Tuesday, December 16, 2014

At home, at work

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Shefali Tripathi Mehta, Dec 13, 2014, DHNS:


Do you wear flip flops? Can you cook and take a conference call simultaneously? Working from home is certainly not for everyone. Shefali Tripathi Mehta debunks myths associated with the phenomenon.

Have you noticed how men don’t get asked “Are you working?”, like women do. While an office-goer replies in the affirmative, the rest shake their heads, half-embarrassed, like most homemakers seem to be, even when they are doing the important work of caring for their families. But, *in society, it does not qualify as a job; it is not paid for. The whys and wherefores of this is another debate altogether. Between the working and the non-working, there is this fuzzy field of those ‘working from home’ – neither this nor that; difficult to explain and defend; and even more difficult to sustain.

People have innumerable preconceived notions about this arrangement. Most think if you are working from home, you have an ‘inconsequential’ job; that you must not be important enough for your organisation. 

So if one’s not careful, guarding this work space and time can become a challenge. When people call someone at office, they politely ask if it is a good time to talk, whereas a working-from-home person is plainly asked, “What were you doing?”  One needs to be ready at all times with excuses to fend-off random work-day requests for movie or lunch, because everyone thinks you can always do your work later.

Most often, we are ourselves to blame for how casually we take our work from home arrangement. It is like if one doesn’t have to go to office, it directly translates into a lack of schedule and working while lying **in bed with your pyjamas and unkempt hair.

When I first told my boss I was quitting my full-time job to work from home, he was incredulous. For him, like most people, it meant I was retiring from work. But when he realised I was in earnest about ‘working’, he gave me the advice that has stood me in good stead through years of work, that could have easily tumbled into a disorderly heap of frustration and disappointments. “Wear work shoes and sit at a table,” he said to me. I did not wear shoes and did not sit at the table at all times, but I did beat myself up into a strict routine, and stayed reasonably groomed even though no one saw me all day. To stay at home and get work done is the ultimate test of self-discipline.

Drawing out a timetable

The basic requirement this sort of arrangement demands is a punctilious routine of starting work at an appointed hour each day. Having a dedicated place to work – a corner, if not a home office, is mandatory. Next, one must aim at clocking a certain number of hours every day, even if the work requirement is qualitative and not quantitative. It is a great morale booster to look back at the day’s work and know that one has not whiled away time. Most people are able to work effectively only for five to six hours daily. Those that are working for themselves, will soon realise they need more hours to do all that they want to than what a regular office-goer puts in.

 In a familiar, relaxed, self-owned set-up, it is easy to lose sight of daily goals. So it is crucial to create and maintain a sense of urgency. It is imperative to monitor one’s progress at the start and end of each day. Making to-do and check lists for oneself are not just helpful in monitoring one’s progress, but also very gratifying.

This arrangement is ideal for those who work alone – digital artists, translators, programmers, writers, editors, those running home businesses, life coaches and counsellors. If one is working for an organisation, one needs to maintain the delicate balance between timelines and deadlines.

Things are more difficult for those who are doing their own work and those that are doing creative work that cannot be quantified. Loose or non-existent deadlines require tremendous self-motivation.

When one is working from home, it is inevitable that you will get sucked into the one million things that you had always wanted to do ‘one day’ – the irresistible need to rearrange the bookshelf; sort the closet; wash the windows or try baking those oatmeal cookies – everything you thought you would do if you didn’t work full-time.Remind yourself – you are working full-time. So you still have to look for after-hours to squeeze in that wish-list, unless of course you are extra efficient and find yourself some well-deserved free hours.

That’s the other important thing for self-motivation – rewarding oneself. A pedicure, a walk, some therapeutic cooking, music or reading as time out, whenever one completes scheduled work on time and satisfactorily. It helps to keep the heart in the job. Do this guiltlessly.

Boosting your morale

Other family members have to respect the personal work space the one working from home needs. Expecting family to and making it clear that they contribute by keeping their voices and TV volumes low, should not gnaw at one’s conscience.

Lastly, my favourite peeve – people grudging my time on social media. Considering this is our only connect with the ‘real’ world out there, how about giving the virtual workforce a little leeway on this? It’s like office-goers stopping by at the desk of someone for a howdy, having a teeny-weeny water cooler gossip or an extended lunch. We do miss that, you know. We are denied the delights of buying a new dress because we cannot wear it to work the next day. We need double the encouragement to get those new fuchsia hair highlights.

On a serious note though, this arrangement is clearly not for the loosely motivated. Those that need to minimise their Candy Crush or Vigil Idiot windows when the boss chances by may please stick to the time-tested office going rigour.

* Not mine;
** in your PJs
The making-little-sense subheads

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Living to learn

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Shefali Tripathi Mehta, Nov 09, 2014, DHNS:
Lifelong learning

Many years ago, I called home to speak with my mother and was told that she had gone for cooking classes.
 My mother, the indisputable Master Chef of all our circles, was still learning to make new dishes! That she was in her 70s and had been through a major illness that had left us all deeply anxious for her well-being were relatively trivial matters.

We are conditioned to relate learning with youth; with school and university lessons; with learning skills for a job or hobby. So our learning is more or less ‘accomplished’ by middle age when we’re comfortably ensconced in our jobs and a pattern of living. Those books on history, math, language and science have no place in our lives anymore.

Did you have your 10 almonds today to keep your memory sharp? Or, if you are following the western practice, probably some ginkgo biloba or sage? How about learning a new skill; picking a new hobby; or challenging your limits? That, say experts, are the best ways to grow your mind.

Let us consider this typical scenario — people watching a fire performance. When the audience is invited to try a hand at it, guess who will volunteer? Kids — even unwilling ones will be pushed forward by parents or adults accompanying them. Older people prefer to remain spectators. And this is true in the larger picture of our lives — we gradually take a back seat, slowly stop participating, and become spectators.

Born to learn
“Men are often capable of greater things than they perform. They are sent into the world with bills of credit, and seldom draw to their full extent,” said Horace Walpole. 

