Saturday, April 30, 2011

My Mother's Eyes

The other day, while grocery shopping at Mustafa (a chore I dislike more than anything else and only do when what we need just can't be found anywhere else), a young lady walking by stopped suddenly and exclaimed "Puja didi!". I furiously jogged my memory and after a few seconds, mainly because of the didi reference, I was able to place her as Namrata, daughter of my mother's good friend/colleague in India. I had last seen her perhaps 20 years ago, when she was a young girl and I a young woman.

My first question to her was how on Earth did she recognize me in the crowded busy store. Her response shocked me. She said "You are a ditto copy of aunty. How could I not recognize you?"

Aunty meaning my mother, the beautiful Dr Chandrama Anand. Ditto copy?!!? What did that make me? Beautiful? Whuck!

Let me explain.

I have my mother's eyes. No doubt about that. They are an unusual shade of brown and almond shaped. I figured out the similarity only in my thirties, when I finally looked into her eyes one day- so busy was I before that fighting with her over every trivial issue. But I have my dad's nose. My daddy was such a great soul, loved for many things, but his nose was not one of them. My nose is a thick blob and to top it, it has a distinct twist. My mother's lovely regal nose was gifted only to my brother, who hides it half behind glasses and half behind a beard....sort of. What a bloody waste!

I have my mother's lovely smile and firm chin, no doubt. My teeth too are my mother's gift to me. No no no, they are real, passed by my mother to me genetically. But I have my dad's cheeks, as generous as his heart. In other words, they hang loose pulling my lips downwards, with the result that I am forced to smile all the time just so that I don't appear to be devastated by something. It's a fact that whenever I was absorbed in work, people walking past my work desk often spread the word around that boss was in a terrible mood and should not be disturbed. Then I would take a break and remember to pull up the saggy cheeks by smiling at everyone. That gave me quite a reputation. Upset one minute, cheerful the other- is she bipolar?

I have the same folds and wrinkles in my neck as in my mother's, which is something since she is 73 and I am 45. In her case, her face is so beautiful that nobody even notices her neck. In my case, it stands out like a sore thumb...err...that doesn't sound right.

Now moving downwards, I have my mother's hips. Wide, child bearing hips that look sensuous on her.  Except that when I was expecting my son, my gynae said she was surprised and rather disappointed that my big wide hips are only for show and that my insides were actually quite narrow. That gynae is my mother's best friend and feels it's her right to express her disappointment in my bodily flaws. So, I have big wide hips on the outside, mom's gift, and thin narrow ones on the inside, dad's gift. Thank you both for your kindness.

My mother wears all her excess weight on her hips. Her back and waist are narrow and firm even now. I also wear my excess weight on my hips, but wait, daddy gifted me something else to ease their burden- his tummy! So I have my daddy's tummy, which if I don't mince words, qualifies as a paunch. All my excess weight goes to my hips...and then an equal amount goes to the paunch. You see these two are good friends and believe in equality.

Last but not the least, my feet are a ditto copy of my mother's, except that no one can see the resemblance as they are always clad in sporty solid shoes. Covered in sporty shoes because just like my mom's and her mom's, my feet are super delicate and need extra support. No sir, no fancy sandals for me. And as my mother tells me with confidence, my feet are going to give me heck of a trouble in a few years time, like corns, and twisted toes and chillblains, because its in the genes! My dad, on the other hand, had great strong supple feet. Just saying.

So here it is. The similarity and the differences. My mom is so beautiful that any picture of hers is worth preserving. I, on the other hand, destroy 9 out of 10 pictures of mine before they see the light of the ...err...facebook!

So, Namrata, how did you recognize me. Tell me honestly!

Being Talked About!

Here is a famous letter written by Oscar Wilde, who knew a lot about being talked about. Although poignant, knowing how terribly he was treated for being a homosexual, the phrase he uses is witty and so honest. I completely "get it" cause I am the one being talked about nowadays!

They threw garbage at me. They spit, cursed, and ranted. I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing my name preceded by a number of foul words. In fact, my dog received kinder treatment that I did. Figure that, my dog a step higher than me on the social ladder.

Then one day I woke up and they had all forgotten me. I could walk through streets without being physical harmed anymore. God, it was horrible.
The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.
At least when they berated me I knew my existence affected them in some way.

