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Sunday, 8 October 2017

# 54 - Of Insans, aunties, blue whales, and X years of the iPhone

TV reporters have never had it better, the last couple of months have provided enough fodder for news channels to pick and choose. 

No need of 'JUST IN: Amitabh Bachchan catches a cold' type of news tickers, there's Kangana Ranaut and Hrithik Roshan, Blue Whale, Ram Rahim Insaan and his recently arrested daughter, Omprakash Mishra, and last but definitely not the least, the iPhone X.

No, scratch that, given that stellar list, the iPhone X is least likely to grab the eyeballs, despite the Face ID.

Rest assured that this is not an exhaustive list, regular features continue to occupy their slots – the complaining politicians, the ‘y we need this tho’ of the month (this month it’s the Bullet Train), Arnab Goswami, the Mumbai rains, the Mumbai trains, and so on.

But back to the main highlights.

Dhinchak Pooja is last season’s stuff, it's Omprakash Mishra who's raking up the YouTube views counter.

And I have to admit, ‘Bol naa Aunty aoo, kya’ is catchy. 



There was some hullabaloo about the song dissing (main bhi rapper) the concept of consent, and therefore, open letters were written, effigies were burnt and trolls (from both sides) activated.

And of course, activists made their own videos saying that trends such as this should not be encouraged. 

Bullshit.

Sure, the song is crass, has little or no production values, and is probably sexist.

But I swear on my rapidly receding hairline, I didn't even care for the lyrics or tried to decipher them until I read the article about it.

And on second thoughts, are your sensibilities on personal leave when the Honey Singhs and Badshahs of the world release their tracks? 

Bas sab campaigning mere Omprakash ke saath hi? Am I going to be the only one to stand up for the underdog with the 2 megapixel camera and the 30-day free-trial of auto-tune? 
  
Speaking of underdogs, remember the time when Apple used to be one?

Me neither.

I have written about iPhones in the past, and like every year, this year too, hundreds and thousands have written it off even before it’s released, and I am confident that like every year, this year too, millions will go on to purchase it. 

But, how much longer? Sure, you are rewarded for staying in the Apple ecosystem, I love the Apple Watch but I can't have it since I use an Android (also, I am saving my kidney for something really special).

Let's face it, the phones are still good, but ‘good’ doesn't cut it anymore, especially when you were the one who set the bar so damn high in the first place.

Talking poop and clucking like a chicken is great, but that Face ID faux pas right after dollops of self-praise and the repeated 'you've never seen anything like this before' would have made Steve Jobs a very, very angry man had he been alive. 

And what's with the X being pronounced Ten? Remember that Doordarshan goof-up when the anchor referred to Xi Jinping as "Eleven Jingping"?

I demand she be reinstated!
                       
I wish that was the only case of terrible nomenclature, but they have come out with something which they call 'Air power'. 

And I thought OnePlus was unfortunately named.

Air power sounds like something I produce after I have had a can of beans.

Do better, Apple, Your-die hard fans deserve it. And while at it, they deserve bundled air-pods and fast-chargers too.

And now, to address the elephant in the room.

I, of course, refer to Dr. Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan (hereinafter referred to as ‘Dr. S’ for the sake of brevity and levity).

I had seen the first MSG movie at a PVR with a friend whose name I shall not reveal, but Anand (Okay, no surname then) and I knew that we were witnessing cinematic history being created in front of us when Dr. S turned a bullet threatening to blow his brains out into a.....pink flower that matched his lungi. Not content with this feat, he followed it up by breaking the fourth wall and telling us viewers, “Koi hum e sant kehta hai, koi kehta hai farishta, koi kehta hai guru, toh koi kehta hai bhagwan ... lekin hum toh hai sirf ek....insaan,” (Some call me a saint, some call me an angel, some call me a teacher, and some call me god ... but I'm just a....human).

Pavitra Rishta


Yeah right! You didn’t fool us for a second, Dr. S. We knew there was something off about you then, and it was only much later we came to know that your crimes weren’t just restricted to creating the MSG Series and ‘Jattu Engineer’.

But that’s been discussed enough already, I am curious about a different phenomenon altogether.

Why did the media suddenly get so obsessed about Honeypreet, over Dr. S?
Sure, she was absconding and all, but showing her life history and interviewing anyone and everyone connected to her at the cost of ignoring other insights into Dr.S’s diabolical schemes (allegedly: tunnels from fatcave leading to girls hostel, skeletons being unearthed, etc.) was surely a tad excessive.

And even though you know why, I’ll spell it out 

M-U-C-K. Muck.

We love dirt - on other people. It’s why the media loved going on and on about the Sheena Bora murder case, delving into details and at times creating it, it’s why they are still trying to make money out of the Nanavati case, and it’s why shows like Bigg Boss sell. 