We came into this world as helpless little creatures who needed to be clothed, fed and soothed. We learned to walk and speak; do math and swim; act in plays and lead teams. The world was our oyster — we created our lives learning one thing after another. Whatever the circumstances, the learning never stopped one way or the other. As we grew older, instead of questioning stereotypical, repressive norms, we began to question our ability to pick up new skills — I don’t have an aptitude for languages; I have two left feet; I have no head for numbers — we said and stayed put in our comfort zones. What we denied ourselves were not always things we did not enjoy, often, these were things we would be most happy doing.

Why does a middle-aged immigrant pick up a native language but most of us admit we cannot learn a foreign language? Perhaps we are using age-old beliefs or research that younger people learn more easily as a ruse to not challenge ourselves? 

A 50 year old can learn to dance as well as a five year old. Of course, there are savants, precocious kids and geniuses, but did we drop out of class V because there were 10 others doing better at Math or English? Let’s consider some examples of people around us, those who we can emulate rather than idolise.

It is true that we will learn things that we are passionate about because memory and learning are closely associated with emotions, which is why permanent learning almost always has an emotional component. A friend tells of a woman over 30 who started to learn Bharatnatyam dance along with her young daughter. The back story is that she had always wanted to dance and would hide behind doors to watch her sister who was being taught dance as she was the prettier of the two. This lady was able to fulfil her desire so many years later, even though it demanded more from her with increased responsibilities of home, family and a job.

No absolute truths

Adult learning would be a lot facile if the problem of perception did not weigh it down so much. The good news is that for all the mental roadblocks such as, how will it look to learn new things at ‘this’ age and what will people think, a recent study shows others think less of us than we imagine them to. A young boy learning to play basketball is learning to play basketball while an older person learning to play basketball is learning to play it with the added pressure of something akin to ‘stage fright’ — How am I doing? Am I learning quick enough? What are the others thinking, saying? Confidence is the greatest aid for learning.

Just as parents feel proud watching their kids learn new things, children too experience such pride. Shalini Ramachandran’s heart swells with pride and joy when she talks of her mother who overcame her fear of water and learned to swim in her early 50s. And Saroj Juneja at 55, did the most amazing thing — when the swimming coach refused to teach her saying it was too late, she observed others, asked questions, and learnt it herself! The only people who learn are those that are so desperate to learn that they do it despite conditions being unfavourable.

Recently, I met an amazing foot artist, Sheela from Lucknow. Sheela lost both her hands in a train accident when she was four. She watched other kids draw and write and slowly began to train herself to hold the pencil between her toes. The brush soon replaced the pencil. Sheela completed schooling, a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts, and is an artist with the National Lalit Kala Kendra, Lucknow. For a woman from a large family of six siblings and limited means, having a disability as restricting as this, these were not mere roadblocks but mountains that she moved to learn what she was passionate about. How many of us have looked at a painting and sighed, “Wish I could paint too!” And why not? What is our excuse?

Ekalavyas all

Imagine being invisible when attending a class one wants to as an older student. This is the kind of anonymity the Internet offers. Technology has opened up such a wide, new world of learning before us. It is far easier now to follow our dreams with technology not just making learning accessible, but allowing us to first try our hand at stuff and gain confidence in private.

In high school, a classmate with who I was doing a project asked if Sonia Gandhi was Rajiv Gandhi’s sister. She may have never set her sight on the UPSC, but Indira Gandhi was prime minister, and it must be hard to not know. Every film theatre screened the documentary in which Indira Gandhi was shown telling her grandchildren why the colour of blood is red while the parents — Sonia and Rajiv smiled and looked on. I was gobsmacked, not by her ignorance, but by her courage to admit it, and finally learn than to never do. Now, of course, the Internet saves everyone’s face.

Mable Thomas is an IT professional with a passion for designing clothes. She designed clothes for family and friends working late into the nights, creating designs, learning and experimenting along with her full-time job. Most initial learning happened on the Internet — YouTube tutorials, sewing blogs and online communities. It gave her enough confidence to quit her job; complete a professional course in designing clothes and start her own label. Alka Shingwekar who loves learning new things also considers the Internet her guru. An MBBS and MBA degree did not stop her from exploring other diverse interests. She taught herself several programming languages, website design, photoshop, sewing, painting, piano, woodwork and gardening. She loves the freedom and instant help Internet forums provide.

Thousands of people around the world are using online tutorials to learn things they always wanted to. If you are not willing to learn, no one can help you; if you are determined to learn, no one can stop you, goes a popular saying.

Learning is growing

Life is about continuous learning, growing, evolving and embracing change — in short, continually trying to get our sea legs at new things. Our mental horizons are forever expanding with knowledge of new cultures and cuisines through travel, TV or reading; we are picking up life skills everyday — riding a Metro, using a smart phone; we are learning to manage relationships — resolving conflicts, understanding other perspectives; and we are each constantly evolving as the person we are — emotionally, spiritually or intellectually.

“In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists” (Eric Hoffer). This is particularly true for professionals. Continuous learning is crucial in this fast-changing world for people to not become professionally obsolete. Teachers must learn to use technology; human resource personnel must keep up with the latest policies such as the evolving definitions of sexual harassment; writers should learn the politically-correct terminology to use, for example, to refer to people with disabilities.The edge learning provides is phenomenal. It is people who do not stop learning and acquiring new skills that keep growing and excelling.

Besides staying current and relevant, the challenges new learning provides keeps learners motivated and committed to their chosen careers. Psychologist Abraham Maslow, who gave us the hierarchy of human needs, stated that human motivation is based on people seeking fulfilment and change through personal growth. 

Concepts like mentoring and reverse mentoring are finding increased relevance at workplaces. With increased specialisation and opportunities to learn, there are also more options to repurpose learning. Many people, unhappy in their chosen careers, who know that their calling is elsewhere, have chosen to learn late and switch careers.

Invest in life

We all plan for retirement and old age — health, medical, life insurance; investments to get us dividends; house, vehicle and security in many ways. How about investing in life? When we have all the many comforts that we worked for all life, what will we do with life itself? Have we equipped ourselves with some skills that will keep us contentedly, gainfully occupied? 

Nima Srinivasan, a brand consultant and market researcher, decided mid-career to learn to be a trainer — a learning that was rewarding for the insight she gained into human values, behaviours and fears, as also that would sustain her income after the conventional retirement age. 

