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Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Rewards Galore

Today begins as just another routine day. Walking into the lab to the chorus of a cheery “Good Morning, Ma’am.” Explaining the principle and procedure of the day’s experiment. Supervising the students and ensuring they do things right. Sitting down to correct test papers.

A student comes up to my table to hesitatingly say, “Ma’am..that thing you told us in class the other day..” I brace myself to give an answer to some question about intellectual property rights in relation to natural products because that is what last class has been about. As usual, I have given some extra, out of syllabus information about the ethics of patent battles over gene technology, and told the students to read up about Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy, the BRCA1 gene and Myriad Genetics (see- the teacher in me just won’t give up…now, I’m hoping someone else who reads this article will also have enough leads in case they want to also read up on this topic!)

Coming back to my student…she is saying, “Ma’am, remember you told us that if we get angry or irritated with our parents, we should not say anything immediately but keep quiet for few minutes and then, after cooling down, analyze if they are correct or not? Ma’am, I followed your advice ever since that day and my mother got very surprised and asked if something is wrong with me.....I told her that one of my teachers advised this and so, I’m trying to follow it. You know Ma’am, she was so happy … and she told me to go and fall at your feet.”

And, suddenly, just like that, a mundane day gets transformed into a beautiful, anything-but-routine day.

Now, it’s VERY obvious that besides out-of-syllabus-but-still-in-subject topics, I also push the boundaries on what’s really not in any subject of what the Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences of Karnataka deems fit for Pharmacy students to study ;-)

Quite a few times, I find the monster of self-doubt raising its ugly head when I give out such gyaan in class. I wonder if these things that I spend time and energy on are of any use to anyone and examine my motives in continuing to do so. But every once in a while, a student comes up like this, when I least expect it, and says something that decimates that ugly monster and leaves me with a strangely fulfilling sense of quiet content at having gone with my instinct.

I have recently completed a 2-year M. S. in Counseling and Psychotherapy course by distance education. The results have been declared in February itself and I have obtained 62% - a score that seems very low to my “academic-conditioned” brain. But out of a conviction born out of observing the life circumstances of my passed-out students, I have not fretted too much over it because frankly, marks do not quantify the expertise or skill a person has – more so in a subject like counseling.

About 6 hours after that conversation with my student, I reach home to find a letter delivered from the institution through which I had done my counseling course. It congratulates me for having got the 10th Rank in the University and asks me to fill out a form and send copies of my marks cards and photos at the earliest.

I’m elated at this turn of events and rush with the letter into my pooja room to bow at His feet. After all, isn’t it His Grace that has blessed me to have the best of both worlds!

And then, I hurry - uncharacteristically - to announce this latter event to all my family, friends and well-wishers - after all, it's their blessings, goodwill and wishes too that are my biggest strength !!

Friday, 26 August 2016

Of Krishna and Prayers

“Gundu mallige, shaavantige, roja hoovu,” calls out the flower vendor who passes by my house every morning. I pause in the middle of preparing my sweet offering for Krishna Jayanthi and hurry out to purchase some jasmine flowers from him. As he measures and hands over the length of flower I have requested, he says, “Wait, I will give you some roses too.” I reflexively say I don’t need them because I already have a few at home. He smiles at me and says ever so sweetly, “Madam, take them as a gift from me for Krishna’s pooja.”

I finish preparing my sweet and savouries and reach my in-laws place by the late afternoon. I’ve been very busy the past few days and this means there has been no time to prepare the usual number of items I do every Janmaashthami. I console myself with the thought that I will try to make up for it next time. Time flies as my mother in law and I work together to get everything ready for the final pooja to be offered to Krishna and dinner that will follow.

Once the ritualistic worship begins, I find my mind begin to center on my usual prayer asking Krishna to bless me with Jnana, Bhakti and Vairagya. I remember a story I once heard narrated in a satsang. Arjuna wanted to know how Krishna answers prayers and so, Krishna took him in invisible form to a village. There was a rich merchant who was praying to Krishna asking for more wealth. Krishna said, “Tathastu,” and he was blessed with even greater wealth. A little distance away, there was a poor milkman who was eking out a living by selling milk from the sole cow he owned who was tethered to a post outside the house. This milkman was praying to Krishna saying, “Teach me to surrender to you and grant me liberation.” Krishna said, “Tathastu,” and the cow outside the house fell down dead.

