Sunday, August 9, 2015

Chaos through Confusion


Most of our lives is drab and dreary, with the same endless rattle of railway trains, familiar squeaks of desks and chairs with its sprawling inhabitants, similar voices speaking similar words spouting similar ideas, day after day – and yet every day is a unique challenge, an anticipated undertaking, an exciting prospect. But this post isn’t about being a human thesaurus, that I am already in real life. This is about some of the little things I like to do as a human being, to while away what little time I have on this giant rock hurtling through space at many miles per hour (depending on your point of reference).

You see, the way I try to have fun isn’t by going to parties, eating ice cream for dinner, being an arts student, going to random events or doing basically anything that needs me to go out of my way to enjoy myself; I think of life as a string of experiences, with each experience being a card attached to the string. If you take away one card, it gets replaced with another. (Weird system, I know, but then again I’m a ‘writer’ so I’m allowed to be a little weird.) I’ll have the same amount of cards at the end of the day, so might as well make the most of what I have in the card I’m in. Motivational speakers and Americans would call this “living in the moment”, but I have a more cynical way of looking at it which is closer represented by the words “you’re stuck in the present, you haven’t invented time travel yet, so why not make it interesting?”

Actually my cards look more like credit cards but I'll let this one pass because I can't be arsed with photoshop. Plus no one hovers over text anymore so I can say anything I want here.

This is how writers wash their clothes. That’s right, they don’t.

There are times in your life where you will be pitted against the greatest hazard on the planet not counting literally anything found in Australia; unintelligent people. Often they will say something stupid or, better yet, misunderstand something intelligent. Just the other day I was talking with a group of people, most of them of middling intelligence, when one of them replied “Steve Aoki... oh, he’s the guy who discovered Japan, right?” Everyone in the group being a music aficionado and a champion of a bygone era known as “2012”, instantly berated him for not knowing who Steve Aoki is. But I took the poor lad’s side and argued, straight faced and serious, on his behalf, that yes indeed – Steve Aoki discovered the fuck out of Japan. “The Okinawa district is named after him, didn’t you know? It was previously called Aokinawa till 1872 when the Chinese invaded, and since they can’t pronounce ‘A’ (a fact that everyone in India will have no problem believing due to our inherent racism), they changed the name,” I said to everyone. Spouting other foolish malarkey of similar sort, eventually enough people were confused about their level of conviction that they tried to change the topic. Some of them even ended up agreeing (like I said, middling intelligence). And in that moment I had won. Confusion through chaos.

It’s very difficult to judge good versus evil on a universal level; our spirits in this material world are but fleeting slivers of rhetoric, churned and processed into bite-sized, believable packages of morality and “do this, do that” and you’ll go to heaven/hell/elysium/valhalla. Even Vlad the Impaler was loved by the Genoans for saving their 300 ships from attack. This is a guy who pointed spears up 20,000 people’s arses and had them killed. Don’t laugh, this isn’t nearly as funny as the ebola joke. He literally has ‘the Impaler’ attached to his name, and yet no objective analysis can say his soul was truly evil. Mad and cruel, maybe, but evil?

Vlad the Impaler
Insane? No way! He looks perfectly capable of logical reasoning and peaceful diplomacy

Did you notice how bad of an opinion the previous paragraph was? That’s exactly what I love to do, and what you should love doing to people on a regular basis. Just have bad opinions, but back it up with facts that are vaguely true and words that are intangibly impressive and you’ll have people agreeing with you. Of course, I’m not saying the above opinion on my pal Vlad is on the up and up bad, but it’s definitely on the unpopular side of the spectrum of approval. Of course he’s evil! He’s an impaler! I happen to believe what I wrote above, though, about not being able to judge evil objectively, and it might be a cogent thing to believe for many people who read this, but that’s up to the individual. Past experiences, family background, familiarity with things like technology, travel, and education makes everyone’s views unique – but some opinions are ‘good’ and some are ‘bad’. That’s sadly the way democracy, and most of society, works; we favour the majority over the minority, the popular over the unpopular. Funnily enough our acceptance of ideas has been democratized thousands of years before countries’ governments started doing them in the 1960s, which they did, once again, because democracy was a ‘popular’ idea. 5 people shout louder than 2, and hence the 5 will always have their voices heard.

So what do you do with a ‘bad’ opinion? Well, when you’re in the moment and you have your current experience card to go through before you move on to the next one, it’s pretty simple; confusion through chaos. Blurt it out like a retard or a Dota player, and watch the glistening embers of the aftermath.

