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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Chp 156. Points to ponder from Queues

Queues – The only place where the beginning is the end and the end, the beginning.

I’ve been standing in a lot of queues lately, either booking tickets for my friends/sisters/cousins at various transport agencies, or buying college application forms for friends/sisters/cousins at various banks.

Hence these past few days, I think I got my “Bachelors in Queue (standing dept)”, graduating with flying colors from the esteemed college of Indian Queue Queue (IQQ), here in the Land of Queues.

I think we Indians spend more time than anybody else standing in queues. Be it railway stations or banks, it’s always one queue after the other. And I’m only talking about the ones where we ACTUALLY stand in queues, and not the ones where we’re supposed to stand in queues but don’t (as Shashi Tharoor once said, an actual queue at a bus-stop waiting for the bus to arrive was last seen in India in 1961).

Where there is no such queue involved, everything becomes chaotic. It’s every man for himself, screw the fragile gray haired bespectacled grandpa with the walking stick or the sweet young thing who got her first sweet tooth removed, elbow them all away! It’s a freaking jungle in there, a mad frenzy rush for degradation, and yet you know that the only way you are going to get those tickets is to dive right in too. You take a deep breath, focus on the ongoing pitch battle ahead, say a little prayer, and then charge right in with a battle cry: “Banzaiiiiii!!!!”… leaving behind every last bit of sanity, dignity and humanity you ever had.

You fight with all your might, inch by inch, like a drowning man swimming in a sea of Tar trying to reach the surface. You take a brief second to gasp for air, and then the Armageddon continues; Somebody’s armpits’ all over your face, quickly replaced by another person’s feet. You are covered in sweat, slimy stinking sweat, forty types of sweat, all from different people you’ve never even met or never had dinner with. Yet you brave all that gallantly. It’s like being in the middle of a napalm bombing at the ‘Nam war, except for the smell which is a gazillion times worse in this case.

All you can hear is a noise, a very strange kinda noise: It’s like a mixture of five different death-metal bands playing simultaneously plus a hundred dogs mating inside a tiny steel container plus wounded WW-II soldiers screaming out “Medicccc” in the middle of an ongoing war-torn battlefield plus an extremely beautiful translucent figure in white with long overflowing blond hair calling out your name with the most melodious voice you’ve ever heard, beckoning you to give up the struggle and come towards the light…

See what can happen when there is no such queue? Of course once you come out of the above mentioned situation, the sense of achievement is extremely overwhelming, but is it really necessary? Why do we behave in such a way?

Queues are considered to be a gentleman’s way of behavior. One might even consider queues to be a form of communism while “non-queues” (as mentioned above) is a form of democracy; Democracy because everything becomes a free-for-all chaotic individualism (by the people, for the people, of the people), while I consider queues to be communist in nature as they perform like a state-owned machinery, mechanical and inorganic sans any emotions, yet being totally effective (this, and also the fact that Kolkata is the only place I’ve seen in India where people actually stand in a queue at a wine-shop. Do the comrades in Kerala behave the same way too?)

Queues are also a very good place for bloggers to think about what to blog next. Standing in so many queues these past few days, I have noticed one very distinctive feature about queues – the similarity between it and societal norms.

Whether you like it or not, you have to abide by the rules because you are a part of it. And speaking of rules, there are no such distinct rules written down per se, and are only a creation of the majority. Yet, the non-conformist will immediately face a confrontation with the conformists. There is no ground for breaking any of the rules here. You can rebel all you like, but prepare to face the wrath of the society.

Which brings us to another very interesting point about what “exactly is fair”?

Simple scenario. You see a queue. You join the queue. You move with the queue. You reach the end of the queue. You do your stuff. You go home happily.

Complications arise when people join the queue at places other than the beginning of the queue. Ask yourself the following questions and see if you think it is fair or not.

You are standing in a queue and then somebody suddenly comes and stands right in front of you. Is it fair?