Truly yours,
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde

I remember something similar narrated by my late mother-in-law, Jirina Shankar. Being a blond white European woman living in Delhi of 1960's and 70's, she had her share of stares and unwelcome attention from Delhites. When I first went out with her after I was married, I was driven to anger by the rude stares and comments from strangers, until she shared something with me. Once, a few of years ago, she was in Paris with her sister-in-law Leela, a dark-haired, dark-eyed Indian beauty. In that trip, she was totally rattled by the royal ignore she got from all Parisians, who had eyes (and compliments) only for Leela. It made Jirina feel like a nobody! According to her, since coming back from that trip, she had a sudden and certain appreciation of the comments and stares she receives from Delhites!

Yes I agree, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. So keep talking folks...I am listening!

Clients from hell...and Heaven!

I am reproducing an article I wrote a few months back. I find it as relevant now as I did then.

Recently, I saw a website titled Clients from Hell that had funny anecdotes from web designers about unreasonable or uninformed clients with strange requirements. It got me thinking about the clients I have interacted with in the last 10-12 years. Who among them would qualify as clients from hell?

Are they the clients who ask us to reduce our prices, even as the expenses go up? Are they the ones who expect work to be delivered two weeks earlier than our proposed tight schedules? Are they the ones who ask us to change features that they approved in earlier deliverables?

It may sound hard to believe but the answer to all three questions is No. Of course, we all wish for customers who would pay us more, or do their part in the development process on time, or have sanctity for prior approvals, but we recognize that these are reflections of the environment our clients are in and of the nature of the beast called e-learning development. More importantly, these demands for lower prices, faster timelines and flexible processes have a hidden potential for creating value in the long run.

Value is the real differentiator. So, it makes sense to look for client engagements where no or little value was created for anyone involved. When I looked at all clients from this lens of value, three types of clients stood out.

The Window Dresser

This type of client gets into e-learning to impress someone else or to appear to be someone they aren’t. It sounds hard to believe that such clients would exist, especially since a significant cost is involved in developing e-learning solutions. But I have come across such clients in some government departments or large traditional firms.

The problem with such clients is that there is no real commitment to the e-learning initiative and therefore, there is no champion for it in the organization. As a result, the carefully crafted content, a product of myriads of reviews and rework, sits on the specially chosen highly-secure servers for years without being used by anyone. So much effort and value lost! Another consequence is more long lasting and damaging: A failed attempt at e-learning results in negative perceptions about the effectiveness of e-learning that persist for very long.

The Pedant

These clients are sticklers for all kinds of rules and take great pride in their attention to detail. All deliverables are scrutinized for minute issues (e.g. line alignment down to a pixel) and a lot of energy and goodwill is used up in fixing them. Sometimes, this takes a different turn- a lot of time and energy is used up in adding bells and whistles to every page (e.g. this button should blink twice and stop, these bullet points should be accompanied by sound effects, this page should have an animated transition etc).

So what is wrong with such clients, you may ask. After all, don’t they help improve the quality of the output and therefore create value? Not really. The increased focus on small and insignificant details often means that deeper issues are overlooked, such as completeness of the content and its relevance to the audience. Once the training is launched, it falls short and doesn’t provide any real benefit to the users. Once again, so much wasted effort and so little value!

The Commitment Phobe

 This type of client delays making decisions on every step in the development process. Often, the person in charge is either not empowered to make decisions and/or the company’s culture is blame-oriented and hierarchical. The decision makers want to limit their role to seeing the final product and pronouncing it passed or failed, and junior staff is too inexperienced or scared to deal with any design- or content-related issues confidently. Sometimes, the situation is compounded by lack of support for the e-learning initiative by the SMEs.

The problem with such clients is that projects can take inordinately long time to be completed. E-learning launch, typically tied to an impending training cycle, is delayed and loses its momentum and support of several stakeholders. Sometimes, content is outdated by the time the course is developed. Colossal loss of effort and value for everyone involved.

As I pondered over the above three types of clients, I couldn’t help thinking of the clients who are at the other end of the spectrum, clients we love to work with. What attributes of these clients propels us to create great content that adds tremendous value to the end users of the training? This is what I think makes these clients special.

Total Commitment to Results
These clients have a single focus- the results that the training will help achieve. This means that they have a clear idea of both the learner and business needs and understand what will meet these needs most effectively.

Focus on the Big Picture
Another attribute that these customers demonstrate is a hold on the big picture. When the big picture is to change the mindset of employees, or to equip them with certain skills, it becomes easier to make decisions about where to expend most effort and energies.

