Friday, 26 April 2013

The new story of the Hare and the Tortoise

At various points of time in my life, I have been given various nicknames, most of which epitomize my completely unnecessary and often maniac need for speed.

I was nicknamed Engine by my friends and colleagues in my first job, likened to the Energizer Bunny advertisement by my kind family and got the developmental feedback during a 360 degree appraisal survey that I always seemed to be in tearing hurry. I had no time for small talk or for rest. So much so that my husband, with his usual laidback Bengali preferences for adda, music, sleep and food, not necessarily in that order, said that my weekend heightened levels of activity drove him to such dizziness that he needed to calm himself down with a long dose of sleep.

My mother recalls that my favourite question to her when I was young was “Ma, what shall I do now?” She, it seems, had tried valiantly to give me tasks to complete to keep me occupied but she had not accounted for my devilish speed. Until one fine day, she hit upon the bright idea of getting me hooked onto books and music. Strangely books and music were the only 2 things that calmed me down, that made me stop and wonder and be content to spend hours at a stretch lost in their depth.

But if it was not for books and music, I was always on the run. The first person to finish the exams and run out of the exam hall, the compulsive planner with a packed calendar of tasks to be done, the boringly punctual attendee to meetings only to realize that the person calling for the meeting has not yet turned up, the person in office always stuck with endless, and often useless chores, because the bosses at work realize the unspoken question “What should I do now” that I probably still show on my face even now.

Of course, being a working mom has only intensified my speed craze. With a 100 thoughts running in my head at dizzying speed, I dash about in a craze to meet all my self-laid deadlines and also to make some time for my 2 treasured habits – books and music. I speak fast, eat fast, read fast, type fast and walk fast.

All was fine, so I thought, till I met my match. A 6 year old with a mind of her own and complete disregard for speed. My daughter, I shake my head in vain.

Whether it was just God’s way of getting back at me or whether it is because she just happens to be a creative Gemini, I will never know, but my daughter never seems to be in any hurry. While brushing her teeth, she remembers an amazing dance move she that she has to show me right then. During dinner time, she recalls a funny joke her friend told her, which takes precedence over the food. When its time to leave home for her school or daycare or a party, she realizes the shorts and t-shirt painstakingly laid out by me in the morning do not match her keen fashion sensibilities. And the list continues.

My usual instructions and requests for speed are met with cute smiles, nods and endless questions but not an iota of action. Always a talker in my sleep, nowadays, I sometimes repeat these instructions to her in my sleep in the middle of the night. “Take your bath”, “Brush your teeth”, “Wear your shoes" are few of the instructions that I am heard uttering in my sleep by my long-suffering husband.
So I have finally met my match in my daughter.

Lost in the dream world of creativity, questions and parties, she has just no time for mundane instructions for speed. Of course, she never asks me the question I asked my mother “What shall I do now?” She has plenty of time to figure it out herself.  

Well, she is finally forcing me to stop and ask the question I never bothered to ask. What‘s the hurry? Where am I headed? Am I being the hare in an imaginary race with myself? Am I searching for my true tortoise self?

And as I turn to more books and more music to steady my mind, I share them with her, not to slow her down but just to assuage her need for creativity. At least I can give her this and hopefully never burden her with my speed craze. 

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Why do we write?

Why ask this fundamental and existential question you might say? But this question kept haunting me as I returned from a session on "How to be a first time author?" held in February this year in a packed auditorium of IIM Bangalore with panelists such as Ravi Subramanian, Aroon Raman, Sashi Dehpande and Usha K.R.

The Alumni Association Secretary set the context for the session quite succinctly when he said that this was the first time he had seen the auditorium so full since the 3 Idiots shooting. It seems that last year they had hosted a 'drink all you can' party for the alumni which saw much less attendance than the literary evening which we had all volunteered to be part of, braving the horrific Bangalore traffic on a Friday evening.

Publishers can be rest assured or beware - Bangalore seems to be brimming with budding writers just waiting to send across their manuscripts to the publishers' overflowing desks.

I was quite struck by the divergent views presented by 2 of the panelists - Sashi Deshpande and Ravi Subramanian. I will share the summary of their comments here for other fellow bloggers.

