“What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?”. “Forty Two”, replied the supercomputer Deep Thought, in the science fiction comedy, The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I thought it was a joke when I watched this movie many years ago. A joke I wouldn’t understand.

I am not known for keeping my responses crisp and short. You see, I already used two words to describe my predicament. It is my usual attempt to answer more than what the questioner might want to know. At work, I have been “advised” by my colleagues and managers to keep it simple. I am still trying.

Some of us are able to pack a lot of content in the span of a few words. When we say less, it can also sound mysterious and can sometimes work in our favour.

It isn’t funny however, when there is space for just one word while addressing matters of emergency. Fire fighters and police officers have a chance to shout a few words as they deal with life-and-death situations. Take for instance the recent death of a bungee jumper as she fell at the wrong time, when the instructor with poor English knowledge said “No jump” which she heard as “Now jump”. Or take the case of the Indian businessman charged with making a bomb threat in Mumbai (Bombay, previously) as he made a phone call to the airlines before his flight. Due to a bad line, he only managed to finish a part of his sentence “BOM-DEL flight”.

A non-life-threatening word incident came to my mind as I went nostalgic about the first few days of my career that started in Hyderabad. After a session on the basics of Enterprise Resource Planning, the trainer wanted feedback from each of the 40 odd trainees. And we had to use a single, unique word to describe how it was conducted. I was fretting as I waited in the second row for my turn since the words “Interesting”, “Useful”, “Educational” etc were already taken by the lucky first benchers. I don’t even remember what I ended up saying but I recall the exuberance in the room when the last guy mentioned a word that had more than one meaning: “Impossible”.

And to the bewildering answer of 42 to the big question about life and its meaning –  there are many theories. The author himself admitted it was a random number, trying to lay to rest many of the stories. I liked this one, however: Turns out, the ASCII code for the wildcard character “*” is 42. Wildcards in computer programming are used to represent one or more things. That is, “whatever you want it to be”. Sounds like a good short reply to the biggest question of it all.

But, I was shy and confused during the first few days. I wanted to talk to a lot of people, learn many things, all at once. The MD of the Hyderabad delivery unit was an awesome communicator  and a nice guy. Little did I expect him to recognise me a few days later, when he greeted me calling my name as we entered the men’s room. The awkward silence that occurred when we were taking a leak at our respective commodes was broken by his enquiry, “So…Ram, how’s it going?”.  The one word answer that I uttered in the context of training sessions lead to a few seconds of silence before we both laughed. “Smooth”, I had said.