Why does this shit sell though? I am not sure, but I am as guilty as you are, I can tell you that - I am trying to get you to read my blog by using similar tactics, ain’t I?

Now the last one, promise.

The first time I heard that 'Blue Whale' is a dangerous trend that's going viral, I thought it was a Honey Singh song fat-shaming someone.

Then the newspapers gave it more coverage, and the first thing it reminded me of was a Black Mirror episode (‘Shut up and Dance’, if you must know). 

Off-late, India has become a hot spot for these dubious records, most selfie-related deaths, most blue whale-related incidents, rape capital of the world; we have built quite a reputation.

I am not entirely sure how the blue whale thing works, but from what I have read, it involves tasks that one has to complete and prove to some unknown entity on the internet. 

The tasks include, getting up at the middle of the night, drawing a blue whale on one's hand by making cuts, watching a horror movie at 2am, etc. etc. culminating into....suicide.

Wait, what?

The guy who claimed to have created the thing had been arrested quite some time back and he's said that we should be thankful to him for his service because he is cleansing the society by getting rid of 'biological waste'. 

Sounds like a villain straight from the DC universe. 

But every day the news reports get weirder and weirder.

There's apparently a kid who tried to commit suicide and when stopped he said he was promised one crore rupees if he successfully committed the act.

I repeat, this kid was told that if he managed to commit suicide, he would be given Rs. 10000000.

Perhaps understandably, he was unhappy when he was stopped from taking his life. 

I wonder what he planned on doing with the money. After-life-after-party?

But this is not a laughing matter, what the hell is wrong with the kids?  Weren't they supposed to be getting smarter?  

But it's not about being smart, it's about being unhappy, being vulnerable, believing that no one cares about you and nothing good will ever come out of your life.

We all feel like shit sometimes, age has nothing to do with it, but when you have teenagers and adolescents feeling this way, and the people around are too busy playing candy crush, reading the latest gossip about Honeypreet or wondering how Kangana will strike back now, that's when the affected persons become susceptible to games like 'Blue Whale'.

I am no Dr. Phil, but I have a hunch that It's not just 'Blue Whale', emotionally vulnerable people are more likely to harm themselves, 'Blue Whale' is just a push, it might as well be Sharma Ji Ka Beta who convinces the victim that there's nothing left in his life. 

Social (media) validation is as crucial as ever in this time and age, we go to unbelievable extents in our quest for likes and shares - The duck face is too passe, how about a selfie with a tiger instead, or maybe from the top of a building, standing on a ledge. That would surely spike up the likes? 

The Blue Whale game is probably a twisted, f'd up sort of validation - out there, someone or something pretends to understand you, befriends you, promises you rewards when you complete a challenge, and before you know it, you become a slave to it, and then it reinforces your belief that you are no good, that your life doesn't make any difference to anyone out there. That, you are, truly alone and will always be, so why not, just end it all? 

Sounds crazy? That's because it is. But maybe the joker was onto something when he uttered those lines in 'The Dark Knight'.

Madness is a lot like gravity, all you need is a little push.

Take a good look around you, ladies and gentlemen, it's a mad world out there, and if anything, it is only getting worse. 

Don't believe your friendly blue themed social media site that gives you the impression that everybody except you is leading perfect lives, we are all miserable in our not-so-unique ways. 


So the next time you see a teenager pouting, or flaunting a perfect smile for the camera, take a moment to consider how happy he/she actually is,...

And yes, look out for the cuts.

See you when the next fad hits the fan....

Video from here, image from here.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

# 53 - Short Story - The Wait

It couldn’t have been timed better.

For months the temperature had been rising and even though our collective wish for a drop in the mango prices had been granted, we now longed for the rains and an air conditioner in our flat.

The latter was definitely out of our budget, so Karthik and I focussed on the rains.

And that noon, almost when we had given up hope, it rained. And how.

For hours the rains pounded everything that stood in its way, people caught unaware ran helter-skelter, kids danced and splashed the muddy water until their parents grabbed them by the ears and forcibly took them home, the people working in offices looked at the world outside their glass prisons with equal measures of awe and fear - most hadn’t brought their umbrellas.


The monsoons had finally arrived.

We stood on the balcony and enjoyed the sight, both of us had left office early, but the delay in the trains meant that we had reached well past our usual time.

“Aren’t you glad that it’s a Friday?” asked Karthik.

I smiled, “Glad? Freaking ecstatic! The best day of the week meets the best time of the year.”

Karthik and I shared the flat, we had studied together in college and now worked at the same company, and to the best of my knowledge, earned the same salary.

Which, in a city like Mumbai, was too low for our liking.

But even my financial woes couldn’t get the better of me this evening. Of course, the fact that we had received our salaries a couple of days earlier meant that we could afford a little luxury.