Vivek Banerjee, Project Head with a gaming company, tries to learn one new skill each year, something that is entirely removed from his job role but augments his personality and world view. From calligraphy to book critiques and cooking, he embraces the learning of as diverse subjects as he can. 

At 51, when Varsha Prakash realised that she was perhaps finding it harder to retain information, she plunged headlong into learning new things. The physical and mental discipline that helped her train for long-distance running at 40, had equipped her well. She started to sing after overcoming the initial flop sweat, and is now buoyant about learning roller-blading, swimming and horse riding.

Seniors are constantly proving stereotypes wrong. Bangaloreans are familiar with Pizza Haven run by two amazing septuagenarians — Padma Sreenivasan and Jayalaxmi Srinivasan.When they started it as a small tuck shop in 2003, the two women admit that they did not know how to make pizzas, but they knew that youngsters loved it. Pizza Haven became a hit with youngsters and grew to enable the dynamic duo realise their dream of building an old-age home.

Henry Ford said, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” Doesn’t retirement from job and responsibilities seem like the perfect time to learn all that one wanted to — teaching, reading, writing, volunteering, sport, cooking, art, music? Finding a purpose by volunteering, contributing one’s skills, experience or knowledge and giving back to society can be fulfilling. It creates positive stress in life. That it keeps the mind alert is the bonus.

Those elders who embrace change and move with the times live happier and healthier. According to cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, learning a new skill helps ward off dementia by strengthening the connections between parts of our brain. While brain games improve a limited aspect of short-term memory, Kaufman says, challenging activities strengthen entire networks in the brain.

Increasingly, just as the older generation is picking up new challenges of a changing world, like technology-aided communication — learning to use computers and smartphones, younger people are also being drawn to traditional forms of arts, crafts, cooking, medicine and learning. In a quiet, aesthetic corner of Bangalore, at an art ‘ashram’ called Bimba, Deepika Dorai is keeping the family-inherited art of Rasalok — miniature, still theatre performance — alive. Sweta Sinha is a software engineer whose love for maths drew her to Vedic maths. She learnt it from books and the Internet. The learning of this system of mental calculations which is simpler, easier and devoid of mistakes was so fulfilling that she decided to repurpose her talent for maths from writing software to teaching Vedic maths to kids.

Learning sustains and fills us with new life energy. What holds us back from exploring and learning new things, things that we wanted to do all life as other things took precedence, is mainly the fear of standing out; the anxiety of not being good enough which appear to us camouflaged in excuses of not having enough time or the aptitude. It is then that we need to consider what we stand to lose — in trying and in giving up. Favourable conditions seldom present themselves. There is never a more opportune time than now. So, go register for that theatre workshop or Zumba class; join a volunteering group or learn to write RTIs; get online to learn sketching or a new language. John Greenleaf Whittier’s words create perspective, “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been’.”

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Ugly Truth

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Shefali Tripathi Mehta, Sep 7, 2014, DHNS

Caught in the circle of corruption, a common man finds it extremely challenging to live by principles. However, a lot of the afflictions of today’s life can be side-stepped if we base our decisions on principles, writes Shefali Tripathi Mehta.

Satyawadi Raja Harishchandra is said to have given up his kingdom and sold himself, wife and son to keep his word given in a dream to Maharishi Vishvamitra. The story, when told to children today, would come with a footnote, much like the statutory warning with dangerous stunts: ‘Do not attempt’. Even then, if a child grows up with such idealism, the world will wean them off it, pronto. “Are you Satyawadi Harishchnadra?” people will mock.
My friend bought medicines and the pharmacist asked if she wants a receipt, making it seem like a big effort that she would put him through in asking for one. She declined. When I questioned her, she replied, “There are bigger fish out there that are selling this country for crores. I don’t mind if a small merchant like him makes a few hundreds. He too has to put his kids through school and college!”

Same thing happens at the spa every time. They let me know that I am being ‘mean’ in asking for a receipt. Most patrons let it go for better services that would come from the favour returned. While these ‘small fish’ are evading ‘big’ tax, we are their accomplices. We’re doing it because others, in other ways, do it for us — that’s how smoothly, soundlessly the cycle of wrong moves.

Norm syndrome

Are we getting sucked into the web of corruption unwillingly, or have we willingly let go of our compunctions? Why are we giving in?

“When it comes to morals and principles, a man in the ‘real’ world has two options; compromise, or wait for some time and then compromise.” (Mohammad Rafiq Teli)

Sarita took up a job at a private school that promised a monthly salary of Rs 20,000. On salary day, she was handed half the amount and asked to sign on a receipt for the full amount. Sarita needed the job badly. If she protested, she would be asked to go. Also, would it be better anywhere else? She signed and kept quiet.

Manoj’s joy knew no bounds when he finally got the job of a physiotherapist in a government hospital. A government job meant stability and benefits like a retirement pension. When he went to collect his salary, the clerk refused to sanction it till Manoj gave him his ‘cut’. Manoj resisted and did not take his salary for three months. Colleagues laughed at him and advised him to pay the clerk. They told him it was the norm and there was no point resisting it. After three months, Manoj relented.

When did we start giving in to the corruption ‘norm’? When did we stop questioning our actions? When did wrong stop weighing us down?

Pavan K Varma, in his book Chanakya’s New Manifesto, articulates it succinctly, “They (Indians) consider it bad when they have to bribe when they don’t want to; they consider it good if the bribe gets them what they want. In this sense, corruption is like litmus paper; it takes the colour of the specific experience. The immorality associated with it is subsumed by an ingrained inclination to be worldly-wise. The world is not inherently fair; ...the end is more important than the means.”

This is the crux of it — the end. Should we not let our child study in a reputed school just because the school will not give receipt for the humongous amount they charge as development fee? We are confronted with such dilemma at every step — a professional degree seat, a job, a tender or a plot allotment. In principle, it is wrong to take or give money without accounting for it. But, is it worth it, we ask. Two things allay our disquiet: first, everyone does it, and second, there is no option

Corruption in high places 

How did everyone begin doing it? What has made us corruption-resistant? Does corruption in higher places make us unscrupulous? 

