Thursday, March 31, 2011

Green monster at work place

In India we take pride in our intuitive understanding of the language of emotions and sentiments. We appreciate joy, fear, anxiety, loyalty, kinship, faith. We sing and dance our love to death, but naturally. Love of Radha for Krishna. Love of Yashodha for Kaanhaa. Love of Srawan Kumar for his parents. Love of Dronacharya for Arjun. Love in all hues and shades. But there is one love that we do not comprehend and even less appreciate.

It is love of work for the sake of work. We will not acknowledge, leave alone applaud some hapless soul’s love for her professional job! God forbid, is there such a thing? Can it be that someone around you, is slogging because they enjoy challenges, because they want to grow, because they get a kick out of doing something well or because they feel they owe it to themselves and so refuse to pitch low?

This truly is the Age of Envy. What are our reactions when a colleague in the vicinity pulls off something spectacular? They vary from, “She must be crazy” to “He is setting a bad example” or worse, “She is the boss’s smoothie!” Anything is easier than making an effort to match that person’s output or calibre.

This vicious malice is an epidemic in government, semi-government, quasi-government or copycat-government organizations.

It’s ok to wish we had authored that phenomenal task instead. But to pull the person down, to cast aspersions on their intentions, to belittle their sense of discipline and integrity is wrong, criminally wrong. I believe it is this green monster at the work place that is preventing India from moving ahead faster. Our view to work is not professional enough to appreciate that a certain X, Y or Zee may be hard at it for the pure pleasure of the task at hand.

In these stressful times, no boss has the hours, energy or inclination to suffer people for anything other than their worth to the organizations they head. If they keep some people close under the arms, it is probably because they deliver results, are trustworthy and do not whine.
Yes, a strange breed is these high-on-work folks. They just want to be left in peace to be able to do what they like doing and what they have to in the course of their jobs. Happy to stay out of the strobe light, all they are asking for is some non-judgemental, non-threatening and empowering space. But forget giving them their due, the envy lobby makes sure that the official policy stays one of non committal silence.

So all you motivated sods out there, itching to validate yourselves through productive actions, be warned. You are under a close watch of those who feel threatened by your good work. And while you are juggling your drive and modesty, do remember to thank the world for letting you live.

For some strange reason they believe that just as everybody gets the same salary they must also sweat in the same exact measure!!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Kindness above all

“There is nothing to take away a man’s freedom from him save other men”.

Ayn Rand in “Anthem”

“Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains”.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau in “The Social Contract”

And the strongest, sometimes bitter- sweetest of them all is the familial chain. Family as in the first, second, at times third and fourth orbit. Kinfolk. A band of men, women and children tied by blood and the law.

It is the four walls inside which these units reside that I speak of . The walls within which people live out more than half their lives. The walls that witness them at their most vulnerable and also their strongest.

It takes courage to live within those walls. For those walls mark a boundary...there is a thermosphere outside and a troposphere inside. It is here, in the latter that the kindred exert a terrifying power over each other. The power to not only nourish and build but also to negate and break.

Humans have to be unique in their capacity to hurt those they profess to love. Sometimes by default, at times by design, we smother, ridicule, pressurise, emotionally blackmail, decimate and destroy behind those walls. It is not unusual for humans to be courteous to strangers and then turn around and misbehave with the very people they are living out their karma alongside.

Not to say this is the norm. Of course there are families that support and nourish and encourage and lend values and set great examples. Perhaps it is the reason, among others, that we continue to raise families. It seems the next best thing to do after college and job? Lust, laundry and loneliness cure? To keep civilizations going? Or because we all need personal witnesses to what we did with our lives? Is it a quest for immortality, a way to continue a connection with the world through successive generations? Or for the husband’s aged parents to be looked after? To fulfil that most basic of all human be able to trust one person be the most important one to somebody ? So that we may move up one step in our evolution?

Whatever the reason, it is here, within these walls where families live that I rate “kindness” as the highest virtue and value. I remember meeting a young couple at a mutual friend’s social event once. Pleasantries over, the wife shot a candid aside, “Doing fine indeed! The minute we step into our car to go home, we turn into ogres.”

Be kind I say. Gentle. Tread softly. Stop and take a moment to heed each other’s pain and disappointment. Each other’s joy and accomplishment.

