Socks for Christmas?byoggbashan©
Would you like a pair of socks for Christmas, or better still, two pairs?
I know. Socks are boring, predictable, and usually unwelcome presents. But our company's products will change your mind. Apart from being so staggeringly expensive that the giver must think the world of you, you will feel that our socks are really different and worth the money paid for them.
Enough of the sales pitch. Once our socks hit the market we won't need to advertise them. Personal recommendation will sell them like hot cakes. We have projected sales of two million pairs by Christmas this year and twenty million by Easter. We may have underestimated the demand so get your order in now.
Jill and I were relaxing in the boardroom of the Indian branch of our software company. We had just completed the meeting that accepted the buy-out by the Indian managers and employees. We and they were very satisfied by the deal. We had also achieved our short-term goal.
Jill and I had started a small company ten years ago developing games software for older platforms. We were successful, too successful for our personal good. We had grown to become Managing Directors of a large group of companies. Now we had more money than we knew how to spend, and on the way the fun had gone out of lives and our relationship.
It all started in a South East Asian Hilton hotel about a year ago. We met in that Hilton as we passed through. She was flying Westwards, I was flying Eastwards. It was the first two consecutive nights together for what? A year? Maybe longer.
In bed with breakfast on the second morning Jill turned to me.
"Tom. We can't go on like this. We rarely meet and when we do we are strangers to each other. We are husband and wife as well as business partners. Why are we chasing each other around the world and rarely meeting?"
I looked at her. I really looked at her probably for the first time in several years. She was still the beautiful woman I had married but the strain of our hectic life style was showing in her sallow skin, her hair and her face. Her bills for beauty treatment we could easily afford but all the experts could only disguise the damage being done. I didn't need to look in a mirror to know that too many flights, too many long meetings and too much strain showed on me.
"I agree Jill. We have to stop. But how can we? So many people depend on us. We have hundreds of employees and many more in the sub-contractors who need our support. If there was a way to get out of this rat-race I'd love to take it."
"Yes, Tom, so would I. We can't just walk away, much as I'd like to. Treat it as a business problem. We solve enough of them each week. You start. Define the problem."
"OK. The problem is that we are not doing what we want to do. We started as developers of new games for kids who couldn't afford to upgrade their platforms. We used our imagination to make the best games possible within the limits of the hardware. We enjoyed our work and made just enough money to live frugally.
Then we caught the attention of the big players, moved with the hardware and trained others to do what we could do. We grew from the two of us in the back room of our flat to a company in a small office and now to this multinational group which we two control. On the way the fun was lost. We even employ our own full time legal department. Back then we hated lawyers.
So, what do we want to do? We aren't the sort to be international jet-setting playpeople. We want to go back to developing games software and to lose all the management strain we now have. The problem is how to do that without betraying the people who work for us."
"Yes, Tom. We need to stop. We must keep the company going for all those who have been loyal to us but we want out. How?"
Jill and I lay in bed thinking. Almost together we said:
"Why don't we..."
"After you Jill."
"Why don't we give the company to the staff?" she shouted.
"That's what I was going to say." I protested.
That is what we did. It took a year even with help from the legal department. We couldn't "give" the companies away but we could "sell" them for low prices and a proportion of future profits. We were still major shareholders in each of the companies and unpaid non-executive directors but control of all the companies was now with the staff. The Indian company had been the last because our lawyers needed expert advice from the Indians. There had been some technicalities of Indian tax law that had delayed the transfer. Now it was done.
Jill and I were drinking the last of the champagne that had celebrated the transfer. We would stay a few days to sign a few papers and then we intended a second honeymoon touring the sights of India. In all the visits to India we had never had spare time to see even the Taj Mahal.
A sari covered head peered round the board room door.
"I am sorry to disturb you, Sahib and Memsahib, but Mr Singh has come. He insists that he must see you."
I looked at Jill. She nodded.
"Thank you" I said "We will be pleased to see Mr Singh. Ask him if he would like coffee or tea, please."
