Sunday, 18 December 2011

Considerately, English

Deccan Herald, Sunday Herald. Cover story. Dec 18, 2011.

Considering the oft-considered consideration that, “English is a bhery phunny language”, Namakhalaal Mr Bachchan’s top order verbal unleashment stays tops across common conversation even decades since Bollywood officially endorsed the extent of funniness the English language lends itself to.
Very funny then and as punny now as the proficiency and intent of the speaker, spoken English, the way we know it and the way many would have us know, enthrals with vagaries sometimes hilarious, sometimes misleading, sometimes downright offensive but mostly…different…in a different sort of way. Its manifest boon or bane, ultimately, depends on how varied our reasons for speaking it are and where we speak it all, always, ultimately, considerably considerable.
While non-native speakers continue to cook its broth most relentlessly, only those who have had personal experience with the in-house battering of this phonetically challenged dialect, mother tongue, or not, can sympathise with the fact that the murder spree of Queen’s English is a heritage that is as old as the very origins of its speakers.
History not-withstanding, the scope for sheer variety underscores the speaking fraternity of its faithful, where strong accents make for individual languages in their own right. So while there is the Geordie or the Brummie from its land’s own, we heb our own ramifications, that stand proud, as far as the empire stretched then and as rampant as its influence has spread since. 
Compounded by phonetic similarities between words among the multiple languages we speak, while they hold no semantic parity, the results of their combinations become epics in themselves.
Hold that in your mind while I relate this rather unfortunate event - one from a long list that, dear readers, I am sure you will be able to add to, given our transcontinental existence today and the requirement that it creates to converse in a language that to most of us is, essentially, foreign.  Someone declares at a wake, “… inde naake vurrk ille” (today I will get no sleep). It is but natural to wonder, even aloud, why someone not even remotely related to the deceased should go without sleep prior to the funeral. Turns out, the exclamation was a classic dual language utterance, where “vurrk” was actually the English word ‘work’ used as itself, but articulated in his typical accent. After much confusion among the guests, when the situation got quite out-of-hand, someone was kind enough to intervene and clarify what that sentence originally intended to convey. It goes thus: “inde naake work ille”, meaning quite simply and unpretentiously, ‘today I do not have (to go to) work’.
Can you imagine how foul uncontrollable guffaws would have seemed with the head of the family lying in a coffin two teak chairs away? Let us not even venture into the predicament of the mourning widow and the distraught children.
So you see, language mutilation is not obliged to protocols of any sort and if you are suddenly humming, "why this kollaveri di...",  it is because, in the wake of habit and opportunity, anything vurrks.
And.  It is always very sentimental. 
The enthusiast will plough on. And you dare not interrupt. Especially on a busy  road when the only one available to ask for directions is a modest enough youth revving a 1985 converted van, loaded with live chickens. He will vigorously point left on the fork in the road that bears right and insist that to get to where I need to be in less than 15 minutes, I should go “striiiiitu”.
Image result for sign postsDecode time. Going ‘straight’ would take me into a road with no point of return until four kms on that traffic heavy stretch, going ‘right’ would steer me out of the city. So, trying my diplomatic best, I enquired again. Enthusiastic, confident and even more persuasive, pat came the reply, “go to Striiitu, Medem”. You might have heard this a million times before but there was no way I could break his heart. Yet, experience told me to make for a polite getaway, urgently.
While I drove away relying merely on the compass of instinct and sheer common sense, the bridge (breeze) rand (ran) through my airz (hair). The chaos outside, tasted my resolve and I hated the test of the orange flavoured water, a friend had most kindly forced upon me on another such mercurial day.
Was I flummoxed, though? On the contrary, it was another heartening testimony to why progress will always make its way.
For, if connecting effortlessly on a local level is important for me to become an integral part of the framework that will now be home, and speaking in the regional language properly counts for a valiant effort (guilty and not proud), there is this rank of greater valiants that also dares to dream big. Like us, and in fact sometimes more than us, they know that prosperity rides on cultural amalgamation. They have seen it happen and they are part of that wave. So while no one can take away from them, their staunch roots of identity, they are forever eager to adapt to and adopt every semblance of a prosperity that makes them more one with the rest of the world.
Make way now, for the Truce of Necessity. Having never had to speak a word of English (or any other language but their own) to get by, born and bred in happy naadus and oorus, and then even more happily married off to jobs, prospects or spouses in Amreeka, Staitsu, Kennaada or Brimanghaam, there is an increasing community dealing with ‘first exposure’. These newbies neither identify with the land they have been transported to nor with the hair-raising (not funny) cultural adjustments that will have to be made in the land of the white, light white and not so light colour tones. Never mind the spectrum of expectations that come around them. But if one must fetch that first meal, one must speak. Their speak.
Mismatch? With absolutely no offence to anyone, if what takes your imagination now is a tight, coconut-oiled braid cascading down Rapunzel style, swaying frantically left-right-left-right on a small NYC street, as the owner it sprouts from, hollers, “staaap” to the taxi approaching, only to be stood up, you are not kidding! Mercie for nothing, but, maybe, just maybe, she missed out the slight roll of the rrrr there, as in ‘staarrrp’, because ‘stop’, simply said in whatever accent, would go uncomprehended in that land of otherwise ‘wunnerrful’ people.
