Sunday, July 31, 2011


Last night I had a nightmare after a long time, perhaps after 5 years. My nightmares are nothing like those one sees in movies or read about in books. I guess each person's nightmare is so personal that its hard to empathize with anyone else's.

My nightmares are always about heights in one form or another. Sometimes I am  going up in rickety lifts, sometimes crossing abysses on shaky bridges, and sometimes just being at a height doing dangerous things. None of these ever end in my falling down. They end at the height of my terror (pun unintended at least by my conscious mind), just before I realize I am about to fall down. I guess that's the purpose of these nightmares, to take me to the peak of my terror. What happens next is not important.

Sometimes, I am smarter than the nightmare. I see myself in one of those lifts and knowing what's coming, I wake myself up and stop the dream from proceeding. But that's rare. Most often, like last night, I play along without being aware of the danger right till the end, waking up only after the worst has happened. Once I wake up, I can't bear to close my eyes- the memory is so vivid and intense that only keeping my eyes open dilutes it.

Last night, I found myself on this strange rickety contraption hanging in the air somehow. One of my kids was with me. And mom and dad. My kid was playing with a swing on that contraption when mom asked me to be careful because a hinge had come undone and the metal swing might fall down. I had this vision of the metal swing falling down from such a height and killing someone on the ground. So I grabbed the swing quite casually. The next vision I had was of the swing going overboard and taking me along with it because I was holding on to it, and then the whole platform (or whatever) coming down too. All this was a vision within the nightmare. I was still on the platform, crouching and shaking in fear of what might happen. That was when I woke myself up.

Someone once told me that I dread heights and falling because height represents success and falling my fear of failure. I don't know about that. It could be true if it weren't for the fact that my first nightmare involving heights started when I was six or seven years old. What did I know about success and failure then?

But certainly, at this stage in life, this nightmare surely highlights my insecurity about future, my deepest fears about how my actions and decisions will affect my kids and my mother. I can't deny that, and even if I don't appreciate the methods employed by it, I thank my mind for making me aware of these hidden fears that I harbor deep inside me. I can do something about them only if I am aware of them, innit?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Some Questions and an Answer

Why does Aloka skip, instead of walking?
Why does she break out into a song, in the middle of talking?

Why does she fling her arms around in joy?
And when she sees me spying, suddenly becomes coy?

Why is her laughter so infectious?
Why does she jump up and down for no purpose?

Why does she hug me so tight?
And say things that make my head feel light?

Why does she like to clamber on my back?
Fling her legs around my neck?

Why does she look at me with such happy eyes?
Why not? It's her right. She is a child!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Hindi Hour with Aloka

Every day, I try to spend at least 1 hour with Aloka speaking only in Hindi. She understands almost everything I say but has a tough time speaking. I must say she tries hard. Enjoy! 

Note that she is just 3.5 years old, but pretends to be 5!

Nine Lives?

I bought my iPhone in October last year, as a birthday gift for myself. It's not yet nine months old, but already has been lost three times. And found!

The first time I lost it was in Washington DC. Devna and I had just finished meeting one customer and decided to go see the White House while there was still some daylight left. We got on a taxi just around the corner from the CEB office and chatted all the way. Somewhere along the way, for reasons I don't recall, I decided to put my phone on the armrest at the window side. And that's where it was when I got down too. I realized what had happened within 5 minutes of getting off. A brand new iPhone 4...lost in an unfamiliar city, I resigned myself to its loss almost immediately. But Devna was more of an optimist and I think a little shocked at my cavalier attitude. She dialed my number and kept dialing for at least 10 times, until finally the taxi driver picked her call. The good soul agreed to meet us where he had dropped us some twenty minutes ago, even though by now he was in another part of the city. I was reunited with my phone and couldn't have been more grateful to Devna for her persistence and to the cabby for his goodness of the heart.

The second time I lost it was when I had just started my sabbatical. Atreya had encouraged me to cycle around the town for exercise, so I had taken his bike out and done a 5Km ride. When I reached back and was locking up the bike, I noticed that my phone was no longer in my trouser pockets. Remembering Devna's persistence, I decided to be persistent too. I rode slowly all the way around the route I had taken, but the only good that came out of it was the extra exercise I got. Back at home, called my number and it rang but no one picked. Finally with a heavy heart, I called the auto helpline and disconnected the SIM card. The next day, as I was planning which Hello shop to go buy a replacement, Atta called to say that a man had called to say he had my phone. This man had been running along the same route I had cycled, and found my phone on the road. He returned the phone to Atta after making sure it was his mom's phone. What a good soul!

