Sigh Fie, Chen High, episode 4: The Parallelogue


Update: The general feedback says that the original preface was a little dense, so I’ve moved it to the end, because denser/heavier things always sink to the bottom.

The following tale is set in an alternate Madras universe. It’s called “The Parallelogue”

The Parallelogue

The bus was 47A. Behind it was engraved

There was once a girl from Madras,
who was wheatish, demure and BA pass.
She ran into a bloke one day,
on bus number 47 A,
she reported him for eve teasing to the police brass

– Anon

Right next to the limerick was crudely etched –

Nandhini loves Karthi

And next to that, in black paint –

P James Magic Show 9841072571

I woke up with a headache. Sleeping late always gave me a headache in the morning. My friend had kept me up all night explaining this stupid new game he had learnt from his Brit friends. After a couple of hours of listening to the rules of this game that shared its name with an annoying insect, I told him it wouldn’t catch on. Why, he asked. For starters, it’s too biased in favour of individual performers, I said. It’s a team game only in the sense of bowling and batting peacocks doing a mating dance while the fielding crows watch and occasionally run after the ball. Then we have all of this ridiculously expensive equipment and a playing surface that requires some badass gardening skills to put together. The middle class will hate it, I predicted. This game is tailor made for 2 kinds of kids – Bullies and rich spoiled brats. The rich ones will bring the equipment while the bullies will do all the batting and bowling, I conjectured. And all of this will mostly leave traumatic childhood memories in most children who happen to be fielding crows all their lives.

I drank my filter tea. It cleared my headache.

I dressed and took an auto to work. I am an English teacher. The auto driver drove at a constant speed of 40 km/hr and spoke to me about the finer aspects of post-modern Thirukkuralism. I kept an eye on the meter. He smiled and told me to relax. The meter will run as fast as you want it to, he said. What if I say – don’t run at all, I asked. Ah, he said. That is the point. The meter represents your state of mind, he said. He dropped me off at the school, and I thanked him for my daily dose of philosophy.

I said Hi to the other teachers. We were all in uniform. The kids wore what they pleased. I walked into my class. I said –

“When I was young, my college mates were memorizing word lists, learning things like “cogent”, which for reasons only known to aerial italian food, means “Logical and persuasive, as in making a cogent argument”, and learning not to misspell “supersede” and “colloquy”, I, on the other hand, was memorizing said word lists just so that I could solve cryptic crosswords faster and win the annual “What’s the Good Word” competition at BITS Pilani. It also helped me get better at Scrabble (Ah the joy of 7 letter word bonuses). So what’s the difference? My friends have forgotten what “dilatory” means, while I still know that it’s a personal diary written well after the fact. I also know that “cogent”, in fact, refers to your male roommate who studies or works at the same place you do. “Crepuscular” is an adjective that describes something that is well-toned, healthy and looks like a Dosa. “Maudlin” is an altered distribution of Torvalds’ OS, while “Petard (John-Luc)” is a grenade that is shaped like a smooth bald head and says “Make it so” before going off. And finally, “dulcimer” is a quality that describes the taste of food that has undergone low intensity heating for too long.”

The bell rang. It was lunch time.

We, the teachers, walked into a restaurant. The Pacchayappan High Class Non-Veg Restaurant. The Menu read –

Vegetable Jaipuri

young, innocent plant embryos and uteri transported long distances to be savagely slaughtered, callously cut, sinfully sliced, brutally boiled and finally, fiendishly fried in horrendously hot oil

Mutton Biriyani

Well fed and cared-for goats, lovingly tended to and allowed to freely roam, then humanely and quickly separated from the land of the living to nourish the eater with precious protein

Aloo Paratha

Baby grass cruelly hacked from mother plant, left alone to dry in the hot baking sun, then mercilessly ground to a fine powder, flooded with water, turned into a sticky dough devoid of shape and dignity, flattened with blunt cylindrical weapons, mixed with roots of a starchy tuber, separated from the rest of the plant which dies a horrible death, and fried on a hot griddle and served with calf-nourishment liquid cruelly squeezed out of a lactating cow and allowed to be ravaged by bacteria