"Yes, Sahib. I will bring the special tea he likes."
The sari covered head withdrew.
"Tom. He's never 'insisted' that he must see us. Something important must have happened."
"I think so too. It is very unlike him. We have nothing else to do except write a few signatures. He and his son have been great assets to us."
Mr Singh and his son had developed an uncanny sense for unusual games. He tweaked the hardware, his son was the software expert. They were sub-contractors to the main London company. The Singhs had made millions for the company, but much of their money had gone to their remote home village. The Singhs had bought out most of the local landlords one by one and transferred the land to the village council. It hadn't made the villagers prosperous but had broken their financial slavery of perpetual debt. Gradually the village was improving itself but in keeping with their local traditional ways.
Singh and son were an unusual couple. Singh had become a father after a second marriage in his fifties. His son had recently married Shanta, a local girl who had been widowed in her early twenties. The marriage had caused problems with the village. Widows had no status at all in their culture. Singh junior was their richest and most eligible bachelor. The village couldn't have been more surprised than the Ugly Sisters when Prince Charming chose Cinderella. Like Cinderella, widows were expected to keep out of the way and avoid being noticed. The last news we had heard was that Shanta was pregnant.
The tea arrived just before Mr Singh entered pulling a heavy wheeled suitcase. We were shocked by the deterioration in him. He was dressed in mourning white.
We went through the usual formal ritual greetings that were essential with Mr Singh. He sipped his tea before giving us the news that we were dreading.
"My friends, mourn with me. My son is dead."
"We are distressed for you," I said "You have our sympathy and prayers. What else is there that we can do for you to help at this time?"
"I appreciate your concern but regret that there is little you can do for me. My son is dead. My daughter-in-law is a widow again but carries his child. She and her child must be my responsibility as long as I live. I am told that I will not live as long as they will need me. That is no great surprise. After all I am over eighty years old."
"So old?" Jill exclaimed "We never asked but you were so fit and so skilled that you always seemed immortal to us."
She then asked the question I was reluctant to raise.
"How did your son die?"
Such bluntness is impolite in his culture but he had always indulged Jill. He found her intelligence and competence attractive but he treated her like an inquisitive child rather than his employer.
"Memsahib Jill, he died hang-gliding in the mountains of Nepal."
"Hang-gliding?" we said together. It was the last thing we would have expected. Singh junior was a sedentary person who experienced life to the full - in his imagination.
"Yes. Hang-gliding. He wanted to experience it for himself before he finished the software. He hired experts to demonstrate it but that wasn't enough. They trained him well but on his solo flight he flew too close to an eagle's nest. The eagle attacked, he lost control and crashed."
"I am sorry, Mr Singh." Jill said.
"So am I. I was looking forward to seeing him with my grandson. I would even have been happy to see him with my granddaughter. Now all I have is Shanta and her future child. She cannot stay in the village. They are still unhappy with her for marrying my son. Now they will think that she is cursed by the Gods. It is for her that I have come to you."
"How can we help?" I asked.
"I want you to take Shanta to England. There she will be free from the prejudice that she will face in her village. I know that many parts of India do not have such prejudice but In England she and her child can develop. She is an intelligent girl who needs a better education than she has managed so far. She was helping my son with the software development. Perhaps they could have been equal partners as you two are. That is still not easy in India."
"We will do whatever Shanta needs." Jill decided for us. "There will be problems but we still have enough lawyers to solve them for us."
"We will look after her as if she was our sister," I said. "and the daughter of our valued friend." Jill nodded her agreement and smiled at me. She obviously agreed with the idea of having Shanta as a sister.
That was too much for Mr Singh. He wept openly.
"I had hoped for just a little help ... your generosity ... I will be forever in your debt."
We waited while he recovered. He sipped his tea gently.
"Now I will tell you what he and I were working on when he died. Shanta knows enough to carry on his work. She must not take the risks that he took but the hang-gliding was only a sideline to the system. I have it all here. Have you time for a demonstration?"
"Yes, we have time." I said.