In his classic matter-of-fact fashion, a friend puts it quite rightly when he says, “When someone learns English for the first time, abroad, there is only one way he can speak it”. This deems true for any language, really. The oddity of an Indian rural upbringing, spouting, for instance, a heavily accented Yankie-twang, is but an occupational hazard.
Provokes some thought there and a reflection upon how much importance we should warrant the ‘correct’ way of speaking an acquired language that is in itself an occupational hazard.
Image result for english accent issuesThis new English speaker might not get as much attention for his accent where he learnt it first, as for his skin colour and deference, but when he comes home to his people and mingles with the more urbane crowd where language barrier might never have been much of a challenge, his manner and style of speech, far removed from his strong origin, make him the perfect laughing stock. Says a new NRI holiday maker, “Even if he is aware of this, is there much he can do?” And those that will not admit to such ‘picking on’, cannot honestly deny it either. Where his accent is ‘at home’, he is an alien. Where ‘he’ should be at home, his alien accent makes him the butt of jokes.
To turn this dilemma on its head, let me remind you of another nasty joke from the other side of the west – the world of crumpets and tea. Remember Big Brother UK? And remember that embarrassing slur cast upon the diplomatic visit of the UK premier to India? The landmark ‘declaration’ by the reigning Ms Great Britain of the time, with her Liverpudlian scouse and seriously impaired articulation skills, concluded that Shilpa ‘princess’ Shetty, “can’t even speak English properly”. Even the very British anchor of the show couldn’t stifle her sheepish giggles at that and much air time was devoted to lame damage control. But, who is to tell?!
Image result for english accent issuesWhat is right and what is wrong? With the multitude of different accents that English is spoken in Britain itself, when someone walks into an east London hardware store and makes a quick Scottish request for “fork handles” only to be handed ‘four candles’, who is to dictate to the rest of the world, what constitutes the right way of speaking it? Why do we get so miffed when someone tells us that “here, in India” we pronounce p-a-s-t-e-l, as “paste-al” and not ‘pastl’ (‘a’ pronounced as in pat) as the expert would have it said? When, after constant correction, someone decides that English is not her mother tongue and she is “verrrry-vell-thankyou” without more badgering, why does that tiny group of phonetic experts, that constitutes an equally tiny fraction of the entire English speaking world, get so offended? Whatever happened to ‘respecting regional differences’ and ‘majority wins’?!
Though I believe that every effort should be aimed at perfection or somewhere close to it, falling short at something as nebulous and transient as lingual ability and accents, mainly due to regional deflections, should be the last thing to linger on. After all, the British themselves, sometimes, struggle to follow strong modulations among their own. The French are graciously forgiven and the Italians are fondly imitated. Let us spare ourselves some flak – we are culturally and racially much more diverse than anyone in the west. This must be acknowledged. On a lighter note, revel, but keep the humour mutually palatable because many among us who speak a foreign tongue would really much rather not do so at all.
Image result for funny indian signagesAbove the underlying determination to rise beyond the ordinary, these light moments of comic relief (in afterthought, even the worst situation brings a smile to anyone), make every bead of sweat, worth the while. 
Living in India, these moments come on a platter with the maid insisting on “making you tough” (making dough for me) – she has to learn English per force because she has two “foreigner houses” to go to after mine, to “cook them”. Being in Bangalore, the triumphs come along at particular traffic junctions. My, now, familiar-face cop insists on replying in English, relentlessly flourishing his modest linguistic prowess over a language (imported, like his Malaysian ‘Ferrari’ jacket) that he clearly looks up to, for every query I put to him in my equally laughable Kannada. It provided moments of immense comedy initially (to both parties) but now, I have a different take on it.
The local vernacularisation of a language from a land far, far, away, creates something ‘different’. Not ‘wrong’. The localised diction and usage  ̶  more far-fetched the better  ̶  makes it worth the while. In this very common situation today, where education, aspiration and resolve come together, every time you come across a deflection, multi-lingual, grammatical or phonetic, it gets you. It is worth the vile.
While we rave about the extinction of ancient pure languages like Latin or our own Sanskrut, English’s non-phonetic conformity and scope to coin phrases that can mean anything depending on how they are used ensures that however mongrelised it gets, it will always survive. Blame it on the far-flung British colonies and effects thereof, ‘color’ it tan or ‘colour’ it teal, throw in a ‘psychedelic’ range (with a p) or trace in a ‘cyclic’ pattern (without a p), this language will prevail. With every new accent and word that gets added, to its ever-expanding palette and dictionary editions, the more popular it will grow as a linguistic choice.
As long as you get it and as long as it vill be spoken, in all its forms, all considered, ultimately, it will always be, English. 
And talking of contortionist phrases, let me leave you with a line from a card attached to a loving letter I received this week. Sitting pretty on my mantelpiece, the cover picture is a beautiful, textured graphic print of the Alps, with the words, “Peace and merriment” calligraphed across its width. On the inside page, amidst all the smilies, the handwriting reads: “This joyful season, may you be full of it. Much love… ” 

