Friday, November 14, 2014

Slice of Life #4 — Security Check and the Gift

My friend from an MNC called me. Said my referral was the best and spoke ceaselessly about her.

This was some years ago. It was the downturn time, and I had just stopped at the office security. Jhaji, was the most respectful of the security guards at work. Often he would smile at employees who had to suffer the ripping open of their bags to check for something that is forbidden to bring into the workplace, guns or knives for instance. Of course, he did not expect to find anything, and gently zipped up the bags. Many times I have noticed the wry look of the employees, almost to say, “Hey, you have seen me so very many times. Do you seriously think I have something to conceal? Or, do I look like a terrorist?”

Some have even shouted at him for delaying their getting to work. He would always be respectful and apologize for the inconvenience caused. The smile never abated. I could learn a thing or two from him. What a man! He made quite an impression on his colleagues and so, many of those around would mimic his pleasant service. I felt sorry for him many times and wondered what it meant for him to work this way each day, every day.

One day, he had asked to meet me. I had always wanted to give him something, a small gift for him – a pen. I was sure he would like it. He knocked on the door, and a disarming smile met me. He was hesitant. Said, “I have a favor to ask of you. I have a daughter who has done her BE in Computer Science, and would you be kind enough to refer her for a job, to another MNC (that was close by).”

It was time for me to be surprised. I looked at the impressive resume, and asked him why I could not consider her for our own company, and he said, “Not while I am working here, sir. I don’t want the girl to be embarrassed.”

I promised help and was determined to do my best. He walked away quickly. And I forgot to give him the gift. I was lost in thought – behind this person there is life beyond security checks and smiles – an aspiration for a better tomorrow. What gift could I give him? He had given me the greatest gift, of a purpose to life, regardless of your circumstances.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Slice of Life #3 — Subway Bags & Rubber Bands

My mother is a ‘collector’ of things and taught me to collect small things for “you never know when they will come handy,” she said. My father was a quintessential ‘disposer’ of things and taught me those skills. On an average, I was fine. Most times I would do some spring cleaning.

At times, unknown to me I would pick up things and ‘salt’ them away. Like the plastic bag that we got our subway sandwich in. One of those is long and six-inch wide so you can take your foot-long in peace. I came to my hotel room, and kept the bag in the drawer and forgot about it.

It was one of those days when things did not go right. I wanted to iron my shirt, and the iron fell off the board. In my anxiety to avoid burning a hole in my shirt, I instinctively reached out to the iron, and somehow I burnt the reverse of my palm. Nothing major, but it was an ugly one. I applied some ointment and went to bed.

The next day, I had to keep the burns from water contamination. And take a shower as well. I remembered the subway plastic bag, and slipped over my right palm. The rubber band of the used baggage tag came in handy as it kept the plastic bag in place. Love the airlines for the tags. It was a great shower. I was smiling at my ingenuity. I could use the soap with plastic covered hand. That was a life saver. The doctor was pleased that I had taken the right steps and made some positive comments about it. I was gloating, the pain notwithstanding. I owe a lot to my ‘collector’ side of a mother in me.

What should I collect and what do I dispose off? Diwali is fast approaching ... And I smiled, thinking of my parents.

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Slice of Life #2 — When Bargain Isn't One

My father taught me to shop for vegetables and some more. Each Saturday morning we used to set out to the bazaar at 6 am. The vegetables would have arrived, neatly laid on the jute sheets on the ground. Expectant vendors waiting for the first visitor to their stall. Anticipation was high. I walked with my dad, a stocky genial and cheery man. He took me all around the place and wished all the vendors a cheery morning while evaluating where the veg was fresh. Also, carefully noting the cost of each of the produce.

He asked me to note them down in my head and I was to let him know where to shop for the lowest cost. Also, he carefully noted where the special vegetables were available. Once in a while, he bent to feel the lady’s finger to test its tenderness and teach me too. Finally when he was done, he told me that we were ready. I was to reel off the places where we got the best deals. He always settled on some old vendor withered with wrinkles of days spent in the sun. The price was always a tad more than others. He would not bargain. Said it was a sign of respect to the vendor. Did not care if we paid more. Said that they worked harder than us. And vendors would cry out for my dad to visit them: “Aiyerre, come here!”

I learnt much from him that it is important to know the lay of the land, be generous and kind, settle only for the best, even if this was a bit more, and most of all, help someone who could do with your assistance. These days I try to visit the farmer’s market at Mehdipatnam. And take my sons too. And in fond remembrance of my dad ask myself – What would he want me to do!

