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Sunday, 27 September 2020

Of Living and Dying and Continuing to Live in Others' Memory

Recently, a college mate shared the news of the demise of one of the lab assistants of the college where we studied. In passing, he mentioned about how this person was the one who never provided us with distilled water that we needed for our experiments; as a result, we always had to ‘steal’ it from the lab when he wasn’t around. Someone else remembered how he would always shout at us.

A third person then stepped in to say, “We ALL remember him….despite what my teenage thoughts may have made me say or feel, in retrospect, I’m thankful for the role he played, in giving me the life I live today.” This, I feel, is an amazing response, and quite the benchmark for how we ought to feel about all the unpleasant people we encounter through our life journey. Easy to say, but quite very difficult to practice.

But this discussion also set me thinking about something I read recently. Stephen Covey in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” asks readers to visualize the event of their own death. He then asks you to imagine “What you would want people from your family, friend circle, workplace, and any community organization to say about you and your life? What character would you like them to have seen in you? What achievements would you want them to remember? What difference would you like to have made in their lives?”

Over the past couple of days, social media has been full of eulogies for the great singer S. P. Balasubrahmanyam and what is astounding is that so many of them are from ordinary folk you and I know. SPB touched people through his music but unknown to many of us, he was also deeply involved with helping others – whether it was sponsoring chess champion Vishwanathan Anand’s team in the national team championship in 1983, or raising funds for charitable causes through his stage shows. Did you know, for example, that he set up the SPS Charitable Foundation in memory of his father? Through this platform, he was involved with providing financial help for a plethora of organizations involved with education, palliative care, serving the disabled, flood relief, cine musicians, orphanages, and on and on the list goes. 

Image courtesy: The New Indian Express

I watched a video clip on Twitter in which SPB is seen surprising a blind fan hailing from Sri Lanka. Another video showed me the legend’s humility as he touched the feet of the ‘doli’ bearers who were to carry him to the Sri Ayyappan shrine at Sabarimala. I read online about how, in August, when SPB’s health condition was steadily declining, the same temple did something it had never before done – it performed a musical puja to Sri Ayappan for SPB’s recovery, and after this, one of the temple musicians rendered the Naadaswaram to his award-winning “Shankaraaa….naadashareeraa…”

Well, if we had to correlate SPB’s life with Stephen Covey’s questions……you can fill in the blanks for yourself.

I haven’t told many of you this. On the night of 5th September this year, my nephew Shreeharsha passed away from issues that traced their origin to long-standing health problems. He used to write, too, and had even penned a piece of our visit to Haridwar and Rishikesh in 2015. (You can read that post here)

In his short journey of 31 years, he touched all our lives with his unique wit and humor and inspired us by his refusal to let his physical handicap limit his abilities to enjoy life and true to his name, spread joy. Harsha was a great fan of the Bengaluru Football Club, and a vociferous supporter, often traveling to different parts of the country to support his beloved team. Closer home, he was the inspiration for my son to get actively involved with football. 

After Harsha’s demise, we, his family, grieved his passing, reminiscing about the things he did and said and the way he lived. Quite surprising to us was the outpouring of grief from his larger circle of friends and even mere acquaintances. Twitter and Facebook were filled with posts from his friends, colleagues at all the places he worked and of course, hundreds of BFC fans. A common thread that ran through all their remembrances was his positive spirit and ability to make people feel comfortable after just a few minutes of interaction.

As I told my niece, Harsha’s sister Rajashree, about this phenomenon, she exclaimed, “I wonder where he found the time to do things to create such an impression on so many people!” As we pondered over this question, it struck me that impressions get formed by what one IS as a person – when that is impactful enough, there is never the need to DO something separately to create an impression.

Whether it was the lab assistant or SPB or Harsha or me or you whenever our time comes, it is the way we live our lives, the things we do and say as we pass through this life’s journey that will sustain in our wake.

