Sunday, December 26, 2010

Monday Musings 106 - Mystery in Opposites

106- Mystery in Opposites
Much of life is spent in oscillating between opposites. Some swing from one extreme to another in utter helplessness, put into this oscillation through a complex and mostly inexplicable web of circumstances, often described as destiny or luck; and others refuse stubbornly to be a part of extremes and they live on the fence, either out of intellectual lethargy or out intellectual inability to chose or simply because they realize the futility of rigid positions.
 In fact life finds its description only in two ends of the spectrum (good or evil) – meanings gets expressed only through extremes (centripetal force or centrifugal force), emotions are understood through opposites (joy or sorrow, happy or sad, elation or depression), concepts unfold in diametric opposites (hot or cold), human body acts as a physiological entity in harmony only on the taut balance of opposites (hyper-hypo viz.  hypertension-hypotension etc), the world reveals itself to sight between extremes (light-darkness), ideologies are expressed as extremes (socialism or capitalism), consequences are expressed as opposites (hell and heaven, victory and defeat), so on and so forth. One would most likely conclude that life is binary, expressing itself only as the ubiquitous 0 or 1, suspending possibilities of anything else or anything in between.
We make sense of the world within the broad framework of these extremes. Our mind is able to rank in its own peculiar way, our experiences only on this scale between the extremes. Simultaneously dawns the realization that, we all search our balance, our sense of proportion through the construct of these extremes. Some who are able to find that proportion find it easy to deal with the vagaries of life – for they understand that the extremes are cognitive constructs – created only to understand – but reality always lies somewhere in the middle. Life may be understood in the hard colors of black and white, but is always experienced as shades of grey. It is this dilemma that flummoxes some and intrigues others. Those who succumb to the dilemma find it hard to negotiate the huge chasm between the philosophy and practice of life – and those who do, discover poetry in the ambiguity of life, enjoy its multi layered yet nuanced meaning.
Each one of us has our own way of dealing with strife that this pull of extremes puts us through. Kabeer lamented many years ago –
‘Chalti chakki dekh kar, diya kabeera roye
Dui paatan ke beech me, sabut bacha na koye.
(Kabeer cries on seeing a moving flour stone; No one escaped the crush of being in the middle of two)
And so did Ghalib,
‘imaan mujhe roke hai, to kheenche hai mujhe kufr
Kaaba mere peeche hai, to kaleesa mere aage’
(Conscience and crime each pull me towards them; like two different places of worship)

It is amazing to see individuals, teams, societies, communities and nations to desert their ideological positions because the utopia it promised never really materialized – and it is equally amazing to see them flirt with diametrically opposite ideological positions in search of their utopia. It is also not uncommon to see them settling for the amorphous and the so called impure middle.
So as we bid 2010 goodbye, here is toasting to the mystery in opposites and to the human quest of finding its sweet spot.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

105-Searching redemption in the past

105-Searching redemption in the past
There is this eminently memorable sequence in the brilliant Clint Eastwood movie ‘Invictus’, where the white captain of the South African rugby team is trying to motivate his all-white team to go out and give their best and win – inspired also by the newly elected black President, one Nelson Mandela, who wants to showcase this victory as a symbol of hope and victory to a nation trying to come out of the oppressive memory of apartheid. The captain takes his team to the prison where Mandela spent 27 yrs of his life imprisoned – breaking stones, doing odd jobs, undergoing the traumatic experience of a prisoner in his own country, fighting against an autocratic regime and yet keeping his dignity intact and his hopes alive. The sequence is brilliant as the captain tries of imagine the 27 years of Mandela in prison – and in this imagination of that painful past finds inspiration for his present.

In another incident a few months back I was talking to someone from my own faith- Sikhism, in the course of a discussion on the concept of religious identity in a fast homogenizing world. In the course of that discussion, he commented that he would want to witness that historical event when the Khalsa Sect was born, on the Baisakhi of 1699 in Anandpur Sahib, a town few hours from Chandigarh. His desire was to first hand experience the formation and mass baptism of a massive congregation by the tenth Guru of the Sikh’s, Guru Govind Singh–and be a part of the profoundness of that moment.

While these are two isolated examples, I am sure our past has great moments – and each one of us, depending upon our own sensibilities is attracted towards some or other of them. We find the mere thought of being present there as surreal, romantic, thrilling or hair rising – or a strange concoction of feelings that makes us want to be there and witness the action-Live. In wanting to be a part of it we seek either redemption from the mundaneness of everyday living or salvation from the guilt of the past or liberation from the ordinariness of our present.