“Bring out the booze,” I declared, and went to take out the ice tray myself (yes, our landlord was benevolent enough to grant us a fridge).

We dragged out a couple of chairs to the balcony and poured ourselves a drink.

“Cheers”, said Karthik and we clinked our glasses and took a quick sip.

The rains had finally slowed down to a more comfortable drizzle, and we enjoyed the atmosphere in silence. This was an old society, fairly large by today’s standards, there were trees and open spaces which are usually a dream for most middle-class Mumbaikars. It was probably this luxury that made the original owners resist the temptation of re-development.  

“Not bad huh?” said Karthik, staring outside, looking at the tree that stood just outside our building, overlooking the street.

“Not bad at all.”

It was the kind of evening that made you want to write poetry, I for one couldn’t and thus made do with memories of a better time.

I wondered if Mansi was thinking of me.

Post our break up shortly after college, she too had shifted to Mumbai, I hadn’t met her yet but from what I had heard from a few friends she was doing well. Better than me at least. I knew that she didn’t stay far from where we lived, and I always hoped that one of these days we would bump into each other and would get back together.

Wishful thinking? Yes.

Impossible? Most likely, because my over-smart friends had also let me know that she was dating someone from her office.

I got up, “where did you keep the cigarettes?”

Karthik looked at me, puzzled, “What do you mean? I thought you were getting them.”

After a few minutes of heated discussions, I was able to convince Karthik that I had told him “Cigarette le aa tu” (You get the cigarettes) and not “Cigarette laya hu” (I have got the cigarettes).
Grumbling to himself, Karthik grabbed his umbrella and wallet. “I doubt that Naresh bhai’s shop would be open in this weather.”

“Oh come on, it’s only 9pm, his place is open till 10, and even if it’s not, you need to walk just a hundred meters more to find another store.”

Still complaining, Karthik took his own sweet time before he left.

I got back to the balcony and resumed drinking.

Dinner would be here soon; courtesy ‘Basu’s Tiffin Service’ – meaning on a good day - food that tasted like yesterday’s leftovers, and on bad days, well, we dared not ask how fresh the food was.

But I couldn’t bring myself to eat a preparation of an unknown vegetable with dry, papad-like chapattis tonight, so I called Basu and cancelled the meal, and not quite done - I impulsively ordered Chicken-taka-tak pizzas for both of us.

I was drinking as slowly as possible, savouring every sip, the rains had picked up again, and though it was still beautiful outside, it had a gloomy sight to it.

My thoughts veered back to Mansi; the tragedy of relationships is that the person who calls it off only associates the time spent with the sad moments, and the other person only recalls the happier bits.
We had spent four years together, and all it had taken for her to abandon it was one single argument. And she hadn’t looked back, just ended it and moved on like it had meant nothing to her.  

Was it possible that she had been having an affair on the sly before we broke up?

I shook my head; I was getting drunk.  Trying to think of other thoughts, I found myself unable to do so, ‘goddamn this weather, and goddamn this alcohol’.

Thankfully the bell rang, I could do with a cigarette now.

But it was the pizza.

It was past ten, Karthik had left more than an hour back. It shouldn’t have taken him this long. I called him up but the somewhat ironical tune of “Smoke on the water” playing in the room told me that the idiot had forgotten to take his cell phone. 

Sighing, I started with my pizza, hoping that by the time he returned, his would still be warm.

Another hour slipped by.

It was getting late enough to be worried. I looked down from the balcony. Except for a drenched street dog that was lying down miserably near the gate, there was not a soul to be seen anywhere. Thunder rumbled in the distance and the cool breeze no longer felt soothing. Did I hear a soft knock at the door? I turned back...

There was no reason for anyone to knock, the flat had a perfectly working doorbell, Karthik knew about it too.

From a faraway corner of my mind, something warned me, ‘this doesn’t seem right’.

I walked slowly and hesitantly, and before my brain could tell me otherwise, I flung open the doors.

No-one.

A chill travelled down my spine.

Every part of me forbid it, but I couldn’t help myself, with my heart beating as loudly as a sledgehammer, I poked my head out and took a quick look on either side, the hallway was empty.
I shut the doors hurriedly.

“It was the wind,” I said aloud, trying to convince myself. The rains had turned positively sinister by then, it looked like it wouldn’t stop until everything and everyone were destroyed.

Karthik should have been back by now...no matter how many shops were closed and how far he had to go, it shouldn’t have taken him this long.

Unless something had happened to him, something bad.

Another flash of lightning, much closer this time, I waited for the sound of thunder that would inevitably follow, and when it did it reverberated within the four walls of our modest flat.

And almost on cue, all the lights went off.

Darkness.

What perfect timing.

I made my way to the balcony, the street lights were gone too. There was a power-cut in the area.

