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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Lining up

Why does nobody respect the sanctity of a queue?

Okay, I’ll come straight out and say it. I’m a bit funny when it comes to queues. Even if I say so myself, in most other areas of life, I am so laid-back that if I pushed myself any further I’d keel right over. My motto in life is simple: nothing matters very much and very little matters at all.

But put me in a queue and I turn into a regular nutter. Suddenly, nothing matters more in the world than that nobody – and I mean NOBODY – jumps the queue. It really doesn’t matter what I’m queuing for, or how long the waiting time is. No sooner have I joined the line than by some miraculous process – the workings of which I have yet to fathom – it becomes my mission in life to maintain its sanctity against all encroachers.

By some strange alchemy I am transformed into the Queue Queen and you trespass onto my territory at your own peril. So, even as I mentally calculate how long it will take me to get to the front, I keep a beady eye out for infiltrators who may be mounting a stealth offensive from the back or from either flank.

If anyone as much as inches forward I turn on them baring my teeth and snarling, “I’m sorry but we’re in a queue here.”

Most people take one look at the crazy glint in my eye and hastily back off, muttering something stupid like, “Um, sorry, didn’t realize that.” Those who are brave – or foolish – enough to brazen it out (“Oh, but I was here a moment ago, just stepped out for a bit…”) get the full force of my wrath.

By the time my tirade reaches a crescendo, I am practically frothing at the mouth while my fellow queuers gather their children close to them and warily step away from this mad woman who has turned a rather alarming shade of crimson.

Once order had been restored and all is right in the queue world, I finally register the looks of horror on the faces around me, and try to make a quick recovery. Schooling my scowling features into a weak smile, I say to nobody in particular, “I really don’t understand why people have to try and jump queues.”

But no, it’s a lost cause. Nobody is willing to make eye contact let alone risk speaking to the raving lunatic in their midst.

Do I know that this is demented behaviour? In the rational part of my brain, sure I do. Is jumping a queue such a serious offence in the overall scheme of things? Of course it isn’t. But try as I might, I can’t help myself.

The moment I join a queue, I seem to undergo a personality transplant. It may be at the immigration counter of some international airport, at my local Barista where I stop by to pick up a cup of coffee, or even at a shop till. In fact, I still remember with horror the time when I had a spectacular meltdown at my bank while queuing to cash my cheque.

It happened like this. All law-abiding folks had made a single line behind a sign that said “Queue here” and were waiting to be called to one of the five counters that were operating. A young man entered, cheerfully ignored us as we stood around patiently, walked straight up to a counter that had just gotten free and presented his cheque.

I looked around at those queuing alongside me, but nobody seemed particularly perturbed by this blatant transgression. Well, I wasn’t going to ignore this flagrant disregard of queue etiquette even if everyone else had been lulled into somnolescence.

“Excuse me,” I hollered from the back. “We’re all in queue here.” The queue-jumper ignored me. This called for direct action. I abandoned my place in the queue, stomped off to the counter and began berating the cashier for serving someone who hadn’t bothered to queue like the rest of us. A shouting match ensued and by the time the general manager came out to investigate what the fuss was about, I was spluttering with rage and not making much sense. But on the bright side, the queue-jumper was now cowering at the back of the line.

Okay, I am willing to admit that perhaps there is something a teeny bit odd about my obsession with the sacrosanct nature of queues. I am even prepared to concede that it is not the end of civilization as we know it if somebody tries to break one.

But can somebody – anybody – explain to me why we Indians suffer from a chronic inability to stand in a queue without wanting to push ourselves ahead of everyone else? Everywhere else in the world people line up patiently all the time, waiting their turn like the civilized human beings they are. So why are we so unwilling – or unable – to enter into the spirit of things?

And then, there’s that other existential question to which there is no good answer. Why is it that no matter which line you choose, the queue you join always seems to move at the slowest pace? That’s also true of traffic lanes, but that, as they say, is the subject of another rant at another time.

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