Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A story that inspires me

I heard this tale over twenty years ago. I guess the effect it had on me is evident that I remember it so well, even now. Truth be told, it comes back to me every now and then. There is more than one message in it; and every time you look at it with a new perspective, you find something new shining out of it. It's like opening the Bible or the Gita to find answers. Or maybe it's all in my head.

Though I call it a story, it is a real incident. There are two boys involved; I have never met the first, I barely know the second. The story was narrated to me by a person who knew both of them well. It does not matter if every single thing about this story is not true.

So, this boy, let's call him K, completed his school and got his admission to the National Defence Academy. Naturally, there was a lot of celebration in the neighbourhood for the soldier-hero-in-the-making. When the time came, K said goodbye to his friends and family and went off to join.

Anyone who knows anything about Defence knows that the training at NDA is by no means easy. It's gruelling and brutal and bordering on cruel, and it takes nerves of steel to survive. How can it not be so? - the kids will soon be sent to a place where kindness and love become mere memories. A lot of young men and women who enthusiastically join, hoping to serve Bharat Mata, soon decide that they can also serve her by working in corporate offices or by participating in sports, and quit. The honour and the glory were all great in theory and in pictures, but were not for them. The Academy leaves its doors open to allow them to run. They don't need deserters. Better they run now than later, at the battlefield.

It wasn't long before K ran back home.

The second character of the story, let's call him Z, was a year or two younger to K. It so happened that he was also keen on NDA. After K returned and shared the harsh, inhuman routines at the NDA to every excruciating detail (he must have naturally exaggerated it a little, I am guessing, so that people won't consider him a weakling), the neighbourhood was shocked to learn that Z wanted to join too. His parents pleaded with him to reconsider. Z was a quiet and gentle boy but he could be firm when he wanted to. Seeing his determination, his parents reluctantly gave their consent.

K went through a host of emotions when he heard the news. On the one hand, Z was his friend, and he wanted to stand by his decision; on the other, he had never quite gotten over the fact that he could not survive NDA. He suspected that people laughed behind his back for his cowardice. He could imagine the comparisons the society would make now that Z was headed that way too. He prayed that Z would not get the selection, but he did. Under pressure from these thoughts, K behaved just the way any teenager would. While Z was busy making his preparations to join the Academy, he strolled over and said, "I don't think you would last much at the NDA. Life is too tough and you would run away just as I did. Maybe even earlier."

Z stiffened, smiled and went on with his packing.

After Z joined, his parents got one letter every week from him. Each letter had the thickness of a newspaper - he wrote pages and pages about his experiences, the brutality, the unkindness, the ragging, every bit of it. I suspect his mother shed a few tears on reading these. She might even have asked him to drop it and return. But he wrote, "I know. I want to run away. But if I run now, it will only prove that K was right, and that I am just as weak as he said I was. I will stay. I can take this." He wrote this several times, in several letters.

Every time he wanted to vent, he wrote to his parents. Every time his resolve weakened, he thought of K and that gave him the strength to face one more day. As weeks passed, the size of the letters began to decrease. He began to complain less. (I doubt if K would ever have imagined the power his words held. In fact, Z might have given up just as easily if it were not for him.)

Z never quit. He battled the most trying years of NDA and beyond, clinging to his determination to prove K wrong. Today he is an officer in the Indian Air Force, serving somewhere in North India.

I wonder if he recalls any of this. But every single time I hear his name, I remember this story.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"How is work-from-home treating you?"

I was asked this question recently.

When faced with a situation like that, you get about two seconds to figure out the intention behind it, and one second to frame your response. (During which you take a deep breath and say 'errr....' for their benefit.)

The first thought that crosses your mind is, She is jealous. She thinks of the road, the traffic, the dust, the heat, the nasty boss, the creepy colleagues, the tasteless food, the stressful work, the meaningless meetings, the late hours, the countless reports and - then she thinks of you working from home. She is jealous, of course, that you get to sit at home, walk around the rooms with your laptop, watch television when there is a good movie on, work at night or day whenever you please, make reports only when you want to, skip meetings when you are bored, eat or make tea when you want to, watch the rain, meet friends, do pretty much anything when you want to without having to answer to anyone. God, she is jealous.