Another knock on the door, there was no mistaking it this time.

I hesitated, but then relented as soon as I heard the familiar voice.

“Come on man, open the door, will you?”

It was Karthik.

After some fumbling, I located the latch and opened the door, Karthik stepped in, bringing a puddle of water along with him.

Though I couldn’t see him clearly, I could make out that he was thoroughly drenched.

“What happened to you? Where’s your umbrella? Why are you so fucking late?”

“Naresh’s shop was closed alright, so were the others, I had to go a long way. Forget the umbrella, it’s ruined, almost couldn’t make it back myself. Do you have any idea how much water-logging has taken place by the main road? It feels as if it’s been raining for months.”

I admit it was a bit selfish of me, but I had to ask, else all of Karthik’s efforts would have gone in vain, “the cigarettes must have gotten soaked too, huh?” I said, trying my best to sound as nonchalant as possible.

“I was too clever for that. After all this, couldn’t afford to get it wet. Protected it with my life.” 

Karthik revealed a plastic pouch, within which he kept the cigarette box.

We sat on the balcony, two figures in the shadows, I took out two cigarettes, and offered one to Karthik.

I lit my cigarette and passed the matchstick to Karthik, and that’s when I saw it.

The obscurity provided by the power-cut and the night had been diminished by the flame from the matchstick, and though the light provided by it was faint, it revealed enough.

Karthik had lit his cigarette, and puffed on it gently, as he did smoke came out from a hole in his head where there had been once his eye-socket.
His skull was smashed in and chunks of brain were visible, his jaw was crooked and barely hanged on to the rest of his face, he was drenched but not with water, blood dripped from every portion of his body, and his hand was set at an impossible angle the sights of which I had never seen.

Never seen on a living person that is.

And then the flame died.

And as I started to lose consciousness, I heard him say, “Sorry buddy. I hate to have done this to you. But desperately wanted to have a smoke with you before I left.”

***
It was probably the chirping of the birds that had woken me up.
The rains had stopped and even with the cloudy skies, I could make out that the sun was coming up.
Still drowsy, I realised that I had fallen asleep on the balcony itself, and then having recalled the events from last night, I woke up fully with a start.

The power must have been back because all the lights were on, but there was no sign of Karthik.

Was it really a bad dream? Where was Karthik?

And then I saw the ashtray on the other chair. I remembered having emptied it last night - before we had poured our drinks.

There were two cigarettes on it, one barely smoked, and the other – enjoyed right down to the end.

***
HIT AND RUN CASE IN KANDIVALI WEST – 1 DEAD

Mumbai: A man was killed when he was hit by a speeding car sometime on Friday evening.
Police said the accident occurred around 11 p.m. on S.V. Road when the victim was attempting to cross the road. Based on eyewitness reports, a white sedan is suspected to have caused the accident and had fled the scene. The victim was immediately rushed to the nearest hospital where he was declared dead before admission.
The victim has been identified as Karthik Sharma, 24, and was said to have been an employee of Bestsource Private Limited. He was living with his colleague in Kandivali in a shared apartment. What is strange is that the flatmate has been under severe trauma and shock since the incident occurred and has been unable to speak since then. He is currently under medical supervision. Medical experts say that while it isn’t unusual for relatives or loved ones of an accident victim to undergo extreme stress, it is very rare for someone to completely stop communicating. 

Image from here.


Monday, 11 September 2017

# 52 - Confessions of a Serial Prank Caller - Part 3 (Conclusion) - Karma isn't a nice lady

Read Part - 1 here.

Read Part - 2 here.

I made my final comeback on 2nd July, 2005. How do I remember the date? Well, let’s just say that it was all over the news. 

While returning from college vacations, we got stuck at Surat on 2nd July, 2005.

Why?  You probably recall 26th July, 2005, the day when Mumbaikars were half expecting Noah's ark to show up somewhere in the city.  

Mumbai's distant cousin Surat was facing the same situation weeks earlier.  

Seven of us were stuck together, holed-up in a small room for three days - with little to do and even lesser to talk about, our only source of entertainment was All India Radio. 

Yes, it was bad. 

Luckily, we were getting cellular reception. 

I called up the customer care for my cellular service provider with respect to some issue, but me being me, I ended the call with, "bhaiya bahut bhookh laga hai, subaah se kuchh khaya nahin, ek pizza bhej dijiye na". O brother, I am starving and haven't had anything to eat since morning, please send a pizza".

There's apparently a Facebook group by that name (sans the ‘send pizza’ bit) that's immensely popular these days - some say it was started by the executive who had attended the call).  

The others found this quite hilarious and insisted that we do more calls. 

It was quite clever that way, calling up customer care people and pranking them. 