Sadly, it has become a government/authorities versus people scenario. The government of, by and for the people is now perceived as the government against the people. Political clout and money power have created a new Raj. When politicians indulge in corruption, it spurs public servants too to unhesitatingly pinch their share and we who depend on their integrity for our welfare, feel cheated. When we come to know that the government indulges in corruption, we want to steal too. Stealing from the thief seems justified. The values crumble top down.

When the government, leadership, law and justice machinery fail us, we see that the government is not just apathetic towards us but also self-serving, we have no compunctions in securing ourselves with money that brings power, whatever the means. Our leaders do it. They usurped flats meant for war widows; it is believed that in the state of Bihar, more than 80 per cent of the subsidised food aid to poor is stolen by corrupt officials. When the corrupt go unpunished, is it wise to go though the trials of living by principles, we wonder. 

Power and money can absolve a person even from crimes in this country. The ones on the right side of law may have everything going wrong for them. Everything is in short supply because everyone wants more than they need. Amassing wealth becomes our security net. In a country of fallen public morals, where one can be wrongly implicated in an offence or crime, when no rule or law of country can save us, money may.

Mumbai’s Campa Cola Society demolition is a case in point. The construction was illegal and needed to be demolished as per law. It was supposed to set an example; to serve as a deterrent for those that think they can get away with unlawful means. But it seems grossly unjust that only one of the parties involved was punished — the flat owners. Nary was a finger pointed at the key offenders — the builders and the BMC. Money and power saved them. 

Who cares?

Among the worst fire tragedies in India was the Uphaar Cinema fire of June 13, 1997 in which 59 people inside a movie theatre in Delhi died of suffocation. Fourteen years before the fire accident, in 1983, the Deputy Commissioner of Police (Licensing) had inspected Uphaar, had listed 10 serious violations, and cancelled its licence. Yet, it continued to run in a country of palm-greasing, leading to the horrific tragedy.

The price of life against that of commerce is insignificant. The negligence of the Union Carbide of India, that led to the world’s worst industrial disaster in Bhopal, or the loss of young lives in the dam water release in Himachal — every tragedy is an accident that could have been prevented; should have been prevented. 

Human life is the cheapest in a country of one-billion-plus people where the perpetrators of accidents can clean their hands with money. People guilty of heinous crimes roam free and a completely innocent person can spend his entire life behind bars awaiting trial. It is believed that an astounding number of prisoners awaiting trial have already been imprisoned longer than the most rigorous sentence that they could have been given for the offence they are alleged to have committed. When everything is so uncertain, wealth and power are the only certitude; the only safeguard. Is being virtuous, wise?

Class consciousness 

I had been waiting a long time for my turn at a business centre. A poor man, very awkward, with a printed document in his hand, was before me. When the service attendants got free, they asked for my job, completely ignoring the man before me. This is how our society treats those with less resources.

Being intrinsically a class-conscious society, we judge people by their financial standing; their standard of living. Success is weighed in terms of power and wealth. Frugal, simple living by principles is made fun of. The entire value system has changed. 

Social boycott, much less a social frowning-upon, has been dumped. People worry about loss of wealth, not of face. The three Indian cricketers who were arrested for spot-fixing during the IPL 6, lured by easy money, did not stop to think of the shame they brought to themselves, the game, or their country. But the more astounding fact is that they continue to be invited to TV shows and their personal events being covered by the media. The threshold of shame has never been lower.

Professions considered noble, that of doctors and teachers who save lives and mould those of the future generations, command little respect in our society today. Doctors and teachers too have stooped to disgraceful practices along with the general lowering of public morals. All professions have eventually become jobs. 

Fighting a losing battle

Are those that stand up for their principles fighting a losing battle? Don’t the examples of those that suffer outnumber those that win? Again and again, we are forced to ask ourselves, what did they get? 

Shanmugam Manjunath was brutally murdered because he ordered the sealing of two petrol  pumps for selling adulterated fuel at Lakhimpur Kheri district of Uttar Pradesh. Satyendra Dubey was killed in Gaya, Bihar for trying to expose the corruption in the Golden Quadrilateral highway construction project. RTI activist Satish Shetty was murdered in Pune for using RTI to expose land scams. IPS officer Narendra Kumar was mowed down by a tractor-trolley laden with illegally-mined stone that he was trying to stop in Morena, Madhya Pradesh. Additional District Magistrate of Nashik, Yeshwant Sonwane, was burnt to death by members of the oil mafia when he caught them on camera pilfering kerosene from a tanker.

Because this list goes on endlessly, we know they died in vain. The circle of corruption that they tried to break could not be broken. Corruption won, honesty failed. This country does not accord respect due to its brave hearts. The wreath-laying, compensation-paying, medal-instituting remains empty tokenism when the work they tried to accomplish remains unfulfilled.

Similar apathy disgraces the sacrifice of the martyrs of this country. It was a sad day when Col Vasanth’s wife came on national television after seven years of his martyrdom to tell the nation how she has been denied her entitlements. She recounted how her husband would allay her fears for his life saying that the country would take care of the family. Col Vasanth laid down his life preventing heavily armed infiltrators from crossing the Indian border at Uri, Jammu and Kashmir. He was awarded the Ashok Chakra posthumously.

Recently, the nation commemorated 15 years of the Kargil war by paying homage to the martyrs. Yet, the lingering memory of the day for most of us will be the plight of Major D P Singh who, having lost both his legs in the war, is fighting for his dignity, living on a paltry sum because the bureaucracy refuses to clear his dues in 15 years. These are not stray stories.

The State does not safeguard the interests of sportspersons that bring glory to the country. Athletes of yesteryears, who walked proud under the Indian flag and won laurels for the country, live in penury. A recent example is of 15-year-old Sita Sahu, a mentally challenged teenager from Rewa, Madhya Pradesh who won two bronze medals at the 2011 Athens Special Olympics, who is today forced to sell street food because the State did not honour its promise of financial help, which also stalled her career as an athlete.

