Forms and skeletons

At the moment, I have forms coming out of my ears. At work, I’ve been testing a forms automation software; at home, I’ve been filling out application forms – web forms, paper forms, mobile forms, immobile forms, I’ve filled almost every kind. Imagine my consternation when I go to a favorite blog in an attempt to restore some sanity into my life, only to have posts about forms! But at least this was a heck of lot more fun than the other forms I’ve been churning out. It reminded me that not everything about forms is the opposite of fun.

Karthik’s post also reminded me of a funny form story from my own family. Amazing how it’s the passport that serves as the one medium that long forgotten family ghosts elect to speak through. Graduating school, applying to colleges, jobs, getting insured, hospitalized or married, even dying – all these other form-filled experiences lack that certain Ouija-board-ness of the Passport application form.

A few years ago, my Periamma (aunt) was filling out a series of forms. As anyone who’s traveled abroad knows, forms beget forms (LOTS of them, since the concept of birth control is alien to forms). Periamma needed a visa. For which she needed a passport. For which she needed a birth certificate. She also needed her High School and Graduation Certificates, and mark sheets or ‘transcripts’ (God knows why, but governments like to be thorough in these matters) Coming from a typical Tamil family, of course, she had every one of these documents, safely preserved in an assortment of meticulously labeled plastic folders and envelopes. That she had them all was part of the problem.

I don’t want to get too deep into the clashes in birth dates between her birth certificate and her school and college certificates. OK, I just changed my mind – birth date confusion is an important cultural phenomenon that’s worth contemplating. It is exceedingly common among people from my aunt’s generation that it’s considered the most natural thing in the world to have multiple birth days, a ‘real’ one (the English month, date and year you were born in), the ‘official’ one (or the date that your parents gave when they enrolled you into school a few months or years before the school would officially accept you – you had to be 6 years old to be accepted into first grade, and parents’ patience rarely lasted so long), and finally the ‘star birthday’ (or the birth date as per the Tamil lunar calendar). Of course, it goes without saying that the ‘real’, ‘official’ and ‘star’ birth dates aren’t remotely connected with each other. (And just in case you were wondering, your parents only allowed you to celebrate one.)

Forms being the dumb information recording devices they are simply lack the intelligence to deal with a cultural phenomenon this complex. They give you 6 tiny boxes against ‘Date of Birth’. Which one? This is the question that stumps pretty much most folks from my parents’ generation. [Thankfully, they’ve learnt their lessons, and folks from my generation only have 2 birth days – the ‘real’ one and the ‘star’ one. We owe eternal gratitude to the introduction of kindergarten, which got us out of our parents’ hair & into our teachers’ at a much earlier age]

My Periamma had Date of Birth problems. That was only to be expected. But that was nothing compared to ‘Father’s name’. Simple question, you’d think. Except that she had Kannan (my grand father, and her actual father) on her school & college certificates, and ‘Appaswamy Mudalayar’ (or my great-grandfather) in her birth certificate. This had the entire family stumped for a long time. Since Appaswamy Mudalayar was my aunt’s maternal grandfather, my grandfather even felt a little miffed – “if someone gave the wrong name, why couldn’t it have been my father’s name?” was the unspoken question. The mystery and the passive aggressive grumbling continued for a few days. My grand parents wracked their brains, trying to retrace the actions surrounding the birth certificate. Considering my aunt is the first of five children, and was over 40 years old by the time anyone had taken the trouble to look at the damn certificate, this was quite challenging.

Finally, my grandmother remembered. In those days, one didn’t have to fill out the birth certificate form at the hospital, like one does now. Families would usually send someone over to the Thaluk office a few days after a baby was born, and get the paper work done. Our family must have had its form filler too. This form filler dropped by to get the details from my grandmother before going by the Thaluk office. The conversation must’ve gone like this:

Form filler: Kozhantha peru? (Baby’s name?)
My grandmother: XYZ
Form filler: Ennaikku poranthuthu? (Date of birth?)
My grandmother: 15 Oct 1953
Form filler: Appa peru sollunga (Father’s name?)
My grandmother: Appaswamy Mudalayar

That, you see, was the crux. My grandmother, still a young girl, had given out her father’s name.

Oh, how we laughed at my sheepish looking grandmother. After recovering, my Periamma had a bit of a row with her mother. Understandable, because she had suffered a panic attack before this deeply troubling question was resolved. That there was a confusion regarding any question was bad enough – every one in my family is trained to fall apart when faced with troubling forms. [Troubling questions in life rarely bother us. We pass them blithely by – but give us a troubling question in a form, and you’ll have a nervous wreck before you can check one of those ‘check this box if you have ever received electro shock therapy for mental illness’ questions. It’s ok to be dumb in life. But to have a form point that out to you makes it so very official.] That the troubling question could have so easily had a life-altering answer was too much.

We had the devil’s own time getting the name corrected. My aunt was born in Chidambaram. The family had long since moved to Madras. Zones had been rezoned, and Thaluk offices changed. Someone had to figure out the new Thaluk office, and go there personally to get it all sorted out. And it was. My aunt got her passport and her visa, and was able to visit her son. All’s well that ends well.

PS: I hate that line. What about all the suffering in between? But that’s a question for me and my Gods, as it applies to so much more than mere forms – life itself, come to think of it.


4 comments so far

  1. Karthik on

    This is almost a classic – will rank up there with my neighbor’s kid sending a money-order back to himself. The dad was puzzled for a few days, before he realized his son had mixed up the From and To addresses.

    My birth certificate had no name on it – just says “such and such lady delivered a male child on a certain date.” Coming to think of it, I am glad they did it that way.

    Happy New Year, btw.

  2. DoZ on

    I think my dad had a neighbour who did the same thing with the money order, too. I continue to be wary when filling out Fedex forms – it’s a good thing they clearly label stuff like that in this country, so everything is clear to the meanest intelligence.

  3. Falstaff on

    The thing that I always have trouble with is date formats – the trouble with being born on one of the first 12 days of any month is that there’s no way to tell whether the date is in dd-mm-yy format or mm-dd-yy format. It’s not a problem when they clearly label what format they want the form filled in (I’m one of those people who reads instructions obsessively) but if they don’t I end up filling it in dd-mm-yy format purely by reflex, so that there are at least a half-dozen agencies in the US who think I was born in November. Sigh.

  4. DoZ on

    Yes. I do envy the blighters lucky enough to have been born on 1/1 or 7/7 kinda days. How blithely they must go through life…

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