Sure, they had your phone number and knew your identity, but there's nothing wrong with asking questions of the moronic kind. I was already doing it in the classroom in any case.

What started with a random call in Surat continued well after we got back to college. 

And thus it began, all over again....



Samples:

"Mujhe duniya bhar mein free mein call karna hai...wo wala recharge kara do." I want to make calls the world over for free. Please activate the scheme.

- I am sorry, sir, we don't have any such scheme at present.

- “Arre kya bakwas kar rahe ho, mera padosi ka beta Bablu ne uska papa ke liye yeh scheme laga diya hai...ab din bhar ISD karte rehta hai. Main kyun nahin kar sakta?" Don’t bullshit me, my neighbour’s son has done it for his dad. Now he makes international calls all day long. How come I can’t do it?  

__

"Sharam aata hai mujhe.” I feel ashamed.

- I am sorry Sir?

- “Every other brand has celebrities endorsing. Shahrukh Khan, Abhishek Bachchan, Kareena Kapoor. You have a dog. Please do something about it, people are making fun of you."

___

"Oye, score kya hai bata na." Oye, tell me the score.

- Sir, to know the cricket score please SMS CRI to -"

- "Par usme toh paisa lagta hai. Tere saamne toh compute khula hoga na...bata na baby...acha chal itna bas bata de Tendulkar khel raha hai ya out ho gaya". That takes money. You have a computer in front of you. Come on baby, just the score. Okay, fine, just tell me if Tendulkar is still playing or is he out.

And so on...

And just like that, I was back. 

Sure, the jokes were limited since I had only my cell-phone service provider's customer care number to call up and I was nowhere close to my former glory, but it didn't matter. The new audience lapped it all up and offered their cell-phones to have the same calls repeated for other networks.

Post dinner was prank call time every night. All I had to do was put the phone on loudspeaker and call the helpline, and the followers couldn't get enough. 

My fan following was growing and from a humble 'couple of guys' my sessions were now witnessed by 10-12 people at any given time, there were more who wanted to be involved but my roommate was never the accommodating sorts.

It didn't take long for it to stop though.

It was supposed to be a routine call. 

All I wanted to do was ask the customer care executive to tell me how to increase the brightness on my TV screen (the call, as usual, had been placed to my network service provider).

On being told that he wouldn't be able to help me out and I should instead call up the helpline of my TV company (I had told him that the brand was "Shaitan Danger" and no manual was given) I retorted that they were customer care, and since I was a customer and obviously needed care, he was supposed to help me - no matter what the query.

The guy at the other end stopped talking, even as I increased my decibel levels and complained about how in the 21st-century people had stopped helping others. 

"Shut up you idiot". He said all of a sudden.

The laughter in the room died instantly. Everyone looked at me, how would I respond to this? 

Trying my best to retain my composure, I said, "This was a test call to judge the efficiency and patience of the Customer Care Team. You have failed. You are required to submit your resignation tomorrow morning."

"Shut up", he said again. 

I hung up.

Everyone started laughing again but it wasn't at the prank. 

They were laughing AT me. 

"Boy, you had that coming."

"Serves you right"

"Prank-call king my ass."

As one by one they left my room, I realised that they had never been fans and I had never been their idol. These guys weren't my followers, I was just an average guy who was funny for a while. 

It's been around 12 years since my last prank call. It's pretty safe to say that I am not going back to that habit. 

But bear with me, there's still a wee bit left of my story.

Around four or five years ago. I got a call from my "bank".

I was told that my credit card points were expiring, and was asked if I would like to redeem them for cash or get gift vouchers.

"Show me the money", I said. 

I was asked to confirm my credit card number.

"Wait, isn't that confidential?"

The lovely voice at the other end laughed, and all seemed right with the world again. "Siiiir, that's public information. We need to verify that it's you."

"Of course, of course," I said, slightly embarrassed.

 My CVV number was next.

"Are you sure you need that?" I asked Aishwarya.

Yes, her name was Aishwarya, in my mind I saw Aishwarya Rai Bachchan on the phone with me. 

"Yes Sir, we need to know the CVV in order to verify that it is you." The mild irritation I sensed in her voice made me immensely unhappy, the last thing I wanted to do was bother Aishwarya. 

Funnily enough, I never did get the cash-back, stranger still my credit card was used for some purchases that I didn't remember making. 

Aishwarya's phone was always switched off. 

The bank told me that it was a scam and my card was blocked.  

It took me time but I realised that I had become a victim of a prank call of the worst kind. The hunter had now become the hunted.

Present day.
Once a week some scammer tries his/her luck with me, I curse, plead, and occasionally threaten them, but it doesn't stop.

That's just the scams, there are genuine calls that come every day, some bank offering credit cards, some offering personal loans, competing cellular networks trying to lure me away, my own cellular network tempting me with data plans and free SIM cards, recorded voices of girls telling me that they are lonely and need a friend like me, etc. etc.