The third time was yesterday. I looked for my phone just before leaving for my dance class but couldn't find it. I dialed the number, thinking it was hidden behind some pillow, but the number didn't get through. Puzzled, I wracked my brains thinking about when I had used last and recalled (after jogging my memory for over 40 minutes) that I had placed it on top of a dustbin (!) outside the condo provision  shop when Aloka wanted my help in opening her ice cream wrapper. I had her bag, her witchy, my purse and my phone in my hands, thus the smart move of placing the most expensive item on the dustbin to free my hands. Well, that's where I left it. Mallika checked with the security guys but no one had seen it (the shift had changed anyway by then) and she was told that she should not expect to find it. I was very saddened but what's the point of wallowing in it. A mistake was made and I had to deal with its consequences. This morning, I once again auto disconnected the PIN and an hour later, received a call from the condo management office. The lady, a friend of mine and a fan of Aloka's, had my phone- a security guard had deposited it as a lost and found item. She knew it was mine because of Aloka's photo as the screensaver! Once again, saved by a kind-hearted honest man.

I know I am very lucky to have it back three times over. The next time, I may not be so lucky. Got to find a way to keep my mind focused on it when in unfamiliar places, doing unfamiliar activities, and handling too many things. Got to be more responsible. Any ideas anyone?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

An ID's Journey!

A micro-electronics engineer by education and profession, I stumbled upon ID at a time when sources of information were limited and often out of bounds. Here I try to capture the key milestones in my ID journey.

How it all Started

Imagine waking up in a small room, almost a box, with no windows and a very faint light. You notice a few objects lying around and a piece of paper with instructions to build a vehicle using these objects. There is no one who can help you. A few people who walk in and out are as clueless about the vehicle and the process of building it as you are. You follow the instructions the best you can and after much frustration, build something that doesn't look like any vehicle you have seen before. You send it out for inspection and it comes back with some pointers from an expert about the mistakes you have made. You fix the mistakes and this continues a few times until someone from outside says "Done!". You have accomplished your task, but you have no clue what that object you constructed will be used for, and how? Will it ride on roads or will it fly? Who will drive it? What the hell is it? 

What you read above is how I started my journey of Instructional Design. My company had recenly won a contract for building hundreds of CBT titles for an American company. The client had a clear idea of what they wanted from the CBTs and had created training programs focusing on that. They covered only as much as they felt necessary for us to do the job. What we got therefore was a very limited view of ID, interpreted narrowly to accomplish a task. And there is no doubt that the task was accomplished. We churned out hundreds of CBT titles that made a lot of money for us and our client. And in the long run, this project was the start of the e-learning industry in India- a great achievement indeed and I am proud to be part of it.

The First Steps

Back to the small room and my task at hand. My first challenge in this particular situation was mastering whatever was available to whatever depth was possible and necessary for the job. So, after a few months of struggling with Design Documents, Scripts, Relevance, Objectives and the likes, I became pretty good at this stuff to the extent required by the client. My next task was helping others gain this mastery over things I felt were not that complex if one only knew what was expected. I just could not bear to see people around me struggling over the very same things that had baffled me for months and cost me my health and family time.

Thus began my transitional career as a trainer. Transitional because my primary job was still creating CBTs; training other developers was my part-time self-assigned additional responsibility. All through this period, I remained focused on individual bits and pieces on stuff I saw people doing incorrectly. I did not connect any dots on the ID puzzle. What I was training on instintively was standards required by the client- how to write relevance building screens, how to craft objectives, how to apply Bloom's taxonomy, how to avoid mistakes in writing MCQs, what each column of the DD must contain etc. However mundane that might sound, it took a lot of energy and effort to make these learnable for the hundreds of new recruits straight out of college. And this act of training others itself taught me so much practical ID!

The Breakthrough!

A breakthrough of sorts happened for me one day while reading a journal on Educational Technology that the company had subscribed to. The journal had an article on Intrinsic and Extrinsic relevance and it described an experiment done to see the effect of relevance building statements within the study material provided to medical students. Expecting to see elaborate and in-your-face relevance building statements like I was used to writing and training others to write, I was riveted by what the researchers had used. To make the content on heart relevant to the medical students, the statement that was used was "The heart is the strongest muscle in the human body." The simplicity of this statement, and its power, had me mesmerized. I must have read this article a hundred times over. This explains why I remember it distinctly, even 15 years later.

What this article did for me was to open a window in the small room I was used to working in, metaphorically speaking. It showed me how the parts that we were using to build our vehicle had utility in other contexts too. It showed me how those parts could be assembled differently. It showed me that there was more than one interpretation of a concept. It showed me that if I dared, I could interpret these concepts in a way that made sense to me. This single article empowered me like nothing else had done! 