None of you would say “yes” (duh!). But suppose the guy in front of you has to go and pee urgently, and he asks you to reserve his place. After a few minutes, he returns to assume his position in front of you and you don’t question him. But what about the guy standing right behind you who joined the queue after that guy left for the loo? Would he consider it to be fair? And horrors be horrors if the guy whose place I was reserving happens to be “Chinese looking” just like me! Can you imagine the racial bitching that must be going on at the back of the queue?

I know, reservations have always been a tricky subject, leading to much debates, disagreements, demonstrations and agitations. Be it a reservation on housing, admission, occupation or a simple incident like a queue, the ones whose places are not reserved will always voice their anger at the inequality.

In the light of all these, is it truly fair to reserve a spot for the person standing in front of you in a queue? Even if he had to pee sooooo badly?

What if the guy who had to pee, actually lied to you, and went instead to drink a cold bottle of pepsi and relax in the shade while you stood in the hot sun like an idiot reserving the place for him? So that he could come and assume his place when his reserved position is close to its goal? Are we all that genuinely selfless and altruistic to gladly do such a favor for a stranger?

And then comes the question of health. Ok most of us wouldn’t mind performing the above mentioned task for the elderly. But what if it was a youth? He could be as healthy as a horse on a race track, or as sick as a liver in a Rehab. Do we question his health first after he asks us to reserve his spot?

What if he asked you to reserve his spot so that he could meet somebody? It could be somebody he hasn’t seen in 25 years who suddenly turned up near the queue, or simply a dear friend that he just wants to chat with because he finds the queue boring. Or maybe to pass on an important message to somebody, say a doctor, which could make a life or death decision for somebody else, or to pass on sensitive internal security information to someone from a different “sleeper cell” on which Government car should they bomb next…

We have no idea why he asked us to reserve his place, yet we comply with his request.

What about queues where people are armed with applications other than theirs? More applications mean slower queues, hence it is definitely not fair for the people behind to have so many applications. What if he was applying for a friend who was sick? Who couldn’t come to the counter because he is attending his father’s funeral? Or vacationing at Hawaii on Company’s expenditure? Still fair? How can we distinguish the fair ones from the unfair ones when we don’t know the nature?

At some queues, we have to fill up the forms first. Some people fill up those forms while standing in the queue itself, while others fill up the forms first and then join the queue. Now suppose one guy brings his friend along, and while he fills up the forms, his friend stands in the queue. After he is done, his friend simply gives his position to him and leaves the queue. Is that fair? Toughie, aye?

To the people behind him, it doesn’t make a difference because one guy is replaced by another guy. But at the same time, a feeling of “unfairness” do creeps in. Is that a legit reservation? What IS a “legit” reservation?

Since there is so much confusion, should we ban reservation at queues altogether? Just imagine, hypothetically, for a minute that reservation is banned in queues, that anybody leaving their place in the queue will have to join the queue from the beginning again.

The guy in front of you is thirsty as Hell. Should he dehydrate slowly risking a stroke, or drink water and join the queue from the beginning again? I would definitely give him back his spot, but what about the person behind me who brought along his heavy water bottle just for such a situation so that he wouldn’t have to leave the queue if he gets thirsty… would he find it to be fair?

Supposed somebody near the queue dropped a pen and the person in front of you left the queue so that he could pick the pen up and give it back to the person who dropped it. Should you let him join the queue at the same spot again or ask him to “go back”? How is this different from the guy who went to relax at the canteen? How is this fair while the incident about the canteen guy is not fair? How do we define what is fair or not? Is it the distance we travel away from the queue, or the reason why we had to leave the queue briefly, or our intentions while we leave the queue placed under a morality scanner?

See, I can go on and on with more “what ifs” and “buts”. That is why I find such a close similarity between standing in queues and societal norms, where there is no clear cut definition between what is right and wrong. Plus, a jobless blogger mind like mine standing in a long queue almost every day is sure to churn out such a value-less thought! Cheers.