Just the other day, I got a call from some life-insurance guy.

"I am slightly busy", I had said. 

"Why?" he had asked. The question threw me off-balance, but he deserved a reply, I reckoned.

"Well, for one, I am in office, and on my way to a very important meeting," I said, more to myself than him.

But this guy was no novice.

"Is this meeting as important as your life? Sir, this is exactly why you need life insurance." 

I was reminded of myself. This guy had an answer to everything. Which meant that I had only one option left. 

I cut the call. 

Sure, everyone gets calls like this. But, I seem to get the wackier ones.

It's not a coincidence. I attribute it to Karma. I have disturbed a lot of people over the years, done some crazy shit, and what goes around comes around.

Hamare kismat mein champagne nahin, sirf pain hai.

- Rekha in ‘Bachke Rehna re Baba’ (2005)


But it was the call that I got last night that finally got to me. 
It made me wonder if it really was fate, or some other conspiracy altogether.

The call was from some unknown number, I picked it up and immediately heard giggling.

Multiple voices.

And then I heard it....
It sent a chill down my spine; because I had heard the words before, plenty of times, except I had heard them coming out of my own mouth. 

"Bhaisaab, mujhe bachaiye, mere kaamre mein ek bhoot hai". Save me. There’s a ghost in my room.





 [Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. While certain institutions may have been mentioned, the characters and incidents are wholly imaginary.]


Monday, 4 September 2017

# 51 - Confessions of a serial prank caller - Part 2 - Rise of The Machines

Read Part - 1 here.

“Bhaisaab, mujhe bachaiye, mere kamre mein ek bhoot hai.”  Save me. There’s a ghost in my room.

The response to this line has varied tremendously. 

Even at 1 am which was the default time at which the prank calls were made, some asked who I was and why I was calling them, some simply hung up, and some were curious enough to ask about what the ghost looked like.

And there were a few who didn’t say anything, but simply waited.
Even as I screamed, pleaded, and eventually made gurgling sounds, they waited, and after I went quiet, they asked, finally unable to contain their curiosity.

“Are you still there, or are you dead?”

At this point I used to giggle and do my utmost best to mimic the voice of a 5-year-old girl, simply saying, “you’re next,” I  hung up.

I soon became a sort of celebrity in the hostel.

People expected new prank calls and encouraged by their response. I gave it to them.

There was the classic:- “I am getting bored. Chal baat kar na.

You would be surprised at how many lonely souls I encountered who were willing to talk. Yes, girls too. Especially, girls.

A friend had actually dialled the number of his girlfriend on my behalf to see how she would react to that kind of a line, and after 40 minutes of intense discussion that was veering to, well, topics that didn’t please the friend, he cut the line.    

As demand increased, we had to make calls during earthly hours, which wasn’t possible from the hostel, so we started visiting STD booths (the fans were always ready to bear the expenses). Calls to known people also increased.

This was the golden period of prank calls.

I would sometimes call a random number, and asked the recipient to guess who I was. They would make a few random guesses, and I would eventually declare that one of their guesses was correct. I would proceed to state that I had lost the number of one of the other persons they mentioned and asked for it.

I would then call up the said person, and claim to be the person who had actually given the number. This would be followed by...well, samples follow:

Samples:

“Tu c**** tha, c***** hai, aur c***** rahega.” You were, are, and will always be a ********.

“Bahut himmat juta ke phone kar raha hu, bas yeh batana tha ke tujhse pyaar karta hu main. Haan, main ek ladka hu aur tu bhi. Par pyaar ka gender ke saath kya connection?” I have finally gathered up the courage to say this. All I wanted to convey was that I have always loved you. Yes, I am a man and so are you, but what does gender have to do with true love?

“Tu last time jab mere ghar pe aaya tha, tab toilet use karke flush nahin kiya tha. Wo daag aaj bhi hai. Aake saaf kar.” The last time you visited my place, you forgot to flush. The mark is still there, come and clean it.

And so on...

Of course, I would be lying if I claimed that all calls were successful. Sometimes people figured it out, and I had to listen to words that would make Virat Kohli proud (I attribute this to the then newly released TV show ‘Roadies’).

Sometimes people couldn’t figure it out and still abused me.

The RJ calls were very popular as well. It basically involved me pretending to be a radio jockey and asking the unsuspecting recipient to request a song. I would then ask him to sing it out. Some enthusiastic people needed no encouragement and immediately proceeded with the latest chartbuster, others were shy and had to be coaxed and cajoled to sing out a few stanzas.

I would then shut them up and called them terrible singers.
Oh, and I may have thrown in a few cuss words here and there as well.

