Sunday, 27 November 2016

Making India Work

Over the years I have a rule that I have followed consistently, in professional forums I do not comment on issues that are unrelated to either the topic at hand or which are outside the realm of my professional existence. However, a few days ago, for the first time ever, I broke my own rule.  

I have now been working in India for six years and have spent an equal amount of time in services and manufacturing. The one thing I have come to acknowledge is, a number of individuals have overcome humungous obstacles to achieve a standard of living that their parents could only dream of. Some of their stories give me goose bumps, each time I recount them. So whether it is the story of my colleague whose parents could not read and write but she is a finance professional today, or the story of the young man who moved from the village not knowing English, worked as a peon, attended night college to complete his bachelors and learn English, and then joined one of India’s largest private banks; every accomplishment makes me salute their spirit and achievements. The other thing I have come to appreciate is that while we may all have our differences, when any one of us is in need, the rest of us stand behind, solid as a rock. Recently, a colleague lost his ailing mother. He was out of town and sent an sms. That was all that was needed for the team to brave the torrential Mumbai rains, reach his house, help with all the formalities and last rite preparations and on top of it ensure that he took a flight which even with a delay would get him home in time. This extended support system is rarely seen in other cultures.

 Having said that, I must also admit, the one thing that agonises me the most is the tendency of Indians (me included, I am an Indian and proud to be one) to find someone else responsible for all the woes. Somewhere, accountability for our actions and responsibility for their consequences misses us by miles and miles. And it was a lamenting on similar lines when I decided to break my rule. On the topic of current GDP scenario, one gentleman started his rant on how Indians are intolerant, how the government is ineffective and how the media is irresponsible. After listening to him for five minutes, I had to ask – who are the intolerant Indians, who elects the ineffective government and who reads or watches the irresponsible media without ever writing to the Information and Broadcasting ministry? And then every citizen turns around and says, “what can I do all by myself”; and every time I have the same response, “every drop contributes to making the ocean”. Why do we hesitate to stop littering in public places? Why do we not go and vote even if it is NOTA? Why can we not stop reading and watching the overtly sensational media pretending to give us news and information? If each one of us takes the responsible step, we can usher in change. If we keep waiting for someone else to lead, then we will just have to make do with what we have!

Single person bringing in a different era - Idealistic? Maybe. Honest? Absolutely.  Not impactful? Not at all.

 Idealistically, the freedom struggle is quoted by many as an example of how ordinary citizens contributed to the nation gaining independence. Honest individuals have demonstrated, in recent times, how one person’s quest can lead to positive change – so be it Jessica Lal’s sister who finally got the country to rally behind her and get justice for her sister, or be it the story of how Popatrao Baguji Pawar’s foresight and efforts ensured that Hiware Bazar in the drought prone Maharashtra district of Ahmednagar became the only place in this year’s drought to be breathing; there are multiple incidents of one person creating an impact that can improve thousands of life. Yes these individuals could have waited for someone else but they did not. And yes they needed that every someone else to take some accountability and responsibility, and work with them, to achieve the end result!  

 Historians are writing eulogies about how great a nation we were. I believe, we are still a great nation, with inspiring citizens all around us. All we need is to rise to the occasion and create the consciousness that each one’s prosperity and happiness will only add to that of the others. If there is more money with a larger group of people, there will be more money for everyone eventually (an economic discussion that is for another post maybe). If there is greater harmony, there will be lesser strife. If there is more empathy, there will be fewer intolerance episodes. But none of this can come from the rule of law or from a dictate of any specific individual. This has to come from the individuals who form the civic society and only then will it be sustainable.

Louis L’Armour has summarised my thought beautifully, “To make democracy work, we must be a nation of participants, not simply observers."

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Seeds of Change

It had been two years, and I was still unsure how to address the situation with her. He was the only man she had ever known. He had been the love of her life. I had seen their relationship start. We were still in school then, and she was amongst my closest friends. Then came college and their love blossomed.  Finally, despite all the ups and downs they got married. And then came a time when they were not together.

So a year ago, two years post them not being together, I sat with her not knowing how she was. I had met her on and off but had never spoken about this. I guess old friends don't need words to understand one another, and she probably guessed what I was thinking. So she spoke about him first and then I gathered the courage to ask her if she felt cheated. Her response was of gratitude, "Sweetie I am glad for all the years I got with him. What would I do if I did not have those years to experience his love and how great an experience being with someone as generous as him can be! Do I have a regret, maybe a small one. But then I see other women around me who are letting their marriages and relationships suffer because of egos and not wanting to compromise. They are being so short sighted. They have a chance to build a better tomorrow, only if they could give in to small things that don't matter in the long run. But even if I want, I don't have that opportunity any more. No one comes back from the other side of life! This observation is more painful than my one my tiny regret."