It isn't all that much those walled people are asking,

All everybody really wants is to be right!

Monday, March 28, 2011


A soft snow fell, silent and steady, the day she arrived. Lady luck had pulled off a last minute shuffle. The stork was to fly in a day earlier. But in a tragic cantonment shootout in 1990 on the eve of 26th Jan, four personnel had lost their lives and every available hand in the Srinagar Military Hospital was on deck, tending to the wounded. A decision had been taken to let Aqseer wait for another day.

It was the night of India’s Republic Day. Her mother sat alone on her metal post hospital bed in the huge, green curtained and curiously still maternity ward, a brisk breeze outside. She wore two plaits and gazed up at the lofty ceilings, a sudden hush in the wake of an excited and anxious family, departing for the day. There was the scratchy hospital gown, warm eiderdown, baby’s generous valise on the nightstand and some fleeting thoughts. What will it be? She made an entry in her diary, “Dear God, let this be a healthy baby.”

The last memory of the mother was a spacious, well lit Operation
Theatre and Lt Col Sivaram looking down from behind the mask, rubbing the stethoscope on his palm before connecting with the baby’s heartbeat. At 11:08 am that day, Baby Aqseer Sodhi put an end to months of preparation and anticipation. She and her mother had driven into the surgical block as one; early that morning and now they were trundling out in the ambulance as two separate, tightly wrapped and slightly somnambulistic bundles.

Aqseer did not know it then but she had a Karmic connection with Srinagar. Her father had flown several sorties over the saffron sprinkled valley. That floral elf land had also seen some pounding from her parents, astride the black Yezdi ”ABU”, roaring all over Sonmarg and Awantipore in cold hard rain. And now, as she entered the cosy Bukhari room, her tiny hands undulating gracefully in the biting air, there was the grandfather gleefully handing out sweets, her grandmother frozen on an unusual chatter channel and the brand new father hopping from one foot to the other, barely able to contain his concern.

Of course, it was not until several years later that Aqseer would hear of how her Dad had railed, bussed, flown, jeeped and walked to be in Srinagar when needed.

Aqseer’s first Indian Airlines flight was at the ripe age of 22 days. More or less, she has been aloft since.

I do not know of any other baby who had as large a stock of hair tacks as Aqseer and only five strands to show them off on. From the easy cocoon of her grandparental home, it was a dive headlong into the breathless life of an Air Force squadron, bent upon living it up. There was nary a murmur from this minnow though; she soaked in the squadron revelries from her horizontal vantage point on a makeshift davenport, ears plugged with cotton, a good knight mat in lazy vapour some way off. Little wonder, come to think of it, that Aqseer’s constant and unchanging lullaby remained Rod Stewart’s,”Some guys have all the luck”. For months together, while her father flew out his night syllabus overhead, this mother daughter pair would dance their forty winks in, Rod Stewart for urging.

Aqseer hated coming home from the dance and music affairs. She would catch her nap on the short way back from the Mess and erupt into a furious bellow just as the bike made to turn into the driveway. There would be a prompt and hurried roaring off by a startled father, mother making a grab for the protesting bundle.

There was also a shade of what might have been genetic food insecurity! Aqseer preferred her snacks in twos, one for the venue, one to go home and consume. There was a compulsive need to have everyone notice and acknowledge her sartorial novelty, ‘Nu nu, nu nu...” she would go, holding out every single layer she wore, from the ceremonial to the most basic. Partial to chatting up Aunties, Aqseer regularly launched into these drawn and involved babbles, a string of emotionally modulated syllables directed at bemused adults  from the safety of her mother’s lap.

Aqseer liked her chicken on stick and had the loveliest baby profile ever. When her sister was getting ready for her arrival on the world’s stage, Aqseer would want to share everything with her from the outside. Any object with the tag baby would set her off, “Johnson baby soap baby ko lagao...”

Oh yes, Aqseer has come a long way since her favourite book, “Kaju and the Shoe”. Despite having endured the ordeal of being the first born, with parents who read too much Benjamin Spock, Aqseer has evolved into this beautiful young lady living her life in a challenging, competitive and chaotic world full of other young people like her, trying to carve their places in the sun.