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Slice of Life #1 — A Bittersweet Pill

Many years ago, I used to work in a small town. As a normal practice, while I was leaving work for home, I called my wife if there was anything to be bought for the house. It wasn’t easy going home and then getting ready to go to the bazaar after a long day’s work. I was asked to buy some medicine for my ailing mother. It was a common medicine and there were four medical shops along the way home. I was on my scooter and as I passed the first one, I told myself that there were three dispensaries along the way and it would not be hard to get one that sold this medicine. Lost in thought, I missed the second. The third was crowded. I was impatient to get home and decided to go to the third, the one closer to home but a long way from the second.

As I walked in and uttered the medicine’s name, the attender cheerfully said that it was not available and encouraged me to go to the ‘other shop.’ Wondering what there was to cheer about an unavailability, I moved to the other shop and, to my horror, discovered that it was not available! There was, of course, the helpful suggestion to get to the ‘other shop.’ So, I went to the third shop only to be told that it was out-of-stock and was invited to get to the last shop in town – the one that was closest to my office that I missed going to, the first one. I was utterly upset and annoyed. Finally, I got my medicines at this shop, went outside and stopped to ponder at the message that life was laying out for me.

Take the first opportunity that life presents and don’t wait or procrastinate. Simple things are best done and dusted quickly. Say yes to chances, don’t tarry. Keep life simple – do things now! Sometimes it is the smallest of things that brings the biggest misery. It was a bittersweet pill that I will never forget in my life. I always buy at the first med shop on the way home.  The same does not apply to vegetables, but that is another story!

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Of Nothingness, Passion and Work

Travel broadens the mind, they say. I was at Hyderabad airport when I met this gent. Let me call him KR. Hair neatly knotted behind his head with a rubber band. Beard neatly left untrimmed. A tee shirt that had seen a lot of the world. He smiled when I joined him. I asked him what he was doing. Said, he was directing a movie! I was surprised. Said it was his dream. He did not want to make it a profession, he added hastily. He would direct only two movies in his life, he added. This was beginning to be interesting.

What would he work on next? He said, he did not know. And where would he find his money? He smiled. Said, he needed just enough to survive. He was going to paint. And was into some natural farming just understanding nature and using his abilities to to her rhythm he said. All self-taught, he added, like sand art. He had seen it somewhere and was curious about it. Experimented on his own, used the right sand, set up the system of lights etc., and practiced it till he got it right. The flourish of his hand was an added style but it did not start there, he said in all modesty. All that his mind conceived that his hands produced.

He was into writing. Had written a book in Telugu. English translation was coming up, he said. The book was about ‘nothingness.’ He was born into a rich family that lost all its wealth when he was 12 years old. They just about survived in a servant’s quarters of their jagir. With a broad grin he said, “My parents gave me nothing.” And that was a boon. He did not have to hanker after money. He loved his dog Dolly, who was his only possession. He learnt a lot from her. He had spent four years of his life doing nothing. Just nothing. Said to his mother, if you can feed Dolly and not expect anything from her, I expected the same from her. His mother just smiled. This nothingness helped him to meditate on life and what he wanted – just be.

What would he work on? He said, he would do something that captivated his mind. We often mix work and value. Work and pay is what plays in our mind. Say, a painting. That was not work! And yet when we purchase it, it would be called a ‘work’ of art. To him it was just an avenue to allow him to ‘be.’ Work, he said, made it look laborious. Enjoy what you do, and it will no longer be work. Experiment with a curious mind and it will no longer be work. Dwell into your being, and work will no longer be onerous. Express yourself and in your fullest freedom, in what you do, and that would not be work.

His parents gave him nothing. And that was far more than something. He gave me nothing and yet something. Follow your passion, beyond the template of success, and satisfaction follows. Pursue your dreams to the road less travelled and you will discover your edge. KR is actually an aspiring engineer from JNTU, loses way, discovers himself, and becomes a celebrated artist in perhaps the most unconventional medium - sand! KR is India’s foremost sand artist today. Travel broadens the mind, they say!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Of Silly Questions, Pigeon Holes and Heroes

She was a simple lady, kind of short, and someone you could miss in a crowd. Let me call her Ms. AK. She talked fast and her hands spoke more than she did, gesticulating wildly at times. I did not like her. As did many around, who used to speak ill of her. I kept away from such conversations but could not help listening to an occasional bitching that came my way. She wanted to do business with the company that I worked for. This was many years ago. I was more hoity-toity then. So, you can imagine...

One day she invited me to a breakfast meeting. I winced. Ever wondered how when you are asked for time, the week following or the one after that was a ‘better’ time? She was persistent, and the day finally arrived.

She wore spectacles that were a tad large for her. How do I tell her that? She sat down and immediately started her sales pitch. I responded by asking a question, an inane one, the one that all recruiters use –, “Tell me about yourself.” She sat back. Her eyes rolled up gazing into the infinite past and started…

A daughter of a government official, she had a sister who was a ‘genius’, did very well in class. Her mother wanted AK to be a doctor and made her write the exam. She did ‘what she could’. And she cleared! Medical college admissions then or now, was not easy. I was warming up to her now. She went to the medical college and returned home after ten days. Said she did not like it. Her mother freaked out. And for the next whole year did not speak to her.