Sashi Desphande spoke clearly and from her heart - write if you have to and if you have a command over the language. Do not resort to the language of the sms which literally sounds like the grunting of animals. She mentioned that writing is an intensely lonely process and one cannot expect help or even compassion as you write, so patience and ability to handle rejection are immensely important traits for writers. The world can survive very well without your book, was one comment she made that will stay forever with me. She said that she did not believe in the current crop of writers' need to be marketers for their own books as publishers always took care of that worry for her.

Ravi Subramanian on the other hand, approached it like a management problem. Majority of the bestsellers, he said, over the last few years, have been written by MBAs. So what knowledge do MBAs have or what frustrations do they suffer from that make them suddenly emerge as writers? Well, he talked about the marketing mantra - define your audience, write about what you know and then sell it yourself. Do not expect your publisher to sell your book for you. He emphasized on the need for a good plot more than eloquent language, a point hotly debated between the panelists who finally agreed to distinguish between literary fiction and popular fiction. The former being Sashi Deshpande's genre and the latter, Ravi's. He spoke about the economics of selling books and why pricing plays such an important role and why it is important to make sure bookstores stock your books while adding ample and not too subtle references to his own bestseller status.

Contrary opinions both. Both rang true in parts, and the audience, most of them probably well into the first draft of their first books, of course had a lot of questions to ask making it an engaging discussion.

All the panelists agreed that there are no shortcuts to getting published though self publishing and online publishing and new-age publishers and agents might be more open to different types of genre today. And finally, they all said that the much talked about book advances that Amish Tripathy and even Ravi/Chetan Bhagat would have got are more an exception than a rule. Having a day job is always better as one starts one's long and unknown writing journey.

Which brings me back to my original question. Why do I write? Sashi or Ravi, whose views do I lean towards?

Well. books have always been my best friends. My earliest dream was to be a librarian, just to be able to sit amid thousands of books and read new ones every day.  My idea of a perfect day was a cup of tea, a comfortable arm chair and a good book.

Armed with it, I would often forget the real world and enter into a world where tales of courage, love, passion and intrigue would leave me spellbound.

And the more I read, the more I wondered about the art of storytelling and about the authors- the people who could write such amazing stories and create such magical characters that gave me so many hours of happiness and joy as I grew up.

A mother now, I find my child also invariably being drawn towards books and stories. She can already recite fairy-tales backwards so I find myself spinning new stories in my head now about my experiences and joys; about people and places that have been a part of my life just to keep her inquisitive mind occupied.

So why do I write? I no longer have a choice. I have to write. It doesn't make me feel happy or peaceful in the least, it keeps me awake at nights and make me dream up really crooked characters during perfectly normal and boring meetings at office. It makes me observe more and share secret laughs with myself or with my close friends about things which I might have never noticed before. 

But I can no longer run away from the need to write..Is that enough?

Yes, I finally do want to join the people who always inspired me, the writers whose words weaved magic in my ears, whose stories remained with me when I slept. 

And I do hope that someone would find the same magic in my book one day that I used to look for always in the books I read. Till then, I dream of the day, my book would be added to the shelf in a library and be someone’s idea of a perfect day

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Corporate Limerick - The Secretary's Woes

A corporate limerick

If this is a familiar scene at your office - frantic race to the printer to print sheets and sheets of paper (often colored) before that critical client meeting which land up in the shredder faster than it took time to print them, you might enjoy this limerick.

The Secretary's Woes

Print says the boss and you fire away,
Printing 40 pages is the highlight of your day.
Colored bits of paper he carries to the lunch meeting,
Then leaves them in disarray now busy eating.
And dares to ask you to shred the confidential evidence out of the way!

A cup of wine and a girlfriend of mine

Try entering the latest new restaurant in town this weekend. Chances are you will see at least one group of well-groomed ladies, (could be any age-group), exuding warmth, confidence, exuberance and camaraderie, holding glasses of mocktail or wine with practiced ease while catching up with other women friends. Is this a new trend in the making, one that concepts such as Women on Wanderlust (called WOW in short, where women travel with a group of other women to exotic destinations) or Ladies nights at pubs across Indian cities are trying to cash in on?