Saturday, 5 September 2020

On Being a Teacher in the Pandemic

I enter my ‘Classroom’, but I’m not going to stay there for too long. I’m only there to “Share something with my class” – the “Joining info” to let them enter the “Meeting” I’ve started on Meet. I toggle buttons to move back to the “Meeting” and wait for the students to arrive so that I can “Admit” them in.

I miss the luxury of having students waiting for me to arrive.

They arrive in one’s and two’s, but I can’t see or hear them – their cameras and microphones are turned off in the new classroom etiquette, and I won’t hear them talk until I invite them to do so by wishing them “Good morning, students!”.

I miss hearing their loud chorus of “Good Morning, Ma’am” that is capable of pushing everything beyond that moment from my mind.

I miss being able to smile at them and having them smile back, creating an infectious high energy vibe. 

I miss the unconscious scan my eyes and 6th or 7th sense would run over the class to measure their energy and interest level so that I knew how to amp up or down my pace of teaching

Some students take time to arrive. It’s no longer the “I missed the bus” or “I got stuck in a traffic jam” excuses. The ‘rate-limiting-step’ has morphed – it’s the speed of their mobile network service provider that’s the culprit for their delay.

Three minutes into the “Meeting”, about 80% of the class is in, so I decide it’s time to “Present Now” and choose “Present a Window” as I unmute my microphone and wish the class “Good Morning”. A few return wishes reach my ears. I don’t “Turn on my camera” because of various reasons that range from ‘no dress code for teaching from home’ to ‘family member dashing into and out of the bathroom nearby’. But the most important reason for not enabling video is that connectivity is always more stable with the video off.

I miss having my class look at me while I’m teaching. I wonder if they miss it too, and wonder if the energy in my voice is enough to sustain them through the hour. I pray it will suffice.

I continue to explain what is there in my presentation. I’ve sat up till midnight of the previous day to make sure that along with the text, my presentation contains diagrams and tables and graphs to help the students understand the topic better. I ask questions in between to make sure that they have understood what I’m explaining.

I miss being able to judge my students’ understanding – or lack of it – from a mere glance at their facial expressions.

I toggle between parts of the presentation as I go back and forth to emphasize an earlier point to explain the present one. I try to keep each slide in place for at least half a minute to make sure that all students – even the ones with a slow network – are able to see what I’m talking about.

I miss the way I used to walk from one side to another to connect the concepts I’ve explained by writing on the blackboard. 

Which reminds me – I miss my chalk piece and duster, too. 

I miss the dust of the ‘dustless’ chalk getting into my eyes when I rub the board. 

I miss the polka dot spray the white dust created on my shoulders. 

I miss having to wash my hands free of the calcium carbonate (instead of the SARS-CoV-2 I’m now trying to keep away).

After about 48 minutes of class, I decide to stop. When I myself cannot sustain talking for an hour, how can I expect my students to listen for so long? I check if they have any doubts. I ask if they have received the notes I sent. I tell them about some PDFs and links I’ll be sharing after the class. And finally, I say, “Let’s close today’s class” and give them permission to “Leave”. There’s a smattering of “Thank you, Ma’am”s that I hear as I click the red telephone icon to myself “Leave” the “Meeting”.

I miss the days when I’d overstay my time in class because we were discussing something important about a problem the students faced.

I miss the impromptu activities and games I’d sometimes have them play to learn an important life skill because either of us was too bored to study heavy-duty pharmacy syllabus.

We’re only teaching theory now in our online classes. Practical experiments will be done whenever regular college starts.

I’ve been missing the smell of chemicals that would cling to me after a lab session. 

I’ve even begun to miss the headache that would result after hours of non-stop peering about three times per microscope multiplied by 20 microscopes, repeated thrice a week. 

The only headaches I have now come from staring at a screen that connects and yet separates me from my students.