Finding My Feet

After this, my journey was about opening more windows, seeing more perspectives, opening and challenging my own mind, trusting what my mind came up with- all this while working within the constraints defined by my client. It was not easy, but it was a lot of fun. Mind you, there was no google at that time and resources that existed were deep inside universities and journals we had no access to. Conferences on ID-related topics were few and in the US, so too expensive and out of bounds for many of us. We didn't even have access to other CBTs, so we were really working in a vacuum. And I for one had never even met or communicated with the people who were the audience for these courses. As a result, a lot of what I learned in those days was self-driven and self-validated. Is there any better way to learn? And more difficult?

From the Box into Infinity

The next change that happened in my career literally threw me out of the small room (with many windows by now) into a world with absolutely no boundaries. There were no instructions, no tools, no predefined tasks, nothing. As a result, no work was happening either. So my first task was to put in some structure, some milestones, some order, some boundaries. Ironic isn't it? However, I had the freedom to create the world I wanted to be in and I put my heart and soul into it. The structures I created and the boundaries I put up were based on my own experiences and, therefore, pliable and flexible.

Here, I had the opportunity to lead design efforts for all kinds of customers and content. Thanks to a very talented and unfettered team, I saw some of the most brilliant and innovative interactions and visuals being built around me. All the pieces I had been polishing separately came together beautifully and I got it. ID was no longer a science to be applied in bits and pieces, but a continuum. I was no longer aware of it as an outside force shaping my work, but something that was a part of the clay itself. In this heightened state, we created games, scenarios, interactive exercises, visual styles, game-based assessments- all supporting solid learner-friendly content.

Another Breakthrough!

In this world with no boundaries, I saw my own limitations starkly. I figured out that a good design done on paper was useless if it was not interpreted and implemented appropriately on screen. I could do all the thinking in the world and still the end product could be useless. I was nothing, powerless, without a team that understood and shared my intent. Since then, I have never thought of instructional design as a stand-alone activity- it is enmeshed into the entire development process. A visual designer is as much (and more) an instructional designer as any ID. As a result of this realization, my longest lasting partnerships in design has been with a particularly talented visual designer, not another ID. Together, we have created magic many times over!

The Road Turns

This is not the end of the journey for me as an ID. I believe the next transition will teach me newer stuff and take me much further and deeper. I can't wait to get started!

Sunday Morning Joy

I hear people talking about grocery shopping as a chore and am always surprised. I love grocery shopping. When browsing through the rows of cheese, meat, vegetable, herbs and what not, my mind imagines all kinds of great meals I will make with them. If I see Kafir lime leaves, I plan a Thai meal. If I see fresh spring onions, I think Chinese fried rice. If I see a relatively cheap pack of fresh mozzarella cheese in water, I see Atta happily eating my cheese croquettes! Sometimes, its more planned than that. I already have cous-cous salad in my mind and I correct ingredients for it as I walk. So you can see how the shopping experience becomes so much more than just picking things and paying for them. Lately, I have also started looking at the price tags and that slows me down a bit, but doesn't take away any bit of pleasure from filling up my basket.

We usually go to Thomson Plaza's Fair Price super market for our bimonthly grocery shopping. But today, we combined a morning walk with some fruit/veg shopping and Mallika, Aloka (in her pram) and I walked to Bishan Street 22 instead.

It was my first time grocery shopping at Street 22. This place doesn't have a posh fancy super market, but several smaller grocery shops interspersed with other shops selling cheap Chinese toys and Thai clothes. It was crowded even that early in the morning and people jostled with each other in the narrow lanes. It was so tight that Aloka's pram caused traffic jams several times. The fruit seller, an unusually tall and well built Chinese man, let me taste the lychees and grapes before I bought them and gave me an 80 cent discount. Grin. The aunty who sold us prawns explained why some fish was more expensive and helped me select the prawns. The meat seller wanted to advise me on the type of meat I should buy, but I was not in the mood for pork. I had seen some young small eggplants and it was Thai curry for lunch. Then we saw the Yong Tou Fu shop and I had to have those fishy tofu bits in various shapes and sizes for our tofu soup tomorrow. In between, I also managed to buy a cheap Chinese alphabet set for Aloka. When we were done, Mallika bought me cold soy milk in a takeaway pack and I sipped it all the way home.

What a wonderful Sunday morning spent with my favorite people doing my favorite activity in the heartlands of Singapore.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Watch that Service Window!