This conversation has been etched in my memory ever since, not only because her positivity is inspirational but because I agree with her. There is incredible merit in evaluating adjustments for relationships that matter, and that is a personal view that as the days pass is only becoming stronger.

I lost my maternal grandfather when I had just entered my teens. I have always been saddened by the fact that I could not get to know that incredible human being better and spend more time with him. The last opportunity that I had to meet him, I lost, because I was busy studying for my exams. Academics was my oxygen those days, but today I realise that one grade lower and I would not have lost much in life. So six years ago when the opportunity came to move back to India I decided to take it up.

Appyrichvictor, a well wisher and a dear friend, called me post this decision and expressed his apprehension. In his view I was taking a step back in my career for which I had worked hard. In some ways he was right. But I wanted to move back to India for my parents and grandparents. I even joked with him that the move would make me richer as I would save on rent and utilities. Staying with my parents would take away my independence, I was told by many people. My answer to them in jest was that I was going to take away my parents' independence! Eventually, six years later what has happened?

I got to spend time with my paternal grandfather before he passed on four years ago. There were many evenings when I would scramble not much but thirty minutes to go sit with him or lay my head in his lap. Some of those evenings he would hold my hand tight, so tight as if asking me to be just there. Those largely quiet evenings got me closer to him. They showed me his will power, his tolerance for pain, his love for lemons, his total adoration of his two oldest children, his affection for me and his strong desire to see his family happy.

I recollect a meeting I had with the head of credit of a large private Indian bank. At the end of the meeting, seeing my last name the gentleman could not resist and told me the story of a Mr Bagrodia who was heading a textile company when he had just started working. The company's financials were in trouble and so as a youngster he had refused the loan renewal for this textile mill, only to be reprimanded by his bosses. Till Mr Bagrodia was there, the bank's loan was in good hands. I left that meeting feeling proud, humbled and glad that I had moved back to India. I feel blessed to be his granddaughter.

No amount of career progression would have enriched me, with my own lineage, as this incident did. No amount of money can ever repay those precious moments, when with my head in my grandfather's lap,  my inner child rejoiced. No amount of experience in London could give me contentment that I feel, everytime I think of how just the day before he left for the hospital for the last time, my grandfather bid me goodbye. He did not say a word. He just looked at me and held my hand. And then he left it and looked away. I remember walking to my father and asking him to leave everything and go sit with grandfather. A fortnight later he was watching over us from up above.

Moving back was a difficult decision. Adapting to a different work culture was difficult. But all change is and all adjustment is, especially when it involves letting go of something. The criteria that I use is what do I stand to gain by letting go. If the potential reward outweighs the opportunity cost, the plunge is worth it. I may have taken a pay cut in moving to India. My international experience may have been cut short. But I earned the love and blessings of my grandparents. I basked and continue to in the love of my family, and just that experience is priceless!

I had just started working in the UK when my niece, the first of the next generation was born. I will never forget that afternoon when I got the call. Oh how I wanted to see her! WhatsApp and face time did not exist then. So I had to wait for an email. By the time the email came, I think somewhere I had decided to travel to India and spend some time with the little one who had stolen my heart even before she was born. I had just decided to move into my own tiny apartment and the landlord wanted deposit money to hold the flat for the fortnight I planned to take unpaid leave. A month's rent when I was repaying a loan was a lot of money but I went ahead. I loved the apartment and I would not get these days back with my baby. If I had to have both I had to find a way.

I will never forget the little doll in her peach polka dot frock, lying on the bed, as I walked towards her. The first time I picked her up I knew she was my heart. Every night she was in my arms and I walked and sang her to sleep. Today, as she is about to enter her teens, we sing that song together and have a laugh. She still cuddles into me to hear a story and she calls me up without any hesitation if she needs help with homework. This love and bond are invaluable. For the loss of a little pay, I accumulated a lifetime of memories and a special bond; and I will repeat my decision if I had to.

At dinner I saw a woman ushering in a huge change and taking a leap of faith. She is nervous and scared; but she is filled with excitement and hope. At dinner I recounted an old friend's story to new friends. At dinner I relived some of my decisions. At dinner my belief was reaffirmed. 