I’ve just begun teaching a new subject - Pharmaceutical Microbiology. And thanks to what I’m learning anew, as I write this blog, I realize that as a teacher, I’m not the strict autotroph I thought I was. I can’t make all of my own energy – I need to draw quite a bit of it from the emotional connection that grows as I interact day in and out, face-to-face, with my students.

On this Teacher’s Day, I’d like to thank all the students I’ve taught in all these 20 years before the pandemic. You’re the ones who made it a most memorable journey for me, and those memories will always stay special.

To the students I’m now teaching through a virtual medium, thank you for your cooperation, and hopefully, we’ll be able to connect better by the time we’re through this semester.


Saturday, 29 August 2020

Learning from Nandi

A few days ago, I went to Malleshwaram to buy yellow Srichurnam for my father-in-law. In case you don't know what it is  - Srichurnam is the yellow or red tilak sported by Srivaishnavas on their forehead.

On the 8th Cross off Sampige Road, there are shops that sell all pooja/Hindu-ritual related items, and you can recognize them by the typical "cones" they have of turmeric and vermilion - arashina/haldi and kumkum. 

It's been ages since I had an occasion to visit these shops, but I knew the Srichurnam and some other items I wanted would definitely be available there. Now there are 3 shops of this type right next to each other and on a whim, I chose to go to the first one I saw as I approached the trio. 

A young boy was sitting there, and very pleasantly, he gave me the items I wanted and told me the amount I was to pay. Just as I was drawing money out of my purse, he extended a Haldi-Kumkum set towards me and said, "Madam, Arshina-Kumkuma togoli." He was asking me to take or apply the turmeric and vermilion in the gesture that is so very common in South Indian homes when married women visit. 

I was a little surprised, and my mind ran through the possibilities of it being some festival day. But I couldn't find anything significant about that day, so I simply asked the boy whether there was something special in their shop that day and the reason why he was offering the arashina-kumkuma to me. 

He replied that it was a practice he had cultivated, and he offered it to any "Sumangali" or married woman who came to purchase things from his shop. 

Such a simple gesture, but it made me feel so good and "at home". 

As I talked a little more with him and asked permission to take the picture of him in his shop with the Arshina-Kumkuma set, I learned a little more about him. His name is Nandi, and he has studied till 1st PUC, but couldn't continue studying (although he desperately wanted to) because of his family's financial difficulties. Now, he mans the shop but has fond hopes of answering the 2nd PUC exam privately. He also said he is looking out for a good job.  

Chatting with young Nandi, I was struck by how our culture survives because of such people who continue their traditional practices. Despite having his own set of problems, he was smiling and pleasant and had a positive spirit which I'm sure will take him far ahead in life. 

I said as much to him and told him to keep up his efforts to study. I wished him saying "Devaru volledu maadali" - which translates into "May God bless you with good things." 

I left the shop with not just my Srichurnam but also with a fond memory of one simple gesture that warmed my heart and a lesson about staying positive even in the face of difficult situations.

Edit: One of my friends Dr. Nirmala, wrote to me after reading this post. 
"Really touching.
Had the same experience when I had visited.
When I offered him some extra money , he refused
Was really taken aback by his self esteem." 

Sunday, 12 July 2020

A Sunday's Learning from Mrs. P

"Madam, Madam!" a voice floated in through the window. 
Something about it told me this was one of those salespersons who go home to home with their products. It was a slow Sunday morning, so I opened the door to see what the matter was. 

Outside my door stood an elderly woman, whom I guessed to be in her fifties. In her hands were 2 small plastic bottles that held a green-colored liquid. She thrust them towards me and began her marketing spiel about the newly launched herbal disinfectant and even opened one of the bottles for me to smell the liquid inside. 

I had enough stock of floor disinfectant for another month at least; but something about the way this woman talked got my attention. Mrs. P was delivering her sales pitch in a manner unlike any salesperson I'd come across till then. 