Seasons Greetings, everyone.                                                                                                               

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Ideal State

Deccan Herald, Sunday Herald. Cover story. Oct 16, 2011.

The foundation of a ‘Welfare State’ has been most magnificently illustrated in Amish’s epic debut novel, The Immortals of Meluha. Its governance rests on the instruction of ‘give and give’, where each citizen is, by law, duty-bound to always do for the other. With everything taken care of for your self by the next person, no one is left wanting. Each citizen partakes, automatically, of a generous society that cares equally for its upkeep as it does for the sentiments of each other. Equal opportunity and abundance of resources and goodwill are a natural consequence and the state prospers under a moral framework poised on ethics and righteousness. By law. An ideal citizenry, in and of an ideal society. The Indian sentiment reveres it as Ram Rajya – the quintessence of ‘truth, tranquillity and peace’. Agencies of administration call it ‘Ideal State’ – a seemingly Utopian dream, every honest leader, anywhere in the world, strives to establish.

A far cry from the grimy reality of our lives, you would say. But what is sad is not so much the apathy of people to what is right, but the almost venomous scorn that meets anyone who stands against what is wrong and seeks to bring about a positive difference.

There is not a single road in Bangalore, for instance, that is not under various stages of continuous rebuilding. Traffic ‘non’sense is the standard public anthem. People reach appointments late and later, but they get there – somehow. Not a single person outside your personal cordon of resources can be trusted for timely turnout or total delivery even, but that does not stop the work getting done, however post-deadline. Compromise is the only way forward, generally, and yet we manage to laugh about it soon. Mediocrity is the new high and those who are sticklers for better, will most probably be left without. Local vendors know this, smart consumers learn it fast.

And India works! That’s the marvel of it.