We have two kinds of occasions/ stories we would want to witness – On one hand we have the stories of struggle, creation and resourcefulness, of gumption, dare-devilry and  foresight, of tenacity and perseverance – that provides us the inspiration to go beyond our limitation. On the other hand we have stories of agony, trails and tribulations, of sheer darkness of human persecution and oppression, of tragedy, ache and melancholy - that provides us catharsis in the recognition of the universality of pain. History is such a great balm – I wish we apply it more often.
So, which are the events in history that you would like to witness the most? Make a list and in making this list revisit what touches/inspires you in them the most. This list will reveal a lot about you.

Here is my top 5 in no particular order.

1. Witnessing Ghalib write verse: I wish I could witness him writing and his expressions. I want to know if words came effortlessly to him or did he struggle for it. I wish I could live in ballimaran – the area in old Delhi and figure out how an iconoclastic like him, in the most tumultuous phase of modern Indian history suffered so much personal tragedy, received so little recognition while he was alive and yet  lives on as the greatest of urdu poet ever.   

2. Partition – Nothing in the modern Indian history has left a more powerful impact than the gut wrenching experience of partition of India, leading to the worlds largest human displacement, that left million bodies homeless and a million souls scarred for life. I did not understand the anguish behind the words when my dying grandfather mumbled in his delirium –‘I want to go to Lahore’ or the longing in the reminiscence in the words of grand parents of a friend of mine (Sahil – hope you read this). Ah! That pain – too much price and yet priceless!

3. The day Gandhi was thrown out of a train compartment in South Africa- I want to enter his heart for those five minutes as he would have picked himself up – What would he have lived in those 5 minutes – that would make an ordinary Mohandas into a formidable Mahatma.

4. Travel with Guru Nanak once. It is said in the Sikh pantheon that Guru Nanak along with his two disciples Mardana and Bala travelled around the world(majorly Asia) four times. I want to travel with him at least once to understand how did he see the world around him, how did he assimilate the social practices that he witnessed and how did he convert this meaning into a new way of life that one day would take the form of a new religion. I want to witness the transformation of an ordinary householder into a revered Guru.

5. One day in the life of Victor Frankel- who wrote a book called ‘Man’s search for Meaning’. Victor wrote this book after and on the basis of his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps for close to five years and he lived to tell the tale. I want to be in his mind and soul as he bore that soul crushing experience but never lost his hope. I want to be with him every time he went through a near death encounter, every time he experienced the agonizing and inhuman treatment and yet hoped to live through it. And he did.

Make twain once said – The trouble with life is it goes on. Sorry Mr Twain,The beauty of life is that it goes on.


Sunday, December 5, 2010

104 Monday Musings

104 Monday Musings The tale is in the telling.
The other day I had the fortune of listening to the maverick and extremely talented film maker Sudhir Mishra. For the un initiated, Sidhir who cut his teeth with a film like ‘ Jaane bhi do yaro“ has in the recent times directed films like Hazaron Khwahishen Aisi and Khoya Khoya Chaand. 
I recount for you two thoughts from what he had to say that day. First – film making is simultaneously an act of arrogance as well as an act of humility. Arrogance in the sense that hundreds have told their stories since decades and one still believes that he can say something more and something better. Humility in the sense that the product speaks to you after it has been made. It tells you how good or bad it has been.
Let me pick up where the last strand thought leaves. Each one of us are creators of something or the other – of performance, of creativity or teams or culture  - irrespective of whether we are film makers or managers. Each day we churn out our ‘produce/product’. We may have a self image of selves in which we might have a certain view of our capabilities, mostly good and sometimes exaggerated, but reality is revealed only once we analyse our product. The soil may believe a thing or two about its fertility but the crop is its ultimate expression.
Our product/produce is our signature, the ultimate expression of our worth. The wise one will compare his self image with the quality of his produce and check for differences, deviations and disparities. What we create talks to us – sometimes softly but mostly it shouts. The strategy we weave, the portrait we draw, the managerial decisions we take, the teams we lead, the culture we have built – talks to us. Do we listen and do we respond?
The second thought that I brought back from that event was when Sudhir said – ‘The tale is in the telling’.  As a training professional in a life insurance company I have always wondered what is that I will add to the universe of life insurance selling – that has not already been said or talked or taught. My friends in other walks of life may be asking similar questions. I guess much of greatness and much of genius will be revealed in telling the tale differently than in telling a new tale. Most of live and work in familiar spaces – which have been walked on by millions before us, worked on by thousands before us, impacted and affected by hundreds before us. Our glory and our redemption lies not in getting burdened by the history of those hundreds, and thousands and millions, but in the audacity of our own abilities to tell the tale differently.
So irrespective of whether you are a film maker or a manager, go ahead and tell it the way you see it – you always had different eyes, now is the time to have a different vision.