Work as Partners
Finally, this set of clients always works with the development team as partners with common goals and approach the relationship from a position of trust and respect. E-learning development is a two-way street. When the development team and the client work as partners, magic can and does happen.
Credits: Illustrations by Irene Wan. Cartoon from

Friday, April 29, 2011

My Choice...

Regarding my religious beliefs. it really doesn't matter whether you think I am right or wrong, aware or gullible, super smart or just plain crazy. It doesn't matter what you, they or, for that matter, even I, think.

What matters is how I live and how I feel. What matters is what decisions I make and how they affect those around me. What matters is what type of a person I am, not just today, tomorrow or yesterday, but in the long run.

Let my life and my life story be the proof of the correctness, or the folly, of my choice.

Powerful again!

Every time I am besieged by doubt and the accompanying panic, I stop and think of Aloka and Atreya. Such wonders do not happen by chance. Such gifts are not random winnings in the game of life. Such a wonderfully rich life is not an accident.

That split second is all it takes for me to feel powerful again.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Youngest I have ever been...

In the last 4-5 weeks, I have been feeling very young. 

What is youth? It is the feeling of wonder at what lies ahead.  It is the absence of cynicism. It is the refusal to accept and acknowledge anyone's limits, especially one's own. It is the state of excitement and enthusiasm about new experiences.

Yes I am feeling very young nowadays, the youngest I have ever been.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Time with Atreya

Thanks to my sabbatical, I am able to spend an equal amount of time with both the kids. Aloka gets full attention in  the morning until 10:30am. In the evenings, after school, I encourage Mallika to take her out to the playground and then she is fast asleep by 7:30pm. After that, it's Areya time. We eat together, watch some crime show together, I read in his room while he studies, and sometimes take long walks at night and talk.

Yesterday, quite late, we went out for a walk. We walked along Sin Ming Avenue and turned on Upper Thompson Road. Then, on an implulse, crossed the road and turmed into the Island Club Road.

The road was isolated, surrounded on both sides by thick forest, and in the next 30 minutes, we encountered 1 person and perhaps 5 cars in all. The first thing that struck me was the smell of the forest. Damp, wild, earthy and suddenly fragrant. The huge Peepal tree, with its twisted trunks and dense foliage was enchanting, bordering on scary. I was reminded of the silly ghost stories of childhood and had to make an effort to change my chain of thoughts. Then Atreya and I started talking. He spoke of his cricket match, the uncouth players from the other team, and I talked about my concerns about the immediate future and my feelings about the people who had let me down.

Once we were done talking about our top of the mind issues, we moved on to deeper topics. The silent strong sounds of the forest were the trigger. What are these....these plants? They are alive, but are they like humans and animals....caught in the cycle of life and death and inter-related? Or are they another form of life, with its own different cycle, unrelated to us? Suddently vegetarianism became understandable. Animals are caught in the lower life states of hunger and animality. Humans can also be trapped, but they have the capability of rising higher. Life after life, and within the same life, we can reach the higher levels and that seems to be the purpose of life. And what happens when we have reached the highest...Buddhahood? Maybe there is another realm for Buddhas where they live and climb up another set of states that open up for them!

Atreya started talking about elegance next. How somethings are elegant and you intuitively know that they are but still it is so tough to define elegance. Maths is elegant. And how the concept of a supernatual God is not elegant but that of a conspiring Universe is elegant. I asked him if he had doubts about Nam Myoho Renge Kyo and moved on to talking about chanting in general, all kinds of chants, Hindu, Buddhist, and how it is elegant that chants can invoke the Universe and also cleanse our lives simultaneously....after all everything is connected.

I then spoke about my recent experiences and how I understand their value. The opening of my eyes was painful. Hearing stories of loose talk and gossip about me by people I really loved was heartbreaking. But it had a purpose, it was a part of my breakthough. A human being is deluded in many ways, a Budhha is aware. I was deluded and ignorant. Removing that delusion was important to my growth. I hope it doesn't take away my natural respect/trust for people.

By then we had reached home, but the conversation continued, moving to infinity. Atreya felt that we "finitize" infinity as soon as we start to explain it. It is not within our scope to ever get infinity because we are limited. Maybe in the other realm of Buddhas, they all know these truths and grasp concepts like infinity and multiple dimensions intuitively! We spoke of the scientists who made discoveries and how they must have had an elevated life state at the moment of their discoveries  (according to Buddhism, the states of Learning and Realization are one of the 4 higher states of life, just below those of Boddhisatva and Buddhahood). When Atreya wants to follow on their footsteps and relive their journey of how the discovery was made, he desires to reach their state. What a noble desire! We also discussed that this constant tug of war between the ideal and the reality (exams) is necessary for him to constantly aspire. And when I had scolded him for not looking motivated last week, I was actually sensing that he was not in the state of Learning and being pulled down to a lower state.

