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Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Ayudha Pooja of the Mind

A few days ago, I spoke to a group of women at their Mahila Sangh meeting. The topic we had agreed upon was “Secrets of Holistic Well-being for Women.” The organizer allotted me about 30 – 45 minutes and agreed to my suggestion to include a few games that would drive important points home.

As I eased into the topic, it quickly came to my notice that these middle-aged and senior citizen homemakers were a lively lot and very well-informed about aspects of physical well-being. Some of them said as much, and one lady was quite vocal, saying, “I know that going for a walk everyday is good for my health. What I need help with is pushing myself up from bed every morning to take that walk.” Taking their cue, I modified my discussion to speak of ways to stay motivated to stick to a routine.

Next, I brought in a game, making a small group of women play passing the ball, gradually introducing a second and then a third ball. As the number of balls increased, there were more misses than catches. We used this as an analogy to understand that the greater the number of things we have to handle, greater is the stress, and more the chance of things getting out of control. We had used balls of different sizes in this game. As I likened the balls to husband, children, career/hobbies etc, tongue firmly in cheek, one lady wanted to know which of these exactly the big, medium-sized and small balls represented. Getting into her spirit, I quipped that it totally depended on the individual woman, sending them into peals of a knowing laughter.

Later, we played another game in which 6 women, with closed eyes, followed my instructions on folding and tearing a small piece of paper. No one was allowed to ask questions and because their eyes were closed, they could not see what the other participants were doing with their papers. When everyone finally opened out their paper, they came out with totally different designs.

I used this game to highlight how different people interpret the same talk to mean different things and that unless there is open, two-way communication, we’re doomed to misunderstanding and ill-will.

As they digested that, one woman laughingly asked, “What if we are doing all we can to be open, but the other party is totally closed?” Everyone else joined in with her laughter, and yet, in that moment of shared mirth, I sensed a deep sadness in the eyes of the one who asked the question. Without letting on, I used that moment to segue to the next part of the talk about how some form of spiritual practice can help us come to terms with things that are beyond our control.

Much later, as I mulled over how the talk had gone and what I could improve upon, I remembered one WhatsApp forward and rued not using it. This message was doing the rounds during Navaratri. It said a woman was applying “Haldi-Kumkum” to her tongue and when her husband asked why, she replied, “Ayudha Pooja!” Hilarious, right? But an unfortunate and sad comment on the state of affairs in many a relationship; and to be totally fair, it’s not just the women who use their tongue to wound. Hurt, pain and anger know no gender or age and plagued with any of these, tongues of both women and men can let loose a volley of harsh words, seeking retribution of one’s pain by causing hurt to the other.

How low would be the world’s anguish if only we could learn to quell this tongue. But to do that, we must first learn to control the reflex connection between it and the mind. Perhaps an “Ayudha Pooja” of the mind is what we actually need!

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Of Talent and Hunts

I park my Scooty and hurry in after my son to the help desk, weaving across groups of anxious parents. We have the downloaded admission ticket but no print-out. The guy at the desk just picks up a form, fills out the candidate’s name and roll number, thrusts it at us, and tells us to go to Room No. 15 on the first floor. 

We rush to the end of the corridor where a volunteer guides us further. I wish my son good luck, and tell him to take an autorickshaw to get back home once he’s done. He asks the volunteer if he can exit the hall once he’s finished and the guys says he doesn’t know about that. Me and my son give each other a conspiratorial smile and decide that I’ll come to pick him up at the ending time.

The volunteer has a surprised kind of look at this interaction. Maybe the other kids who went in were more serious and focused on the job on hand as compared to my son who’s asking about coming out even before getting in. I try to make the volunteer feel comfortable by explaining my kid is not really interested, but has come anyway. The metamorphosis on the guy’s face is immediate – he asks me if I’ve forced him to come.

I reply to that saying no, I’m not really particular, but my son has come because his class teacher selected him. I don’t know what took the wind out of his sails quicker – that a parent says she’s not really bothered about something as important as this or that a student in today’s times pays such heed to a teacher’s word.

The occasion is a Talent Hunt Exam being conducted by a self-proclaimed “India’s Premier Coaching Institute” that provides coaching for Medical and IIT-JEE entrance examinations. The students who get through this talent hunt exam will be offered 100% scholarship for the institute’s coaching classes. To me, that sounds a lot like one of those Flipkart or Amazon “Festival Sales” offers – offering discounts to tempt people into buying something they don’t really need in the first place, often the things being ones that you can find in some other places too if you really need them. But my grouse with e-commerce sites is fodder enough for another piece and so, I won’t really go there now.