Chicken Tikka

Freely roaming, lovingly cared-for fowl mercifully spared the pointlessness of a long life on a warming, polluted planet, bones carefully removed after death to make for a succulent snack that honours the bird’s rich textured life

It was Friday. The guys suggested a movie later in the evening. I agreed. We saw “Dandanaka Dubakoor”, a commercial entertainer that had item songs featuring sensitive, clean-shaven men doing the dishes at home. The Hero was Vijaya, and the general plot involved her and her cohorts solving global problems using diplomacy, conversation and extended shopping trips.

I came back home and switched on the TV. The news anchor was annoying beyond belief. She was wasting my time with a detailed analysis of why a certain politician should be sacked because he used “economy class” and “member of the flight crew” instead of the politically correct “Cattle Class” and “Air Item”. I hit the red button. It sent a small electric shock directly to Barkha Goswami, reminding her that what she was doing was irresponsible journalism.

That was when I remembered that I had to attend a colleague’s wedding. Damn, I thought. I walked over to my Ubuntu PC, and logged into their wedding website. I looked though my photo album and picked a reasonably flattering looking photo of myself and uploaded it to the site. Within 5 minutes, my image was photoshopped/video-edited into the reception video, where I posed uncomfortably still for the video camera. I hit the “Send the same old Tea set as a gift” button, and hit logout. “Please have dinner and go”, said a popup. I sighed. I clicked OK.

In 30 minutes, the wedding dinner was home-delivered. Chapathi, Paruppu usili, Paneer Butter masala, Sambar rice, 3 pieces of potato chips, followed by Gulab jamoon, Ras malai, vanilla icecream and Beeda. And a garish business card that read “Parasakthi Caterers”. Matches are made in heaven. Dinners are made in oven. Dont let Ivan or Avan cook the meal of your life. Trust us

In case you were wondering, the actual wedding took place on Twitter earlier in the day . chi_arjun and sow_bhanu now follow each other.

sow_bhanu used to follow me. She teaches Science at my school. She left me because my torrent upload/download ratio fell below 1

Such is life.

The end


Update: This was originally the preface, but most people found it too dense.

Writing Science fiction is hard, because any good sci-fi worth its crystalline Sodium Chloride has to satisfy the nerd audience, and that is very hard to do because that’s a demographic that has the time, energy and a sufficient lack of mental entropy to find the slightest of violations of the laws of physics the author might indulge in, even if these are laws that the writer made up himself. So if I wrote a story where the speed of light is 30 km/hour but kept the distance between the Sun and the Earth at 150 million km, nerds would tear me up (on online discussion boards, i.e.) because they would contend that life would never have evolved unless I adjusted several other factors suitably (like the half-lives of elements, for starters).

So the sci-fi fan’s foremost requirement is that the author obey the proverbial Shakespearean rule “To thine own self be true”, or to rephrase “If you are going to invent a completely implausible universe, stick to the stated details and boundaries of your own implausibility”. But, authors have a couple of tricks that they use, in fact sometimes too often. One of them is the notion of a “parallel universe”. So every time you read a story that involves a parallel universe (a.k.a alternate timeline, a.k.a circum-positioning of threaded jasmine flowers around auditory cavity), you know that the writer is simply being lazy. Parallel universes are convenient, too convenient in fact. The author simply gets to choose what changes in a parallel universe without explaining any of the dubious underlying mechanisms that cause them. With an alternate timeline, I don’t have to explain anything. I could write something like –

“The crow gobbled up the rice and dal kept on the window sill and let out a sonic, mind-altering caw that caused everyone in the house to fall down unconscious.”

and when the nerd says – “Explain that”, I say “Parallel universe. Altered evolutionary timeline”, and the nerd then experiences an aneurysm and goes back to playing World of Warcraft. In case you were still not sure where this was going, like a tourist trapped in a Madras auto with the meter running, this is a vague justification of sorts for the story you just read. Hopefully