Jill and I would have made time even if we were short of it. Mr Singh needed to know that his son had not died for nothing. Even if whatever it was failed we would appreciate it. We did not expect failure. So far Singh and son had produced winning packages every time. The last would be another success even if we had to write the development costs off as a memorial to a friend.
"You will laugh at the hardware. Everyone will. Every time someone laughs at it I will remember my son. Even he laughed when I showed him the hardware." Mr Singh stopped and opened his case. He produced a large pair of black socks with leads attached.
We laughed. We couldn't help it. The socks were so unexpected.
"Thank you," he said "apart from the socks, a pair of head phones is all that is needed."
He put his laptop on the table, connected the socks to a USB port and plugged the headphones in. He started the laptop, selected the software and turned to Jill.
"Memsahib Jill this particular scenario is best suited to a woman. He developed it for Shanta. Please put the socks and earphones on, close your eyes and I will start the routine."
Jill slipped her shoes off. In the heat of India she did not wear stockings or tights. She fed her feet into the socks and settled the headphones over her ears. She closed her eyes. Mr Singh moved the trackball. A few seconds later Jill's eyes flew open in surprise.
"Relax and enjoy it." Mr Singh ordered.
Jill closed her eyes again. A broad smile spread across her face and her body swayed slightly as if following a rhythm we could not hear.
After two or three minutes Mr Singh stopped the program. Jill reluctantly opened her eyes and took the headphones off.
"How?" is all she said.
"It is based on acupuncture points and foot reflexology. The socks were developed for a reflexology program. Once the problem was diagnosed the condition could be treated with the socks instead of by hand. There are tens of thousands of tiny movements possible against the skin of each foot directly controlled by the software. I found the system on sale in Hong Kong. I bought the rights to develop it for uses other than reflexology treatment. The principle is that the feet affect or mirror every other part of the body. It is a form of full body virtual reality. I have deliberately ignored any visual part. The human imagination is capable of far more than any optical illusions. So tell us, Jill, what did you experience?"
"I was taking part in a traditional village dance. I was wearing swirling skirts, clinking jewellery, bells on my wrists and ankles. I felt the clothes against my skin, the dirt under my feet, the heat, the smell of cooking fires, my own and the other dancers perfume ... and sweat ... I was there. I was Shanta. I was enjoying my skill as a dancer and the interaction with the others and even the appreciation of the audience. Then it stopped and I was back here."
"Would you like to try, Tom Sahib?"
"Yes please." I couldn't believe Jill's reaction. Surely she couldn't have experienced so much from a pair of socks, even with the headphones.
"I have a larger pair of socks for you. They are not based on my son's feet but on the feet of one of his hang-gliding instructors. The scenario isn't hang-gliding. That's all I will tell you. You can tell us what you think you experience."
I put the socks and headphones on, closed my eyes and waited. Suddenly I was in the middle of an American football game peering through the bars of my helmet. I know nothing about the game. Now I was part of it. Right in the middle of it. The ball slammed into my chest from a pass. I grabbed it, started to run, and I was hit by several tons of armoured men. Their impact was shocking. The ball disappeared. I stood up, looked around and started to run again. The ball came back. I ran and then hit the ground again. I was experiencing a football game that I didn't understand but what I felt was real and painful.
The scenario stopped. I opened my eyes. I was trembling all over from the after effects.
"Well?" Jill asked.
"I was playing American football and getting hammered every time I had the ball. The armour wasn't much protection. I ache all over."
"That will pass in less than a minute." said Mr Singh "It is virtual reality, not the real thing. You cannot hurt yourself - you just feel that you do. You can even "die" without ill effects. Maybe gamers will treat their "lives" with more respect if they feel "dying" personally. I'd like you to try just one more scenario, Tom Sahib. This one won't hurt but might surprise you."
"OK" I said cautiously. That football scenario had been enough of a shock. I closed my eyes again.