She then went to a regular college, and, of course, did well. Became the student union leader. Brought an MNC factory to a grinding stop for they had sacked a principal of a local school. AK was warned that acid would be thrown at her. She did not relent. Now, her story was really getting to be interesting and leaned forward, forgetting my dosas.

After her BSc she had to do ‘something’. Her uncle got her to write an entrance exam for admission to a leading Public sector unit. As usual, she aced the exam. And told her uncle that she did not ‘fit the culture’. So opted out. She was now in deep waters. Disowned by her family, she went to the same factory that she had helped ‘shut down’, seeking a job. The factory manager was furious! A kind man that he was, he relented and gave her a job in sales and marketing even though she was not an ‘MBA’. They gave her the jobs everyone hated to do. She worked hard and won each time. She moved to a larger company who asked her to do a stint in the US taking on an assignment that was surefire failure for anyone who had touched it. She won, and said, she did not know it was an impossible task. I was now at the edge of my seat. She returned to set up her own company, sold it to investors and took on a CEO’s job at this company. Sitting across me was the finest example of someone who fought life harder than any man.

She had been fighting like a warrior in a man’s world all along. And never gave up anytime. It is so easy to judge someone and pigeon hole them as good, bad, ugly! I was now in open admiration for this lady. What a story! In 60 minutes she taught me what it is to live a life of conviction of one’s goals. A shining example of never say die. She gave more to a job, and some more. She won, for she never judged work harshly. She taught me that it is important to see beyond the ostensible image. I became her fan!

To believe in oneself and carry on trying is the staple of champions. To try, and give an honest shot with all the power one has is learning how to win each time, every time. I forgot all rest of the things I said. I found a hero in her. To listen to the voice of the unheard, and see the unseen of a hero. A revelation – to see a hero beyond pigeons in the holes of ordinariness. All because of a ‘silly question’ we often use – ‘tell me something about yourself!’

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Of Perception and Reality

It was a Saturday afternoon, many years ago. I had gone to work to interview someone for a senior Marketing role for a company that I was working for. It was to happen at 3 pm. The office closed at 1 pm and I was the only person in the office. I told the sulking receptionist, who had to stay back just for me, that he was to call me when the candidate arrived.

And then I started the long wait for the person to turn up. I did not even care to read the resume. It was just too long … meant the person was very verbose. I was already forming an opinion. At 3 PM, I went to the reception. I was getting angry, how could anyone keep me waiting! I asked the receptionist and he said that no one had turned up. I did see a person clad in a squalid trouser and a tee shirt, slippers and unkempt hair, unshaven, reading a newspaper. I went back to the room. Came back in 15 minutes and again asked and the receptionist said that save that scraggy person there was no one around.

I mustered some effort, went up to him and asked if he was waiting for anyone and he said he was waiting for the head of HR to meet him. His English was faultless, rich. He can even speak well, not bad, I thought. I asked if he was S and he said he was. I asked him to follow me and walked up a lot briskly ahead up the unlit corridor. All that was going on in my mind was – “Oh God, give me the wisdom not to judge him too early, too soon.” I reached my office and sat behind a big teakwood desk. In those days, we were indulgent to a fault. Very British d├ęcor!

Then started a fascinating conversation that was to last half an hour but went on for a full two hours. We spoke about many things and it was easily the best interview that I have been part of. I was listening to a very grounded and wonderful person. At the end of it, I told S that I was very happy about his candidature and that I would get him to meet our MD. We were going to shake hands and at that moment he asked me, “Why have you not asked me about my attire?”

Without waiting for me to respond, he added that he was coming from the cremation ground having laid his beloved uncle to dust and rest. That he had no time to go home and change and wanted to keep the time agreed on and had rushed to the interview. He also added that he was very touched that I had not asked him about it. He said that regardless of the outcome, he would stay connected and left the room.

How do I tell him that it was a great lesson for me? I had formed a negative opinion about him and would not make the cut. And had judged him way ahead of the interview based on what I saw. Between perception and the reality is a mind that is already made up. If the gates of reason were to remove the filters, we can see more clearly. Perception is skin deep while reality is at the heart of the matter. He did not care about his dress, was focused on doing the right thing of keeping time.

Small detail, I still keep in touch with S, who is a CEO of a very large company. A smaller detail, he was from IIM Cal. And did not take the job we offered. Said he wanted a smaller job.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Of Lessons in Life & Warm Hugs

Ram met S this morning. S was a very simple man. Highly accomplished in his field. Very soft
spoken. Pleasant. He dropped in to tell his boss Ram that he had decided to quit the firm. All
very rushed. Ram was in two minds. He needed S but he was not sure if it was right to keep S
who was getting a big job in another company. S had come in to bid him goodbye and to see if
he could get some advice from him as to how to deal with life and growth within.

