Children remember the oddest things. If you have kids around you; kids that visit you from time to time, you might want to consider the kind of person you are and personify. This one is written with Prabha-mami and Nagarajan-mama in mind. Two special people who were the ‘characters’ of my childhood.

Cherish the weird and the wonderful
Memory remembers the weird and the wonderful; the people who touch our senses, not just our brains: the ones who are different
Shoba Narayan
First Published: Sat, Oct 05 2013. 12 08 AM IST
Kharbanda (left) in a small but memorable role in ‘Monsoon Wedding’
When your nieces, nephews or neighbourhood children come to visit you, what do you discuss with them? Do you ask them about school and grades which, to a 10-year-old, are like what taxes are to adults? Or do you sing and soar and leave them wide-eyed with surprise? I don’t sing and soar. I barely mumble “hello” to the visiting 10-year-olds and then respond to the “tring” of a message from Airtel telling me that my bill is due. I delete spam and send emails of no urgency or consequence.
It didn’t used to be this way. Most of us can remember a time when we knew which neighbourhood auntie would give us chaklis when we asked, ostensibly, for water; and which auntie would tell rambling stories when we knocked on her door. We had uncle-jis who didn’t know they were weird, epitomized by Kulbhushan Kharbanda in Mira Nair’s wonderful movie, Monsoon Wedding. Kharbanda’s uncle answers his niece who wants to know the meaning of uxorious with this memorable line: “Woh uxorious nahi, beta. That is luxurious with the ‘l’ cut off”. Or something like that.
Memory, we are told, remembers the weird and the wonderful; the people who touch our senses, not just our brains: the ones who are different. In this age when efficiency and focus are emphasized above all, I would like to make a case for characters: for being or becoming one as an adult, not just to be contrarian but to be effective. If you are in a field with the potential of influencing minds, even better.
Think back to your school and college days. Think back to your first job; the boss or mentor who you remember? Were they effective or were they characters? Ideally, they were both, and if you have encountered such beings you are lucky, for the workplace is populated by those who choose efficiency over eccentricity; safe over—in the interest of rhyming—scary. The politically-correct, sanitized environment that we populate now doesn’t leave room for the screamers and the birdwatchers; the ramblers and the raconteurs.
The intent is not to dismiss what smartphone apps call productivity, but to discount it a little; to redress the balance between content and character; effectiveness versus embodiment. Twenty years after graduation, do you remember the content of the fluid mechanics class or the weird professor with a bobbing Adam’s apple, who stuttered while explaining it? Do you remember the teacher who took the time to stand in the corridor to listen to your woes, or the one who rattled off the dates of the three Battles of Panipat? Long after content is forgotten, form and attitude will be remembered. To quote American writer Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Some people will suggest that you cannot become a character. You either are or aren’t. I beg to differ. One of the rich benefits that age confers is that you lose the fear of being judged; you cut yourself some slack and inertia reduces your need to keep up with your peers. Even those who grew up in a fairly conventional fashion can own up to their weirdness at middle age, when peer pressure exerts a diminishing influence. Becoming weird involves several small, but important, steps. First is the acceptance that you have quirkiness within you. Second is to delve into the layers of conformity, manners and upbringing that has been dinned into you and find those quirks that cause you to stand apart; to sing. Look at your parents or grandparents. Look for the things in them that annoy you. Then imitate those behaviours. Comedians call this finding your inner truth and parlaying it into stand-up acts.
Being a character requires a meandering mindset. It requires that you ignore your “to-do” list to be in the moment. It involves what our grandparents have: yes, those dadas and dadis who forget to carry their phone while going for a walk and face their child’s wrath upon return—“How can we track you if you wander off without your phone?”.
Characters are playful. They gravitate towards strangeness. My brother is one. He has a genius for spotting irritating songs in multiple languages. Tamil songs are a given. His repertoire in Hindi includes a staccato rendition of “Brishti pade tapur tupur,” a song that—to a non-Hindi speaker—sounds like an alimentary canal loudly letting off. It certainly sounds like that when my brother sings it and it had a car full of 10-year-olds in splits on a long drive.
Characters at the workplace dispense with normalcy in favour of eye-shine or eye-roll. They are terrific; they terrify; they are intense and inspiring. They command attention; they mesmerize. All of these takes energy and you may decide that you don’t have it in you. Being memorable is not for everyone. It is for people who see the butterfly’s wing while stopping to swing; for people who can smell the jasmine or stare at a swooping Brahminy kite. Eccentrics can enthral. The wackos have the potential to frustrate but also stupefy. Above all, they offer a salve to the sameness that permeates life, whether in the community or at work. Celebrate the wackos, I say. Revel in your weirdness. It is about time.
Shoba Narayan thinks that the correct response to “You are so weird”, is a “Thank you”.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns
First Published: Sat, Oct 05 2013. 12 08 AM IST

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