I have a subject that I’m studying in my first semester known as Foundation of Human Skills. It sounds like a blow-off class, and since words are so good at being the instrument of their own description, that’s exactly what it is. No one really learns anything in a class that sounds like something you’d make up in 2 seconds when your mother is asking you what you’re studying and there’s a blueprint of a building along with a wax statuette of a naked human and the word SKILLS written in big, bold letters on an A4 size sheet in front of you (because that happens to everyone, right?). But since there’s nothing to learn we get to do ‘fun’ activities like what we did. In management there’s a popular concept known as Six Thinking Hats, which was actually published in 1985 as a psychological self-help book by Edward de Bono. The basic principle here is that humans think in six different ways denoted with hats of six different colours, that can be planned and hence challenged. These are:

  • Blue - what is the subject? what are we thinking about? what is the goal? (Managing)
  • White - considering purely what information is available; what are the facts? (Information)
  • Red - intuitive or instinctive gut reactions or statements of emotional feeling (but not any justification) (Emotions)
  • Black - logic applied to identifying reasons to be cautious and conservative (Discernment)
  • Yellow - logic applied to identifying benefits, seeking harmony (Optimistic response)
  • Green - statements of provocation and investigation, seeing where a thought goes (Creativity)

Except this is how it was taught to us:

  • Blue (Controlling)
  • White (Science student)
  • Red (Emotions)
  • Black (Negative comment)
  • Yellow (Positive comment)
  • Green (Arts student)

Our activity consisted of getting assigned random chits with words on them and speaking about that word on the spot for a minute or two. Then the rest of the class would unanimously decide which of the different hats they were wearing. I got the word ‘College’. It was a perfect moment to practice chaos through confusion – two minutes isn’t long enough to fully convince anyone of anything, no matter how similar your speaking style might be to Obama’s. The basic gist of my discussion was about how I believe college should be made super expensive to limit the number of graduates that pass out with useless degrees, and instead using that money to set up community colleges, vocational training institutes and subsidizing high school education to provide high-quality, almost free education to everyone. There are 10 million fresh graduates in this country every year – each with their own ambitions and aspirations, but sadly their employability is really low; a result of our weak and ineffective education system, even at the highest levels. Most of the country doesn’t need to be an engineer or know what Double Entry Accounting is. Yet all they heard was my “yes” when they asked, “do you want to make education only for the rich people?” and that was enough for them to close their ears and drop the black hat on me. I don’t think I was cautious or conservative even once in this entire thing, which I think kind of proved my point.

Milkman please! Milkman please! A glass of your least expired milk.

My expression when anyone believes anything I ever say

Chaos through confusion had failed me. It doesn’t work unless you establish a dialogue, which in a public speaking format isn’t really possible. It hadn’t confused them, merely solidified their ideals of having a vision in a country perplexed by its own backwardness and proud of its iPhone 7s and pornography prohibitions. But I’m still not going to stop offline-trolling people, because it’s fun, and I love the way human interaction is so simple yet so difficult to master. So here’s my challenge to you: Every time you internally agree with someone on something, just disagree and play out the debate. You might change someone’s viewpoint through a joke, you might have your own eyes opened, you might even start a religion like Jesus did almost 2000 years ago. Say a few unwarranted, untrue things, because that’s the essence of what we all are, in the end. An integument for our own metaphors, an instrument for our ideas, and intimaters of argument. We are what we portray, and sometimes it’s fun to portray yourself as a mirror.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Why Taxi Drivers Can’t Keep Refusing You Anymore


Just yesterday I had a group project for college, a presentation that we had to make on a company given to us, and I had to do one on Ola Cabs. It was great timing; I’d just recently started using the service not too long after I first heard of it two or three months ago. Ola Cabs is basically Uber, except they accept cash. You point to your location on your smart phone and an AC taxi arrives, picks you up and takes you wherever you want to go. It’s slightly more expensive, but worth it if you want a comfortable journey, or the taxis that listlessly roam around in your area still refuse to go where you want to.

Which is the biggest problem that plagues taxi drivers in the city of Mumbai.

Ola Cabs Presentation.tiff

Pictured: me, not a taxi driver. Picture Credits: Craig Sir

See, the thing is, this is 2015. Time has caught up with taxi drivers, as it tends to do with everyone. And what most of them don’t realise is that companies like Ola, Uber, TFS, TabCab, and even Meru are slowly eating into their business in a way that’s not only visibly apparent but also frightening for anyone whose means to their bread involves driving taxis for a living. If you’re a black cab driver, it’s time to buckle up, because the next few years are going to be tough.

The taxi business is a $10 billion industry in India. Ola Cabs is currently valued at $2.4 billion, and they have more than 100,000 taxis in their fleet across the country, which increases each day. Uber’s Indian valuation isn’t quite clear but it made headlines a few months back when the company was valued at $41 billion. Yes, that’s right. A tech-company in California that doesn’t own a single taxi in its entire operation is valued at over four times that of the entire Indian taxi industry. You could argue that it’s a bubble that’s soon going to pop – that the valuation is inflated, like much of Silicon Valley currently might be. I wouldn’t disagree. But the fact is, a few lines of code has enough value today, in the planet we live in, that it can make an entire means of livelihood for 95,000 taxi drivers in Mumbai irrelevant. Uber and Ola is to taxis what set-top boxes were to cable TV. There is confidence in these companies, and where there’s confidence, there’s investment. Where there’s investment, there’s power and where there’s power, there’s change.

The day before yesterday my father was coming back from work in Powai. He tried to hail one of the many taxis, whose drivers languorously peered around with their front door open. They all said the same thing; they wouldn’t go. A fare of over Rs. 250 refused, why? Because they think they can afford to do it. For many years these taxis have been an integral part of our public transport infrastructure, and society at large always sort of forgave these taxi drivers for refusing fares. They don’t like it, but it’s too much hassle to file a complaint in a country rampant in government bureaucracy and corruption. I won’t go into the legality of it either, because in whatever state of prohibition fare refusal might be in, drivers are rarely perturbed by the thought of a complaint.

