The Cold Caller (1)

I was reading something about telephone scams yesterday, and it reminded me I wrote this short story a few years ago on that subject. Perhaps you will find it amusing:

The Cold Caller (part 1 of 3)

‘Hello, Mr Williams?’ I began. ‘My name is David, and I am calling you from the Technical Support department of Windows.’

‘No, you’re not. Your name is Sahil and you are in 142nd Cross Road, Bangalore, on the second floor of the Maheli Building. You have your back to the window, but if you were to turn around you would have an excellent view out over Lal Bagh Tank and the Botanical Gardens.’

There was a very long silence.

‘Hello? Sahil? Are you still there?’

I very softly put down the receiver, as though I were afraid to disturb something dangerous.

I have a first class degree in English from a very good university, but it is still very difficult to get one of the better jobs. There is so much competition. So, like many of my contemporaries, I have ended up working in a call centre. Here we are required to have a degree, and we are required to speak English like a native, so I am well suited to this job.

I don’t really need to know anything about computers although, like most of my educated peers, I actually know quite a lot about them. But there is always a script. We are trained for two weeks, during which time we have to learn our scripts at home, and then for the first week we always have a supervisor close at hand to help us. The pay is okay, although to earn any good money you must make a set number of sales each day.

How do we make our sales? The customer will buy a Download to fix their computer, which is running too slowly.

And how do we get our information? It is a fairly sophisticated process. Let us say that you are on your computer, and that you open an email that purports to be something that it is not. When you do this, you will download a Trojan – a cookie, really – that does no more than monitor things like speeds and C.P.U. usage on your machine. Don’t worry, that is all that it does. We aren’t in the business of infecting machines with viruses and causing damage to anyone. But this cookie will send us information on the efficiency of your computer.

If your machine is obviously running slowly, then we call you. Telephone number and name from your machine when it was originally registered, extracted by the cookie, of course, plus the machine number. A number and name comes up on my screen, and I call.

Our fix will actually speed up the machine a bit – enough for the user to notice, at least.

I had been doing the job for five months, and doing it quite well, when this happened. I admit that I was quite scared by the episode. After I had put the phone down I sat there for a while, staring ahead, but not really seeing anything. After a few minutes, my supervisor came over to ask me if there was a problem, but I just shook my head and said no, I was taking a couple of minutes’ breather, and he went away again. I went and got myself a coffee from the machine, and then I carried on with my work.

I like Bangalore. So much here is new and modern. It is symbolic of the new India. I’ve got no time for the old superstitions, and I hate the filth and poverty. I left all that behind when I moved here. My parents still live in Delhi, in the house that I was brought up in with my brother and my two sisters. It is in a nice area, but all around this area there is ghastly squalor; the streets are piled with mounds of stinking refuse, the gutters run with sewage and the houses are unworthy of the name.

My father has a good job in a bank, which is how he was able to pay for my brother and I to go to university, but otherwise I suppose that he is typical of the old India. Every morning he makes puja, the ritual laid out by thousands of years of practice, praying to Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, for success in his daily undertakings. The flower petals, the bowls, the bell, the incense, the rice…everything has to be just so, otherwise the ceremony will have no meaning.

And this superstition pervades every part of our lives. My parents insist that they will choose a bride for me, as they have already done for my brother. I will have very little say in the matter; at most I can veto their decision if I can show good reason. But the traditions that still have a powerful hold over our society say that she must be of the right caste, of good family, and that our horoscopes must be compatible. And when all of that has been dealt with, she must bring our family a large dowry.

But I have insisted that I will marry the woman who I love, not somebody chosen for me by others. And, indeed, I have already chosen. This woman, my beloved Raveena, is the sister of one of our software engineers. We met when a group of us had lunch during Diwali last year. Her family, like mine, are traditional, but we represent the modern India; she also has a good job, in a telecommunications company, and between us we will have enough to be comfortable and eventually to raise a family. Of course, our hope is that our parents will come to soften a little when they have grandchildren.

At night, I look out at the lights of all the other apartments in my colony, and I imagine the day that I will bring my wife home. There must be a wedding, of course, for even in modern India that is the way. It may be, though, that ours will be a small affair, with simply a few friends and relatives present. We both know that there will be many in both of our families who will refuse to attend. This saddens me, I admit, for I would love a large, traditional, Indian wedding. We Indians do weddings so much better than anyone else.

Parts 2 and 3 to follow

Once Upon a Time

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Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

It is a cliché that causes us to smile, yet variations of that phrase will have been used countless times in the distant past, when our ancestors gathered around the storyteller of the tribe to hear whatever tale he (or she) was about to tell.

And research http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/3/1/150645  that was published this week, now tells us that the history of fairy tales turns out to be even longer than anyone suspected, going back to the times of prehistoric tribes. Not that this theory is entirely uncontested, of course.

But I would be surprised if it were untrue.

There have always been storytellers, who performed an important role, especially before the invention of writing. In those days, when all knowledge had to be memorised if it was to be of any use, then the skills of the storyteller in the tribe, someone who was used to organising their thoughts so that they could remember what was important and then recount it to the rest of the tribe, would have been vital for far more than simply entertainment; they would have been essential for the tribe’s survival.

They would have told stories about wild animals; either cautionary tales, or how to hunt them. Stories of skirmishes with other tribes; praising the bravery of their own warriors, and recounting how the other tribe was put to flight, but warning, still, of the danger these other tribes posed.

They must have always speculated on the origins of their world, and come up with the various creation myths. It would be important that all the tribe understood the appropriate rituals they would need to follow to appease the gods and ensure their own welfare.

So these stories would have been a way of sharing information with all the members of the tribe.