This is an article that I wrote when I was the CEO of Learning Solutions at Knowledge Platform. It was published in the KP blog, and later in Learning Circuits. I am reproducing it here with the company’s permission. The concept of Service Window is closely related to another article I wrote recently, about ensuring high margins in custom content development.


When I wrote this article, three of our Project Managers were dealing with “difficult” clients. One was dealing with uncontrollable incremental scope creep that was pushing her project towards loss. Another was faced with a client who was uncooperative and sometimes downright rude. The third had a client who would not respond for months and then suddenly demand deliverables in a major hurry. Always a proponent of superlative customer service for all our customers, I couldn’t help but feel partly responsible for the situation the Project Managers were in. So, I wrote this article in our corporate blog to share my belief that it is possible to be customer oriented while ensuring the financial health of projects.

What is a Service Window?

Yesterday, I went to the Turkish embassy to apply for a visa. After checking my documents, which I passed through a very small and narrow opening at the bottom of the glass window, the lady at the counter asked me to pay $60 as fees. I took out my credit card. She shook her head. I showed her my debit card. She again shook her head. Then she pointed to the opening in the window and said “Look at the space. I can only accept cash”. It took me a few seconds to understand what she was saying. The opening was so narrow that there was no way she could pass me a debit or credit card processor for any transaction. What she was saying was that her service window was defining the flexibility (or lack of it) of the payment mode she could offer. I had no choice. I walked half a mile to an ATM and brought back cash! And I even managed a smile when the lady gave me the receipt.

There is a message in this story- it is not just me rambling about my visa woes. The message here is about the concept of Service Window in relation to our business. As service providers, we also have a service window for our clients. How open is this window? And is it visible to our clients? How clearly?

How Open is Your Service Window?

When we started KP, this window was wide open because we wanted all and any business. Customers, frustrated by closed windows all around, liked our open window and appreciated the flexibility it offered them. But a wide open window has its own problems. Staying with the visa application analogy, what if the customer wants to pay the visa fee in Uzbekistan’s currency Som? Do we accept it? What if a customer wants to submit the application at midnight? Do we wait up for him? What if the client demands his visa be processed even if the payment is not made? Do we continue to smile? Or do we rush to close the window in a hurry?

Is there a middle ground possible? In the context of a service provider, I think the solution lies in the following:

1. Defining the service window as clearly as possible
The invisible window needs to be made visible. Based on our experience, we should be able to define specific limits and boundaries. In our context, this means clearly stating number of screens and visual style to be used, setting a limit on review cycles, stating the monetary consequences of changes after sign-offs, clearly defining the extent of audio narration-related services etc. We are getting better at this, but there is still a lot to do.

2. Defining the service window as early as possible
The window definition is most effective if it is made available at the earliest possible stage, which is the proposal stage. Sometimes, things do get missed at proposal stage. Then we should use the kick-off meeting to define the window. If even this opportunity is missed, define the window with the first deliverable. Anything is better than not defining the window because it was too late. The earliest is the best, but it is never too late.  

3. Enforcing the service window on first violation
Not enforcing the window when faced with the first violation is the most common mistakes we all make. I am the queen of it. Suddenly I have such empathy and sympathy for the customer that I use all my strength to open the window to its full extent. This is a big mistake. Even if the customer has been very responsive and flexible, we need to hold on to the window we have defined because once opened, it is nearly impossible to pull it back down.
4. Dealing objectively with requests
Very connected to the above point is how to respond to a request or action that violates your service window definition. Of course, as first step, we should restate the boundaries politely. Sometimes, customers are not aware that they are asking for something additional. Many of them sign contracts without understanding the meaning of the assumptions we state. They need to be reminded and corrected. If they understand and still demand, be more assertive and explain your reasons. In any situation, it is important to deal with request and compare it with the service window definition objectively and state facts.

5. Escalating
When things get a little sticky and out of your hands, escalate the matter. It is difficult to keep smiling when faced with a seemingly unfair situation. That’s the time to escalate.

In conclusion

Having a clearly defined Service Window sends a clear message to your customers- that we are a professional company serving the best interests of the customer. After all, a project that is handled well within the specified development budget, positively impacts the customer as much as it does the service provider. Only a successful and profitable service provider will be able to retain the best talent and invest in infrastructure, training and tools, all of which will in turn help us build better solutions for our customers.

Cartoon drawn by Kaushik Basak, Knowledge Platform.


Sometimes I remember you
and wish I didn't,
Sometimes I forget
And search in panic for a glimpse.

Sometimes you are near
I can see you from the corner of my eyes,
Sometime I walk the desert alone
Parched for miles.

Sometimes it is all a dream
Illusive, false, sure to come undone,
Yet sometimes I stand convinced
that you are the one.