There was a quiet dignity about her, a genuineness in her selling that made it sound like she wasn't actually selling, but just informing you of something for your good. Perhaps that is the reason why I couldn't refuse her, and ended up buying 4 of those bottles.

As the money exchanged hands, I couldn't resist asking Mrs. P the question that had been uppermost in my mind. But I tried to couch it in polite terms to avoid hurting her. She was just as dignified in her reply. Her eyes clouded over, but still, with a calm smile, she explained how she had begun working in her late forties due to family problems. And that she had continued working even after the children started to earn, because she didn't want to be a dependent.

With a twinkle in her eyes, she asked me to guess what her age may be. 

"Hmmm...55?" I suggested.

Her smile grew wider. "No, 68," she corrected.

I was shocked, because she didn't at all look that age! I found myself wondering even more at her positive and happy spirit. Yes, she had difficulties, but just see how she was cheerfully going about coping with them! I said as much and expressed my happiness at having met her, because I had learned something from her. 

She smiled again and folded her hands in the typical 'Namaskar' mudra. 

"Thank you, Madam, for your kind words," she said, "It is the good wishes of people like you, and God's blessings that are my biggest strengths!"

I was so lost in the wonder of this amazing encounter that I forgot to ask if I could click a photo of her. By the time I realized, she had moved away from the gate. From my frantic efforts, I caught just a glimpse of her through the window.

And Mrs. P goes marching on....!

I've preserved this photograph as a reminder of  how one must face adversity with dignity and cheerfulness and a sense of counting our blessings.And I'm sharing it with you dear readers, to pass on the same positive spirit to you, too.

When the COVID-19 lockdown began, I couldn't help wonder about what Mrs. P was doing, and how she was coping. Given her positive attitude, however, I'm sure she would have found some way to still stay cheerful!

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

How to Go From Monkey to Monk: Keep Your Eyes Closed?

Covid-19 lockdown is a mixed bag for us teachers. We’ve had to adapt quickly to teaching online, and are slowly learning the art of balancing college work and home work when working from home.

During these trying times, the silver lining has been the opportunity to upgrade our own knowledge, free from the restrictions of desh and kaal (place and time), thanks to the plethora of webinars/online conferences being conducted by institutions across the country and the globe.

Yesterday, I attended Day 1 of a 5-day Faculty Development Program, hosted by GIET School of Pharmacy, Andhra Pradesh.

Dr. B. G. Nagavi, one of the most distinguished innovator-teachers of the pharmacy profession in recent times (and so much more – you can check his profile here, was doing a presentation about education research.

While talking about the very important role of a teacher, Dr. Nagavi played a video, narrating an anecdote from a teacher’s life.

Here’s the summary of the story; if you want to hear it for yourself, click this link

A young man walked up to an older man at a gathering and introduced himself, saying, “I’m one of your students.” The teacher greeted him and asked about what the young man was now doing.

“I’m into education. I’m also a teacher.”

“Great! So what inspired you to go into education?”


“Me!? How?”

The young man answered, “One day a boy in our class brought a new watch to school. I liked it a lot, and because I wanted it, I stole it. He realized the watch was missing, and complained to you, the teacher. You announced the news and asked whoever had stolen it to return the watch.

I didn’t return it.

Then you closed the classroom door and asked all the kids to line up facing the wall. You ordered us all to close our eyes tight until you had finished searching through all our pockets. We did as you said. You went from one boy to the next, looking through the pockets and when you came to me, you found the watch in my pocket! Yet, you kept moving through every child’s pockets and at the end, you announced the watch had been found, and handed it over to the rightful owner.

You never said a word to anyone about it. That day, you saved my dignity. I was ashamed of myself and decided not to do such a thing again. But you never ever asked me about the incident, either. You saved my soul by your action. I learned how a real educator must be and because of you, I was inspired to go into the teaching profession.

I’m sure you remember this episode, so you must remember me, Sir?”