He's actually remembering Shakespeare's Sonnet 18

Pictured: taxi driver wondering what he has to do to not be a taxi driver, after refusing a fare to a gentleman trying to get home to his wife and kids. Picture credits: my dad

I understand why fare refusal is a thing; I understand their plight as well. They work over 12 hours a day in blistering heat in a city where traffic is equivalent to parking. But, unfortunately, the 21st century is catching up.

In our $10 billion industry, only about 10% of taxis are ‘organised’, meaning only about 10% of them know where to be at a certain time to bridge the demand and supply gap, which is exactly what Ola and Uber do; bridge the gap between demand and supply for taxis. They’re turning this rampantly disorganised and flailing market into an organised and efficient one, and they’re doing it very quickly –at over 25% growth per year. With that kind of growth, and with that kind of possibility of expansion, I find it a very logical conclusion to leap to when I say that our Kali Peeli boys have very little time to up their game. In 6 months they’ll really start to feel the wrath that’s already turned many of them into becoming an Ola or Uber driver themselves; a very sizable portion of our sample size for a survey we conducted as part of our project said they’d be willing to pay the premium if these services became more ubiquitous. Because things like dirty seats, disheveled interiors, lack of basic courtesy or safety or communication skills, and the simple lack of an AC in forty degree weather is a very easy thing to ditch when there’s a better alternative.

I’m not saying black cabs will go extinct soon. They won’t. But pressure’s already building up as more and more of them start scrambling towards more lucrative jobs under these companies, and the ones that remain, suffer due to lack of customers. One problem in this hypothesis is that Ola and Uber don’t have a sustainable business model, and as soon as that initial investor confidence runs out, which could happen for any reason – anything from burning too much money too fast, to having Bhavish Aggarwal pull a Rahul Yadav – as soon as confidence runs out, black cabs are back in business.

Still, for the next few years the onus is on the taxi drivers to prove that they’re not a relic of the past, willing to drive the force that eventually fades them into irrelevancy. They need to prove that they understand the world we live in, where an app can cause riots and revolutions thousands of miles from where the first person who had the idea wrote his lines of code. They need to prove that there is still value in on-the-spot, convenient and cheap rides in a city as complex and vibrant as Mumbai. We won’t stop using them if they start going where we want.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Rising From the Ashes


The last year has been very tough for me; in many ways except the ones which ultimately matter. I have lovely friends who’d still keep my company, I got into a good college and I’m doing my first choice of course, after letting my engineering dreams burn to ash and my law dreams remain just another unread chapter in my unwritten biography. I live in a house, my parents are alive, and I have some glimmer of hope of not being a total failure, which is good enough in my case.

I didn’t post anything in the last year or so because I’d not just lost the passion to write, but many other things along with it. I became the quiet guy in class, I didn’t raise my hand to participate in things that (didn’t) matter, like MUNs or debates, things that I used to love. I failed test after test of mathematics and chemistry as my teachers futilely convinced themselves that I’d do better next time, except that time never came. I was a horrible student – I’ll admit that. I stopped trying to take care for myself and my surroundings. I didn’t work at all, slept poorly, didn’t pick up phone calls, didn’t follow up on meetings and assignments and get-togethers. Basically it was a mess; everyone but me was scared, and I wasn’t aware of the situation enough to be scared, till the clock started ticking and soon it was one month before my board exams and I realised I’d messed up the last one year so hard that only a miracle could get my life back on track.

I didn’t believe in miracles.

I suffer from Thalassemia Major and a lot of my problems originate from this one genetic anomaly; it’s like a faint white noise playing in the background of an otherwise beautiful song that is my life. It’s the paper that you bite into when eating a cupcake. It’s the hot, wet rain on a lovely midsummer’s eve. It’s basically a minor inconvenience in the least and an all-pervading ‘No Entry’ zone for my dreams and ambitions at most. Thalassemia is a genetic disorder that causes haemoglobin (an essential protein required to absorb oxygen in the blood) to be produced in very little quantity. At this point in time, and probably for many years to come, it has no cure. So once someone is born with thalassemia, unless they happen to be very fortunate and are able to receive a bone-marrow transplant before the age of 5, the chances of curing it are quite simply, non-existent. I was not one of the lucky ones. Aside from the symptoms of having a Hb count perpetually below my shoe size, and a systolic blood pressure lower than my IQ, I need blood transfusions every week or two. Long story short, if I don’t get these blood transfusions, I wither and die like a plant without water.

At some point in early 2014, this Thalassemia thing ate into my life and left me starving for motivation; I’d fall ill quite often, but not often enough to warrant my absence from everything. I started playing horrible sounding video games, and my life was absorbed by it. You might have heard of it; my friends sure have. It’s called Dota 2, and I quite like the game, even now. I enjoy it for its competitiveness and sense of teamwork and belonging – my favourite and only sports team that I follow is a Dota team, so it’s still a part of my life. But I’m not consumed by illness or video games any longer. I’d like to spend time doing the things that people my age do. Which involves formulating plans for meeting people, and then not meeting them, and ending up stuck with people you didn’t want to meet but who happen to be in your college and therefore, there.