Quickly the idea is replaced by the thought that maybe She thinks you are a loser. She thinks you do not have the courage or competence to go out to an office and work. She thinks you are pathetic that you chose to work from home with surely a meagre pay and not have fun with colleagues; she thinks you miss the daily gossip, the vending machine tea, the month-end get-together, the appraisals, the promotions, the bonus, the challenges, the teamwork, everything. She thinks you are lonely at home and not earning much, and you have to chase the laundry and do the cooking and supervise the maid, and you are merely putting up a brave face that everything is fine. You see yourself through her eyes - one hand tapping the laptop, the other shoving food down the throat of your child, one foot inside the laundry bucket, the other stirring the pot on the stove and your face contorted while yelling at your maid. She thinks you are jealous of her.

Then you think, maybe she isn't even curious. Maybe she isn't thinking about you at all. Maybe she is just making small talk. You're sitting opposite each other in awkward silence, waiting for someone else to arrive. She just had to say something.

A milli-second later, you wonder if she was thinking of giving up her job and working from home. She has an infant whom she leaves with a maid. You know very well the pressures and worries that come with it.

The question may sound simple but it isn't easy to answer.

And as the three safe seconds following the question fall to a close, you say: "Well, I get my siesta," and shrug.
Whatever that means.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Things Hollywood tells us about America

(Forgive us, America. Hollywood is to blame.)

Men help with the dishes after dinner.
If you see trainloads of Indian women flocking to the US to get married, don't be surprised.

Hollywood explains why there are so many break-ups in the US of A, compared to India. The breakup tagline is: "We're in a relationship. We are supposed to be honest with each other."
Ha! No, I mean, HahahahaHAHAHA.

Broke people in America are better dressed (and better-off) than a well-dressed, average, employed Indian who considers himself well-off. (They look for jobs on the Internet using their laptops.)
It's the third world poverty thing.

Living with your parents is a crime.
Corollary: Parents, in general, are psychotic, abnormal, annoying torturers you should keep away from (and should be visited only on Thanksgiving and Christmas.)
To think, in Bollywood, men go out of their way to show how much they love their parents and take care of them. Tears start pouring out the moment they think of their Moms. 

Nice, romantic, sweet men, so madly in love with their women, pack their bags and leave the moment their girls break up with them. (There's another job waiting for them in a city far far away.)
Yeah, that sort of thing is common out here too, (only) on celluloid. Such weaklings.

Then it rains all of a sudden, drenching the guy / girl or both.
Bollywood too, Bollywood too. Same pinch.

We hear there is a lot of obesity over yonder but, by God, look at all the gorgeous men and women, where has obesity gone to? Oh yes, the comedian friend of the hero's could be it.
Observation: Newspapers can be very misleading.

India means 'curry' or 'Mumbai' or 'Gandhi'.
The Bangalorean Malayali is deeply offended that they do not know the bisi bele bhat. Or at least puttum kadalayum.

They drink (and seem to prefer) tap water. Eyes popping out. Did you say TAP water? 

Being a virgin is to be frowned upon. No comments. Wink, wink.

Says 'I'm good' (Says who, eh?) and 'I am not judging you' and 'not a big deal'. That's cool. 

They are paranoid about anything that doesn't look like them or talk like them.
Heh! Americans! But that attitude inspired one great Indian movie, My Name is Khan. So, we're good.

They can wear anything (or not wear anything) and still look great. Sigh.

Burgers and fries are their idea of a meal. So when they crave junk food, they go Indian?

They are The Inscrutable Americans, as one wise Indian once said.

I tremble to imagine what Bollywood would tell you about us...

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Fat, Free

People say little children are unpredictable. I beg to differ. I think little children are as predictable as the solutions of Mathematical equations. It’s the adults that complicate situations with unnecessary exceptions and conditions.

If you tell a child one plus one is two, it is always two for them. It does not change according to the time of day or the presence of a headache or based on who’s asking. Trust me, we adults are like that. All our rules have exceptions, all our laws are adjustable. (Sometimes we call it ‘being human.’)

For instance, you keep repeating to your child about the importance of keeping his hands clean, eating from a clean plate or drinking from a clean cup. The intention is, of course, to inculcate the idea of hygiene into him. Then one day, while visiting relatives, he points to one of the glasses in which they have offered juice and says, “This glass is not clean.” As per definition, he should get full marks and a pat on the back. Instead, you snap, “That’s okay. Be quiet and drink the juice.” Tell me, who’s unpredictable?

