western literature. They would have rather been lashed till death.

I still remember my first day in primary school. The “male chauvinists” in my class said that they will not be sitting with the girls anymore. I was the only boy who was willing to sit with them. I have always had an exact mind, a mind that took words literally, a mind that judged an idea on its own merits. The other boys said, “If you love them so much, why don’t you kiss them?” I sat there, feeling alienated—feeling cut off.

But, my views on feminism have not changed since then. I was convinced that this “attitude” was transmitted from father to son. The Indian economy was at the cusp of liberalization. I felt that it would take a few more years for the country to undermine, and eventually wreck the remnants of the patriarchal culture. I stand corrected.

At school, I was always confused and bewildered. When I was five, one day, I walked toward school without my school bag. I had heard that a day-long Fine Arts Festival was going on. When I walked into the classroom, my class teacher smiled and asked whether I had come to the school to enjoy the breeze. “Where is your bag?” she asked me, not without some disapproval. I glanced at her, my eyelashes moving upward, with deep sadness in my eyes. Then, I looked at my empty shoulders. Somewhere those tender shoulders had failed me. I felt alienated from my school-bag, and for once, I grasped the intimate relationship between sarcasm and alienation. Somewhere the premises do deeply interconnect.

I felt terrible when my classmates frantically took notes. But, did I sit there enjoying the breeze? Did I cry like a sissy? No. I did not. I would not even have even been able to bring me to write about myself if I had done so! I would have been mighty ashamed of myself today if I had done so! I listened to every word she uttered, slowly, committing them to memory. It was a life-and-death matter to me. While traveling back home, I repeated those words to myself because I feared that I might forget much of what I had heard. When I reached home, I sharpened my HB pencil, and wrote everything she had dictated in my note book. When I was done, I had my lunch.

The next morning, with subdued anger, she said, “Come here”. I walked toward her with my notebook. My lips were sealed. I was painfully shy. When she opened the notebook, she noticed that I had written everything she taught the previous day, in clear letters. She hugged me tight. When she gave me the progress report at the end of the year, I noticed that at the bottom, she had written: “Photographic memory”.

I am not indulging in malignant self-love. My point was that I learned a lesson. When there is a will, there is a way. These are lessons that a child does not learn in a classroom. These are lessons that a typical teacher will never even begin to understand. It should come from within. These are values that cannot be taught. Either you have it in you—or you do not.

School cannot teach conscientiousness. When I started working, I noticed that some of my colleagues came at noon, left in the afternoon and looked here and there when tired annoying others. But, instead of feeling bad about themselves, they felt policed and persecuted. If natalists can be caught thinking of mandatory sterilization, it is hard to blame others. I think Delhi-ites are cats. The whole city is infested with character disorders. If anything, school reinforces such character disorders.

The next year, I was depressed because she no longer taught us. One afternoon, I walked toward the staffroom, and stood there, staring at her. When she asked me, “Why are you here?” I walked away, nodding my head. I was devastated for a very long time.