Why do we need new laws to make people do their jobs? A Whistle-blowers Protection Act of 2011 had to be passed in May 2014 to protect those who stand by their principles and will not succumb to the pressures of the corrupt. And to encourage public authorities to deliver services timely and effectively, the Karnataka Sakala Services (Amendment) Bill, 2014 was passed by the state of Karnataka. It initiates disciplinary action against officials for failure to act in a stipulated time and recovers compensatory cost from guilty officers. 

The overwhelming question is how did we reach such a nadir in corruption? How will laws darn the threadbare moral fabric of a nation?  

There are options

Acting from principle instead of self-interest is a challenge in these times. But a lot of the afflictions of today’s life can be side-stepped if we base our decisions on principles, from our basic moral core. 

The organisation, I Paid a Bribe, offers some practical ways of how one can avoid paying a bribe. The first thing we can do when dealing with a government department is to equip ourselves with information — scour their website, especially the FAQs, and the citizen’s charter; talk assertively, do not be submissive; give all applications in prescribed forms and obtain acknowledgements for each; make it very clear that you would not pay any money for which a receipt cannot be not given. 

Additionally, ask for the names of officials handing your files, or those who are ‘sitting’ on it. Ask for the time needed for the action according to their rule books. Maintain copies and records of the entire process and mention at each step all that has already been done, with dates. The idea is to be on top of things. 

As important as it is to not allow the web of corruption enmesh us, it is imperative to break the cycle. It just takes a strong will and determination to stand up on the side of principles when confronted with the option. Remember Henry Clay’s words, “Sir, I would rather be right than to be President.” We have to lose some to win big in the long run.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Renoir, Rembrandt, Roerich and how not to die

We have art in order not to die from the truth – Nietzsche

Too much art talk in my head these days. First, the Girl presented me with a watering can on Mother’s Day - a cute, pint-sized, pink watering can that does not water and my sister remarked, ‘Now you’re a girl with a watering can!’

It struck me how easy it is for my elder sisters to delve into memories and come up with stuff my memory seems to have fogged away (half of it I don't know anyway). But since the mention, it kept running into my head – the watering can, the girl, the blue dress, the frizzy blond hair – the painting my friends came to look at when we were the age of the girl in the painting. 

Renoir’s, A Girl with a Watering Can

It also has to do with reading Donna Tartt’s, The Goldfinch – a baby elephant of a book – at one go, it was so demandingly unputdownable and all the while thinking: how Papa would have loved this!

It’s strange how one grows up with things around them that emerge so achingly significant only when they’re all gone. Some famous paintings were on the walls of our home forever. Papa had brought prints of many that he fancied as a student in Amreeka. 

I have spent hours looking at this Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens by Albert Pinkham Ryder. There was so much mystery in this scene. There was also a story that he told, it awed us but I couldn’t remember it.  I spun my own tales – these were washerwomen washing clothes and themselves in a forest river unaware of the man approaching them on horseback (they must be chattering over the big wind that seems to sway the trees). The real story, here

And then there was Rembrandt’s Aristotle with the bust of Homer, which was lost to dampness in later years. The only addition that was made to these was one self-portrait by Amrita Sher-gil.

I learnt of art, literature and history like it was never taught during my evening walks with Papa. We had moved to town and walks were through a slum where men sat on their haunches in circles; scruffy-nosed, naked-bottomed kids ran whacking worn two-wheeler tyres; skipping over cow dung and worse, we came to the urban Lego houses with young boys and girls leaning over gates; pressure cooker whistles and lone old men on culvert puliyas. We walked, Papa talked. I listened, sometimes got lost in mine own thoughts and forgot to. 

When through the bend in the street we came to the main road, and to a particular white house with a neat mehndi hedge, I sensed a slowing of his step, a slight turn of head – just so. Nothing so obvious I could ask.

Then one day to give way to a passing bus, we were stalled right in front of the white house. He said urgently, ‘Look at the painting’. Through the open window, I saw the abstract on the wall – a scarlet sun. Whether it was the yellow evening glow inside the house or its seemingly calm isolation from the  noisy, crowded road right across – it was surreal – the entire setting. 

When I moved to Delhi, Papa would take me to the National Gallery of Modern Art. Sometimes I was reluctant because I had other stuff to do that he thought little of. But there I discovered Roerich and his Himalayas. It was in Bangalore that I first heard of the Tataguni Estate and declared that I would be there the day it opens to public. And on that most beautiful October Sunday, when most wonderfully, we had Mummy with us, we rode down to the beautiful world of Devika Rani and Svetoslav Roerich. 

Here’s news report from then and pictures of our visit.

Times of India, Oct 2004: BANGALORE: The gloom is lifting. But for the Roerichs' pet dogs which no one kept track of, the 468-acre Tataguni Estate has been restored almost to its old glory, even as it was thrown open to the public on Sunday to mark the centenary of Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich.

The house and studio have been renovated; Roerich's 1948 Chevrolet restored to running condition and painted a spanking blue. The linolae factory is functional again and swans preen themselves in the re-done lake. The only shadow on the centenary celebrations, which was launched at the estate, was the pending Supreme Court judgment on the Karnataka government decision to acquire the Roerich Estate.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Against All Odds

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Against all odds
Shefali Tripathi Mehta, June 15, 2014, DHNS:

Believe it or not, we are averse to stepping out of our comfort zones. Our system and culture too encourage us to play safe. However, there is no dearth of positive role models around us, people who have overcome daunting struggles and setbacks to fulfil their life’s purpose. Shefali Tripathi Mehta recounts a few such inspiring stories...
Udaan, a popular TV serial of the late 80s, the story of a conscientious village girl who aspires to be and becomes an IPS officer, was perhaps the most inspiring serial in the history of Indian television. The imagination of every child and young person growing up during that time was fired by the story of Kalyani Singh, the upright police officer with high ideals; her resolve to regain her family’s respect; and her fight against an unjust system and blatant gender discrimination. Udaan was based on the true story of Kanchan Chaudhary Bhattacharya, the first woman IPS officer to become Director General of Police, and elder sister of Kavita Chaudhary who wrote, directed and played her in the TV serial.