My parents once told me that if anyone borrowed money from us, it was difficult (and at times even unkind) to ask it back, even when we needed it very much. Many ‘friends’ had apparently borrowed from them and the money was never heard of since. They could never bring themselves to ask. I took it to mean that we should always ask for our money if we lend it. Soon after, a child borrowed one rupee from me for something, and the next day I went and demanded her to ‘give my one rupee back’. I did not want to make the same mistake my parents obviously did. My mother was shocked on hearing of this. I did not understand why she was upset, isn’t that what she had told me to do?

When my son began to pick up reading, one of the first words he read without help was ‘Free’, because he saw it on many of the snack packets that came with free toys. It was important for him to identify that word, when he went to the supermarket with us. He began to associate it with tiny toys. One day, I saw him reading bigger words from a fruit juice packet. After which, he asked me what ‘cholesterol’ and ‘fat’ were. I tried to explain them as best as I could. He immediately asked me if we get them free with the juice, pointing to the inscription on the packet: “Cholesterol-free, Fat-free.”
If ‘Free’ actually means free, it should always mean free.

The world is indeed an unpredictable place to grow up in. Is it any surprise that little predictable Math equations become unpredictable bursts of headache when they grow up?

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

In Messi's shadow

There is one in every team, every group, every classroom, every community:

The Lionel Messi who overshadows everyone else; whose brilliance blinds teachers and coaches and peers alike, and even scares them a bit. The Messi, who would shine bright in the pages of history and before whose dazzle every Romero, Higuain or di María would fade into oblivion. The Messi, whose name makes rivals break out in shivers.

Everyone across the world, even those who do not follow the rules of the game, know the name: Lionel Messi, fondly called Leo. The epitome of perfection. The owner of the powerful left foot.

You may be smart, average or below-average, but you are known as "a member of Messi's team." You may be di María, who scored the winning goal, but you had "scored it out of Messi's perfect pass."

Either it was Messi's goal, or it was Messi's pass.

Years later, at alumni get-togethers, others come to you and frown in concentration. "You were in Messi's class, weren't you?" At job interviews, you are asked: "Messi is a genius, what are you?"
"I..." you stutter. "I once scored a goal."
Against the blazing sun, the stars stand no chance.

There is a lot of expectation from Messi. One is painfully aware of all the attention he gets. He cannot falter. He cannot fail. He knows all the answers - the free kicks, the headers, the corners, he knows them all. Which is why he is the most marked man on the team. Others look to him for inspiration, for ideas, for the team's success. Commentators, spectators, praise his abilities, note his every movement. Did he smile? Did he frown? Did he look tired? See the way he stares at the ball?

Oh yes, there is jealousy. Lots of it. Right under the skin. Thick and pulsating and threatening to break through. But you say, "Yes, we're proud that he is a part of our team. No, I do not fear being in his shadow; it is an honour to be."

As for you, you may struggle all you like, in your own corner, enjoy whatever attention your feeble attempts manage to raise. A few claps here, a few smiles of approval there. You're a mere shooting star. You can succeed, you can fail. Against the enormity of Messi's achievements, you are a dot. One that will vanish in no time - unless you are the next Messi in the making. In which case, you have large shoes to fill.

Once there was Maradona, and there was the Hand of God in 1986. One remembers pretty much nothing else, no one else. Like I said, there is one in every team.

Either you are Messi; or you are in his shadow.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

What exactly is this picture trying to convey?

The philosophy (and Einstein) aside, what is this image trying to say?

We all love to blame the education system for what we have (or have not) become: If it were not for this stupid system, today I would be a Nobel Laureate. Someone forced me into studying and did not let me do what I loved. We love to cite the names of all the people who have dropped out of schools and then founded their own companies and became rich. Does that mean everyone who dropped out of school made it big? Does that mean people who completed their education wasted their lives?

If this system is wrong, what is the alternative? Evaluate each student on the subject of his choice alone? Is that possible? Or even recommended? You're good in mathematics, you focus on only mathematics for the rest of your life; don't learn any language, don't waste time mastering the alphabet or teaching yourself to write? You're a good swimmer, forget arithmetic, do only swimming? Heck, we don't even have enough teachers to teach in the existing system. Are we talking about kindergarten kids or college-going youngsters? People who know little children know their interests change by the day. What are we, fish, elephant or horse that we should stick to only one talent?