I was in Jill's scenario. I was Shanta dancing sinuously in front of the assembled village. After the shock of finding myself as a woman I relaxed and enjoyed the sensation. It was supreme. I could hear, feel and smell everything. My brain provided the visuals. I wanted to dance, to show off my body, to excite the men, to react to the other dancers while weaving the intricate pattern of the dance. I analysed the differences carefully. I could feel my skirts whirling around me. I could even sense my "breasts" swinging as I danced. No virtual reality had ever prepared me for this depth of sensation. It wasn't weird to be a woman, I WAS a woman and enjoying being one. When the scenario stopped I was disappointed. There was so much I wanted to explore just from that short scene.
"Wow!" I said.
"Wow? What do you mean, wow?" asked Jill.
"That was your scenario. I was Shanta dancing. It was a shock but so realistic I wanted it to continue so that I could understand the differences between men and women's experiences. I could re-run that a hundred times and get something new each time."
"You are pleased, Tom Sahib?"
"Pleased? I'm stunned, ecstatic, incredulous and delighted. You and your son have produced something that is far beyond anything that has been ever done before."
"It is a good memorial to him?"
"It is more than a memorial, it lives for him." I said.
"Then I am glad. You will buy it, Sahib?"
"No. We will buy a license from you. You and Shanta will own it and have the income from it. You will be rich. You can buy the land for a dozen villages if that is what you want to do."
"Thank you, Sahib and Memsahib. In the case I have the source code for the software. The manufacturers of the socks are willing to produce as many as you want and I have a licence to make them as well. Apart from that you need to develop other scenarios. We have made about a dozen so far. They can be recorded by wearing an inside out copy of the socks and standard audio methods. Shanta was wearing the inside out socks when she danced. The football game was made at an American air force base in Turkey. I don't think he was a good player. was he?"
I shook my head, remembering the pounding I'd received.
"Then you have given me something to remember my son for. If Shanta works with you, I can retire to my village to become a hermit. I have always wanted to end my life in contemplation of the infinite. This system is just a means to that end. Shanta can handle the money. It might begin to change attitudes in the village if they know that a twice widowed woman is helping them. She will have to be diplomatic but she is a talented woman. Perhaps we can settle the details soon? I would like Shanta to meet you again. She will be with me tomorrow."
"Of course we will meet her tomorrow. We will meet her often. We have said that she is our sister." Jill said before I could jump in.
"Where are you staying tonight, Mr Singh?" I asked.
"At the Hilton, of course." he replied. "I haven't become a hermit yet."
"Will you join us for dinner?" I asked.
"No, Sahib and Memsahib. You need time to yourselves. You have reached a turning point in your lives. Shanta and I will see you tomorrow, here at the office. Would eleven a.m. do?"
"Yes, Mr Singh. We will see you at eleven."
"Then I will leave you. The instructions for the system are in the case. You might like to try some of the other scenarios before you see me tomorrow. Until then, my respectful farewells."
We went through the formal rituals of departure.
After Mr Singh left Jill and I sat down at the boardroom table.
"Well?" she asked.
"Well?" I replied.
"I think this will give us something to do for the next few months, don't you?"
"Yes, Jill. I'm not letting anyone else work on this until we have. We can do so much with it. My brain is teeming with ideas. I'm sure that yours is too."
"It is Tom. This could be fun. Just like at the beginning when we found we could write games that people wanted to buy. One trial and these socks will sell themselves. Then there will be an unending market for additional scenarios. We have work for each other and our new sister Shanta for years."
"Do you want to try the other scenarios now, Jill?"
"No. I don't think so. I'd rather spend time together with you discussing the possibilities. We can get Shanta to demonstrate some of the scenarios when she arrives. If she understands software even half as much as her husband did she can explain better than her father-in-law."
We spent the afternoon wandering around the city hand in hand like teenagers. There were some odd looks but India is tolerant of the behaviour of foreigners. If only their tolerance extended to embrace the cultural and religious differences among themselves, but what nation on earth can actually do that? India's intolerance is mirrored in almost every society on Earth.
That night we shared one bed all night. I woke up to find Jill's head nestled on my shoulder. That was a good start to the day.