There are more real life stories of people who prevail against adversity than we care to count. When we look around, it does seem like the world is full of tales of grief and adversity and life is a constant struggle riddled with disappointment, despair and uncertainty. There are also stories of hope and triumph; stories of people who have emerged victorious through unimaginably hopeless circumstances, but their journeys appear incredible. We are awed and inspired but cannot see ourselves in their shoes. That they prevailed over adversity does not mean we would too. Faith slips away from the back door as soon as adversity comes knocking. Bankruptcy; serious illness; loss of job, a dear one or a relationship, adversity comes without forewarning.

Who are the people who successfully tide over the storms? Is their DNA different from ours? Or upbringing singular?

Endurance is key

Not many have heard of Franz Gastler. An American, Gastler began teaching English to children in a small village in Jharkhand, Hutup, near Ranchi, and was instrumental in sending the team of Under-14 for the Gasteiz Cup football tournament in Victoria Gasteiz, Spain, where they finished third. Jharkhand ranks poorly when it comes to child marriage, human trafficking and female literacy. Gastler happened to ask a 12-year old girl, his best pupil in the English class, what she would like to do in her free time. “Play football,” she replied. He decided to coach a group of kids and ended up founding the NGO Yuwa when he realised that the sport could instil confidence and promote education among these girls.

The girls were so passionate about playing football that when asked what they needed, they said they only wanted a place to play and that they would save to buy the ball. They faced parental opposition and community disapproval for wasting their time and doing what was the preserve of boys. When they went to the Panchayat office to get birth certificates for their passport, they were reportedly slapped and forced to sweep floors. Eventually, this group of tribal girls achieved something that sportspersons with the best facilities and support in big cities cannot always do.  

Gastler does not rate talent as the key for success, nor does he think that hunger, passion or desire is enough. Endurance, he states, is the primary factor — the capacity to withstand all odds, which this story completely corroborates.

Sometimes, adversity itself may be the motivation for someone to take on a challenging task. For 22 years, one man worked non-stop carving a road through a mountain. The people of Dashrath Manjhi’s village in Bihar had requested the government for a road through a mountain that would give them faster and easier access to market, hospital and school. The government did not pay heed. Dashrath Manjhi’s wife, Falguni Devi, died of illness because she could not be taken to the nearest hospital that was 70 km away every time she needed medication. In 1960, Dashrath Manjhi started carving with a hammer and a chisel, a road through the mountain. Working non-stop till 1982, he successfully dug out a 360-foot-long and 30-foot-wide path through the mountain. Dashrath Manjhi’s story is about how if one decides, one can move mountains, literally.

What motivates people?

Why do some people undertake unfamiliar, risky ventures? What is their motivation — financial reward, fame or altruism?

Anil Joshi, an Ayurvaidya in Fatehgarh village of Madhya Pradesh, was moved by the plight of the farmers of the village who faced severe drought year after year. When he proposed the idea of building a check dam on the local River Somli, the farmers laughed it off. Undeterred, Joshi collected rupee one each from about one lakh people. With the amount — Rs 92, 000, Joshi and the villagers worked together and built a check dam on the river which changed the course of their lives. It helped irrigate the area and the villagers reclaimed their livelihood. This success showed him the way and Joshi has since built a dozen such check dams.

While some people are moved by the plight of others, there are some who just cannot silence their inner voice or close their eyes to wrong.Thirty-one-year-old Jazeera, a mother of three from Madayi village in Kannur, Kerala could not watch silently the sand mafia denuding the beaches of her village. Not only did she fight this without others’ support, she did this with the knowledge that her own brother was involved in the sand-mining offence. Finding the state government’s response wanting, she even took her protest to the Union environment minister in Delhi. 

We know of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa who lived and worked for others. There is the example of Neelam Katara, Sabrina Lal and Rajendar Kachroo who fought all odds to not just get justice for their kin, but to restore our faith in the law and justice of the land. There are a million unsung heroes and good Samaritans too who pay no heed to the repercussion they may face for doing a good deed they must do. When a person drops everything he’s doing to help an accident victim; when an auto rickshaw driver returns valuable documents or a loaded wallet; when a person offers the traffic cop water in the heat, they are all stepping out of their comfort zones, reaching out to fellow human beings and putting into motion the cycle of good dharma, good karma.

Two decades ago, I failed to do right and shall regret it for the rest of my life. As a young mother, I dropped a case of rash driving against a DTC bus when the case was making the capital’s headlines. I dropped it because I was scared of the threats, the police that came to my house, the risk people said I would put my baby to. Cowardice can come disguised as foolhardiness. I learnt a lesson. “I have not always chosen the safest path. I’ve made my mistakes, plenty of them. I sometimes jump too soon and fail to appreciate the consequences. But I’ve learned something important along the way: I’ve learned to heed the call of my heart. I’ve learned that the safest path is not always the best path and I’ve learned that the voice of fear is not always to be trusted.” (Steve Goodier)

Face up to failure

A cancer survivor says she loathes it when people tell her she is being so brave, for she has no option but to be so. But we do know of people with grave illnesses who give up in their hearts so no outside help can reach or heal them. When life pushes us into a corner, we have to choose to face up to adversity. Amit Banerjee was an engineering student when his family suffered a huge financial setback and there was no money to pay for his education. After facing several job rejections and hunger, he decided to start a business that did not require too much initial investment. He started creating websites, working in his balcony on a broken laptop and failed miserably in the first three attempts. But, eventually, his perseverance paid off and he could repay his family’s debt. Today, he has a job with a multinational. Amit Banerjee faced failure repeatedly. But he had no option but to keep trying.

In his autobiography, Wings of Fire, former president, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam recounts the incident when he did not succeed in joining the Indian Air Force. Crestfallen, he went to meet Swami Shivananda. This is what the Swami advised, “Desire, when it stems from the heart and spirit, when it is pure and intense, possesses awesome electromagnetic energy. This energy is released into the ether each night, as the mind falls into sleep state. Each morning it returns to the conscious state, reinforced with the cosmic currents. That which has been imagined will surely and certainly be manifested... Accept your destiny and go ahead with your life... What you are destined to become is not revealed now, but it is predetermined. Forget this failure as it is essential to lead you to your destined path. Search, instead, for the true purpose of your existence...”