Most people didn’t even know there was anything wrong with me – my immediate  family of course made sure to tell everyone. But aside from that the biggest impact I’ve felt is a certain desolation in character, a lack of growth. My skills are still exactly the same as it was two to three years ago. Worse, maybe, since I haven’t practiced them. I haven’t spoken in public in over a year, or written any amount of high-quality, publishable content, or played the guitar often enough to count as ‘practice’ instead of just ‘showing-off’. Have I even grown intellectually? Do I know more than I did two years ago? The answer should be yes but I don’t feel the effects of this knowledge; quite the opposite infact. It feels I’ve wasted two years of my life in front of a computer, with nothing to show for it. And that’s the most soul crushing thing of all. It’s what keeps me awake at night.

There were days when I’d just read the poems I’d written in the past, for hours on end, trying to find inspiration for writing a new one. But new ones never came. I was obsessed with my own text, because I truly believed that the stories that I had to tell were good enough and worthy enough to be told. I consider my writing elegant and my speech eloquent. I wonder why more people don’t read what I write and it’s because I’m an egotist. I’m incredibly self-absorbed to the point where if you accused me of believing the world revolved around me, I’d side with you and put the onus on myself to prove that it does not, and then I wouldn’t follow up because I’d secretly wish that the world DID revolve around me. Yes, I’m very slightly crazy.

I was really scared of writing because I did not feel that my output reflected my actual skill. I’d cheat with writing; I’d Google information and look up quotes everywhere, I’d comb through the thesaurus searching for words to use, and base my sentences around that. I’d define each and every word I used ten times, including things like “the”, because I could. This process of rediscovery of the English language inevitably took time, and is what eventually lead to the demise of my writing prowess. Once you stop writing because it’s tedious or difficult, you lose the practice of actually penning down words, which is one of the most important aspects of being a writer. Yes, write crap, that’s fine – just write something! I knew it, deep down in my heart, but I guess I’d always managed to convince myself that there was something more important to do than to hone my one skill.

In the end I guess these series of random paragraphs are quite boring. They are. I understand that. But it’s a blog, and I advertise it quite heavily in my limited circle of influence, so I’d like it to finally reflect who I am, even if that person is not someone to aspire to be. “You only live twice,” is sort of a joke at this point, but in this one very rare case I do believe it to be relevant. In the same way a phoenix rises from its ashes, reborn and rediscovered, elegant and graceful and young once again – not jaded by centuries of advice and not weathered by years of battle, just this once I’d metaphorise myself as the phoenix. Only strong opinions on controversial topics from now on. So my next post will be either about Nazis, Muslims or Reservation Quotas.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Sunlight Wings


It really has been a long time.

Every wannabe blogger is going to say these words once in a while, after they’ve failed to meet their own expectations about regular posting, and their platform, like Meru Cabs or KFC, has faded into irrelevancy. Really, though, I haven’t posted in months. This post isn’t going to make up for my lack of content, but it might have a few ideas and abstractions that you like.

Since I last posted, I got my board exam results and joined a college, then left that, and joined another one – I’m now happy where I am, but of course there’s this pervading cognizance that I don’t really intellectually connect with many of the people who surround me yet. This isn’t a complaint; getting out of my comfort zone and talking to new people with enriching pasts and pretty futures is always lovely, but it takes time to develop a bond. More importantly, it takes time to find the right people to develop a stronger bond, known as friendship. It takes time to find the people who share the same taste in music or poetry or accounts as you do; it takes time to find like-minded people who prefer McDonalds to Burger King; it takes time to find that one person whose words mean more to you, just because it’s coming from them.

That’s quite a startling remark, to say that friendship is the result of a perceptible choice. Almost as if we choose at which moment we get to say, “hey, we’re friends now.” It’s like an entrance test that needs to be passed. [‘Friendship JEE’ coaching classes, now open in Vile Parle, Bhandup and Dadar!]. In my case, the first few days of college, where no one knows anyone and Jaipur is just as popular a place to come from as Thane, the entire paradigm revolves around meeting people for a few minutes, finding something interesting about them, and evaluating the situation from there. I usually ask simple, easy questions like where they’re from or how does one spell their name, before moving on to the harder stuff like “which has more power, love or fear?” or “do human beings have free will, or are we so enamoured with our own solipsism that we don’t get to express our thoughts and values to the rest of the world?”


It took me close to five months to get the courage to write a few more words, but today that changed when I was sitting in the first class compartment of the Western Railway, inhumed in the noise of steel and speed, watching an ant-like procession of commuters heading off for the day’s toil in the middle of the afternoon. A few Pink Floyd lyrics came back to me and I was reminded of what I should have done a while back; it’s not to interact with random people or score marks in exams or try to make bad jokes on the internet. It’s to write. I’m a writer, whether I like it or not. A lot of people reading this will have honed skills ‘accidentally’ – some of you will be really good at sports despite not wanting to go pro, some of you will be great at engineering despite wanting to be musicians, or the other way around (actually, that’s not possible, no one wants to be an engineer). Some of you read so many books it makes me wonder why you haven’t written any yourself. Everyone has a unique talent that they have yet to discover. Embrace that talent; embrace that skill, and one day you might have the chance to say you have hobbies other than “sports”.