Her parents watch her evolution from a distance, with a pride mixed with concern. Astride her red Pulsar, in black jacket and aviators, Aqseer is on her way.

Everything of significance owned by Aqseer has received a christening. There is Mango, Tangerine, Juno and more. A feminist at heart and by the power of pen, she loves Delhi, friends, a well cooked plate of mutton and curd with some whey please!

Today when she drives off in her Yellow Zen while in Delhi, sporting her black and white trademark gear, laptop over the shoulder and snack basket in hand, on way to intern with one truly remarkable Supreme Court Lawyer, very much the litigator in making, her mother sees instead the excited, tripping, scurrying toddler in her candy striped pyjamas.

That gal in the chrome wheels, hurtling down myriad flyovers, head nodding in sync with the little white daisy on the dashboard is Aqseer.

Tic, tic, tic, tic.

Our daughter Aqseer.

PS: This mother chickened out during Aqseer’s first bout in the Boxing Ring. She dropped her off and raced home to google, ”Boxing: how dangerous a sport?!”

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Innocent no more

The surest and scariest evidence of how much we are toxifying our spaces, resides in the thirty two class rooms of a three floors high, junior school building in South Delhi.

It is the trickledown effect.

Several of us responsible for the young lives in our care during the day, feel secretly disturbed, concerned and helpless. We vent to each other during break time, comparing notes and seeking suggestions on how to handle difficult situations involving children as young as 6 to 10 years. It’s a paradox that despite having the best interest of the child at heart, several teachers are struggling to adapt to the new “child friendly” environment today.

It is not as though they did not test the waters or strain at the leash in their childhood. The difference is in the degree and scope.

If I were to be pithy and precise: that building I speak of is inhabited not by children but by Lilliput people or small sized adults. Issues of relationships, violent intimidation of peers, TV role play, hero worshipping of street smart behaviour, worldly wise vocabulary, acceptance of an amoral world and a mocking cynicism for the preachy old, they are all there, a dark and constant presence under the veneer of butterfly poems and assembly moral lectures.

I am tentative about this subject. I don’t want to acknowledge that devastating hunger for attention I see in class. I want to stay in denial of the tricks they use to get by in a test. I am repelled by their premature sexual awareness. Not at this age, not at this the scream in my head. Though we air our misgivings in closed door staff meetings, we have also been treated to legal orientation by a Childs Rights Lawyer! It is a given that in any parent-teacher conflict, the law is with the parent. Where do you draw the line at the end of this, between being child friendly and child permissive?

There are days I have wanted to turn blind, stick my head in the sand. Is my job to keep the young happy or safe; satisfied or challenged; socially adept or primed for self-survival? I remember one session on Elocution with Class 5. My plan was to initiate personal expression that day. I began by striking off things about this particular class that made me feel so proud of them. I then tossed the ball at them, “Would any of you like to come up here and tell us what makes your parents proud of you?!” You could have cut the air with a blunt bat. I froze for that split second. There was a perceptible lowering of heads, shifting of gaze and squirming in chairs. I scrambled to make amends, unsuccessfully I must admit.

Not predicting doom, schools still are, by and large, happy places. Children continue to guard their teacher’s bags with the ferocity of hounds. That smiley in their notebooks still elicits a high five. But there are tell tale signs. I have begun to cover my keyboard when punching my password! We pat the class down more thoroughly on their way out of an activity involving magnets, linen testers or fake currency notes. Health related, gender specific sessions held in camera for Class 5 are the norm. We have security related drills in place that make you wonder. We are no longer able to take what the child says at face value. There is a greater alertness and vigilance and monitoring.

Every day is a battle. The consensus is that we cannot give up. It’s a mantra that is to be repeated every day to ourselves and to each other. Cannot give up! Cannot give up! Schools have to be politically, ethically and socially correct. No matter what the world does to our children, here, on these floors where we call the shots, we are not endorsing anything life diminishing.

In which case, assume that there will often be the need to outsmart them. Get familiar with their modus operandi; there are tricks we have stumbled upon and do not want to spell for fear of some chutzpanik getting an idea or two. Also, bear in mind that you are not alone; there are as many tattletales in the Primary as there are masterminds!