Whenever I am asked how is it that I have been so successful as a prank caller, I always tell them the same thing - you have to love the process, be thoroughly prepared, and never lose your cool. You have to have a good sense of timing, and should be able to foresee possible responses.  

But sometime in 2003 when I was at the peak of my creative abilities, technological advances almost put an end to my career.

More and more people were using cellphones instead of landlines. This wasn’t directly a problem as such because we were aware that people using mobile phones could tell the number from which calls were made, and I, as a matter of policy never called on/from cell-phones.

However, caller-ids on landlines were proving to be troublesome. And one could never tell which landline devices had caller-id.



The risks increased, and STD booths were the only possibility now. And of course, Himanshu’s cell, the sole exception to my ‘no cell-phone’ rule.

But a brief background on Himanshu first.

Himanshu was a fellow boarder from a small town. His father was a doctor, his mother was a doctor, his brother was a doctor, his sister was a doctor, his grandfather was a doctor, I forget what his great-grandfather was, but for the time being let’s assume that he was also a doctor.

Now, Himanshu’s parents (and everyone else) wanted him to be a doctor, and he was forced to take up the biology stream in class 11.

There was just one problem, Himanshu had, without informing his parents, switched over to the Humanities stream.

You might think he did this because he didn’t want to become a doctor, you might laud him for his courage and self-respect to do his own thing, but the reason he switched from biology to humanities was far, far, more noble.

Humanities section had the highest girl to boy ratio, and being a teenager whose only interaction with a female till date, apart from his maa-bhen, had been his kaamwali bai, he jumped at the opportunity.

Long story short, whenever we had to make an urgent prank call (yes, there is such a thing), and for some reason we couldn’t access a phone, we rushed to Himanshu.

- "Hand over the phone, boy.”
“Please don’t do this....the SIM’s registered in my uncle’s name.” 
“Okay then...let’s see how your dad feels about your bright prospects in the humanities stream. You know that we have his address.”
“Here you go...balance pura khatam mat karna”.

But all good things come to an end.

It was supposed to be a routine prank call, dial a random number, ask politely if the receiver’s daughter was there, and see where it goes from there.

It was 11pm, and Himanshu handed over his phone without much fuss.

A man who picked up the phone on the third ring. He seemed fifty-ish.

- “Hello uncle. Zara apni beti ko phone dena.” Could you please hand over the phone to your daughter.
-        -   “Kisse baat karni hai?” Whom do you wish to talk to?
-          - Aapki beti..” Your daughter.

A slight pause, and then the said daughter said “hello?”.

Now as a veteran, I should have known this, the thing with female voices is, you can’t really tell the age.

- “Kaise ho?” How are you?
  “Aap kaun bol rahe ho?” Who is this? 
“Bhool gaye na? Bhool gaye wo beete hue pal...bhool gaye wo haseen mulaakatein”
Have you forgotten? Forgotten the past so easily...forgotten the beautiful time spent together.

She let go of the phone and told her father, “Papa, it’s him again.”

And before I could realise what was happening, the papa was on the line again.

“YOU BASTARD...I WILL SHOOT YOU.”

Needless to say, I hung up immediately, went to Himanshu and handed over the phone. He looked pleased, having gotten the phone back so soon. His happiness was short lived though, he came running to my room within five minutes. His phone was ringing.

“What have you done? Who the fuck did you call? I am getting a call from this number, and the guy says he is gonna kill me.”

We didn’t pick up the phone.

But he kept calling, and calling and calling. 
Throughout the night, the next day, the day after that.
Himanshu finally switched off his phone and threw his SIM away.

We lived in terror, half-expecting cops to show up any minute and put us in jail; every time someone called out my name, I had a mini heart attack. Seventy-three percent of Himanshu’s hair turned grey overnight.  

All my disciples and associates abandoned me, lest they be dragged into what was being referred to as the “Call-gate scandal of 2003”.

Nothing actually happened though, but I had had enough with this prank call business.

School got over and I went to college.

No one knew about my past, I didn’t mention it. I had become just another guy; my gift - rusting for want of use.

In the meantime, cell-phones became ubiquitous and I told myself that this was it, I couldn’t prank call anyone even if I wanted to.

As you may have guessed, I was wrong.


I made my final comeback on 2nd July, 2005. How do I remember the date? 
Well, let’s just say that it was all over the news.

To be concluded in the next part....

[Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. While certain institutions may have been mentioned, the characters and incidents are wholly imaginary.]


Sunday, 27 August 2017

# 50 - Confessions of a serial prank caller - The Beginning


It all started when I was an attractive 11 year-old-boy.

Alone in the house and bored out of my wits, I picked up the good old trusty landline and dialled a random number. 

Not very random actually, it was our own number but for the last digit.

Now, until then, I was unaware of the concept of prank calls, I had nothing planned, and barely realised what I was about to do.  