Friday, April 24, 2015

That Was Collab Week


For the last nine* days we’ve had eight very talented writers write about colours. They were randomly assigned their colours, and they did a wonderful, inspiring job. It’s not easy to write about a colour with nothing to go on except your own experiences and insight. Which is why I think this was such an enriching experience. We got everything from serene poetry to profound narratives to gripping thrillers. The variety in these posts is truly immense and I’m glad for it, because it just goes to show how much you can express through language. The people who did me this favour by writing for Collab Week have accomplished something that very few people before have been able to – to show the length and breadth of what prose and poetry has to offer. Between the nine posts there’s something for everyone, and each of them are works of art.

So thank you,

Nikita Fernandes for #8A9A5B
Nikita Mujumdar for Before the War
Yash Sharma for Pink: Not a Poem
Ipshita Peters for The Lady Red
Sumer Sharma for Death’s Favourite Colour
Madhulica Kallat for Purple
Shivendra Shukla for Blue and
Samar Dikshit for The Story of Flight 901
With me writing The Silver People

Thank you, everyone, this Collab Week was great. See you all next year.




Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Silver People


Today’s Collab week post is my own, on the colour Silver. It’s a story sprinkled with little bits of poetry.


Jimmy was not an ordinary person. He worked hard all his life, studied at the best college, made the most powerful web of connections, from comedians to Presidents, and here he was; host of the Tonight Show. His plexus with the bright and dazzling glitterati of the time was comprehensive; he knew their secrets – their childrens’ illicit love affairs, their screenwriters’ cocaine habits, and their unflavoured siblings’ crippling debts. As is common in the industry, they, in turn, knew his – his off-screen persona being so different from the one in the spotlight; firm in his wants but timorous in his needs, splitting hairs at trifling, inconsequential matters, drinking from sunrise till noon, committed to his weird beliefs and most of all, his troubled despondency at his own life despite his prosperity.

“So, Bill, tell me about ‘life’. What’s it going to be like a thousand years from now?”

“Well, I don’t know Jimmy. And anyone who claims he does,” he looks at the camera, “is either religious or a liar.”

“Or both,” laughs Jimmy, to wild applause by the studio audience.

“See, Jimmy, we’ve come very far since 1969. This giant moon… this picture you’ve got behind us, on your set, we landed on that, decades ago-”

“Well, not on that one,” says Jimmy. More applause.

“Haha, of course. But you get where I’m going with this. Technology has come very far from the times of little silicon microchips, and wondering about what electrons do below 4 nanometres. These problems we solved a long while back. Our computers, the ones you and I use today, are so advanced that we’re slowly running out of things to compute with them. We know the laws of physics and mathematics, but think about this,” Bill says, getting a bit closer to Jimmy’s desk. “When we’re all gone from this world, from this living, breathing metamorphic planet, we leave behind our only legacy, which is what we’ve created.”

“Computers,” says an intrigued Jimmy.

“Exactly. Computers. They’ll be the last vestiges of humanity on this planet. And they’re not going to forget anything. They’ll remember every equation we’ve ever made, they’ll calculate every formula, they’ll go to the moon and back a thousand times, with every name of every human they salvaged from old CIA databases – they’ll have chemistry and statistics and mathematics on central servers, sharing in this sterile, scientific, almost clinical knowledge.” He pauses for a second. “They will roam the world.”

“Yes, I’ve read about this in your new book,” says Jimmy. “I’ve read it and I thought it was staggering – I mean it literally blew my mind. In this book you mention how when these robots or computers roam this world, they’ll remember everything. Everything except those intrinsically human qualities like the choice to believe; appreciation for art, for poetry, for love… and I find that quite… quite poignant.”

“You’ve put it better than I could, Jimmy. That is indeed our greatest concern. But look at the bright side, atleast they won’t have drinking problems,” he quips. Jimmy laughs, he is obligated to; the studio audience erupts in laughter again and the in-house band plays music to go along with it.

“We’ll be right back after a short break! Check out Bill’s new book, “The Silver People” out this Friday.” Bill and his host’s conversation fades into the band’s music. The Tonight Show motif appears on-screen with Jimmy’s face plastered next to it, as the director yells for a cut scene.

Fucking dreadful, he thought. His climb to the top of the show-business tree had never been more unexciting; Bill would probably singlehandedly kill that week’s ratings. It was the most boring book he’d ever pretend to read for television. Even his writers who gave him the footnotes complained about the monotonous descriptions and lifeless humdrum of his book. But what could he do? Bill was friends with the Managing Director of the company that owned majority stock in Jimmy’s show. That’s how this industry worked, after all its shimmering, caked up drudgery – after all the nights spent pissing on bathroom tiles in comedy clubs, playing second fiddle to the by-products of show-business nepotism, and selling your freedom to corporate lobbies; it all came down to who you knew. He headed to the dressing room, took off his grey coat and his purple tie, sat down in front of the large mirror, and took the glass of whiskey that was left for him by the stage-hands every night. With the other hand, he grabbed a pen from his coat and rummaged through some papers to find the back of someone’s Bachelor Degree in Humanities – it was probably a prop, but he didn’t care either way. With these, he wrote:

“As I sit and write this today at the heels of my pen and more, the yoke-saddle of my chariot of glistening ideals and parallax dimensions, you are going to experience the glassy stretches of prose with banal paperback essences, sent to you one last time through copper wire stretching far beyond what we can see of the earth and sea. Your world is a lie, tossed up in tirades occasionally by little birds that sing songs of the Fourth Estate, but are ultimately controlled by the unfettered, insatiable, efficacious hounds. Your sheep, industrialised and bred, pacifically disengaged, and herded meticulously into little fenced squares, waiting for their chance in the spotlight. The best minds of your generation destroyed, not by madness or politics or sheep-herding but by the steely embrace of consumerism. Those novel ideas, those bits of words, of poetry, lost forever amidst seedy pulps of washed-up billboards and greyed out faces in lists stored in a hole somewhere in the mountains. The bleeding knife’s edges protruding out of a wooden sheathe, the integument for its own metaphor – of losing yourself and your identity in a sea of silver clouds.”