A couple of years ago, while speaking to another enthusiastic friend who blames the system (but has no solution to offer, nor has he done any research about it), who keeps on about 'children should learn only what they like to learn' (and whose child was still an infant at the time), I said, my son is keen on football, and if I let him do only what he likes, he will never learn enough arithmetic to go to a shop and purchase anything, and he will never sit down to learn a little language to get along in life. He has to be forced into reading. He likes math and science but when there is a choice between science and TV or play, I know what he would choose. I do encourage him to play. But if he has to choose one later in life, he has to know about the others. I don't know if I am right, but as a mother I don't want to end up with regret ten years later.

You know what the wise dude replied? "The world needs football players too." 
My dear fellow, who says the world doesn't? If my son chooses a football career, I would only be delighted (I think). But does that mean he should go only for football classes 24 hours, from UKG ? That I should not force him to learn a little basics of everything else? That he will pick up Mathematics and English and Malayalam and Science by himself, without there being any classes or exams in sight? What is the point you are making?? (After all, my son was at that time only six or seven years old. He has at different times wanted to be a scientist, an astronaut and a skating teacher. He loves sports but his current career aspirations do not even feature a sport! So which skill should I hone? Send him for all extra classes in science, astronomy, sports and skating? Oh I see the next headline coming up - "Mother punishes child by never letting him play with his friends and sending him to all kinds of extra-curricular activities".)

The point this friend of mine made without listening to a word I said was that mothers like me do not encourage children to chase their dreams, instead they would force them to study stupid subjects and thus allow their dreams to perish. How simple and nasty it all sounds. How delicious. 

If I had not been forced to learn History in my high school, I would never have read a thing and I would probably have asked if Gandhiji had been one of the old Prime Ministers of India. If I did not have to struggle my way through Geography, I would never have known where Brazil was located and would have gone searching for it in Africa. Forget Brazil, I would have looked for Assam near Korea. Wherever Korea was. And the Basic Science I learnt, helps me to pretend to my son that I am a genius. So do I remember everything I learned by rote in high school? Of course not. It was up to me to follow it up with more reading if I wanted. If there were no exams, I would never have bothered. I made my choice once my high school was over. But I had to know everything before I could make a choice. 

When my son asks me why this or that works, I may not know the direct answer, but I know enough to make an educated guess. (Or an educated blunder, which is of course on a different level than an ignorant blunder. I also manage to get away with an educated I-don't-know.) But did school make me a Nobel Laureate? Was that even the intention of school?

Instead of blaming the whole education system (without even giving it due thought), the point to ponder is: a child should be given opportunities and encouragement in his area of interest. But he has to learn a few other things too. I agree that backbreaking homework isn't the right way to go, but they need to be taught what needs to be taught. If you force a child who is interested in fashion designing to join medicine, it is not necessarily the system's fault.

Granted that there is too much on the plates of the children, especially the little ones. Granted that they should not be forced to do so much homework in their kindergarten years. Granted that there is a great deal of scope for improvement in the system and that the system should be kinder to the students. Granted that the attitude of people should change and they should stop expecting their children to be good at everything. Granted that the guardians should learn to appreciate them for their talents and not blame them for their incapabilities. Granted that if a child does not do well in one subject, he should not be called stupid. Granted that we should keep our eyes open to see what the child's (changing) interests are, and as far as our situation allows, encourage them.

There may be academically inclined children who are forced into sports; there are sports inclined children who are forced into literature; there are seemingly lazy children who are forced into everything. I repeat, it is easy to blame an entire system. Try coming up with a feasible solution that provides justice to every child and gives him wings, as they say.

And until you have a clear, practical method to suggest that will train and evaluate each child based on his skills alone while also ensuring that he learns the basics of science and history and geography and language and arithmetic, don't show me pictures of elephants and ants, along with quotes from Einstein (I am sure he meant more than to blindly discredit the education system) and tell me that the system is flawed.

I wonder if I sound naïve, because everyone on social media laps up this image and gleefully forwards it over and over again. Maybe they know something I don't. Maybe I will do a volte-face a few years down the line and say that all this observation and summary had been a terrible mistake. After all, they all have hopped into the bandwagon, they should know where it is headed.