There are some stories that stick with you. They become homing beacons in your head – helping you channel the hard-earned truths, lessons and insights from your experience – providing context to your reality. This is one such story.
It’s 14th November in the mid 90s – also Jawaharlal Nehru’s birth anniversary celebrated as Children’s Day in India. A class of bored middle school kids pile into the school’s new AV room. Every week they are shown a documentary on the school’s newly acquired Sony VCR.
Today’s black and white documentary is on Chacha Nehru and why his birthday is celebrated as Children’s Day in India. The 15-minute long documentary saunters through Nehru’s early years, the freedom struggle, India’s independence, his famous “Tryst With Destiny” speech and ends with his death and the state honour given to him: his casket escorted through the streets of Delhi as hundreds of thousands of people look on.
The documentary ends and the teacher stands up, ready to escort the students back into their classroom. When out of nowhere someone asks loudly: “what happened to the dog?”. Drooping shoulders and heads perk up. A few giggles can be heard at the back. Amol is causing trouble. Again.
The teacher sighs deeply, turns towards Amol and says: “what dog?”
“The dog at the end of the movie. What happened to it?”, he shoots back.
Everyone is interested. Did they all miss something? Movies about dogs are fun. Where was the dog? The teacher pushes the cassette back into the VCR and rewinds it a little and hits play.
And there it is. As a patriotic song plays in the background, a squadron of air force fighter jets zoom through the air above the crowded streets of Delhi and army soldiers escort Nehru’s casket on an open Jeep: the camera slowly pans away and focuses on a street dog crossing the street behind the casket. And a split second later it pans back, the cameraman realizing that he got distracted, focuses again on the casket.
“You see that dog. What happened to it?”
The teacher curses under her breath, switches off the VCR and TV and escorts the students back to their class.
I don’t think Amol ever found out what happened to that particular dog. That dog: so oblivious to the state funeral about to take place. Oblivious to India’s first and most beloved prime minister passing away. Just one thought in its mind: “I need to cross the road”.
But the cameraman’s moment of distraction, the loving way in which his camera panned to the dog, capturing its single-minded pursuit of crossing the road (“to hell with all these people on the streets of my city”) and then remembering that he was there to capture a historical moment, the quick jerk back to the passing procession – all of this has stayed with me.
Since then, I have been chasing dogs across pages of books, through frames of movies, in the chords of favourite songs and under quests in immersive role-playing games. In the realm of creation – momentary distractions, tangential interludes, planned and sometimes unplanned diversions can add great depth to the main body of work. They give the reader/ viewer/ listener/ player a breather but also something to latch on to – to bring the focus back. And the delight it creates is unquantifiable.
Fandom anchors itself in these distractions – looking for the number 1138 in George Lucas films, watching Brad Pitt eat across his entire filmography (just do an image search for “Brad Pitt eating food in movies”, spotting Hitchcock and Stan Lee in films, looking for Hoid and hints of the Cosmere in Brandon Sanderson’s books, the Konami/ Nintendo code, Lewis Carroll’s acrostic poems …
A lot is written about the power that focus brings. I wouldn’t have been able to type out this post without setting a pomodoro timer twice for 25 minutes each and keeping all distractions away. But distractions and going off on tangents also serve a great purpose when you are building experiences. There is no other reason why Google built the Thanos snap.
So, go on, chase some dogs.