Failure, then, only indicates that we are being led to a different, often more fulfilling path or destiny. There is no dearth of positive role models around us, people who have overcome daunting struggles and setbacks to fulfil their life’s purpose. We have a former president, Dr Kalam, who sold newspapers and now we have Prime Minister Modi who helped at his father’s tea stall.Not to forget another former prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, who as a young schoolboy in Kashi could not afford the two rupees a month he had to pay the boatman to cross the Ganga to reach his school and so would swim across the river daily.

Another inspiring story is that of the owner of the Sukh Sagar chain of restaurants that is today spread over Mumbai, Bangalore, Mysore, Chennai and the Middle East. In 1962, 10-year-old Suresh Poojari came to Mumbai from a village near Udupi in Karnataka. He worked as help at small eateries. It was as a waiter at the Bombay Port Trust canteen where he earned Rs 6 per month that he began to learn the rules of the enterprise and dream of his own restaurant. The first Sukh Sagar he opened was on a small table on which he sold fresh juices from a hand-operated juicer. He quickly expanded and became successful offering simple vegetarian street food which he kept reasonably-priced and fresh. Today, he owns not just the Sukh Sagar chain of restaurants, but also a shopping mall, a three-star hotel and an ice-cream factory.

Understanding adversity

We have Moral Science, Socially Useful Productive Work and Needle Work in school but no lessons to teach how to deal with adversity. In class four, my classmate lost her father. When she returned to school in a couple of months, she was a changed person. The shock had stunned her into an impregnable silence. She did not talk, study or play, just sat on the last bench, shorn of emotion. Eight and nine-year-olds do not know how to reach out to a grieving classmate. We may have attempted to pull her into our fold initially, but must have soon thought her weird and left her to her own devices. When I look back, I wonder what the adults were doing. Why were they letting a young girl be thus consumed by her grief? Why did no one help her or make us draw her out of her seclusion?

We are ill-equipped to deal with our own or other people’s loss or misfortune. Just like death is not talked about in our culture, misfortune is also met with shock and disappointment. There is helplessness and shame in adversity. The blame is on fate or karma and there is little emotional support or help.

An illness is enough to make one aware of everything one takes for granted — a walk, going to work or a family outing. It is when life slows us down that we begin to appreciate and examine life. All those who have been through major illnesses have emerged stronger in mind and body. Nick Vujicic was born without limbs and he struggled with physical and emotional issues till he decided to turn his disability into his ability. Today, Nick Vujicic is perhaps the world’s most well-known motivational speaker who has addressed over three million people in over 44 countries.

Adversity builds character. We need challenges to grow. Haruki Murakami puts it beautifully, “Once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

खेल खेल में

आजकल अकेले में एक खेल खेलते हैं।

हुआ यूँ की एक सुबह बासी फूलों की माला बेटी के हाथ में देकर कहा, बाहर क्यारी में डाल आओ. बेटी वापिस आ के धीरे से बोली, डाल दिये पेड़ों में, 'क्यारी' क्या होती है पता नही. वह बैंगलोर में पढ़ी-बढ़ी, उसका दोष नहीं। जब ५ साल की ले के आये थे तो अंग्रेजी नहीं जानती थी।  स्कूल में माहोल कड़क था, शायद ज़यादा चुप रहती होगी। पर स्कूल से बाहर, घर के पास, दूसरे अंग्रेज़ी में बात करते बच्चों के साथ भागती-फिरती जाने कब अंग्रेजी में कान काटने लगी।

पर हमें क्या हुआ? जब यहाँ आ के सौदा लिखवाने लगे, कहा, पोहा।  दूकानदार ने दोहराया, 'बीटेन राइस'। तो धीरे-धीरे हम भी जाने कब लिखवाने लगे पफ्ड राइस, मॉप, कोकोनट ब्रूम, मस्टर्ड, आमंड। सब्ज़ी वाले से मांगने लगे एक कैबेज, पाँच  रड्डिश, दो कैप्सिकम। खोने लगे धीरे-धीरे शब्दावली। और अब तो यह जो एक अजीब सी खिचिड़ी है - न हिंदी, न अंग्रेजी, यही बोली है सबकी जैसे, neighbor की key। किसी बड़े को 'नमस्ते' करो तो वो जवाब देते हैं, 'हेलो बेटा'।

इसलिए जब दीदी ने कहा, 'आज से आचारसंहिता लगी है ना' एकदम ऐसे जैसे 'बारिश आने वाली है ना  '।  'आचारसंहिता' !! ऐसे कैसे कोई रोज़मर्रा की भाषा में यह बोल लेता है ? आराम से, बिना सोचे? मतलब एकदम दिमाग धमाका !!

तो घर में कोशिश की गयी ज़्यादा से ज़्यादा हिंदी/हिंदुस्तानी शब्दों का इस्तेमल करने की।

राजस्थान के पंजाबी और उत्तर प्रदेश के मध्य प्रदेशी की हिंदी में काफ़ी खिचाव रहा, खासकर लिंग को ले कर। इनका दही 'होती' है, हमारा 'होता' है. इनका कंघा, हमारी कंघी।  जिसे हम शक्कर कहते हैं, उसे यह चीनी, और बूरे को शक्कर! कॉक्रोच, चींटी, चींटा, इल्ली, कीड़ा इनके लिए सब 'कीड़ी' और ऐसा बहुत कुछ।  कुछ भाषा शैली भी अलग है।  एक दुसरे के कान को चुभते हुए कुछ बोल।  फ़ोन पे कह रहे थे अपने बहन से, 'और मिठाई मत भेजना, पहले वाली भी पड़ी है '। 'पड़ी है' ? तौबा ! रखी हैं, जनाब !

तो यह तो बहुत दिन चला नही।  फिर अपने साथ ही यह खेल शुरू हुआ।  हर वह चीज़ जिसे अब अंग्रेजी में ही बोलते हैं, को हिंदी में बोलना।  बस अब सब संगीत है।  अकेलापन कम है।  बचपन की खुश्बू ज़्यादा।

खबरें, अख़बार, तोलिया, बिस्तर, ख्याल, क़िताब, दफ़्तर, रसोई, गुसलखाना, चम्मच, करछी, पतलून, फ़र्श, पंखा, अस्पताल, थैला, उम्र, वर्षगाँठ, दोस्त, पड़ोसी, मकान, एहसास, मज़ाक, टहलना, गप्पें लड़ना, गिलाफ़, कंप्यूटर … अर्रे   :)

Friday, May 02, 2014

FYI, dilli!