All that was about to change.

But not that day.


As soon as the person at the other end received the call, I panicked and put the phone down, cursing myself for the pointless activity. I vowed never to do this again.

Our destiny is frequently met in the very paths we take to avoid it
- Jean de La Fontaine (1679)


Kismat choti si bachchi hai ... usse hide & seek khelna pasand hai
- Emran Hashmi in ‘Raja Natwarlal’ (2014)



I hadn’t uttered a word in my first ‘prank call’. But it was tough to get over the adrenaline spike, the mild kick associated with speaking to someone I had never met face to face.

Ah, the simple joys from the pre-internet era.

Forgetting my promise to myself, I searched for opportunities to make ‘one more call’. This time, I wanted to have a speaking role. 

A couple of weeks later, the chance presented itself. 

"Helloooo" said the lady at the other end. 

“Hello Madam, I am calling from Doordarshan”.

To this day, I don’t know why I said what I did.

The lady had not been expecting this call, and perhaps because the 90s were a spam free period or people back then were generally more gullible, she believed that the mighty Doordarshan had indeed called her.  With an equal measure of pride and nervousness, she asked what she could do for me.

“We are taking a survey. What is your favourite TV program?” the words simply flowed. Neither original nor funny....but convincing as hell. Why else would the television people call up at 3pm?

She mumbled some popular TV serial's name and after a curt ‘Thank you’, I hung up, my heart pounding against my chest.

It had begun.

For the next few months, I carried on this act – no punchlines, no wisecracks, no revelations or conclusion as such. But it became a hobby, a habit, an addiction.

Sometimes I tweaked my act, asking the receiver their favourite movie, which, I told them, could be screened next Sunday at 4 ‘o’ clock on DD1 if enough people voted for it.

Sometimes I became the radio station guy.

I imagined excited housewives telling their bored husbands about the calls. I still believe that at least sometimes I made their day.

But I was still learning the tricks of the trade.

One fine day I was told that this was the third time that week that this particular household had received a call from Doordarshan. Of course, there was nothing wrong with Doordarshan calling up the same home thrice in one week, Doordarshan had (and I assume it still has) a lot of love to give, and the person I was speaking to merely stated the fact, and didn’t seem to doubt my credentials. 

It was nothing, but I felt ashamed, it was a rookie mistake.

A brief sabbatical followed, and I stayed clean for a month.

Soon I was at it again, In my second innings as a prankster, I became the guy who had dialled a wrong number by mistake, but was convinced that he had gotten the number right.

“What do you mean this is not Naresh’s number. I spoke to him ten minutes back. Hand him the phone immediately!”

“Why won’t you let me talk to Abhishek? Has he forgotten that he owes me 12 bucks?”


But like all creative geniuses, I eventually got bored and stopped with the calls altogether.

Well, it was more because my parents sent me to boarding school.

Kismat Badi Kutti Cheez Hai
– Shahrukh Khan in ‘Happy new Year’ (2014)

The years rolled on, cable television became mainstream, Y2K bug threatened and fizzled out, Amitabh Bachchan started acting his age, the Khans stopped acting theirs......and I grew up, well almost.

While my boarding school wasn’t SRK’s school from ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’, it was definitely no ‘Gurukul’ (pre-Raj Aryan era) either. It was probably then that I came to be aware of ‘prank calls’ as a concept.

And when I was in 11th standard, the hostel got its own landline. It was kept at the hostel reception and was meant only for receiving calls. Strictly from 6pm to 9pm, they said.

The phone was locked in a wooden box so that only the handle could be picked up and the buttons were unreachable.

We were informed that it was incapable of making outgoing calls in any case.

Again, that’s what "they said".

It was a lie we could spot half-a-mile away, and surely in a couple of days, we saw our seniors take the phone out of the box to make local calls to their girlfriends post midnight. 

A security guard had apparently been bribed and he had handed over a duplicate key to the box. 

I and a few of my other girlfriend-less friends awaited our turn to use the phone, we didn’t have anyone to call of course, but we possessed the mentality that unites us Indians.

If it’s free, take it, use it, own it.

A friend suggested the idea of making prank calls from the phone and proceeded with what was the most pathetic prank call in the history of telephony.

I took over and told the others to watch and learn.

Again, without any preparation, I picked up the phone, punched a series of random numbers, and proceeded to utter the words that made little sense then, but would go on to be a popular prank call theme. I am told that even now, 15 years later, boys from the hostel still talk about the legendary prank call.

As someone picked up the call, I said, with a quivering voice, “Bhaisaab, mujhe bachaiye, mere kamre mein ek bhoot hai.”  Save me. There’s a ghost in my room.

To be continued....

[Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. While certain institutions may have been mentioned, the characters and incidents are wholly imaginary.]



Image from here.