At this point of time, when he’s in Class 9, my son doesn’t seem enthused by the idea of studying science and math. He prefers languages and social science. I don’t argue over this with him because I don’t believe in creating fertile soil for rebellion without a cause. Besides, I’m not too sure about that lack of cause. We’ve agreed to cross the career bridge when we come to it. If I get to have my way, it will involve an aptitude test to map his interests, abilities, aptitude and skills to help us arrive at the right decision.

Of all the people who read this piece, I suspect quite a few will find my approach disconcerting to say the least. A friend who flippantly cribbed about the 1 lakh per annum school fee he shelled out for his kid was shocked when I said I pay one-fourth of that at my son’s school – shocked enough to ask why I’d put my kid in a not-so-good school! For, in the world’s view, higher the school fee, greater its caliber. Of course, this friend is always pressed for time, as will be anyone who’s in a professional position that allows for a 1-lakh per annum school fee, so there wasn’t really time for an answer.

Yesterday, at my son’s school parent teacher meeting, the Principal had a sincere piece of advice born out of decades of experience with students. He told the parents to focus not on creating assets for their child, but instead, on making their child an asset. Each one of the teachers in this school embodies these values that define the fabric of Indian thought. To me, exposing my kid to an ecosystem where these values of simplicity and rootedness are given a lot of value is more important than giving him access to exhaustive coaching for academic and extra-curricular activities.

I go back to the exam centre and pick up my son. He tells me about how the paper was, how everyone was seriously scribbling on the rough sheets as they worked out the answers and cribs that he had to sit for almost an hour waiting to be let out. He’s read through the brochure that’s been distributed by the institute and tells me the whole episode is just to promote the coaching class. 

And then he comments on how I haven’t yet asked him how he performed. I think he’s actually happy about that and that’s probably why I get an honest answer – whatever he knows, he’s answered by thinking through and the rest by “inky, pinky, ponky.” 

Right now, I can’t find an answer to that.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Keerthi's Questions

Last Sunday, little Keerthi who’s studying in Class 2 came home for Golu. Saying she wanted to look around my house, she pulled me along, asking a string of questions.

Every time we entered a room, she asked, “What is this place? What is it used for?” Then we entered the kitchen and she fired a salvo, “Why is this place so messy today?” I was stunned into a momentary silence by two things – one, that her observation was painfully true and two, that she’d been so open and matter-of-fact about stating it. I tried explaining that it had been a busy day, with the festival cooking and guests coming over with no time to clean the place up. She nodded as if the answer didn’t really matter to her – she was excited just looking at a new place, observing it and asking her questions.

She peered into the cupboard in the room, looked towards the mirror on the other side and armed with my answers, declared her understanding, “Ok, so Suresh Uncle keeps his clothes here, and gets ready there.” I found myself laughing, silently thankful that she didn’t use the adjective she’d used for the kitchen.

I wondered if little Keerthi has learned this in school as part of some modern education method of collecting and storing information. When I asked my niece who’s into educational psychology, she told me about something called the 5Ws and one H method that’s taught in some schools as part of speaking skills. Later, I looked it up on Google and found this technique has quite a few applications from communication and journalism to project management and Six Sigma. 

My interest in the topic is quite different though, for I realized these questions are a formidable tool to get to the very basics of an issue.
Ever since Keerthi demonstrated this method, I’ve found myself using it with commendable results.

When some place is cluttered, I ask ‘What is this place? What is it for? What needs to be here?’ ‘What does not need to be here?' Answering these questions not only helps me clear up the place in a jiffy, it also helps me avoid the irritation that comes with unanswerable questions like ‘Why does it always have to be me who has to clear the mess’ or ‘When will people learn to keep things in their place’

But the most effective use of these questions has been in clearing mental clutter. What is my mind meant for? What is this unwanted stuff fluttering around here? How can I get rid of it? What is the best way to look at this particular situation? How much energy does this feeling or thought deserve?

What I’ve found even more critical is the way Keerthi used the word ‘today’ while asking why the kitchen was messy. When you ask yourself why you’re feeling upset today or sad today or angry today or let down today or lethargic today – the ‘today’ is important. Because it lets you realize that the feeling is a temporary one. You’re not doomed to always feel that way. And that has to be the most uplifting of feelings – to realize that you won’t always feel this way, that tomorrow or the next moment can be a better one, and that you have a role in making sure tomorrow turns out different.