Yes, schools are a shade hot and happening these days. We either learn to stand the heat or get out.

Regrettably, I have attended more farewell parties in the recent past than I would have cared to.

Also, this school has multiples, all over and around and next door.

Friday, March 25, 2011

A teacher's high

I teach the numerically gifted of Class 5.

My eligibility? Well, let’s say this assignment goes a begging every year.

Maths was not my favourite subject in school. But I would have you fooled today.

When it was first suggested that I take this on, all I saw was the challenge, quietly telling myself I would figure it all out. It’s another thing that my band of Number Crunchers believes I was born to teach the Fibonacci sequence.

They troop into my Resource Centre every year, clutching brand new Maths Club notebooks, a boxful of sharpened pencils under one arm, eyes a shade wide. They have been identified to possess an aptitude for the logical and have parents who declared a whole hearted support for the program. Some are even familiar with the Soroban and Vedic Maths. Without losing much time and very soon at that, we are a bunch, regularly biting off a whole lot more than we can chew.

We start with the fascinating story of numbers. We marvel at the audacity and clarity of the legendary Mathematical minds. There is a lot of scribbling, poring, and manipulating. I know we are on track when I begin to hear the long suffering sighs of their class teachers as they watch the gigantic magic squares materialize on their green boards. Before long, this lot wants to miss other activities to work on a puzzle or a pattern or a sequence. They puff up their little torsos and prattle how a zero is not “nothing” but an “absence of something”. They will tell you a thing or two about the Sieve of Eratosthenes, rules of divisibility, painted cube question, pole in water working and why we place that darned x or 0 in double digit multiplication; short of the universal truths...they are hearing a lot.

As we progress, I am becoming the wiser too. I realize how much the children love to learn. They are intellectually resilient and quite up to the high demands placed on them. In fact, they mirror you right back. There is something altogether unique about this class. Their similar aptitude; that ease with numbers, and the residence we are all forced to take out of the box lends itself to a cohesive group effort. We make short shrift of several topics. I had begun in the lead but there are all too suddenly these four feet geeks stamping all over my toes. We happily and routinely miss our play/break time to deal with work sheets. Inside my huge, well lit centre, they are a maze of small heads bent over the Dienes’ block but when I gaze up into space, I see an array of outstanding professionals...there is a geomatics engineer, photo grammetrist, geodesist, environmental mathematician, robotics engineer, cryptologist, inventory strategist, an actuary, attorney, economist and air traffic control the capsule advances, our alliance becomes stronger. They begin to appear at my door out of nowhere, “Ma’am, I have a doubt here.”

The year goes by in a blur; school is such a roller coaster of a place. Before long, I am compiling a list of the mathematically inclined for the incoming sections. Another set of the number happy! My graduating batch has long ridden into the senior wing’s horizon until one fine day, during a regular Parent Teacher Meeting; I sense a tall figure shuffling in my peripheral vision. It is Rohan, precisely five years from when I gaped at him, calculating in air! Today he is clutching two papers.

I flip the first over, it is a Maths question paper in Greek! As I reach out for the second, he leans over shyly and points at his score in Maths. I look up and see his Dad in the shadows at the door.

I have trouble comprehending his paper but I can read the two smiles perfectly.

It is hard to explain.

You have to be a teacher to know that high.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Superman JD

The one and only: my Lab Assistant Janardhan.

He is also the Junior Wing’s Superman. Nobody can prise open recalcitrant Tiffin boxes with his alacrity. He is the one to go to, for a fresh pair of school uniform in the event of a personal accident during school hours. The class green boards come off his hands all squeaky clean. It is his expertise that we seek when pigeons stray into the class rooms cooing and confused. Be it a hot cup of tea, the PA system to set up or transport to be booked, it is JD on call. Nobody but him knows where the all critical hammer and needle is in the Resource Centre. If you spent money on behalf of the school, it is JD who will produce the magical claim form. Cheque encashment, passbook update, Pao Bhaji pick up, locking of cars left open accidently in the school parking, ferrying that all important flask of tea....JD serves with a smile. He is the reason the aquarium fish swim lazy and plump and happy on the ground floor.

JD’s one quality, over and above, I am in awe of and trying to emulate: he is large hearted, patient and magnanimous with truant brats as one should be in the Primary.