Ram was a tough man. Not given to a lot of words. Instead he asked S a question. What will
this change mean to your family? That was a golden question. S calmly explained that it would
be a great one for his family as it would give him more time with his wife who was suffering
from a depression. Something about his wife’s condition that was like a bipolar disorder –
given to bouts of depression, and when she was out of it she was an angel. And she did not
remember a thing about her past behavior. Ram was getting a bit nervous about the sensitive
information coming his way. He wanted to be empathetic but not sure if he was good enough.

S told him that despite all this, he deeply loved his wife and would want to go through any
trouble to be just with her. And that he had been counseled that he should perhaps divorce
her, etc. Ram was now out of his depth. He feebly asked S about how long did the condition
last. About 20% of the time she was in the troubled zone he was told. This was a bit much.
Once in 5 days! And before he could ask more questions, S asked Ram as to what he needed
to do to be a better manager and a human being. Ram was bamboozled! Why then would he
continue to stay with his troubled wife if she was off 20% of the time?

S sat back. For about 80% of the time when she is normal, it is worth every moment, he said.
She was very caring and affectionate, an epitome of goodness, someone to be emulated. S
was lost in his words. And quietly added, “Because I respect her.”

It was Ram’s turn to be silent. What advice could he give to someone who was so humane?
He did what he could do best — walked up to S and gave him a warm hug and clung on to him
a tad more. For in that hug, he had just met his teacher!

Friday, February 28, 2014

Of Routine Matters and the Gift of Life

He was but an ordinary guy doing an ordinary job in an ordinary company. In the course of his job ‘Joe,’ let us call him that, had many requests and applications coming to him, and in some he had to weigh in with his views. All good. Many were about loans to be sanctioned and some were about making some exceptions. All very routine. He did what he could in his ordinary way to address each of these, on merit.

One day an ex-employee ‘Yo’ called him. Said it was the eighth birthday day of his daughter and asked him to be there for it was an important event. He found some excuse to extricate himself from such ordinary events. Yo was persistent, came home to meet him and told him a few things about his life over the past 4 years since he had left the city. He reminisced about many things including a loan. Said that he had applied for a medical loan for his daughter who was in critical condition at the hospital. And that the application had come up to Joe for approval. It was an amount that was twice the eligibility of Yo. Something that has never been approved of ever.

And yet, Joe had cleared it. With a small postscript ‘as a special case,’ just in case this came up for questioning by the auditors. He asked Joe if he remembered this case. Joe was quick to respond with a ‘no, don’t remember.’

Yo then told him that he owed his daughter’s life to Joe’s timely action. He was running from pillar to post and he had approached Joe with the request and was pleasantly surprised that the loan amount was approved. Joe mumbled something and the meeting was over. But not for Joe!

He sat back and thought about the number of cases he had handled in all his routineness. A small act of approval of a loan, with a small application of mind, had saved a life! It was not an ordinary job after all! An act of great kindness is one where the giver does not know it and the receiver does. If this is what a routine job could do, look what he could have done with application of mind, he thought.

Joe was lost in his world of ordinariness of what he should carry as a gift for the daughter, as she has already has had a gift of life.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Of Dentist Bills and Kindness

They were driving back from the temple. An old mother and her son. She wanted a pill that would kill her toothache. He felt it best to get her a dental check-up. It was a modest clinic, something that he would hesitate to take his mother to. 

He gently held her hand and walked her in. Clean place, young dentist. A pretty looking receptionist. He carefully assisted his mother into the dentist’s chair. Took great care to translate the dentist’s instructions in English of the process, thereafter, patiently escorted her back to the car. 

It was certain that the offending tooth had to be removed. The mother nodded smilingly. The following morning the tooth was extracted. Almost routine stuff. The old lady was asked to wait at the reception thereafter.

Meanwhile, the dentist asked for the son to meet him at his office. “I could not sleep last night, and you were the reason,” he said. “The way you held your mother was not lost on me. My wife, the receptionist, noticed it as well. When I was going to retire to bed, she said – “Hey, do you treat your mother the same way? And will you treat her this way when she is old infirm?” 

“If that is not enough, my pregnant wife felt her her stomach and asked me, “Will the child in me, treat me in the same way, when I am old and hard of hearing?” I was reflecting on the care, respect and gentleness you showed to your mother, and had a restless night of guilt '. 

Care is a matter of the heart in action. Elders need care the way the infants do. The son was clearly at a loss of words. He smiled and nodded, held the dentist’s hands and said that he would be even a better son than he, and left his office.

He met the receptionist, and asked her for the bill. The radiant lady waved him off. Paid in full with a poignant lesson learnt about elder care, she added. 

Life is beautiful, cheerfully waving at the mother. Just beautiful!