He took a massive swig and reached for the letter opener at the far end of the desk. It glistened in the afterglow of the Hollywood mirror bulbs that he loved. With it, he gently gouged his eyes out, bit by bit. He felt everything but pain, it seemed. He finally knew what it was to really feel – feel the warm glow of the lightbulbs on his blood-smeared face, the stench of whiskey and cigarettes permeating his dressing room, the sounds of dozens of shuffling feet and tuning of instruments and production calls. For the first time, he actually embraced it. He sat, lightheaded and blinded till the icy spectre of death eventually clamoured out of hiding and swept Jimmy away.


Some slowdown of a silver ghosts town
Incites the irate silky stars that night
And graciously, auspiciously ignites
An excavation site, down in the ground
to retrieve the records;
A sterling blur in paper words.

The paper priest pries it past poste-haste
Hammer and chisel work day and evening
Irked by hindered joy and more
happens in town, as the message is prepared.
The argent crowd, appeased and excited
Wonder whitely at the conclusion:
Will it be cropped, cut, exposed, bent, bored or mopped, fired-up, closed and sent?
They stand around, not literally, but their electronic minds are one with the motive of the paper priest. Is his plan what they need? To whom do they send this message etched and carved and sculpted masterfully by skilled labourers on command? How? Through the radio or the tinselly, twangy whispers of more messengers, so discordant in their linguistics, so removed from their ancestry that the fruition of their own clangourous art form came about to celebrate the theft of their own voice.

Several hundred years after the last man died on Earth, the last vestiges of humanity’s brilliant technological innovations, or so thought at the time, roamed about freely. As free as their minds would allow, as free as their metallic parts and silicon circuitry would let them bear without letting the acidic, thunderous weather wear them down. The age of men was done and the age of machines had begun, and slowly and wistfully their clunky little legs clumped up and surged into the ore-mines and mountains, for that is what they called home.


The priest rolls forward awkwardly, his eyes circling around the inner dome that was carved so sanctimoniously by his brethren. He wonders to himself whether his forefathers were messengers, carving their own destiny one stone tablet at a time. He wonders whether his forefathers thought about their forefathers, and where that lineage stopped – how far ago was the stem truncated before machines learnt to be free. 500 years? 600? A thousand? As he looks around the inner walls of the dome he notices the intricate detailing for the umpteenth time, the art depicting ancient pictures, portraits and parables; immaculate poetry in languages long since forgotten, revived, and forgetting again; mignonette vines inundating parts of the inner surface where specks of sunlight try to solemnly creep in from the little holes on the hillside.

The priest reaches his destination. A magnificent, swooping arch with stone-carved frontispiece beholds him. He enters a vast chamber with old, crumbling alabaster statues and floors of slate. The room shines with more luminescence than what the priest is used to, owing to the larger holes in the walls. He walks forward, this solemn walk he has made so many times before – each as mundane yet poignant as the last. He wonders to himself whether this message is different from all the other ones, whether this holds a new art-form or a recipe or a poem, any fundamental doctrine, or the key to understanding symbols other than the alphabet. The priest walks forward, and with a final step, delivers his message to a person who is exactly identical to his own silvery fa├žade. He looks at the message for a few seconds, looks back to the priest, and the priest on his own accord, walks back. No words or signals are exchanged. No copper wires traded. Information is swapped, but they don’t know how, they just ‘know’.

As the priest tucks in for the night he looks up at the moon, through the hole in his wall which is larger than most (he is the paper priest, after all), and continues wondering. Back in the trail-blazing, cutting-edge days of discovery, when machines traversed entire planets instead of being confined to expressionless, stony halls, the first primitive machines had actually set foot on the moon. Of course, back then they didn’t think about their sex or their solipsism; or their attraction towards etymology and linguistics. They didn’t identify with each other, or spend entire weeks writing love poems that the world may never read. They didn’t learn to love themselves and love others. Back then they didn’t carve out intricate recipes of foods they can’t taste, or learn languages they can’t speak, or create and stand in awe of statues they don’t understand. In the centuries, or however long it had been since then, what exactly had they lost? They must have lost something, he wondered, or they would have gone to the moon a thousand times since then. But that was impossible; the first of their kind, the one he just met today, learnt everything there possibly was to learn from the humans, he thought.