He has his quirks though. The artificial right eye, for one. He also places addresses by their pin codes. He will not know where exactly Aradhana Vihar is but spell out the pin code and the cloud dissolves. He has a talent for cutting through my detailed vocals with the one vexatious query, “Receipt karana hai?” Of course, karana hai! In India, you book or inform or intimate in writing so that you have a legal paper when they mess up, which they will.

Over the years, JD has acquired a curiously personal but most appropriate stance. Head cocked to the side indicates careful listening. He bends a little from the waist and always looks like he is giving the other person respect and his due. I should ask if he suffers from elbow arthritis, considering the frequency with which his right hand goes shooting up to his forehead in the course of a typical day.

JD is an institution. He has been in this school for some 30 years. A gem, quietly going about his work and facilitating several lives around him. I have heard it said often that no one is indispensable and that organizations carry on with or without the remarkable people who build them with their consistently high quality output.

I beg to disagree.

The proof is for all to see on the one day JD goes absenting. An urgent whisper starts and quickly hums across the building, “JD nahin aaya? JD nahin aaya ?? JD Nahin aaya?!”

“Kyon? Kyon? JD kyon nahin aaya?”

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Ambitious for the zone !

When my husband of 25 years first came to meet me formally, as happens in all arranged marriages, he very perceptively sensed my restlessness and announced to my Dad on his way out of our Fauji drawing room, “Your daughter is very ambitious”. My Dad responded, “It’s not very nice sometimes to be so ambitious”. They had joined forces even before the first laavan phere.

It is a quality I have apologized for since. It is a virtue I have harboured guilt over. It is a strength that has made me feel small at times.

Why is ambition such a loaded word? Or does it have more to do with the gender? Is the only definition of ambition the stereotypical one, ambition as in naked, aggressive, get ahead at all costs ambition?

Mine has been the ambition for the “zone”. My desire was to give my two girls the education of Princesses. Let every single faculty of theirs be stretched and sowed and aired and nourished, I told myself. I wanted to give them each, a pair of strong wings and deep, very deep roots so that they could become the most authentic individuals they were destined to be.

Did I rob them of their childhood? Did I want to make them me? Were they pushed too hard? Have I been trying to live through them? I don’t know.

I do want them to value the quest for that zone though. Above all, let them develop the will for the zone. Beyond enjoyment of the senses, above relationships, apart from the daily once experience that rare moment in space and time when you are one with the master mind and on top of whatever it is you are doing. Are they confident enough? Have they practised enough for their performance or learning to be automatic? Can they focus and refocus? Have they the strength to let go of the inevitable lows?

This has been my ambition. Ambition for them to be wired and on the ball. Ambition for them to extend their circle of influence so that they are able to bring good to many more lives. Ambition for them to experience that one, channelled, energized, superlative and rapturous kick ass show when it will all seem to have just happened on its own...

Monday, March 21, 2011

Who is doing it ?

I teach the Primary. Some of our mountainous challenges in this wonderland are getting the kids not to litter, not to use foul language, to share and avoid both, bullying and getting bullied. There are of course the other routine issues of ensuring they walk along the left of the staircase, hands behind their backs with as less a noise level as possible.

But there are signs of the hard battle we are up against all around. Should you be lucky enough to have a breather so as to look out the window during a typical school day, there you would see some of your stars....kicking ball with an empty pet water bottle. By the day’s end, there is that invariable and nearly empty dust bin, sitting pretty in the bang centre of a square foot of primary school squalor, including pencil shavings, aluminium foils, sandwich wrappers and toffee covers. There are these horrifying rides coming back to school from an inter school event, following a huge yellow lumbering bus proudly displaying the school name and there you have them before long, right in the middle of a busy road...missiles hurtling out of the windows from either sides... Frooti cartons and half eaten sandwiches or even fruit peels.

It never fails to bemuse me however that when I enter a class with a renewed missionary zeal and intentions of initiating some introspection , “Has anyone here in this room, ever littered their space ?”, there is first a sanctimonious silence, then censorious faces followed soon by arms firmly akimbo and a head that shakes from side to side. With the next question however, pandemonium breaks out....there is mayhem, “Does anyone here have friends who litter?” Good lord, what a question! Of course they do. Yes, yes...but of course...why, everybody has a friend who litters!

