I watched my dad’s eyes as he took in the sights and (lack of) sounds of a new place (parents visiting us here on a short trip to Australia), as I took him out for a drive to a shopping mall, on the very day we landed. Later that day he remarked how well people were following the queue – whether one is driving on a busy road or waiting for the turn to pay. He was impressed by the absence of irritation or restlessness shown by the people waiting – and particularly the person at the counter who did not pay attention to any one else than the person in front.

This resembles my own experience during my first trip abroad, to The Netherlands. I too noticed how everyone patiently waited for their turn at a doctor’s clinic, without any fuss, though being unwell.

We get used to queues and waiting situations from the day we are born. There is an order and sequence to everything; At school and at home, we are taught to wait. However, when we are among a crowd of people wanting the same thing at the same time, the raging animal inside us tests our discipline and social manners.

Manners were the last thing I worried about during my first near-death experience while waiting in a long queue at a movie hall, many years ago. With my cousins and friends I was thrilled initially, as we got permission to go by ourselves – and been given some money to spend. We decided to buy the cheapest ticket and had spent away the rest of the money, eating some junk. The queue was benign and orderly until when the ticket counter opened. There was a sudden rush behind us. Some strongly built and goon-like men were jostling us inside the closed corridor, which was covered on the one side with a brick wall and a steel fence on the other. My shoulders hurt – as I felt a leg clamped on me; one of my cousins screamed for help. There was no way out of that cramped space, and going back was most definitely not a viable option. We survived the stampede that day, and got our prize: a ticket to watch a fantastic movie.

Key take-away: when people say they don’t quit or when they are called “finishers”, perhaps they didn’t have any other choice.

I promised some philosophy in the title and here it is, but you will encounter some mathematics first.

When you see two queues with the same number of people, you hope to choose the one which gets you faster. How many times have you been left frustrated being stuck in the “wrong” queue? Don’t stress. Murphy’s law states, “If something can go wrong, it will”. Extending that to queueing, this blog tries to analyse and explain using probability theory, that essentially, “Whatever queue you join, no matter how short it looks, it will always take the longest to you to get served.

You learn that all queues lead to the same result. This is not very different from the core of Hindu philosophy: Any of the four paths can lead you to attain Moksha (enlightenment and liberation): Bhakti Yoga (Devotion), Karma Yoga (Action), Gnana Yoga (Knowledge), Raja Yoga (Meditation).

From queues to spiritual progression: that’s a giant leap of thought, you say. If you are not the spiritual type, I have some practical lessons to survive a queue.

I once had to wait for six hours in a queue to submit my application for a passport. My uncle dropped me at 6 am on an already hot and humid Chennai morning. A friend who had endured this previously had advised me to take some snacks and also gifted me a novel. I didn’t possess the patience or interest to read a non-academic book. I started watching people and tried looking at the blue skies, chirping of birds and the horns and smells of morning traffic (the office opened only at 9). The guy in front of me struck a conversation, which soon turned into an interview: where are you from? why do you need a passport when you are not even twenty? where are you planning to travel? I mumbled and stumbled for a while and then took a decision that changed my life. No, I didn’t kill him. I took the book out, sat down on the floor and devoured it. Weeks later, I received my passport, but in the meanwhile i got addicted to thick, fat novels.

Lesson: what you do when you have nothing else to do, defines you.

Sometimes, you wont even know where a queue begins, moving towards or ends. It is best to leave it to chance, rather than to put any mental effort. For instance, if im lazy, I stick to the same lane when driving, even if the next lane is free.

This strategy won’t always work.

Once during a family trip to the historic Charminar monument, we joined a queue going to the top of one of the minarets. Twenty minutes of slow paced movement on a circular staircase took us to a narrow space at the top. I was intrigued by another queue that began from where we just finished. I thought to myself, this might lead to a nice spot to take some pictures. People moved much slower than during the climb. It was too late when we realised, we were actually on the queue that goes down back to the ground. Now, don’t tell me, it is the journey that matters and not the destination.

Insight: Don’t be surprised to find yourself where you started. Life is a circle.

Back to that day in the doctor’s clinic in the Netherlands. My stomach (and other related organs) were struggling to deal with the new diet. A colleague booked me a doctor’s appointment and arranged for a taxi.

I arrive to find the room crowded with patients seated ahead of me. Across the room, I see the doctor’s face whenever the door opens to let a patient in or out. A glimpse of my to-be-saviour. An hour later, I am unable to sit straight, shivering with some fever as well. When you are sick, the time moves slowly.

The receptionist was busy. I ask myself, should I explain my situation and beg her to let me ahead of others. I remind myself, im in a different country, and I better stick to the ways and systems here. There is no need to worry.

I get more hopeful as I see the last person left in the room being called. When he comes out fifteen minutes later, im relieved. The doctor’s door is kept fully open now. He looks tired and stretches his back. He picks up a book and begins reading it seriously. I stare at him hoping he will make eye contact. The receptionist comes to me with a strange look in her eyes and asks my name. She doesn’t pronounce it well but checks her records. She makes some phone calls, while I am left to wonder what’s going on. She then confirms the worst, even as the doctor continues to flip many more pages.

I had reached the wrong clinic.

I don’t find any lessons in this experience. I was just stupid not to have checked with her as soon as I arrived.