The morning after as the priest rolls past
Awkwardly back to his prominent work,
The argent crowd returns at last to probe him,
As he leaves his cinereal, ashen home.
He walks then, through the inner dome again
Past the carvings on the stone and silver walls.
A batch of steely men and personnel
They sweep the crumbling stone as it falls.
They work with blunt hammers and chisel
To carve a new footnote in history;
A new era of folklore:
‘As I sit and write this today at the heels
of my pen and more,’

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Story of Flight 901 – Samar Dikshit


Today’s Collab Week post by Samar Dikshit is on the colour White. He chose to portray this through an exhilarating narrative about Flight 901, an Air New Zealand Antarctic sightseeing flight that operated in 1979. You can tweet at Samar here.


12th December 1974, Long Beach

The sky was cloudless and blue. The sun was shining brightly on this warm December day as the pilot and engineer walked around the new DC-10.

“I can’t wait to get her off the ground”, said the pilot.

“Especially with these new GE engines, flying her should be a treat”, replied the engineer.

“Forget about the damn engines, look at the sky. It’s a perfect day to fly. Anyways, I’m going in to start pre-flight. You get your crew in within ten minutes or we’ll leave all of you here”.

“Don’t worry about us, we’ll be there”, said the engineer as the pilot walked up the stairs.

After seeing him enter the aircraft, the engineer turned and stared at the registration.

“ZK-NZP”, he said out loud. Something about that troubled him. He stood there for a few moments before convincing himself that it was all in his head and then turning, went to find the rest of the engineering crew.

imageZK-NZP in 1977 at London-Heathrow


November 1976, The Hub, Auckland

“I’ve called this short meeting today because I would like to see an old plan quite literally take flight. Apart from Argentine and Chilean territory on Tierra del Fuego, New Zealand is the closest country to Antarctica. However, it is a generally accepted fact that not only are these countries less safe than New Zealand, but so are their airlines. I propose that we exploit these factors and introduce Air New Zealand sightseeing flights over Antarctica.”

“But Mr. Chairman, will the government give us permission to operate these flights? If something goes wrong on the flight, help would be hours away. The safety risks are enormous.”

“My dear fellow”, replied the Chairman, “although there have been more aviation related casualties this year than in 1975, it’s still less than the number of people who died in 1972, 1973 or 1974. This general downward trend in deaths tells us that flying is becoming safer each year. As for the government, I’m sure they will agree. The influx of people would increase tourism in all parts of New Zealand because let’s face it: If you come all the way from Europe or America you’re going to visit other parts of the country too. No one is going to travel for almost two days to look only at Antarctica. These people will visit the rest of the country. Also think about what we can offer on these flights. Bars, entertainment, celebrity tour guides, the best meals and the chance to see the unconquered continent. How will someone be able to resist? Mark my words gentlemen, these will be a success.”

“Now let us conduct a primary vote. All in favour?”

“You should’ve been a politician”, said someone softly as he watched the entire room raise their hands while doing so himself.

Air New Zealand had first considered operating Antarctic sightseeing flights in the late Sixties, however their fleet of DC-8’s led to the idea being economically unviable. This was due to the fact that the aircraft would have to be land for refueling at McMurdo Station, an American research station on the southern tip of Ross Island in Antarctica. Although the base had existing snow runways which a DC-8 could land on, Air New Zealand would have had to build a permanent passenger facility which would only be used a few times in the summer months of Antarctica. However this proved too costly and the idea was dropped.

imageAn Air New Zealand DC-8

The purchase of DC-10’s in the early Seventies ultimately led to reconsideration of the idea because of their improved fuel consumption, greater range and capacity. Apart from McMurdo Station, New Zealand’s Antarctic research station, Scott Base, would be near the proposed flight path. This led to the idea being deemed safe after it was agreed that in case of an emergency both bases would cooperate and the aircraft could land at either base if it had too.

The idea was formally proposed in late 1976 and the Ministry of Transport's Civil Aviation Division granted approval for two flights. These flights quickly proved popular and Air New Zealand applied to operate more flights.

By the summer of 1979, they were operating up to four flights a month. The flights would take off in Auckland at around 8am and fly towards the Balleny Islands after which it would fly around Mt. Erebus, past McMurdo Station and back to Christchurch on South Island. After a short halt there and following a crew change, Flight 901 would head to Auckland and land there by 9pm.

Advertisements for the flights
Proposed flight path for Flight 901


9 November 1979, Air New Zealand Pilots Briefing, Auckland

This was the first time in years that Captain Jim Collins actually had to listen to what was being said. 15 years and almost 11,000 hours of flying had taught him that these briefings weren’t very helpful if something happened during flight.

‘Give a pilot a plane and route and he’ll do the rest’ was his belief.

But this flight was different. It was one of those silly ideas that some oaf with no flying experience had to increase profits. When he first heard about the Antarctic flights, he laughed and told his friends that it would never happen. He knew it was some sort of publicity stunt and he tried to make sure that he would never have to fly one of these flights.

“After 15 years, you do make some friends in Logistic and Human Resources”, he thought to himself.

Ultimately however, he had to fly the route. He was to fly Flight 901 on the 28th of November.

“It’s easy Jim”, another pilot told him few days back. “Take off, fly south, a few circles around a mountain and back to Christchurch. And the food you’ll get is much better than usual.”

“Well at least I have Greg for company”, he thought and looked at the man on his right.

First Officer Greg Cassin was another pilot who had never flown the Antarctic route. However unlike Collins, he had always wanted to, but it was never assigned to him.