Arjuna was shocked and angry at Krishna’s actions and demanded to know why He gave wealth to an already rich man and took away the only source of livelihood of the poor milkman. Krishna smilingly explained, “I give everyone what they ask for. The rich man wanted only wealth; I gave it to him. The milkman wanted Me – so, I took away that which was the final obstacle preventing him from surrendering to and attaining Me!”

Even as I remember this story, I look at the flowers adorning the idols and pictures of Krishna. And for just a few moments, the handful of roses offered by my flower vendor seem to glow a bit brighter and Krishna seems to send a radiant smile my way.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Where are the incredible minds?

Yesterday, I attended a Management Development Program at a college. It was to host speakers on topics such as Mentoring, Psychometric Counseling, Administrative Techniques and Health and Happiness. I had enthusiastically registered for this program – which is far far away from the pharmaceutical field I currently inhabit professionally – in the hope of learning something new in a field I hope to someday inhabit professionally.

At the end of that program, I was left with a sense of being let down. Intellectually unsatisfied. Like I went expecting a banquet and was fed crumbs of stale food (only figuratively though, because the food at the event was quite good). There was not one thing spoken of that I did not already know. Not one way of handling the topics that made me sit up and say, “Aha! This is something I need to learn!”  The speakers’ handling of their topics was superficial to say the least. It was as if they were unwilling to delve deeper to convey something of real value.

For example, with speakers who come highly recommended as faculty from an institute like NIMHANS, I don’t expect a presentation that just lays out the general outline of a topic in a cursory manner, giving me information that is just off the internet. What a rich experience such a person must be privy to in the course of her practice! Why not use snippets from there to enrich your presentation?

If you are a speaker from a prestigious company like WIPRO, of course you need to be careful about not revealing certain confidential information. But must that make your presentation seem like you’re heading towards a certain crux point and then, just deflect without making it?

To be honest, even at the cost of sounding like I have a superiority complex, I must confess that I felt I would have done a far superior job of getting vital information across even though these are topics outside my area of expertise all these years.

Even as I pondered over this, I wondered why so many of the other faculty members attending seemed to be over the moon with even this basic information. Maybe it is the fact that we don’t demand quality from the speakers at conferences that lets the speakers get by with so little effort.

Why has the teaching profession grown so intellectually weak? Maybe it has to do with the fact that many in this profession are in it because they had no other option…but it is infinitely sad to think that a profession that is supposed to shape up our future generation is mostly filled with mediocre stuff. An Arjuna was possible because of his innate talent and hard work, but didn’t the deft guiding hand of Dronacharya play an equally important role? Would Swami Vivekananda have achieved his total potential if not for a guide like Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa?

And then, just as I was feeling so despondent, today morning, I read an article in the Indian Express. The piece was about Pullela Gopichand. Unless you are an Indian who has been living under a rock since the past 48 hours, you know who this guy is and the glory he helped P. V. Sindhu achieve.

The article says Gopichand was starved of inputs, strategy and knowledge from his coach which caused him to lose out in the Sydney 2000 Olympics. This realization may have made him temporarily bitter, but it later drove him to provide the same to his athletes along with what could prove to be the deciding factor that determines who will win – an incredible mind off court.

This last bit – an incredible mind – is something that is becoming increasingly rare. But still, that there are people like Gopichand is a big source of hope and relief for people like me because it means I’m not being wrong or egoistic in seeking to gain or impart excellence.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Happy Independence Day 2016!

The sun shines faintly, playing peek-a-boo with the cloud cover that threatens to engulf it. A cool breeze blows as I hurry across the campus quadrangle, past the students and staff already lined up, to reach the college office. We’ve been free for 69 years, but as of now, there appears to be no freedom from practices like marking your biometric attendance at the Independence Day celebrations. 

A few minutes later, the guests for the event – the President and Secretary of the Trust running the Vivekananda Group of Institutions – arrive. They are welcomed and led to their designated position near the flag pole by the NCC Cadets. Just one small tug on the rope and the tricolor unfurls to shower flower petals on the map of India recreated below. 

