Willie S: All the world’s a stage.
It’s been some time since I have discussed awkward episodes of my life. A lot of it has got to do with my current vocation. All embarrassing incidents at the workplace cannot be discussed thanks to the confidentiality agreement signed at the beginning. I can’t even name the company I work for but its name incidentally rhymes with hell and often confused with the Indian steel maker SAIL. But then chances of anything of interest happening while I ponder over the material selection for a sulphur recovery unit somewhere in the wilderness of Western Australia is remote. Very remote. While my fervent opponents in the Meta-Mafia feel working as a materials engineer specializing in corrosion solutions automatically qualifies me for public humiliation, I have passionately defended my profession. But I digress.
People have often asked me whether I like being on stage (very few actually did). And I always tell them what I told the person who first asked this question. No. My affair with the stage begins long back. June of 1991 to be precise. I had just joined Don Bosco as a brash, cheeky brat fresh out of kindergarten. I held a lot of promise and the world was there to be conquered. I was appointed the class monitor in my first week and as expected at such an age, I drunk on raw power began feeling I was capable of anything. Incidentally I was not and was soon going to find that out.
The annual dance competition used to be among the first events in the scholastic calendar. Within a few weeks of me joining there was an announcement in class asking for people who would be interested in participating. Without going into hours long deliberations before taking a decision like I do now, I immediately signed on for it, much to my eternal regret. Being God’s greatest gift to the human race, I felt that shaking a leg would be like a walk in a very boring park. Like any busy six year old with a corporate mindset, I immediately forgot about the fact that I had signed up for a dance competition once I had signed up. So the days which should have been spent in preparing for my hair-brained initiative was frittered away disputing umpire decisions and running fellow batsmen out on the school playground. So the dreaded day arrived and I was blissfully unaware of the impending humiliation. I was so ignorant that I actually entered the great school hall and joined my boisterous group of friends in the audience and was looking forward to heckling the participants. It was when a voice back-stage announced in a booming tone that the next performer is Sayan Ganguly when it struck me. I was on the wrong side of the stage. The heckler was about to become the hecklee. I was transfixed not knowing what to do as my friends pushed me out of the hall and urged me to run to the back stage. I reach the green room afraid, very afraid about what was about to happen.
All participants were expected to bring their respective costumes and their music tracks to which they were supposed to jive to. I of course had none. It seemed that this was a common occurrence and the organizers had default dance tracks to be played when irresponsible asses like me screwed up. Unfortunately the default costumes consisted of only losing the school tie and suddenly there I was on the stage with the curtains about to go up and a sad dance track beginning to play. I don’t remember which track it was but it certainly had never been on any kind of top 1000 songs of the year lists in any country (even Germany). I closed my eyes and said a short prayer and opened my eyes to discover that my prayer was not answered. I was still on stage and the crisis further accentuated by the second as the curtain went up. That was the moment I realized that my school housed quite a large number of students, all of whom happened to be in the hall. My prevalent reputation of being a trail blazing iconoclast induced an unusually keen interest in their eyes. Most of them felt that they were about to view something different. The delayed start had heightened their expectations. Didn’t all famous shows start a bit late, they told themselves.
Meanwhile the dance track had begun, unnoticed by me. It was a non-descript tune with an irreverent mish-mash of beats generally leading to nowhere, somewhat like my imminent dance steps. The crowd was quick to notice that things didn’t look the way supposed to be. I think me being in the school uniform sans the tie with a sorry excuse for a dance track in the background raised suspicions that Superman was about to be out-witted by a devilish Luthorian plot. Transfixed by the million stares, I could only stare back. It was a classic ‘deer in the head-lights’ moment, with the headlights being of half of the Siliguri traffic. Somewhere in the middle of all this, my left foot had started doing a tap while my other left foot was trying to match step for step. The human nervous system has its own mysterious response mechanisms to nervous situations as I was discovering.
Trying to pass off the involuntary tapping as a start to a new form of revolutionary dance, I decided to attempt an arms swing. It was ill-advised to say the least. It looked like I was trying to give a visual explanation of what a sine wave superimposed on a cosine wave may look like but had got confused about the origin and frame of reference. My stock in front of the crowd was plummeting faster than Satyam’s did in January 2009. I realized that something radical had to be tried to turn the tide. So I started turning in circles. Maybe in some parts of the world, turning in needless circles with arms flaying accompanied with involuntary foot taps qualify as sophisticated dance forms, but my fellow school mates didn’t come from those parts. It was a common tradition in this competition to down the curtains in case an act was going haywire. My performance was reaching that qualification with blinding speed. The pointless circling proved to be too much for my cerebellum and it finally gave up on trying maintaining any semblance of balance and I tottered like Pyotr Arsenievich Smirnov did after celebrating the establishing of his first distillery. The crowd remained hypnotized by the continuously unfolding terror in front of them. Had this happened a decade later, Al Qaida may have claimed responsibility in view of the sheer terror quotient involved. Curiosity turned to dismay which rapidly evolved into revulsion followed soon after by uncontrolled laughter.
As a final attempt to salvage some pride, I decided to explore whether moving about the stage may help the situation. I naively thought that the damage caused by writhing hysterically rooted to one spot could perhaps be undone by wriggling about all over the stage. Unfortunately my sudden movement was interpreted by the audience as the much-awaited conclusion and the hall burst out pre-maturely in tremendous applause. My six-year old brain was perceptive enough to make me understand that the applause was less about appreciation and had more to do with relief. The back-stage manager took the applause as the final cue that the curtains just had to be downed before a mass exodus of the audience, did his job to perfection and in a matter of seconds I was back to staring at the back of the red curtain.
A little voice inside told me that perhaps if I had a couple of minutes more, I could have turned the situation on its head and left the stage after an astounding performance. All the initial steps and supposed missteps would finally been seen as small cogs in the bigger wheel of a divine performance. But a second later that notion sounded so stupid that I bludgeoned the small voice to pulp and it hasn’t spoken up since. As I drudged back after the longest three minutes of my life, the teachers backstage glared at me as if I had made a pass at their mothers. I quietly took my tie and slipped out.
I refrained from entering the hall gain in fear of being mobbed or worse made to do a repeat of the performance for the seniors. Feeling like Bangaru Laxman after being outfoxed by Tehelka, lying low seemed a wonderfully refreshing idea and I proceeded to do exactly that in the second floor corridor. After the whole event was over, I quietly slipped out of school. But my friends, knowing my slimy ways, were waiting to accost me. What they said and the humiliation I underwent the following weeks in school is best left unsaid. Some memories are best left to private blog entries where only I and my alter-egos can read them.
This incident laid the foundation of all my future ill-fated flirtations with the stage. I will talk about them in the follow-up articles soon. But as my record with previously promised follow-up articles goes, it may be pretty surprising if I do end up recounting how I mortified audiences over the ages with my dextrous acting/singing skills (yes, I have dared to sing too). I never danced again though. Who knows, perhaps if I had performed well that day, I might have been the one facing the brickbats instead of Shahid for the horrendous Chance Pe Dance today. And all you ladies, who have asked me out so many times in the past only to get a resounding no, don’t doubt my orientation. It’s only because I am afraid that at some point in the evening, you may ask me to dance.
Ten years since IIT and all that - In Dec last year, I attended the tenth year reunion at IIT. Technically it will be this year that I will be completing my ten years since graduation but ...