My question to you is: Is that our problem, or is it where the solution hides? Because for every four cars that will come out suddenly from the lane on the left and swerve in front of me to take a right turn, there is one motorist who will stop and take the time to reprimand the erring driver and even summon the cops. For every baton-wielding cop who will make some cursory notes only to say ‘aiyo! hogli bidri’ , there will be a scanner-brandishing sub-inspector swiftly keying in a challan. For every other hundred rupee note that quietly finds its way into a law enforcer’s pocket, there is a diligent press wallah working overtime, camera clicking away at the evidence to be plastered across front pages the next morning.

‘Jaago graahak, jaago’, the advertisements urge and educate. Too much has been spoken about malpracticing politicians and tyrannical governments. So much more has been spoken of public responsibility. Tremendous anti-corruption movements have taken on nationalistic proportions that even our children will remember. Obviously, deep within the trenches of our upbringing and culture, something, somewhere, is quite solid and binding. But why is it so hard to find?

Question 2: Is awareness only a tool to ensure your personal safeguard, or does it aim to instil a silent and all-pervading scrutiny that keeps all orders in check and consequently in force?

The basis of all civilisation is a cohesive society. There is trade, there is exchange, there is custom, there is negotiation and for these to prosper, there are ethics. The Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians ... all hold testimony as traders exemplar, consumers of their own wares and strict adherers of modicums set down by senates across ancient seas. What was achieved in our own Mohenjodaro and Harappa is beyond astounding! Today we call it civic sense, but really, it is simple social ethics – unwritten norms that dictate and guide social behaviour so as to bring about a progressive and intrinsically happy community. Naturally, organisations come about to maintain this code of conduct. Now we know it as government policy, aimed, always, at public interest.

It is the purpose of Law to assist order and maintain decorum. Try to remember the first chapter of Civics in middle school, where we were taught the Constitution of India. A boring lesson then, has the utmost importance in our lives today, as we become victims and perpetrators alike, of depleting humane concern and deteriorating common sense.

The three main sections of the Constitution detail our Fundamental Rights, Directive Principles of State Policy and Fundamental Duties. They, together, form the foundations upon which duties of the State and citizens, towards each other, have been laid out. They seek to shape the behaviour and conduct of the people of our country to make it a successful, peaceful and progressive nation.

While most of us are quite aware of and happy to demand what are considered ‘rights’ protected by Law, we are quite complacent in the ignorance towards our ‘duties’ to protect the same laws. And this is in spite of the fact that these ‘duties’ are listed out as meticulously as our rights, in the same Constitution. The Fundamental Duties, as they appear in Part IV-A of the third section, have been defined as “moral obligations of citizens” to one another, in their pursuit “to help promote a spirit of patriotism and uphold the unity of India”. As citizens of our country, it is our ‘duty’ to “cherish heritage, preserve composite culture, promote spirit of brotherhood, protect environment and public property, abjure from violence and strive towards excellence in all spheres”. But because they cannot be contested in court, they have become ‘mere morals’ in the hands of a few conscientious people, who will not be taken seriously unless they hold hunger fasts and gather large crowds.

Question 3: Does even basic ‘good behaviour’ have to become an enforceable law, the violation of which must be a punishable offence to ensure that a civilised people abide by each other? Does individual pride not matter enough?!

How many times have you heard glob-trotters lamenting that the same people who think nothing of spitting on their own roads at home would never fathom it in a foreign country? Reason? Not self-respect, unfortunately. It is the fear of crippling fines!

This is where education plays its role. Certain countries abroad are respected for their law-abiding ethos and general sense of pride among its people because these sentiments have been made an intrinsic part of their upbringing. And to ensure that learnt behaviour is always maintained, strong laws and penalties of consequence do their bit. Even the Indian ethos is structured on the psychological principle of sama, daana, bheda, danda ̶ explanation, incentivising, selective discrimination, and, when all else fails, punishment. Social ethics need to be ingrained as deeply as our family values. Only when behaviour or manners, becomes a subconscious reaction, can it propagate outwards as consistent and amenable.

In school, Moral Science taught us to respect our elders, obey laws, stand in a queue, help the other when in need, keep our city clean and share our joys with those around us. But these ‘values’ have been forgotten in the melee of shark mentality and first-dog-gets-the-bone attitudes that govern our fast-tracked lives today. It is, inevitably, the poor law-abider who gets pulled up, because he didn’t run away fast enough.