Monday, November 29, 2010

103 - Monday Musings - The story of an unusual suspect

The story of an unusual suspect
There are some tales that are destined to be told. Each tale has immense possibilities to touch us, inspire us and reveal a tiny hitherto untold dimension of what human potential can achieve. Pankaj Dubey in my universe is one such tale.
Pankaj was an year junior to me in school in the badlands of erstwhile Bihar and present day Jharkhand. The memory I have of him from those days is that of a lanky, sweet talking, fairly flirtatious young boy (although I suspect that he knew what he was doing would one day qualify as flirting– and in case he knew it then I salute him as a child prodigy). During the very brief time he was in that school we met a few times on the podium in the course of debates and extempores as both of us were active in that circuit. Soon he changed schools and life took us in different directions.
We came in touch with each other almost 20 years later in the middle of 2009. Let me recount what life did to Pankaj and what Pankaj did to life since the time we parted ways.
Pankaj struggled to pass his Xth board, particularly troubled by something called maths. Early in life he realized that between him and maths, only one life could accommodate. He flunked in 11th and owing to the small town schools willingness to take his apology as a creditable enough corrective action, he was promoted to class 12th, where his natural inclination for academic mediocrity continued to flourish – particularly in subjects like maths and science. However he debated, wrote and extempore unabated. Needless to say he just scrapped through 12th.
Pankaj came to Delhi convinced that even someone like him should have the audacity to go to college in Delhi because he was of the view that in a large city like Delhi, surely there would be many like him, with scores like his but still wanting to attend college. The only thing he knew was how to debate and speak in public, with language as his only ally and self expression his only recourse. One such college in Delhi admitted him on something as exotic as a ‘debate quota’. The next three years Pankaj did the only thing he knew – debated, extempored, wrote essays and so on and so forth – clearly not what respectable students from respectable families normally do. Pankaj had many virtues – being normal was certainly not one of them.
Over time Pankaj started winning debate competitions in his college, university and then interuniversity. He represented India in debates in international events. He then went to study ‘applied communication’ (whatever that is) in London – all on scholarship. After completing that he joined the Hindi services of BBC in London and somewhere during this time he found time to be associated with the Pravasi Bhartiya organization doing some work for them – and in one such event was the key note speaker while one Atal Bihari Bajpayee was his listener. He returned back to India only to continue his dalliance with abnormality.
Pankaj started an NGO named SPRIHA and then instituted India’s first  SADAK CHAAP FILM FESTIVAL where he conducted film festivals in the slums of 26 cities in India. He plans to take the Sadak Chaap film company to 50 cities in India next year. He is doing some work on Empathy building in children through his film festival. He is scheduled to be recognized by his work by the Govt of Karnataka as India’s top 5 youth icons who are doing commendable work in social awakening. He is also in advanced stages in the evaluation of being an international recognition for his work in the area of empathy building.
Pankaj is a registered writer in the film writers association and arranges workshops for aspiring actors, directors and other trades on esoteric topics like ‘crowd funding’ He has just entered this area and plans to expand his area of work in the future. I have a feeling this part of his story is yet to unfold.
I asked him once – ‘where do you find time to do all of this?; to which he replied – if you don’t study maths, enough energies get released for mankind to do so much more with life’. Strange answer by a strange man.
In one of the conversation where he was bubbling with enthusiasm about possibilities he remarked – ‘I am against all forms of knowledge. There is no knowledge that Google cannot team me. I am a merchant of imagination. Knowledge is the pursuit of what exists. Imagination is the pursuit of what can be’ WOW!
I told this tale because it had to be told. You figure out what it tells you; as far as I am concerned, it doesn’t tell me anything – it only screams.
PS – There are two followers on my blog – AS and MSA. Could you get in touch with me or enable your settings so that I can identify you.