As I am concluding this, I reacknowledge how right she was in making her statement - we can create a better future only if we accept that for a short while there maybe some adjustment needed. As I am concluding this, I am smiling in the understanding of the validity of  her joy - which is just as palapable as mine on my decision of moving back, despite all the perceived giving up I supposedly did. As I am writing this, it strikes me that though we feel the pain while sowing the seeds of change, by the time we reap the harvest, those adjustments are forgotten and only the gains remain. And just for that glorious bountiful golden harvest, the initial effort is worth it!

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Women Empowerment - A Better Pool of Choices Please

After I published my post Women Empowerment - The Context of Us vs Them, for many days I was agitated. I wanted to do something to help her. I asked friends and acquaintances for suggestions. For a few days, everyday I would get a call from someone giving a suggestion that I would note down in my feasibility evaluation list. One such call came when I was sitting with a colleague and discussing a work problem at hand. However, solving "her" problem was also a priority, and so uncharacteristically I interrupted the discussion and took the call. Needless to say that my colleague heard the conversation.

As I hung up, my colleague turned to me and said, "how can we help?" And without thinking, without blinking, from I don't know where the words that came out were - "Can we brighten their Diwali? Can we give her and her daughter some clothes?" My colleague said most definitely and we continued our discussions. Later that evening, I sent a message to my team members, requesting for any clothes or utensils that they could spare for the mother daughter. Lo and behold, the Friday before Diwali, I had five bags full of clothes - bright, colourful and great quality daily and party wear! I was touched by the generosity of my team and of course delivered the surprise to the family promptly.

Why am I writing this today after all these days? Because I want to share what happened today.

Everyday after Diwali I would ask her why Shireen was not in her new clothes. Why was the child still wearing the old torn clothes? Everyday she would say, "Didi, tomorrow, promise." Today I asked her the same question yet again and she said, "On Friday is Tulsi Vivah (a Hindu festival). We will all go to the temple and now I am not busy selling flowers due to Diwali. So I can dress her up and I promise I will take a photograph and we will come to meet you. What is the use of her wearing such wonderful clothes when all she does is play in the dust! Let me enjoy her enjoying her new clothes on a festival."

Having an answer that I could not respond to, I asked her if she had worn any of the clothes that were for her. "Can I be honest with you didi", she asked. "Of course, my dear, always", I replied. "I sent them to the village with my parents. You see my elder and middle sister both ask if I have good clothes from Bombay to send to them and I never had any. This time I did. I get clothes here every once in a while and so am not in need. They may not be as colourful but I get my need satisfied. My sisters do not have this opportunity, so I sent the clothes for them. Please don't feel bad but I am telling you the truth."

Could have I felt bad after what I had just heard! She lives, eats and sleeps on the pavement along with her daughter. She has to worry about every next meal. She is fighting to keep her daughter with herself. And despite all these hardships, she has the magnanimity to look after her sisters! I was unable to say anything and so concluded our meeting with a hug and walked away.

As I am writing, I am staring out of the window and can see her and Shireen sleeping peacefully. Seeing them and thinking of our conversation earlier in the evening, my heart swells with emotions I cannot express. Recounting what she said I am humbled once again with her strength, positivity and generosity.

If I can help her, I will be fortunate. If not it's probably because I did not try hard enough. And on that note I say it yet again, she is making the tough choices but these are not choices out of freedom. Her life can be better and she is ready to work for it; but are we, as a society, ready to help her start somewhere? Will we give her the freedom to make a better choice? Will we empower her to give her daughter a better life? Or will she just remain a story that was written and read...

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Women Empowerment - The Selfless and the Less of Self

The brother sister duo's school had started. They had enrolments, teachers and a sufficient temporary premises. Construction of a permanent building was being planned. It all seemed to be under control, and yet there was one person who saw through the calm. She understood that the sister needed someone trustworthy to shoulder the day to day responsibilities; someone who was truly dedicated to the cause and someone who could contribute to furthering the vision that is the foundation of the school. And so Shabri, as I would like to call her, volunteered her services. This is her story.

She got married as soon as she was of marriageable age. That she wanted to work and not enter matrimony was not understood by her parents. Not the one to cause friction when there could be other potential options, she agreed to get married. But with the one who now was her better half, she had a candid conversation. Not that home and family were less important but her desire to teach was strong and she requested his understanding. Her passion and honesty were easily understood and so he truly became the man behind a woman's dreams. 

She completed her teacher training and started to teach. They had two children who were brought up in a disciplined and value oriented environment. Her career continued on its path and so did the family life. It was a simple and complete kin. The children grew up, got married and by this time she had become a principal. All of them were proud of her, but none of this is extraordinary. This is the story of a number of families in India.