As the National Flag flies proudly in the sky, there is a smattering of applause that is drowned out as the strident voices singing the National Anthem reach a crescendo. As the entire campus reverberates to the chant of “Bharat Mata ki Jai,” I find an inexplicable divine peace in this routine chant even as my eyes grow slightly moist.

The NCC Cadets go through their routine as do the children of the School Band. They’ve been practicing hard the past few days, forcing faint-voiced teachers like me even on the fourth floor to take short breaks in between a lecture. Their efforts lend fruit – the entire routine goes off as planned and it is then time to troop into the auditorium for the small cultural program. 

I head to the front of the auditorium to join three of my students who are to sing a patriotic song. After everyone settles down, the program begins. Tiny tots come up and make a valiant effort to give a speech in which they say a few sentences about the significance of the occasion. Older kids and college students present group songs, dances and a skit. The skit ends with a soulful rendition of the National Anthem by Lata Mangeshkar and spontaneously, without any instruction whatsoever, the entire auditorium stands as one. The performances are not master-class; but they serve the important purpose of anchoring these kids to their country and their culture and imbue them with gratitude for the sacrifices of those who got us freedom.

The guests speak, narrating their experiences of a pre-Independent India. The Secretary was in Class 2 and the President was studying his B.Sc. Honours in Chemistry when our country gained freedom from the British. They exhort the younger generation to cultivate the right values that will help lead the country further.

Quoting the famous Kannada poet Sri. D. V. Gundappa (fondly called DVG), the President makes a strong appeal to everyone to try and serve society in whatever small way they can without looking for any reward in return. He also talks of the need for teachers to be role models to cultivate values in their students. I smile inwardly at a thought many people call typical of “idealistic me.” Perhaps, the day this advice is taken to heart by each and every person serving in an educational institution, that will be the day when biometric attendance systems will grow redundant.

About two hours after I entered the campus, I am on my way out – back to the routine of an unhurried day at home on a holiday. But those two hours, spent in the company of my fellow-Indians, dwelling on the many privileges we enjoy in a free India, will keep my patriotic batteries charged until the next such events – Gandhi Jayanti and later, Republic Day – when the entire sequence will repeat.

I’ve been attending Independence Day celebrations since the past 16 years. Maybe it is the “mahaul” that prevails in the media discourse today; or perhaps it is just a feature of growing older and understanding what really counts in life – whatever the reason, I feel the urge to crystallize this memory of what this day is like for posterity.

Or maybe, it is to give myself yet another reason to feel fortunate to be born in this blessed land and serve in this noble profession that gives me an opportunity to contribute to creating sons and daughters who will serve Bharat Mata.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Of Childhood and Colourful Ambitions

It was Ranga Panchami – the day of the Holi festival. Classes had been suspended for students of my college because we have many North Indian students for whom it is a major festival. However, the management had extended no such relaxation for the students of the other institutions in the same campus or for us teachers. 

As I sat grading answer papers in the staffroom, the office attender who came with a cup of tea remarked in passing that my son was having a gala time, playing Holi with his friends. She said she’d seen a huge group of kids and teenagers outside my house as she passed by it on her way to the tea stall.Engrossed in trying to make sense of an illegibly scrawled answer, I just nodded absent-mindedly.

When I reached home for lunch, I noticed the entire front portion leading from the gate to the main door was covered with puddles of colored water. Although my son was nowhere around, there was a stained t-shirt and shorts left soaking in a bucket in the bathroom. My father-in-law who was at our home that day, said the kid had bathed, had lunch and gone to a friend’s house nearby. I found all the taps had run dry and requested the neighbor who lives in the house above to kindly switch on the motor to fill the overhead tank. My neighbours are an elderly couple and Uncle did as I asked.

Later in the day, when I got back from college, there were currency notes and coins, totalling about Rs. 47/- lying on the dining table. When I asked my son about who had left it there, he proudly claimed it to be his first earning obtained by providing a service. He even went on to say that it would have been higher, but he had to share some part with his friend. I asked him for the details and slowly, the entire story emerged.