The teacher replied, “I remember the event you mention. But I don’t remember you. Because that day, while going through the children’s pockets, I closed my eyes, too.”

This story is meant to drive home the message of how wonderfully inspiring teachers can be. It is supposed to make us teachers more aware of how our actions can impact our students.

For me, however, it triggered an even deeper realization of how vital it is for teachers to be self-aware.

“I closed my eyes too!”

What a sensitive, thoughtful, and loving act by the teacher!

How self-aware must this teacher have been, to realize that he is likely to be affected by knowing who the offending student is!

How strongly the teacher must have been motivated to not let himself get prejudiced by one wanton act of a young child!

What an immense control of mind he must have possessed to decide he didn’t want to know who the errant child was!

Can we even imagine the degree of self-awareness, and goodness of heart and magnitude of self-control someone needs to be like the teacher in this story?

Even as these thoughts raced through my mind, I was struck by another, deeper one. 

Can I learn to be like this teacher in the other areas of my life, too? 

Can I unlearn the tendency to notice the unpleasant things people do, can I stop mentally branding them, and give them another chance to become their better selves? 

Is this the ‘key’ that I must lose, to make the transition from ‘Monkey’ to ‘Monk’?

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Of Their Needs and Our Wants and Akshaya Tritiya

In school, we had a lesson on the short story by the world-famous Russian author, Leo Tolstoy. The story was called “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” Many of you may have studied this, too. If not, you can read the entire story here. (Link to story)

Here’s the gist of the story. A farmer Pahom goes to the land of the Bashkirs who have a startling offer – by paying 1000 rubles, he can begin walking at sunrise and cover as much area as he wants, and it will all be his, provided he returns to the starting point by sunset the same day.

The delighted Pahom starts off and in his greed to cover a huge area, doesn’t realize how the time is running. Exhausted and on the verge of losing his breath, he somehow manages to drag himself back to the starting point even as the sun sets. The Bashkirs cheer at his feat, but Pahom drops dead, and is buried in a grave that measures a mere six feet – that’s all the land he finally needed!

That story gives us a window into the difference between a want and a need. In the good (?) old days, people slogged all their life to meet their needs, rarely having the resources to fulfill their wants. Yet, life was relatively more peaceful. 

In today’s times, people have grown more prosperous and we find that the line between “want” and “need” is growing more and more blurred by the day. No wonder then that peace has flown out the window.

We are bombarded constantly by stimuli that drive us to consume, without any pause, to contemplate over what it is that we are consuming, and whether it is something we truly need. “I buy, therefore, I am,” has become our mantra. Consumption is good for business; and business drives the economy and of course the economy has to be on the up and up.

During this lockdown, when access to goods has been forcibly curtailed, many people have begun re-discovering that they can actually make do with very little. And this realization has led them to ask a pertinent question, which this image so eloquently asks.

The English novelist Matt Haig has an answer to this question.  Read and contemplate over the connection he points out between the economy and happiness.

Today is Akshaya Tritiya - an auspicious day. The word ‘Akshaya’ means ‘that which does not diminish or end’. Unfortunately, the significance of this day has been hijacked by a segment that is believed to be a major ‘driver’ of the same ‘economy’ that we’ve been discussing.

In the cacophony created by these drivers, we have forgotten that Akshaya Tritiya is a day meant to be spent on performing rituals for the ancestors, and in doing ‘daan’ or donation and charity. People now pride themselves on their ability to while away this day in hoarding wealth in the form of gold. 

If you wish to celebrate Akshaya Tritiya in the real sense, especially in these times which are difficult for so many who are less-blessed than you, here are a few genuine causes to which you can donate any amount of your choice.

1. Indic Collective is providing monetary help to the needy persons who are part of the temple ecosystem – the flower sellers, the musical instrument performers, the servitors, and the temple priests - and whose livelihoods have been disrupted by the lockdown

2. Youth for Seva is serving food (Annadaana Seva) to the needy who are unable to earn their livelihood due to the lockdown.