The true test came in mid 2016 when she retired. According to the government norms, once an employee crosses 60 they have to make way for the younger generation. This is when the brother sister duo's school had also commenced it's first year and seeing her friend's needs, Shabri decided to offer her services as a teacher in the school along with doing all that she could in the women's home. She asked for nothing in return!

The sister was stumped! Not because Shabri had offered her services but because offering those services meant that she would need to leave her family many many miles away and relocate to live in a village that offers the most basic life. There was no proper accommodation that the sister had to offer, after all she herself had decided to live in a make shift arrangement! And well a salary would not be what Shabri deserved! It was a wonder why had Shabri taken the decision and it was to be seen how her family would react.

When the day of reckoning came, the doctor husband turned to Shabri and asked her if this is what she truly wanted. The son asked her if they would see her at least during the summer holidays. Her answer to the first was affirmative and the second was a maybe,  if her responsibilities permitted. She also asked if she could use her pension to support herself as she would not want to be a burden on the brother sister duo. Seeing her passion and determination, the husband relented yet again and not only agreed to her request on her pension but also said that his help in cash and kind would always be readily available. He helped her pack, loaded the vehicle that was going to take her far away and with tears in his eyes bid her adieu. The son and the daughter in law joined him in a tearful goodbye. But not once did they stop her; and so she is here at the school, devoting all her time and life to those who need her.

Calling her Shabri seems only fit. In Ramayana we read about the Shabri who decided that it was more appropriate if she ate any rotten fruit than any such fruit finding its way to Lord Ram's plate. So she tasted each fruit herself, discarding the spoilt or tasteless fruit and only giving the juicy ones to the Lord. Similarly, the Shabri of today has decided that it is only apt that she undertakes the challenges rather than her friend's noble mission suffering for the lack of a trustworthy person. She is putting in 15 hours of hard work in the school and the women's home every single day only so that goodness and greatness can reach the needy. Such selflessness - demonstrated by Shabri and the doctor, one cannot deny his contribution- is completely rare in today's times...

As I finish making my tea and start to wash the pot, I hear Shabri scolding me;  another aunt worried that my cold will worsen if I wet my hands. Another elder telling me that I am not used to the winters of North India that have begun to set in and so I need to be careful. I tried, but I could not stop myself and I asked her why were there two standards of living - the easy one for me and the tough one for her. Her response was simple, " when you become a mother you will understand".

Will I ever understand these strong women; ladies who have lived tough lives on their own terms, pouring love and values into the lives of all those they have encountered? How can I even attempt to understand the sacrifices they have made, and yet have smiles that light up any room they walk into? Is it even right for me to think that I am capable of understanding them?

While I am contemplating all these ifs, the truth stares at me once again. I am face to face with a life that demonstrates that her happiness is thanks to the respect, trust and freedom of choice that she got. That she undertook struggles, because she had these all around her,  empowering her. She provided for her family, strengthened in the knowledge that give and take are for everyone alike on this planet and not for once feeling victimised or oppressed when she was the giver. She has embarked on a new life, at this age, only because she knows that her beliefs have the understanding of the most important people in her life and that she is truly loved and empowered. What a wonderful world it would be, if we could all live her way. What a wonderful world it would be, if we could all understand the doctor's ways. What a wonderful world it would be if we could all have a little bit of love, respect and honest communication is all our lives; but that would mean that we also give as much as we want to take. I leave the school and this story in this humble acknowledgement.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Can You Sense What I Do?

Most of us have been blessed with all the senses in the world - we can hear the music, smell the flowers, see the sunrise, taste the delicacies and express these experiences in words that are spoken. We can interact and communicate, and yet we don't say what we want to, or understand things differently than intended. And so with all our senses intact, even for while that it maybe, we miss the link and break the connection.
Then there are those who can see the world around them, savour the tastes and inhale the aromas; but they cannot say how these make them feel and they cannot hear the differences in opinions of others. Yet they are the ones who touch our hearts and communicate most honestly. They understand most readily that another individual may have a different experience and that only opens their hearts wider.
I understood this today by sheer chance and stand completely humbled. I am grateful for all my senses and will attempt to use them more efficiently. I pray that I can open my heart and mind, and interact with as much authenticity as I encountered today. I hope that when I hear I can empathise and when I  speak I can convey what I feel. If I can, only then I would have done right by the one who showed me the way today and only then would I be able to stand worthy of possessing all senses in all their glory.