Sometimes practicalities matter
What, where, when, who...
While sometimes I just float in the sea of emotions
that connects me to you.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Real Story that Defined Anand Family

Every family has a tragedy that defines them. Somebody's illness, someone's losing their way, someone's breakup and someone's death. Our family was defined by the death of my uncle Mohan, my father's younger brother, in the Bangladesh war in 1971. I was very young at that time and vaguely remember the family gatherings and hushed discussions at that time, which on hindsight appears odd because Indian families usually do their grieving loudly.

I grew up under the shadow of this rather heavy story, which started and ended with uncle Mohan's death on the day of ceasefire, during a routine helicopter reconnaissance across the border. Later, there were some offshoots of the story, mainly to do with my uncle Mohan's widow remarrying and my grandfather's persistent attempts to maintain contact with her and Mohan's two kids. What I didn't know until just a few years ago was that a big story like that had overshadowed and hidden another smaller, but equally powerful, story- the real story that defined this family...

My uncle died on Dec 10, 1971 at the Bangladesh border, shot through the heart by a sniper on the ground. On Dec 10, 1971, my grandmother, grandfather and their three other children in Delhi went about their daily lives as usual. In fact they did nothing different even on Dec 12 and 13. On Dec 14, my grandmother had a visitor, a distant relative of Mohan's wife. This visitor saw my grandma wearing her nice satin salwar kamiz, enjoying the sun while her radio blared Punjabi songs. Shocked, she quickly left the house and went to see my father, a doctor who worked in a nearby hospital. It was only then that a blood relative of Mohan's first heard that he had died. Four days after the event! Three days after he had been cremated.

They learned that Mohan's wife had received the news of her husband's death on Dec 10, had flown to Jessore where his body was, and cremated his body the next day. She said that she had sent a telegram to my grandparents, but went ahead with the cremation when no one from the family contacted her back. His parents, who had doted on their handsome and charming son for 34 years, seen him through the ups and downs of life, educated him despite financial hardships and the trauma of the relocation during the partition in 1947, and adored him as only Indian parents can adore their sons, did not even get to see his body. How much deeper the wound of losing him would have been? What did this lack of closure do to them? Did my grandma ever feel he hadn't really died and would return some day?

About 20 years later, long after both my grandparents had passed away, my father had some of his students over for dinner at our place. He was a Professor of Hospital Administration and his students were mainly senior Army doctors. One of these officers, Col. Kanikera, got talking to my mother about mysterious incidents and coincidences. He mentioned a strange medical case he saw during the Bangladesh war. An officer had been shot straight through the left ventricle of the heart from the ground, while he was inside a helicopter with three other officers, none of whom were hurt even slightly, on a day there should not have been any shooting because war had ceased.  My mother looked at him in shock and said "Are you talking about Lt. Col. Mohan Dutt Anand?".  Yes indeed. Talk of mysterious coincidences! 

It so transpired that this doctor, Col. Kanikera, had been the surgeon who had performed surgery on Mohan to try to save his life that fateful day in 1971. From Col. Kanikera, my parents learned more about  that day, how Mohan was clicking pictures and talking excitedly to three of his colleagues in the chopper when suddenly there was a "thump" sound and silence from Mohan. Shocked at what had just happened, they rushed the chopper to an army hospital nearby. The surgeon noted that Mohan's wallet kept in his chest pocket had been nicked and had somewhat deflected the bullet, but the damage to his heart was too much and he couldn't be saved.

There was finally a closure of sorts to Mohan's death, at least for the surviving members of the Anand family.

So why this story? Not just because its an interesting story, but because of a deep message hidden inside it. The heavier story of my uncle's death had a clear powerful message- that war destroys families, that when a soldier dies, his family goes through unspeakable pain, that no political cause can justify this type of loss.

The smaller story behind it had another equally powerful and universal message, that of forgiveness, kindness and magnanimity of the heart. In the context of this story, my grandfather's actions take on a totally different color. His attempts to stay connected with his daughter-in-law and her children, his baking of birthday cakes for them and then delivering them to their doorstep miles away and his constant good cheer towards his daughter-in-law despite such a tragedy and betrayal are all legacies for his children and grandchildren. T
he entire family's dignified conduct in this matter, so much so that I didn't know about this parallel story up until just a few years ago, is inspirational. In the face of what they went through and how they conducted themselves, my own unforgiving anger towards people who have at most insulted me or undermined my authority is small-minded and pitiable, isn't it?

When you are fortunate enough to be born in a family like this, you have a responsibility to perpetuate this legacy. When the story that defines your family has such a powerful message, regression is not an option.