Which is why, when soon after Dasara, the headlines screamed that the Chief Minister has refused to fund festivities, a practice, which was until now, rampant, it came as hope. With potable water a constant risk and electricity in remote villages as elusive as an honest administration, the CM’s decision is rather encouraging.

For India to prosper and be respected in the world, basic values have to be practiced by us Indians, in India, first. And when inspiration comes from the top, it is bound to percolate. This is what we need. It is not just a superficial code of conduct, but a change in conscience that needs to come about. A promising step towards this end is Bangalore University vice-chancellor D N Prabhu Dev’s proposal to introduce Civic Sense as a non-core but compulsory subject in colleges, so as to instil responsibility among our youth. But to make civic sense truly intrinsic and to propagate the idea across the masses, maybe this classroom initiative will be better supported by vast public service campaigns and similar programmes in schools, where minds are still impressionable.

The Constitution of India has done its duty to its citizens by laying out a code of conduct. In keeping with time and requirement, new amendments are constantly suggested. Now with the 86th amendment of 2002, eleven Duties, on an official list, pan across social requirements and consider all possibilities. Since independence, to promote social welfare, government policy has used the charter of Fundamental Duties to pass laws like the Minimum Wages Act of 1948 that empowers workers across the economic spectrum. The Consumer Protection Act of 1986 remains a solace for many. And now even our educators seem poised to make our future citizens more responsible by making them intrinsically ‘fair’ and ‘responsible’ as they get ready to, effectively, run the country that has given them their identity and the indemnity to call it their own.

India will always work. The Government can lay down a law but it is ‘us’, as conscientious parents, responsible organisations, law-abiding, enthusiastic and proud citizens, who can take it forward from here, in glory. Like Swami Vivekananda motivated then, now again, it is time to, “Awake! Arise! Stop not till the goal is reached”.

Ram Rajya or Ideal State, call it what you will. But for the sake of your own dignity, take a stand.                  ■

Sunday, 4 September 2011

“Yes”, because we can!

Sunday Herald, Deccan Herald. Sept 04, 2011. Cover Story

He looked straight in the eye, took a moment and asked, “Do you ever say ‘no’ to anything?!” The exasperation was palpable and the response, “Only to your present question”, guillotined that conversation.

Work continued uninterrupted and a project that was in escalation for 45 days went live at 05:00am the next morning. The team reached their wives and wi-fis for a late breakfast and those who were sure it would fail (as it had done continuously for the previous two years), were collected in a closed room, answering questions on how an external consultant could come in for ten days and turn around an implementation that had cost the company several hundred million dollars over the past five years! They are still trying to figure out how none of them before that day, had ‘stumbled’ upon such a simple solution that started saving the company many millions right from the first week of the project’s launch.

What would you attribute this phenomenal success story to? Sound knowledge and smart thinking with some help from a measured deviation from protocol, in order to achieve the end result? Or irrespective of the end result, would you prefer the phrases, ‘irreverence to procedure’ and ‘ruthless disregard for legend’? Consider my question carefully, for, your answer will determine how Indian your attitude to work is.

There are a few things to regard here. For centuries, India has been the seat of knowledge and innovation. When the rest of the world was still using bones and twigs, we gave humanity numbers to count with. Even a class V student knows that the Indus Valley Civilisation prospered more than 5000 years ago, when most of the west lived in caves. We presented surgery to mankind 2,600 years ago, anaesthesia and all. The first dam was built in India. The gurukuls prospered before documented history. Nalanda gave the world its first ‘University’ of education way back in 700 BC. And Forbes magazine reports that Sanskrut is the language best suited for computer software.

With 36% of NASA scientists being Indian, 34% of Microsoft employees responding to Indian names, 28% of us at IBM and 17% of Intel scientists doing this 64 year old political democracy proud, our modern triumphs are here and now. It is Indians at the helm of affairs all over the globe. We are an emerging economic, military and knowledge superpower. Our home grown corporates rule the world. So, why is it that an article that explores the Indian attitude to work becomes relevant?