Maybe I haven't captured all that we talked. But I hope I have captured the wonderful companionship I share with this son of mine, who is more my equal and friend than anyone else in the world.

Our First Craft Project!

Yesterday in the morning, Aloka, Mallika and I did our first caft project together- a garden scene. I had bought the supplies a day ago from Bras Basah and the idea was from Aloka's TV channel. We worked at it for over 2 hours.

Aloka stuck flowers in flower beds made with modelling clay and painted the sticks to be used as tree trunks. She then branched out with painting all kinds of papers and making a mess of the floor and her body with paint. Mallika was charged with building the fence using iceream sticks and fevicol. It took a very long time because  the glue won't stick properly. Then she got down to making a bench for our garden and it was the most frustrating exercise. We had a bench of sorts after trying 4-5 different ideas. I cut out cardboard for trees, painted paper for the pond, cut out grass and bushes and put everything together. It was the most fun we have had as a family together, perhaps more fun for the adults than the child! :)

Here is our masterpiece.

And some pictures of work in progress...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Cunning mother!

Aloka is at that age where she wants to make all decisions herself. Like what clothes she should wear and which shoes to go with them.

After struggling for weeks to convince her to wear clothes I picked for her, or watch her go through her wardrobe indecisively and wail for the same skirt and flimsy shirt every day, I figured a way out. I told her that the choice of clothes will be hers, but I will  make it easy for her by bringing her options to choose from, instead of her going to the closet.

So now every morning, while she is still playing with bath toys in the tub, I bring her 2 sets of clothes  (for the first few days I brought her 3 or 4). Dresses she would normally refuse to even look at now get chosen eagerly because the other options are far worse. I have a couple of my favorite "distractors" that I use very cunningly when I want her to wear something she would normally not, such as stockings and full sleeved t's.

Now we have a toddler happily getting dressed in  the mornings because she believes she is in control! And a closet full of clothes that either are worn regularly or play another special purpose of distracting.

Hee hee!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Conspiring Universe and the Sabbatical

I am on a sabbatical. The word means a rest from work or a temporary hiatus. After I left my job at KP, I allowed myself 3 months of stressfree unemployment. In this period, I have disallowed myself any type of worry or panic about my source of income and focus instead on spending time chanting and being with my kids.

Surprisingly, days are flying by in a hurry. Instead of thinking of ways how to kill time, I am desperately trying to slow it down. I am more relaxed than ever before. The 3-4 paths opening in front of me haven't succeeded in shaking my state of mind. I see each as a possibility, some more exciting than others, but nothing more. I know the right decision will be made and wait for the Universe to disclose its conspiracy to me, slowly.

While the Universe is busy conspiring, small creatures like I take a sabbatical!

This country

For years I lived here like an outsider. Always floating a little above the surface, like a hovercraft, taking care not to sink my roots. Not bothered too much by anything happening around and not too impressed by anything either. Just not invested emotionally. It was just a place I happened to be in. Not that I wasn’t happy living here, but I attributed my happiness to what was inside my head. This country was incidental. My heart was in my homeland, my India.

Now that I may be leaving this country, I am gripped by a love and gratitude that I denied myself for years. Gratitude for allowing me to be a single woman with a child (now 2 children) living freely and as privately as I wished. For giving me a wonderfully beautiful physical environment, where everything works as expected. For giving me resources to learn new skills and indulge in hobbies. For connecting me to the Soka community that acknowledged and appreciated my struggle and my victories and gave me opportunities to strenthen my faith. For enabling me to live successfully and with dignity. For giving me the confidence to take on new challenges with courage and conviction.

On the verge of leaving it, I finally sink my roots in it and acknowledge it as my second homeland.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

First day at DS

  • Had lovely tea made by mom
  • Chanted for an hour in the sun
  • Gave a bath to Aloka and myself and washed clothes
  • Watched nonsense TV
  • Had simple but tasty lunch made by mom
  • Took Aloka for a walk at the khudd where she threw stones in the water
  • Walked to the fields near Bhagsu school
  • Took an afternoon nap
  • Had a pakodas and chai picnic in the fields behind Amar's shop
  • In bed by 9