His friend had come home with the colors and they had played Holi outside the house. A few minutes later, a group of about 6 – 10 college-age boys had passed by, their clothes, arms and faces fully stained with the festive colors. Noticing the tap outside our house and seeing my son and his friend using the water to clean themselves, the youngsters had also come forward to use the water.

My son and his friend set themselves up to ration the water to them – for a princely sum of Rs. 5/- for two mugs of water. As time passed, word spread to other kids in the vicinity that there was a place close by where you could clean up to some decent level before proceeding home and so, the water business outside my home had boomed. Since my son and his friend had both done the hard work of counting out and pouring the mugs of water, keeping tabs on who used how much, and collecting the money, it was decided that the entire amount collected would be divided equally among them.

I was appalled to think my son had “sold” the water. I asked him why he had not let the kids simply use the water instead of charging them for it. When the reply came, I looked at my kid with new eyes.

My son knew the water level in our overhead tank was less because I had warned him to use minimal quantity of water. But in the demand of the youth, he saw an opportunity to counteract any after effects. His logic – even if the water in the tank got over, he would have at least generated enough revenue to buy us some bottled water to last till the end of the day when water supply was to be restored! Besides, he thought that Amma will not be irritated when she realized that her son had acted on her mantra often passed on to him – “every problem had a solution”!!

Later in the day, my neighbor Aunty came and enlightened me on yet another aspect of my son’s entrepreneurial venture that he had “forgotten” to mention. After a while, the “water business” had been forced to stop because the tank had emptied out. When the tap had run dry, my son had gone to Aunty and requested her to switch on the motor to pump water into our tank, offering her his entire share of Rs. 47/- to compensate for the electricity and water charge that she would incur!! Aunty had refused to do as he asked because she didn’t want him squandering the water. But she told me she was quite impressed with his act and even added, “See how smart he is! I’m sure he will never in his life be cowed down by difficulties!”

As I narrated this entire chain of events to my husband, we wondered at the workings of a 12-year old mind. And then, I learned of something else. It seems just that morning, as my husband read the newspaper, he had drawn the kid’s attention to a teenager in the UK who had developed some app and monetized it. I couldn’t help but wonder – had that bit of news motivated our kid to develop this sudden “revenue-generation” desire?

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Who is your best friend?

“Travel and tell no one,
live a true love story
and tell no one,
live happily
and tell no one,
people ruin beautiful things.”

- Kahlil Gibran

I’ve been noticing this post being shared by many people in the past few days. Every time I read it, it brought out a different aspect.

“People ruin beautiful things” is true. But to me, it seems more like the fault of the narrator than that of “people.” I mean – shouldn’t I know whom to tell what? If, in the rush of wanting to share my joy, I choose to share it with people who are incapable of understanding what I’m saying, isn’t that my problem rather than theirs? There’s an idiom used in my mother tongue that roughly translates into “people can see only up to the edge of their nose.” So, it is perhaps foolish on my part to expect others to be able to see things the way I do.

And yet, once in a while, we do come across others who are able to catch the particular nuance we’re trying to convey. When you find such persons and they resonate with you, it is a truly wonderful feeling and you find your joy multiplies.

But it looks like the poet was also trying to drive home a more subtle point. That there are some feelings we must retain in their pristine glory of being an unshared experience. Of all the examples he could have used, why did Kahlil Gibran chose these three – travel, love and happy living? Is it because these are the ones especially that one experiences in unique ways that cannot really be understood by someone else?

I’ve heard people describe their visit to some place. What I “see” when I visit the same place is often quite different – and that has to be a result of the way my “mental” eye functions for anatomically and physiologically, my physical eye is the same as my friends’.

When it comes to love, every single person in this world feels his or her story is the best. If you feel someone else’s is better, indeed, yours cannot be a love story! No matter how exquisite your experience of love is, even if you are a master wordsmith, there is no way you can transfer that feel to someone else.

In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that even the two people who are entwined in the bond of love will not experience it in the same way. Of course, they may claim to do so – but that’s just because we’ve grown up with the idea that conforming to each other’s notions is loyalty. Deep in the recesses of your own mind, you know that the outcome of loving – joy, happiness, delight – may be common to the one with whom you bond, but the nature of your experience is yours alone.