Much later, after the invention of writing, these tales began to perform a different function. They would still be used as cautionary tales, but now perhaps aimed more towards children (watch out for cross-dressing wolves and the like), or purely for entertainment.

But in a society where the majority were unable to read, they would remain important.

Throughout history, there has always been a borrowing and reinvention of stories; the myth of a flood that wipes out most of mankind, for example, is found virtually all over the world.

But the difference between a ‘myth’ and a ‘fairy story’ seems a little vague. I suppose the term ‘myth’ does seem to have a little more gravitas.

Many of these stories concern blacksmiths, which might be due to an early awe of those peoples who discovered how to work stronger metal, specifically iron, and fears that they might be using magical or supernatural means to do so. I’ll return to that shortly.

Now let’s take one well-known example of a fairy tale; the story of Snow White plays out both as a royal power struggle, something that has occurred time and again all over the world, and also the classic tale of the wicked stepmother, highlighting the insecurity a child may feel when a parent dies and is replaced by a stranger.

She flees an assassination attempt to find refuge with another people. The fact that they are depicted as dwarves (in the well-known European version) serves to emphasize the fact that they are not her own people.

There are further attempts on her life, but she is finally rescued by a passing prince and lives happily ever after.

Variations of this story crop up across Europe, Turkey, Africa, Asia and America. Whether these tales were passed from tribe to tribe and spread across the world that way, or were invented spontaneously in different parts of the world, it is unlikely we will ever know. It was probably a combination of the two. What is certain, is that they tend to be reinvented regularly.

Stories of mortals striking deals with supernatural beings (i.e. the devil) occur world-wide. What they all have in common is that either the human making it reneges on the deal, and usually finds a way to cheat the supernatural being, or, of course, the devil comes to collect his soul.

It is still a well-used device in literature. There is Goethe’s Faust, and since then many other popular novels on the subject, and we are still happily reinventing this story, as well as all of the other fairy tales, into new stories today.

In Britain, there are numerous folk-tales on this subject, usually concerning blacksmiths who either make pacts with the devil, or who are visited by him in disguise and realise who he really is (the comely maiden with the cloven hooves is often a bit of a giveaway). It usually ends with the devil being grabbed by the nose with red hot pincers and running off screaming. But again, these tales surface from all parts of the British Isles, and are set in times that are contemporary to the story teller. So the fellow telling the tale in an ale-house in a sixteenth century village would mention the blacksmith in a village twenty or so miles away – close enough to be particularly exciting to the listeners, but probably far enough away for there to be no one in his audience who might confidently denounce it as false.

And then, of course, they all lived happily ever after.

Pitfalls for Writers – 2) Internet Research

Pitfalls for Writers, an occasional series; part 2) Internet research

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I read it in a newspaper, so it must be true.

Ho ho ho.

We are all aware that newspapers have their own agendas, and that they interpret events to fit their own world views, ignoring inconvenient facts and sometimes even misrepresenting them. Occasionally, they have been known to make them up.

On the internet, then, which is infinitely more difficult to police, we should expect to treat a large amount of presented data with, at the very least, extreme suspicion.

For the purposes of this post, I am assuming that the Work in Process is a work of fiction, be it a novel or a shorter work.

Wikipedia; good old Wikipedia. Everyone uses it as an infallible fact checker, don’t they? No? Very wise. An illustration of the downside of Wikipedia that I particularly like comes from the time of the Ashes series in England last summer. On the first day in the fourth test, England Bowler Stuart Broad took eight wickets for fifteen runs and effectively won the match for England. At some point that day, his Wikipedia entry was altered, by persons unknown, to begin, simply, ‘Stuart Broad is God.’

Now, at the time, as an avid English cricket follower, I might almost have accepted that as the truth, in a tongue in cheek sort of way, but it does illustrate that one of Wikipedia’s strengths is also a weakness. It is updated continuously by a huge number of people, some of whom doubtless have ‘agendas’, and that it is impossible to check that all of the information is accurate, and so it must not be used as a final arbiter of true or false.

I might use Wikipedia as a first stop, but then I would go and double check the information on a site that I trust. How do you know that you can trust a particular website? That rather depends on the information, and requires some common sense. If I were looking up an accurate description of, say, a particular disease, I might opt to check the website of a well-known medical facility. If I wanted details of a particular cricket match, at any time in history, I would go to the ‘Cricinfo’ site, which is trusted by the majority of cricket followers. History? Well, I just searched ‘history of Wales’ and amongst other sites, found Wales.com, the ‘official’ site of the Welsh Government. I guess I’d trust that.

I still like to use books for research, and, of course, I can do that on the internet. There are a huge number of books available to read online for free; many are there because the copyright has expired, although the legal length of copyright does vary in different countries and can be quite complex (in the US for example, where certain categories of work can have differing terms in different states), and many are there because the owners of the copyright have allowed it. So, if you trust the book…

And many can be consulted for a fee, of course.

Google (and other) translators. Although this is not research, strictly speaking, I have included it because it may be a part of the process. If you need a demonstration of why they are not to be trusted, then type in a simple phrase and translate it to your chosen language. Then translate it back again. To enliven a dull afternoon, repeat this a couple of times, and see if any words in the final version match the originals.

Now, having said that, it will do a pretty good job of translating from, for example, English to French – presumably both because they share the same alphabet, and also because there is much in common in the roots of these languages and their grammar. And, probably for the same reason, I have found it hopeless translating between English and Hindi, where there is far less in common, and no common alphabet.

For a factual article, the author’s level of accuracy must be higher; they dare not get their facts wrong, for even one incorrect fact will invalidate their entire article. Fiction writers are not under quite that same level of pressure, although the scrutiny may still be there.