Growing up, I have to admit I did not have a lot of friends who were girls.

While some were busy being Queen Bee, others were equally busy being the followers. Few were lost in the world of would be boyfriends and some were lost in preparation for their would be careers. There were power games and ever changing rivalries with cold shoulder tactics and gossip used at strategic junctures to cut people down to size.

I found very few girls I could connect to – girls who wanted to just learn, read, sing, laugh and not try to be a damsel in distress waiting for her knight in shining armor. And the ones who dared to be different, were often labelled as misfits or worse in the world of budding feminine graces and wiles.

I could count literally count 4 or 5 such girls through school and college who became really close friends and still remain so despite being oceans and continents apart.

But, in my 30s now, happily married, with a husband, kid and a job, I suddenly find myself surrounded by more and more such really inspiring women friends.

Strong, independent women who have their own careers and lives and who fight their own battles from potty cleaning to boardroom meetings.

Women, who manage the politics of office as easily as they rock the parties, soothen their nagging maids and tell stories to their children. Women who are not doormats, who are not sorry for themselves but who live and inspire other women and even men, each day. Women who are secure in their relationships and their roles without losing themselves in a mad rush to be the perfect wife/mother/daughter/employee and fulfill other age-old societal norms and expectations.

People say women are their own worst enemies. But working women, and even more specifically, working moms of today share a pretty special bond, I would say, one that can easily rival the ‘old boys club’. I wish them more power and more luck. Hopefully more and more women would join their ranks and the guilt and doubt that all of us go through as working mothers would be something we can accept and face more easily.

Yes, my salute to these women of today. They can very well face the world without marriage or men.

But still, many of us find happiness, companionship, respect and admiration in our spouses and also in our men friends.

So, for the men who are strong enough to be the partners and friends of todays' women, I am reminded of Sheryl Crowe’s song “Are you strong enough to be my man?”. Hats off to these men for not judging us and not being intimidated us but rather for always being there for us. My salute to all of you as well.. 

Hope our daughters and sons will continue this journey as they grow up and we have a society where women cease to be treated as objects but rather get the respect due to all individuals.

Monday, 8 April 2013

The summer of unhurried conversations and strategic sleepovers

So summer holidays have started now for my daughter and most of her friends, a bunch of highly energetic 6 year olds marching alarmingly towards 16 and armed with world views on almost everything one can think of.

They are looking forward to more than 2 months of blissful holidays.

Of course, most parents are getting jittery at the same thought.

"How do we make sure our kids are engaged during the long summer holidays?" one of my friends recently asked me. She was probably just back from an employee engagement session at office.

Parents are worried. Some are running around frantically trying to find new and exciting hobby classes to enrich their kids' minds and expand their skills (cooking, badminton, swimming, skating and the works). Others are busy trying to enrol them in the friendly, neighborhood summer camps (apart from the usual art, craft, dance and music focused camps, there are now specialized camps ranging from nature camps to science camps to horse-riding and what not). And then there are few, who have the luxury of time and/or money and are either heading home to grandparents' or planning for vacations in exotic places..

Keeping the children engaged during the sultry summer has become serious business. Savvy business people are cashing in on this 'market need' and positioning their offerings aptly. Not just daycares, anyone with knowledge of a specific skill is now using Facebook or other marketing methods to announce a new camp. And parents are willing to shell out serious money to keep the tiny tots' inquisitive minds occupied or to just cool down the temperatures in their homes with the children, hopefully more gainfully employed than just running around and shouting.

But this summer, we have decided to take a very different and laidback approach. We have decided to appeal to our daughter's vast knowledge and increasing world view and let her choose how she wants to spend her time. We are wondering just how she will 'structure' her time, something she will get ample opportunity to do as she grows up and starts working in almost any job.

Stupid, you might say.. So we were told by many people for not organizing every moment of her holidays with some soul uplifting knowledge. She will sit and watch TV all day, we were warned when the grandparents come visiting.

Well as we waited and watched, a very interesting pattern emerged.