As for a happy life, every single one of us has our own concept of what makes us happy. Happiness to me may mean spending the few early morning hours on a Sunday writing this post. If you’re reading this and smiling, happiness to you can mean reading my blog post. For some of us, happiness is in owning things, for others it is experiencing them even if you don’t own them. To some people, happiness is in providing for a family, for others, it comes from not getting trapped in a family and to still others, it may come from making the entire world their family.

When you try to live life your way, especially if it is not cut to the conventional mould, there will always be people to advise you on how to live their concept of a happy life. Perhaps that is the reason why Kahlil Gibran says, “live a happy life, and tell no one.” For each one's happiness too is solely his own.

The biggest message I saw in this quote was a kind of confidence-giving to those who struggle to balance between living life their way and being popular. As long as your experience is a positive one that helps you move ahead in this long-winding journey of life, you alone are indeed your own best friend.

BE such a free soul !!

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Who Can Escape Karma?

On a leisurely Sunday morning, as I sat reading the newspaper, the doorbell rang to reveal the presence of the “paper” boy. Not the one who delivers it every day but the one who picks up the old newspapers, a tiny cog in the humongous wheel of the recycling industry.

I was surprised to see him for he hadn’t been around for quite some time, forcing me to give away the burgeoning pile of newspapers to another such “paper boy.” Even as I was preparing an answer to his request for collecting my non-existent “raddi,” I was struck by the fact that he was agitated about something. 

He asked me if “Saar” had sold off the pieces of iron that were left over from one of his elevator projects. At first sound, I thought he was upset because he had been trying to negotiate a deal with “Saar” who had steadfastly refused to give in to what he considered an undervalued price. Poor “paper boy” didn’t know that had he come when “Saar” was in a more expansive mood, he’d have got his iron which still lay untended and forgotten under the concrete bench outside our house.

But let me not digress from the story which vies with “Saar’s” moods for unpredictability. 

It turned out that two children had come to the “raddi” shop of this “paper boy,” offering to sell an iron bar that was suspiciously similar in appearance and dimension to the one “Saar” had refused to trade. Our “paper boy” had refused to buy it from those urchins because he thought they had stolen it from us!! And had hurried to our house to check with us to see if our iron was safe!! 

The rest of my Sunday was spent in the wondrous glow of knowing that for all the world’s ruing of how moral values are denigrating, there are still people like this “paper boy” who help keep my faith going strong.

I put this part up on my Facebook page that I maintain as part of a daily writing exercise..but then, many readers wanted to know what happened next – and although I’d rather have written about it some other time, I suppose it’s best to strike while the “iron” is hot!

Well, “Saar” was definitely impressed with “paper boy’s” integrity and thanked him profusely and showered him with praise for having taken the trouble to inquire. The warmth however, was not 
strong enough to thaw the inertia of “Saar” on a Sunday morning. This writer’s request too fell on deaf ears and both she and the “paper boy” were dismissed with a “Let’s see next time.”

A few months later, one sunny afternoon, “Saar” sat in his home office, brainstorming with an associate. His view of the entry gate was obscured by the SUV parked in front. The iron lay ignored under the concrete bench a few steps away from the gate. A youngster reached the office door, saying he was on his way to the nearby ISKCON temple, and requested a glass of water to drink. “Saar” went in for a minute or two, filled up a water bottle, gave it to the boy and went back into his office.

About two hours later, an employee who came back from a work site, noticed the iron was gone. 

The Srimad Bhagavatam makes an emphatic point. Put a mother cow into a cowshed with 1000 calves and yet, she will find her way unerringly to her calf. Karma works similarly with unparalleled precision.

That iron was not meant to bring any income to “paper boy.” Nor, apparently, to “Saar”. Both the one who wanted a lower price and the one who wanted a higher price were left without any stake in the matter, totally eliminated from the equation. 

The one who is intended to enjoy the fruits from a piece of iron is the ONLY one who will benefit from it – not the one who owns it, nor the one who covets it.

I only shudder to think of what karma has in store for the youth who brought Krishna into the equation.