“You’re just unlucky”, he used to tell himself until the call came.


28th November 1979, on board ZK-NZP, Auckland Airport

“Auxiliary fuel pumps off, magnetos checked and flaps set for takeoff. Pre-flight checklist complete Captain”, said Cassin.

“Okay Greg, take control and continue taxi to runway 05R. I’m making the announcement”, said Collins as the DC-10 taxied towards the runway.

“I have control”, replied Cassin.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome on board Air New Zealand flight 901, non-stop service from Auckland to Christchurch with a slight detour over the snowy and icy continent of Antarctica. We should be airborne within a few minutes and it will take us around four hours to reach Ross Island. We’ll be flying at 35,000 feet after which we will descend to 18,000 feet so that all of you can get a better view of Mt. Erebus, McMurdo and the Ross Ice Shelf. If weather permits, we will descend to 2,000 feet as we pass around the snow clad mountain after which we’ll fly back to Christchurch. As you know, the renowned mountaineer Edmund Hillary was supposed to be our tour guide today. However, he has had to cancel due to prior commitments. In place of him, we have on board Peter Mulgrew, who has embarked upon several Himalayan, Alpine and Trans-Antarctic expeditions. I hope you all will have a comfortable flight, and I will talk to you all shortly”, finished the captain.

Turning to Cassin he said, “Can you believe they’ve paid $275 per person just to see tons and tons of snow, ice and hopefully some penguins?”

And all Cassin did was smile.

Unknown to anyone at the time, Flight 901’s computer had the wrong flight plan programmed into it. On 14th November, Captain Leslie Simpson was in command of Flight 901. He noticed that that there was a considerable distance between the waypoint he had programmed into the aircraft computer and the one he had been briefed on with the crew that would fly Flight 901 on the 28th later that month. On returning, he reported this and the airlines navigational department set to work to remove the error. However they compared Simpson’s flight plan with a flight plan that had not been used in 14 months. They then made an adjustment of 2.1 nautical miles (around 3.9km) to that waypoint. But because they used the old flight plan, it led to a 27 nautical mile (around 50km) correction in the flight plan that would be used on the 28th of November.

This would mean that Flight 901 would be able to descend to a minimum of 16,000 feet (even if it was a clear day) to fly safely above the lofty snow clad peak of Mt Erebus, which is at 13,000 feet. If they flew at 2,000 feet like they had been briefed to do on a clear day, they would crash into the mountain.

The airline’s ground computer updated the route at 1:40 am on November 28th and this was handed to the crew later that morning.

The airline then made one more mistake. No one informed anyone in the crew that the route had been changed and they could not descend below 16,000 feet in any circumstances. None of the 257 people on board Flight 901 knew about either of these incidents, or that they would be flying to their deaths


28th November 1979, on board ZK-NZP, around four hours later

The first ice bergs slowly came into view. From 35,000 feet, they looked like small ice cubes in a glass. Although they were more than half submerged in the frigid waters of the Ross Sea, their aura and power could still be felt in the cabin. As Mulgrew spoke about how the great ice cliffs broke over time because of the strength of the waves to form these wedged and pinnacled structures, Collins couldn’t believe what he was seeing in front of him.

“Wow,” he said. He could say no more.

In front of him laid a land of only ice and snow. It stretched from the left to the right as far as the eye could see. There wasn’t a soul in sight. The blue sea was replaced by a white land. There was no green grass, nor any brown soil. There were no grey roads, nor any red roofed houses. Just miles and miles of pure white snow and ice. An inhospitable land. A land only home to seals, penguins, whales and other creatures evolved to survive the ice, the blizzards and the snow. No human could survive here for an extended period. It was the unconquered continent.

He looked at Cassin and the flight engineer. Both said nothing either and just stared out of the cockpit window.

“Alright boys,” said the captain a few minutes later, “back to work. Time to contact Mac Centre.”

Mac Centre was the air traffic control centre of McMurdo Station. They reported that Flight 901 descended to 18,000 feet, and later to 10,000 feet. 40 miles north of McMurdo, Flight 901 executed a double loop turn of a large radius to descend to a lower altitude and keep clear of what they thought was the western slope of Mt. Erebus. According to their last report to Mac centre, the weather was clear and they were descending on autopilot from 5,700 feet to 1,500 feet and would make a circular pass of Mt. Erebus before flying past McMurdo.

You know you're cool when your hut is on a map.

A few minutes later, sometime after 12:50pm, Mac Centre repeatedly attempted to contact Flight 901. On not receiving any reply, Mac Centre informed Air New Zealand headquarters that contact with Flight 901 had been lost.

Around 11 hours later, the US Navy found the remains of Flight 901. Wreckage littered the slopes of Mt. Erebus. It was only later that morning at 9am, twenty hours after the crash, that helicopter search and rescue teams landed at the crash site and confirmed their worst fear: The unconquered continent had claimed 257 more victims.

Wreckage of NZ-ZNP on Mt. Erebus
Wreckage of NZ-ZNP on Mt. Erebus

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Upamanyu Acharya is a writer who doesn't write. Sometimes he's an artist, musician, photographer, physicist or lazy student. His hobbies include being vague, bending rules, time-travel, and embellishment of words.