T.V. started off as a daily request but the bravery of Chota Bheem and antics of Horrible Henry were soon found to be too boring and discarded with disdain.

Long conversations and strategic planning sessions with her gang in our apartment resulted in the following -
plan for endless sleepover parties and long, unhurried evening get togethers, visits to the local library to borrow books ranging from Enid Blyton to Geronimo Stilton to Horrible History, plans to write stories in their new diaries, new songs being learnt and new skills being shared from skipping to skating to swimming (more like jumping into the pool, of course)...

Highly strategic that these kids are, they now directly call the 'aunties' (friends' mothers) for their specific requirements based on their moods. So if they want stories one day, they call the aunty who is a good story teller; if they want cookies, they know who to call; if they want to learn some new craft activity, they have an answer for that as well.

Their days are full and busy and long.

Yesterday, when I returned from office, I found my daughter and her friend hard at work creating paper wallets and paper money. Cute idea, I thought. And then she showed me her sample paper money - the note said 100 Lakh Rupees only (not very consumerist, these kids...I must say). On her note, Gandhiji had been replaced with the face of a stylish girl with long hair and at the corner of the note, she had written - USE ME. They had set up an imaginary shop where they were buying and selling things with their paper money with all the seriousness of hardened shopkeepers. Hilarious, you would say? Creative too?

Creativity and innovation, you ask? Our kids have both in abundance. Summer camps can wait so can the latest new hobby class. Let's give them freedom and time and watch them dazzle us with their creativity.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Are our children "innovation" ready?

Many centuries ago, Sir Francis Bacon said "Knowledge is Power". 

Today, knowledge is a given. Knowledge is everywhere, ready to drown us in its sheer depth, volume, forms and shapes. What is not known, can be googled; what is known can be shared via Facebook or Twitter, commented on via forums and blogs. One can watch YouTube videos or read summaries of books at 

Why then are we still forcing our children to learn the nuggets of knowledge by rote that may not even have relevance tomorrow? Are we setting them up for failure?

Can their bright minds find any solace or happiness in mugging up facts that they can easily download? Why are we not challenging them to really think, question and build on concepts rather than recite facts?

Can we survive without innovation today?

In today's increasingly dynamic and uncertain world, on one hand, there is an explosion of new trends and technologies such as the Digital Economy, Big Data, Cloud Computing etc. On the other hand, many global companies are closing down (e.g. Nortel), global brands are becoming extinct (e.g. Kodak) and even major economies are struggling to survive. (current state of many European economies).

Tony Wagner, Harvard Education Specialist, feels that middle-class jobs would probably vanish over a period of time. Jobs will increasingly become more specialized. And the less specialized jobs will either be automated or moved to locations which can offer cost advantage or efficiency. 

Yes, choices may be plenty today and new career options have opened up which may not even have been dreamt off decades ago. But at the same time, many jobs have become obsolete. People have learnt the hard way that there may be no 'for life' companies and job security is no longer a right. Layoffs and jobcuts are realities as are double dip recession and lack of retirement savings. Thomas L. Friedman recently wrote in New York Times about the need for education reforms in a article aptly titled "Need a job? Invent it." Are our children ready to invent their jobs when they grow up?

Naysayers might well say, that great inventors such as Einstein or even Steve Jobs are born, not made. But I believe all children are born creative, imaginative and innovative. And even if one does not necessarily invent the next iPad or Facebook, one still needs to innovate. Innovation will increasingly become a life-skill for our children to deal with the rapidly changing world.

How can we help our children then? Can our children become "innovation" ready?

We need schools that encourage free play and nurture the ability to manage conflict and chaos; where children are evaluated not just on how they perform in exams but on how they solve problems, how they think of solutions and new ideas and how they collaborate with each other. We need an environment where children do not look for instructions every minute but learn to operate in ambiguity and work well in unstructured situations.

We need our children to question and we need to encourage their natural curiosity and thirst for knowledge.

We as parents, owe it to our children to help them develop their true innovative potential and not kill their creativity in a mad rush to conform and perform.

Knowledge may have been power yesterday, but innovation, I believe, will power tomorrow.