For some inexplicable reason, we humans tend to classify things in threes. Faith, hope, charity; Tom, Dick and Harry; rain, hail or shine; location, location, location; lies, damned lies and statistics ... Of course, when describing people we sometimes place them in roughly three different categories.
First, someone like Roland Roberts, a long dead uncle from my childhood. Uncle Roland, as he came to be called, had a peculiar manner of delivering his speech: From behind a hand held beside his mouth — a gesture that in itself was a clear giveaway.
Round and round the railway colony he went, a butterfly on a bicycle, flitting from flower to flower but unlike any butterfly, not sipping nectar but pouring minuscule doses of poison into any willing ear
Uncle R loved passing on the latest news, goings-on and scandals that were about to break in the community. He was ace at embellishing and lacing incidents with lashings of salt, pepper and spice.
My lips are sealed
Did you hear about so-and-so? Do you know the real reason why so-and-so left home? Also, all his salacious, furtively-delivered information was accompanied by the proviso: “You didn’t hear this from me. My lips are sealed.”
If there was one pair of lips that was impossible to seal it would have been uncle R’s. Round and round the railway colony he went, a butterfly on a bicycle, flitting from flower to flower but unlike any butterfly, not sipping nectar but pouring minuscule doses of poison into any willing ear.
A second type of individual would be someone like Geoff Matthews, another railway man of yesteryear, who, sadly, possessed not a single interesting thought that he could share and have his audience delight in.
No, Geoff was the kind that took things too literally, took himself awfully seriously, and an encounter with him, often at the side of the road, just as you were hurrying along to catch the train, lasted longer than one intended it to.
Natural tendency to be impolite
Geoff was the kind of person who, if casually asked, “How are you today, Geoff?” would go on to narrate the state of his health in minute detail covering the last five years, or more — all of this while you surreptitiously looked at your watch, tried hard to stifle a yawn and battled every natural tendency to be impolite.
The world has its fair share of uncle Rolands and Geoffs and some would even argue that it takes all kinds to make the world go around, or some cliche like that. Fair enough.
But since Roland and Geoff are examples from my youth, I’ll stick with that era to introduce a silken, silver-haired person who everyone called Venkat, but whose actual name was Venkataraman.
A brahmin, with caste marks displayed proudly on his forehead, an encounter with Venkat often opened with him asking: “How are you today, young Mr Kevin?” And from that innocuous prelude, a series of other questions would follow, all in sequence to whatever answer you’d make.
“Yes, Venkat, we have a small poultry business going, my brother and I.” “Yes, our parents want to see if we are business minded.” “Yes, Venkat, we sell the eggs.” “No, not at very high prices, just below market rates.” “Yes, Venkat, the hens are leghorns, Rhode Island Reds and two Plymouths.”
And so on ... And before you know it, Venkat has got you to offload a lot about yourself and your life, in a somewhat willing manner, not as if he were a detective, wheedling personal information. In a strange way, while uncle Roland was the keeper of the communities’ lies, Venkat was the guardian of everyone’s truths.
I was reminded of all three of them recently — Roland, Geoff, Venkat — when I came across an old quotation: A gossip is one who talks to you about others; a bore will tell you everything about himself; and a conversationalist is one who’ll talk to you about yourself.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.