These are days when The Man from Madras Musings is wary of any phone calls from unknown numbers. In them good old days he was similarly wary of anyone who fixed him with a smile from afar and bore down on him in the month of August – it usually meant an invite to talk at some place. But those people pale in comparison with the new variety of event organiser – the virtual type. It is MMM’s considered view that these are now proliferating like the virus which has held all of us in thrall for over a year.
As MMM types this he pauses and muses on the very many arguments he has had with the late Chief who considered it the publication’s bounden duty to send forth its staff (namely Chief and MMM) to every outpost of this city to speak on Madras Day. It was MMM’s view that much of it was a waste of time while the Chief held it sacrosanct, with an almost evangelical zeal. As in many arguments that MMM has had in life, he realises in retrospect that he (MMM) was in the wrong – for how else do you explain the zest that people are showing towards celebrating our city even in these pandemic times? All credit goes to the Chief and the way he flitted from event to event during Madras Week, holding forth on the necessity to celebrate.
But be that as it may, even the Chief, MMM is sure will, had he been around, agree that the virtual event organiser is a class apart. Compared to this variety, the physical event organiser was a harried soul who needed to worry about everything – suitable venue, availability of speaker, the quality of the sound system, the vagaries of the projection equipment (and whether it will arrive in time or arrive at all), parking arrangements for guests (and worrying if any would land up), the printing of invites and their mailing, checking to see if they did reach, wondering as to how many would really RSVP, how many would land up without confirming and how many would bring uninvited guests in tow. And then there was the catering to be bothered about. Lastly there was the suitable memento for the speaker. And above all of this was the worry on costs- everything in the physical event cost something or the other. And no matter how well you organised it all, someone or the other was bound to say that things were a lot better in 1932 or thereabouts.
Compared to all of this, the virtual event organiser has the cushiest job in existence. All the person needs to do is to select the easiest free virtual event hosting platform. And just as all rivers in Chennai are known as Cooum in common parlance, all virtual events, no matter what the platform be are known as ‘Jhoom sessions’ (Jhoom incidentally, as MMM recalls from geography lessons of long past is a slash-and-burn method of cultivation in the North East where as you know in recent times, states of our very own country are behaving like warring nations – in short they are slashing and burning). And they cost nothing. In short among all the costs listed above as regards the physical event, not one is applicable. Gone are the worries about suitable venue, parking arrangement for guests, catering arrangements and numbers that will attend chiefly to gorge on the tea and snacks. In one stroke, the Coronavirus has liberated several people from the tyranny of such age-old customs.
The invite itself has become a matter of an electronic poster, which at one go can be sent to several, and the acknowledgments of receipt are notified at once via the two ticks in grey. If they don’t turn to blue that is the recipient’s problem – that is tantamount to the unopened envelope of the past. Printing and postage have been saved as well. In short, the organiser of virtual events has the best of all worlds in these terrible times. Which also accounts for why everyone is an organiser.
In sharp contrast to the virtual event organiser, the virtual event speaker’s condition can only be compared to Mona Lisa – for here is the head on which the ends of the world are come. Come virtual event day, the speaker has to worry about his/her internet connectivity. This usually has a habit of dying just minutes before any event and the speaker needs to invest in standbys such as dial ups which assure the speaker of internet speeds wherein the audience (if any) can see visuals and audio, not simultaneously but with significant lag between the two. In the opinion of The Man from Madras Musings, there is an even more terrifying occurrence – that of the connectivity dropping mid-speech. The message “Your network is unstable” usually sends MMM’s heartbeat soaring, and he trembles visibly.
The next issue concerns audio. In these evil days, the speaker is expected to get along on sheer lung power. MMM usually does not have a problem with this, for he has a loud voice thanks to having been born in a family where everyone routinely bellowed but even he, foghorn though he is, finds it taxing to consistently yell throughout a presentation. The plight of those with weaker voices can only be imagined.
The third and biggest problem relates to audience, their presence or absence thereof. Unlike physical events, where the speaker gets to know who and how many have actually landed up, here there is no guarantee on either. If it is the kind of event where everyone barring the speaker is expected to mute their video and audio, then the speaker is just doing a soliloquy. There is a panel down below that tells you how many have logged in but many may have switched on, closed audio and video and gone off to take the dog for a walk. It sometimes makes you wish that everyone was there in full view – complete with some lolling on beds, others wandering around bare-bodied (or bear-bodied in some cases), and others yawning visibly into the screen. Not to forget the cameras focused on the ceiling and the revolving fans or those that peer up nostrils.
We now come to presentation etiquette. There was a time when the physical meeting had a master of ceremonies who read your name wrong, a chief guest who summarised your speech even before you began and a voter of thanks who ensured that he/she had his/her moment in the sun and read out painstakingly the names of everyone that needed thanking. Time was when MMM mocked at these rituals. He little knew that he would live to miss them all. Today’s virtual sessions begin with an MC who after pronouncing your name wrongly (thank God for some traditions that have survived the pandemic), goes on to say that your introduction has been pasted in the chat box for all to read and so can you please get going with your speech right away? The hidden message here is that this Zoom account is a free one and so will disconnect after 40 minutes and so we need to finish before that. And then you launch into your speech to a blank screen, not sure of who is listening. When you finish everyone comes alive for a minute, only to click on the ‘leave session’ button and vanish silently into the night, leaving you to disconnect your laptop and get on with whatever else you needed to do. Where are those days when you walked down the steps after a meeting, nodding this way and that, clutching your bouquet of flowers and your gift, all the while silently wondering as to what it was and hoping beyond hope that it was not some hideous idol or a Tanjore plate? MMM never knew he would one day miss those gifts, even if it was an idol or a Tanjore plate. As for a possible remuneration to the speaker – that is when organisers begin talking of a Covid-battered economy.