Monday, November 22, 2010

102 Monday Musings

The social transformation – 2
Last week i talked of the first of the two experiences I had undergone, that were bound by a subtle thread of what one may call a trend. Today I shall talk about the second experience.
As I landed in Mumbai the other day, the cab driver who came to pick me up was a lady called Sulekha. Sulekha has been driving a cab for now for over two years. She entered this business, clearly a male bastion so far, under the prodding and support of her husband. I recount here for you some of her statements which have a powerful subtext of a strong social transformation that is unfolding around us.
Question – Why did you chose this profession of driving a cab?
Answer – “I wanted to do something new. I did not want to rush every morning without serving my in laws or not cooking for my husband. This gave me flexibility to do both”
Question – Any problems you faced?
Answer – “Initially as my timings were erratic, neighbors used to raise eyebrows and bitch to my mother-in-law but not they have got used to it. The money I am able to make here helps of course”
Question – Which are the normal routes you ply?
Answer – “Oh! I go all over the place. I do local in Mumbai and I go to Pune, Nashik and Shirdi. Sometimes I travel through the night, reach in the morning and come the same evening. It can become taxing. My son misses me, but what to do!
Question – How do customers react on seeing a female cabbie?\
Answer – “They are surprised surely. They ask a lot of questions, the way you are asking. But I provide the best services that I possible can. I never complain of odd hours or long drives. There are times when the schedule of the passenger’s changes and it creates delays. I cannot complain, can i?  If I start complaining then off goes my reputation.” “You see there was this Gujrati lady who wanted me to take her to Shirdi. I said you just pay for the fuel, no need to pay me anything else – after all the car is doing to Baba’s house. Got to worship him too na!!
Question – Does the long hours disturb you?
Answer – “No No. In fact now the day I do not have any trip I don’t know how to spend my time. Today was a lean day and no trips since morning. The moment I got this call for an airport pick up, I immediately said yes – ‘chalo shaaam to kategi
I was bowled over by her confidence, her matter-of-fact attitude towards her profession, her faith in her ability to chisel her future and her complete dedication to her craft. As you read through the conversation you realize the magnitude of the phenomena that is happening as the sub text of this saga of social transformation. The fun is in discovering that sub text for yourself and not in me taking away your joy by describing it.
PS – It was Guru Nanaks Birthday yesterday. As he appropriately says – Nanak Naam Chaddi Kalaa, Tere Bhane Sarbat Da Bhalaa. (O Nanak, With His name shall you and ALL prosper)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Monday Musings 101

Monday Musing is back after a hiatus of a little over three months. Everyday living sometimes gets better of us and the discipline of pursuing an interest takes a back seat. I guess thats precisely why it is so difficult to be dogged in pursuing an interest without compulsions other than the calling of the heart. I guess that is why it is difficult to be a genius. But the good news for me is that it is back. This time with a fair amount of audacity i am taking the liberty of marking it to a wider audience, some of whom are far more learned and experienced than me. Hope Monday Musings in its second incarnation as a blog will be received with as much fondness as its first avatar.
The creeping social transformation - 1
In an extremely short span of 24 hrs I witnessed two isolated incidents bound only by a very fragile thread of what one would call a trend – a thread so fragile and subtle that one would miss it If one did not pay attention. I was in a hotel in Chennai in the course of a training program, which also housed a pub on its first floor. It was the middle of the day and the place was swarming with teenagers who were barely out of school. It was some kind of a party and they were having a ball – dancing to loud music and from the state some of them were in, it wasn’t difficult to imagine that they were also a few drinks down. It was also not difficult to imagine that it was a college bunking party and young boys and girls were ready to go back home after what was a day supposed to be attending classes. As the party broke at around 5 pm  and they started to bid goodbye to each other the inebriated state they were in became obvious. The sight of extremely young kids drunk and smoking without remorse or hesitation and with ease was, for the want of a better word, disturbing.
The sight of one particular girl who looked more like the front bencher-studious-notes taking types, puffing like a practised veteran just doesn’t leave me. This was happening in a relatively old and traditional neighbourhood, on a lazy afternoon and in Chennai - had its own significance. This was breaking all the stereotypes of the youngistan that I had in my mind or had read about.
I am not puritanical normally – in my own growing up or in my views on changing sociological landscape – but even my otherwise liberal sensibilities were stretched to accept what I was seeing. Surely I have been a youngster and not a very nice one at that, but this took my breath away. For heavens sake – they were just too young.  As those images linger in my head and the pragmatic in me takes over, I am almost forced to consider that perhaps I missed some changes that might have occurred around me since the time I was a teenager.
Teenage rebellion is not new – neither is the youth’s desire to experiment with the prohibited. I guess the prohibited list just expanded. So how does one deal with such social transformation. I guess the first step is to accept that the world of an adolescent has undergone a change and so has the notion of taboo. What was taboo till the last day is perfectly kosher now. My sense of disbelief is a construct of the times that i have grown up and may be completely out of place.
My own liberation lies in accepting an entirely different new world of a 16 year old and accepting that he and i are united at least in one way – that he is deriving as much joy in being a rebel as much as i enjoyed it in my times.
(I shall talk about the second evidence of a creeping social transformation in my next blog.)