It was finally 9:50pm on the Wednesday of a hectic week and we were settling down, homework, for once, squared away, chores, for the present, abated. But I should have heeded the portents hinted by the red moon on the beach earlier that evening, before thanking the gods for having survived the day.
For just then the phone rang, startlingly, suddenly. I saw a number that I did not exactly recognize, but that felt familiar, like a dream encountered while awake, or a phrase on the edge of the tongue, refusing to fall. I exchanged an uneasy glance with the cat and my daughter as I pressed the “talk” button; both, the cat and the daughter left the room for more comfortable spots. I had received a Call and this would take time.
A vaguely well-known voice boomed, “Hello! Who am I? Did you recognize? Who can it be? Guess!”
Okay, I thought to myself. The caller knew me by the childhood diminutive of my first name. There, was I happy: It wasn’t the city cemetery seeking to sell me my burial plot, or a collect call from a lonely inmate of the city penitentiary.
But now came the difficult part; I couldn’t hang up; I was obliged to play. The Caller continued chortling, chuckling, and shouting all at once, in a rather accusatory tone, “What? You forgot ME? How come you haven’t guessed as yet? You don’t RECOGNIZE my voice anymore? Well, that’s what happens when you never call! It is your punishment! Hahahaha!”
I was still racking the inbuilt file-o-fax inside my head, riffling through chits of stickies, memos I’d forgotten, all the inevitable paraphernalia around the home phone. Yet, the name, the face of the caller eluded me.
After a few minutes, I saw no recourse and surrendered.
“I am so sorry! I am afraid I . . . Please, can you . . .? I am sorry, so sorry!” I pleaded, to no avail, of course.
It seems an endearing characteristic of the South Asian psyche, that every so often, the muse strikes and we Call someone we haven’t called in, oh, say, a dozen years, and have them guess who we are. Usually, this urge hits us right around the festivals (this IS the Holi week), and one expects to be tagged by or precipitate something not-so-ordinary, something miraculously fun.
I call it the “you-who” game and like any self-respecting game, this one has its rules. The point of this game, like Vyaapaar or Monopoly, is to outsmart the opponent, in this case, the Caller or the Called. If the Called guesses the identity of the Caller before 5 minutes are up, then the Called wins, but if . . . You get the idea.
But no cheating: the Called must have absolutely no idea when the Call is going to suddenly burst upon a quiet horizon. There should be no prior emails, no hints on Myspace, no pokes on Facebook.
The Called cannot have met the Caller for at least a decade. The ideal time for the Called and Caller to have last met would be at either one’s wedding, or weddings of tangentially connected relatives of a particularly labyrinthine, thriving family tree. Then, the Call should be placed once the kids are getting ready for College.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. It is acceptable for the Caller and Called to meet occasionally before the Call, amidst large crowds, say, for an evening meal attended by at least 50 other people, wherein both parties may exclaim over the number, growth charts, and academic accomplishments of their offspring, and how much weight has been gained by each. However, during these meetings, only inane, meaningless exchanges are allowed.
There are a few more rules to this complex game. The Caller and Called must have known each other very well in early stages of their lives, and as a result, be very well acquainted with the other’s most embarrassing moments. The Caller, especially, should maintain a log of at least 3 such episodes, which can be recalled loudly, graphically, in most colorful detail at the time of the Call.
This narration serves to further discomfit the Called and distracts from fast memory recall, thus awarding the Caller extra points.
The most effective defense of this move requires quick thinking on part of the Called. Feats of youthful heroism (factual or fictional) executed before an admiring, wide audience are safest to recount. If the Caller reacts, that could narrow down the possible suspects.
Sometimes, the Caller can be foiled by handing the phone over to a female relative from an earlier generation, if one is available at hand. At this point, the Caller has effectively lost, because no Mashi, Foi/Bua, Kaki/Chachi, or Baa/Maaji /Biji worth her water has ever mistaken the identity of the Caller, or forgotten any episodes relating to the Caller’s embarrassing youth. However, these are grey areas, since in this case, the Called has not foiled the Caller.
A good game of “you-who” can be carried on for the better part of 15 minutes. Once recognition has occurred, only then can the usual inquiries of health, local weather, names of children, and present occupations of spouses may follow.
These proprieties must be most diligently observed. If well-played, “you-who” can provide centre-pieces for many online posts (like this one) and weekend family phone conversations, which can be liberally sprinkled with numerous nods and exclamation marks galore.
There are, inevitably, cynics, who seek to spoil the fun. Some of my friends actually express frustration and condemn the Callers as being presumptuous:
“Just tell me who you are! I mean, I got a life here!” These cynics scream. “For crying out loud! If YOU don’t know who you are, I sure don’t!”
The cynics always like to end their diatribe with such rapier wit.
I beg to differ from them. I grew up in a world that views intimacy as a privilege. Introductions are divulged only to strangers. “Our people” recognize us, even if we are quarter of a century older and 20 kilos heavier. Time is not strictly compartmentalized so the past is erased when the future arrives, and the identity of the people one grew up with does not necessarily reside in their names. Conversations left incomplete decades ago can be resumed with ease and grace, because like in fairytales, once recognition is achieved, the Cosmos is balanced and everything is in its perfect place. A thousand years passed feel like only yesterday and we feel our youth restored.
I find it immeasurably heartening that I shall never age in perception of the Callers, and nor shall the Called age in mine. When I receive a Call, I feel as though I have been, yet again, through no effort or merit, included in the inner circle of “our people.” I am reassured that my memories of who-I-was are not just boring, repetitive stories of a glamorized, improbable utopia, like my daughter sometimes suspects. There WAS a real person, and those ARE real events, like the Battle of Panipat or the Vietnam War.
This quaint, confounding game of “you-who” reaffirms who we are and reminds us of forgotten selves we might have left behind or packed away.
By Shefali Shah Choksi.