3. As announced by the PM of our country, the PMCARES fund is dedicated to providing quality treatment and for research on ways to beat COVID-19

I've always heard my elders say that on the day of Akshaya Tritiya, one must do things that one wishes to have/keep doing in plenty for the rest of the year. So, now you know why I've written this blog today! 😄😄

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Overcome the Hanuman complex!

We all know that in the Ramayana, it was the mighty Hanuman who jumped across the ocean, reached Lanka, and located Sita who had been captured by Ravana. What is less commonly known is the part that went before he took that great leap.

Seeing the huge, unending ocean, all the vaanaras felt dejected. Not a single one thought himself capable of the energy to cross it and come back.

Then, the eldest of the party, a bear called Jambavan, turned to Hanuman and asked, “You too feel you’re incapable of this feat, Hanuman? You have amazing powers; you’re 
Pavan Putra - the son of the Wind God – but you’ve forgotten these powers. Now is the time to remember and make use of them!”

Saying so, Jambavan narrated the story of Hanuman’s birth and childhood prowess.

Anjana was an apsara, who, through a curse, had become a monkey maiden. She was married to the monkey King Kesari. When Raja Dasharatha had performed the putrakameshti yagna for begetting children, as per Lord Shiva’s instruction, a portion of the payasam was carried by Vayu (the Wind God, also called Pavan) and delivered to Anjana. After consuming the sweet, in due course, Anjana gave birth to a son who was courageous, strong, intelligent, and also extremely naughty.

When still a child, Anjaneya (the son of Anjana) flew high into the sky, intending to eat up the Sun which looked like a ripe fruit. Afraid of what would happen, Indra hurled his thunderbolt at the child, breaking his jaw – giving him the name Hanuman.

Vayu was angry at how his son had been treated, and stopped the winds from blowing over the world; life came to a stop. Indra apologized. He and the other deities all came to bless the child Hanuman with many boons that made him even more powerful.

Armed with these special powers, Hanuman’s antics increased. He would play pranks on innocent persons but one day he went too far and a meditating rishi was his target. Angered by this mischievous behaviour, the rishi cursed Hanuman, saying he would lose all his special powers including the power of flying huge distances.

Aghast, Hanuman and his mother Anjana prayed for the rishi’s forgiveness. He relented, and proclaimed that Hanuman would not lose his powers, but would lose his knowledge of his own powers; at the time when they were desperately needed, he would be reminded of them by some wise person.

Now, on the ocean shore, Jambavan gave the timely reminder to Hanuman. Assuming a gigantic size, he flew to Lanka and the rest….is the remaining part of the Ramayana. 

Pic courtesy: Quora
One of India’s famous psychiatrists, Dr. N. N. Wig, dubbed this lack of knowing one’s true potential as the “Hanuman Complex.” 

He would encourage the patients who came to him, by explaining how, like Hanuman, they are inherently capable of overcoming the problems they face; only thing is that their illness has temporarily made them feel weak, so they have forgotten their own capability. In other words, the power to change their lives rests within themselves; all they need to do is re-discover this power and make the necessary efforts to change.

I first heard of Dr Wig in the year 2011 when I was writing an article about 10 famous doctors of India. This idea stayed with me ever since, and I realized that it applies to not just patients, but to most common people.

During all these years of teaching youngsters, I have made use of Dr. Wig’s “Hanuman complex” and indeed, found that it works miracles for their self-esteem and confidence.

Today, as I watched this awakening of Hanuman happen in the Ramayana serial on TV, I had the impulse to write this post. And some parts of our country are celebrating Hanuman Jayanti today, so what better occasion for this post?

I’m definitely not as wise as him, but I’m trying to be a Jambavan to all of you reading this.

“You are capable of great things! Awake and realize your true potential! Grow and do good to yourself, and to the whole world!”