Little Keerthi’s parents will most likely read this and shake their heads in amusement (and maybe wonder) at what this writer has conjured up from the tiny simple questions their kid asked. Some day when she grows old enough to understand, I want to show this to Keerthi and thank her for the role she played in my taking yet another tiny step towards being a better person. Who knows, reading it may even help her rediscover the power of asking the right questions in a way she may have long-since forgotten.

This lovely frame is from Incidental Comics...

Saturday, 8 October 2016

The "Pak" Divide

I put up a photograph on Facebook, featuring the outcome of one of my culinary expeditions during this Navaratri. The caption reads: “Mysore Pak for the festival.. with paraphernalia also included...I'm being extra cautious at a time when asking for proof appears to be the flavor of the season.”

Having shot that missile, I go into virtual hibernation because there’s too much happening in the real world. A phone call from a honcho whom I have offered to help with some writing; preparing ‘muruku’ and the day’s ‘sundal;’ welcoming guests; serving them the snacks and seeing them off after the customary ‘taamboolam.’

Around midnight, when I finally log back onto Facebook, I notice that my wall has begun to resemble Arnab Goswami’s Newshour.

Some people are making polite noises by ‘liking’ or ‘loving’ the picture, others are more volubly passionate in their expression. One Mysore Pak fan – obviously a puritan – comments that the sweet needed to be more porous and offers a tip on how to get the texture right. He gets seconded by someone (one of my closest friends – Brutus!) and the latter’s husband joins the party to express an opinion opposing hers.

He is promptly chastised by the puritan, who brings in the great “Pak Divide” – a conflict that has held the citizens of two neighboring states in its vice-like grip for ages before it had to cede space to the more pressing Cauvery issue. Because, of course, we don’t have the equivalent of a Marie Antoinette to tell people without water to make Mysore Pak instead. The only one with a tenuous link to Mysore royalty defected to the other side. Over the years, she drew our water too, away and whether it is the ravages of time, or retribution for trespassing holy fault lines, she now lies ailing in secrecy.

Sigh.Talking of Arnab, I have unknowingly taken on a quality of his panelists and digressed from the issue on hand. Let’s re-orient our mental compass and get back to the Pak debate.

On my wall, one guy steps in with a comment that, with ‘surgical’ precision, reveals the drift of my caption’s intention and rescues the discussion from paradropping into a culinary debate.

Today, much longer, after my expedition and public acceptance of the event, the picture continues to attract attention. I cannot help but think of how similar the situation is to the current debate that initially inspired my caption.

Some people take things as presented and say it’s perfect the way it is. Some others try to point out their opinion of how it should have been done. Some people want to know how it is done. For some people, the doer’s claim of having done it and the body of proof provided is not good enough – they still ask, did you really do it?

And, perhaps most important of all …wait, I need to spell out a disclaimer here. No offence intended to Nandhini, a close and dear relative who I know didn’t mean her comment to imply what I’m going to say it did….just that in an Arnabesque way, I’m using her comment to drive home a vital point of the larger issue here.

And perhaps most important of all, the one sounding unbelieving – despite the doer providing proof – is not an outsider, but an insider, who, one expects, would have known better than to doubt the doer’s capabilities.

It’s not as if such expeditions haven’t been undertaken before – they have. It’s not that the efforts have passed unnoticed – they have. But there have been two major features that set this episode apart.

First, the obvious one – the event has been made public on a social platform that engages far more persons than those who are only at the receiving end. The second, and more astounding one – this time around, there has been a drastic veering off the standard track in such a way that the product itself is a different one. To the ones watching from afar, it looks like the same old stuff, but those with a ringside view and sampling opportunity, know it’s a distinctive development.

The Mysore Pak is not actually Mysore Pak.

It’s a related sweet called ‘7 Cups’ because it is made by mixing 3 cups of sugar with 1 cup each of gram flour (besan), milk, coconut and ghee. Faced with a power cut that prevented grinding of the grated coconut, I changed tack to come up with a leaner and meaner product. Discarding the 1 cup of coconut and correspondingly, half a cup each of sugar and ghee, this confection-without-a-name was successfully planned, executed and publicized to great fanfare.

The bottom line – about 12 people (equally distributed on both sides of the "Pak" divide) who consumed the product have heaped praise on the one preparing it and that’s good enough – for now. Will there be more such daring expeditions? Maybe – at a time of the doer’s choosing. 

Will the experience gained from making the expedition public this time, cause a change in recipe? Maybe, maybe not – it will depend on the flavor of that season !