Forty odd, smooth baby foreheads furrow in perplexity when I wonder aloud, “Well then, who are these friends?”

There has been some sound and fury over Indian children getting socially experimental in risky ways. I am pretty certain my girls are not doing any such extracurricular activity where they are but then, so are my close friends.

If mine and yours are not doing it, who is ?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Drop the mask

I am at a stage in life when I am comfortable dropping the mask. There never was any need for pretence, there is even less so now. On my evening walks around the nice little campus I stay in, people ask politely and cheerily, “Hi! How are you?” The standard response is, “Good! I’m doing well.”

How would they react I wonder sometimes, if I told the truth one day instead. If I said I was in pain and didn’t know why. That I felt lonely. That I did not feel as needed any more. That I was scared my bones were growing weaker. That I felt redundant. Obsolete. At times, anyway. That I lurched between the valley and the trough...wondering at the water that had flown under the bridge while I was busy with the business of living. That the kids have struck out on a path I need no longer follow them on. And how a lifetime seemed to have blinked by without my sensing the leak.

Of course, there is also this dawning of the fact that here is my chance to live for myself again... except that I do not completely recognize me anymore. Where is that gutsy, unafraid, buoyant young thing with a head full of dreams?

The cycle of life? A natural progression of events? I remind myself of John Donne’s words, “No man is an island.” It is indeed reassuring that there are these precious, silver, gossamer webs entangling us to others in our lives. They capture and they hold. They keep us going and hoping and loving.

The other day in the school basketball ground, a young colleague of mine was coming in to work across the field. As she drew into my vision, something tugged at my heart. Her six year old daughter was trailing her, hanging on to one corner of her dupatta. I wanted to call out to her to cherish these moments that will be gone in a blink.

Time for me too, to begin another journey. I was my daughters’ trusted parent until recently. I have to now try and be their trusted friend.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

In pain...

Existential angst is a luxury only the well placed young can afford. You could have everything and yet harbour this vague feeling of emptiness. I know of so many children who are attending the country’s most premier educational and professional institutions but are thrashing about in a personal agony of indecision and uncertainty. They get up in the morning, not knowing which way they are headed. If only they could look out and stare into the thousand faces that are dying to get in.

Many young people today would seem to have it all and yet feel empty inside. They could be and are highly employable, they are mobile on wheels, technically wired, well travelled, with access to all kinds of knowledge and exposure and there is yet this sense of futility. Is this what they were destined to do? Was this the grand plan of nature for them? Is this their full and final passion in life, the thing they were meant to be?

No easy answers anywhere.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What would you like ?

This modern omnipotent parental query of their children “gives me tension”. What would they like to eat; to wear; to do; to watch; to feel; to be!

At an upmarket boutique in Hyderabad recently, I was struck by a conversation taking place between a glamorous young Mom and her trendy looking 8 year old. They were picking a ceremonial outfit for the young lady. There was much debate over the colours, the embroidery and the fabric. I marvelled at the sifting exercise that had to be happening inside that curly mop that led the session to an eventually unproductive conclusion.

I am a recent empty nester and have of late had several occasions to see this “options” exchange take place. Would the little ones like their milk cold or hot? In a tumbler or a cup? With Bournvita or Hot Chocolate? Right away or a bit later ?

I am from a fewer options generation. My Mom did not ask if I wanted my egg double fried or poached or soft boiled. Breakfast would be announced and we ate what was served, none the wiser for alternatives. It was also not considered very nice to be picky over food, more so when visiting with relatives or friends. There is a new assertiveness today, even amongst the house guests. There is a degree of comfort with making their needs known, including how exactly they would like their egg done.

Does this new openness and apparent generosity make us better parents? Does this make our kids securer, happier, more appreciative and better people? Why are we falling over ourselves to offer them all on a platter? Are we doing it for them or to satisfy a personal ego, a need that is really our own at a most basic level? What is our fear? Why are we wary of asserting authority? Is it rejection that we are scared of? Is it the fear of losing our children to an environment that is pressurising them to misbehave, non-conform and follow their heart, no matter what?