I ping Dilli: i got a heatstroke, da :-( 
Dilli: heatstroke in b’lore, la?

Me: it’s unbearably tawa-HOT, pa!

Silence. I know he’s googling. He’s always googling to set his record straight and mine askew.

Dilli: OMG!! it’s 32 degrees!
Me: Po da! (go away!)
Dilli: Po di!

The one thing I can’t drill into his dilli-mind is that la/pa/da = yaar and you can’t say ‘po di’ just as you won't call a woman ‘yaari’ !!

Me: green bile rising.

Dilli: is it any other colour down south?

Me: offo!

He’s getting away with very little empathy.

Me: been up all night.

Dilli: :-( :-(


The only reason I tell him everything is because he’s a man of principles. Just like he does not take work home, he doesn’t take me out of the chat window, ever. Window closed, me out of his slightly-bald head.

The closing line is usually mine: Go die!
If I linger, I see his: Hahahahaha!

Me (un-priding myself): Ravan! Don’t you do any other impersonations? 

Perhaps, I’m being uncharitable here about his not caring. For if I’m not online for 2 days, he does text: whatup? Or if I come online on day 3 and after turning on my light green and waiting for an hour, I say a ‘hi’ (cold, exclaimationless), he says, doodie!! (all exclamation like he’s been counting seconds of my absence). 

Me: dude, you know like, kind of, 10 years from now...

Dilli: you mean when you’re dead? Sorry to disappoint, 10 years from now and for a long time after that till you lose your head to dementia at 90, you’d still be punching swear words at me.

He knows Hamlet by heart but remembers nothing about me till I remind. I’m thankful he knows my birthday falls sometime in March. Maybe also, sometime March end. So I can expect his call on any of the 3 days preceding it, with all the enthu of a cutlet: doodie! 

We have met only twice in 15 years since I left Delhi - an after-lunch walk around my sister’s house after I’d had too much wine; and once when I was going from Delhi to Manesar on a May afternoon when the heavens were entertaining us being fire-throwers, I texted him. Let’s meet, he replied. Okay! But he can’t help being himself, can he? Let’s meet at the toll naka!! Dilli takes precisely 15 minutes off work, 5 to walk up to toll-naka, 5 back. So we have a picture of us in an awkward half-embrace, the towering toll gate forming a very avoidable backdrop, everything around us melting in the sun, including the cabbie who takes the out-of-focus picture, hazed over by vehicle fumes.

I ping him later.
Me: hey, you’ve not turned as bald and paunchy as you said.

Dilli: and you’re developing a sense of humour in your old age.


But seriously, I had a heatstroke. And was advised to stay indoors, drink fluids, a concoction of roast jeera, eat methi leaves – practically turn into a pre-historic specimen – those that did not get heat stroke from sleeping naked on sun-baked stones under the sun.

Day 3 of heatstroke was Labour Day holiday and I made the yummiest coconut chutney for breakfast (on good days we have something to go with it). The bulging pack of dosa batter sat on the kitchen counter waiting release. But I got the chills. Big chills that had me flipping off the bed like a hot dosa. The husband and girl sat holding me down rubbing my palms and feet and imploring me to let them take me to hospital. They didn’t say ‘this is serious’ because it simply does not cut ice with me. When the chills subsided, I had dosas in bed. The girl kept calling out to the help, ‘Aunty, one more for mummy’. And as she carried the third to me, the look on the help’s face was mix of empathy, worry and a warning she was dying to mouth.  

Eated, I was ready to be rushed to emergency. It was so hot, I worried that the sweat would blotch the minute black S the receptionist had drawn on her forehead. The dandy paediatrician was leaving and said to her, ‘You also go home, Gayatri’. Eh, like I, the patient should be left to die because it was a Labour Day Holiday? Gayatri blushed and even gave me a smile. 

The doctors said I had a massive infection. Blood and other fluids were drawn and antibiotics, painkillers and paracetamol pumped in. Thus endorsed, I contentedly turned into a moaning patient. Like lights in a discotheque, my body turned hot and cold. I held the husband and child in each hand swearing if they leave me for a second, I would die. 

The quickest shut-eye and I see the girl disappeared and the husband snoring beside me. I tell him I’m burning, could he sponge?  He sponges delicately, like nothing he’s ever done. So I snatch the towels from him and do it myself. The girl comes in groggily, ‘What’s happening?’ ‘I have never ever been sponged with water without cologne before,’ I wail and she runs to get the cologne. But of course, they don’t know where cologne is. How difficult is it to guess? Dresser? The tallest blue bottle? I decide to complain to my sisters. At least they will send me shiny new bottles of cologne. 

By night, I’m worried for the morning. You two are not going to work tomorrow, I declare. I don’t want to die in an empty house. Don’t worry, no one’s going anywhere. And most importantly, you’ve just got a viral infection and no one died of it.
 Just! That’s what they say to dying people. 

I’ve been tucked into bed for no longer than 2 seconds and the whisper in the hall becomes the daughter’s sweet voice, ‘Tomorrow, I will stay back with you. Papa can go. Then, Saturday, Papa will stay with you because I absolutely
 have to go.’ They stuck a deal over my fever-thrashed body!

I wake up moaning when there’s no light outside and husband is already dabbing aftershave, his yoga mat rolled under his arm. Yoga or me, decide now! Yoga, he wants to say but aware of the consequences that mean a definite yoga-miss, he says, ‘Did you sleep well? Let’s take your temperature’. Sticking the thermometer into my mouth, he makes good his escape.

I’m sitting here 
quinine-mouthed, my tummy feeling like a cardboard has been tied around it, my body creaking with every breath. Hukka-bar is playing loudly on the radio in the lobby between our rooms. The girl’s in hers, calling out at precisely-timed intervals (she must have put reminders on her phone) ‘Mamma, you okay?’

Dilli hasn’t asked. Let him read this. I’m not coming online in 10 days! :P