Because in spite of India being extolled as a nation of hard workers who bring excellence to the table, the perception is slowly focussing on the quality that we finish with. We put in the long hours, we are infinitely adaptable, we get the results and we don’t say “no”. But along the way there is a certain tendency to procrastinate, bend the rules and disregard protocol. There is a place for that too, but people tend to forget.

The dynamics of any corporate environment today is that while the immediate result is the difference between raise and redundancy, consistency is the keeper. And that cannot be taught. As individuals, we shine, but how much can an individual, generate individually, to a larger group?

Explaining the two fundamental deficiencies that contribute to poor organisational capabilities of Indians, Piyush Doshi, a senior management consultant with significant industry experience in India and abroad, rests the onus on an intrinsic lack of trust. He is of the view that, “Good process requires an individual to focus exclusively on his or her responsibility and trust others will do the same. It requires people to be generous to their colleagues and pick up the slack. We are, genetically, more of a Darwinian society which produces brilliant individuals. Even our huge organisational successes are down to a few individuals who will make the impossible happen".

But companies work in groups. And how adept is the Indian intellect to a group dynamic? We are excellent at following orders. We are extremely adaptable, but when put into a group, where does our initiative go?

“Hierarchy is ingrained in the Indian psyche”, says Mohan Pandit, Senior Vice President, in a global services company. He refers to our family and education set-up where the senior member is respected and obeyed. Personal planning usually has no scope and affects the way our thinking develops over time. He goes on: “This behaviour seeps into the corporate culture too, where ‘employee thinking’ is not very structured and people feel inhibited even to volunteer. There is a lack of freedom and coupled with poor communication skills, personal initiative is stifled. The ability might be there, but deference is so ingrained that we don’t see much leadership. When this individual is then placed in a multinational environment, this cultural difference is perceived as lack of confidence and lack of independent thinking. That’s unfortunate”.

Sociologists and psychologists call this the malady of colonialisation, where at the grassroots level, though we are free from political bondage, we are still stifled in thought and expression. And we pass this on. Our numerous years of slavery and subjugation have subdued our natural winning instinct. When competition is so steep and options are still scarce, survival is the instinct that pays.

Think about this. We have tremendous success stories and yet, as a race, we need to prove ourselves. Why is it, that the country that was pillaged for its wealth and was romanticised for its promise, now finds its own performance, attitudes and thinking, under the scanner?

The truth lies in our demographics. When our economy opened and our top educational institutions produced world class professionals, the world saw India in a new light. This set the expectation of excellence from an Indian work force and India rapidly became the world’s No.1 outsourcing hub. The demand for skills permeated levels and now it is the lower tier skills that are in great demand. The service sector has placed a demand for a 3 million strong work force this year. With 3.1 million graduates produced in the country every year, McKinsey and NASSCOM reports that only 30%-40% of Indian graduates find employment! What gives?

Subhabrata Ghosh (SG), Head, Celsius100 Consulting, explains: “There is no dearth at the lower level. The problem comes up when companies want to move up the value chain, say from vendor status to advisory status. For quality delivery, they need to upgrade the quality of manpower. Post 2000 with IT and BPO services booming and our economy generating more employment opportunities, more and more people are sending their children to college, particularly from small towns and semi-urban areas. The demand on college education rose sharply. Suddenly higher education was big business. They began to cater to the rising needs of the industry – manpower at the bottom of the value chain. Couple this with the biggest issues in education: lack of quality teachers and a dynamic modern curriculum. Mediocrity and below par became the order of the day. Unfortunately this quickly became the majority. Even our IITs are now being questioned on the quality of students. Consider the other issues that are faced by the industry – socio-cultural quotients of the students. In a global environment, social skills are as important as job skills. With more participation from underprivileged sections of society, education needs to address the gap. Our colleges are completely oblivious of that need. Soft-skills training needs to be included. They need to develop a greater world view in students”.

And the student fraternity agrees. As per Naina Ghai, CA aspirant, “campus placements are 80% dependent on the student. Colleges bring companies and students under the same roof but do not engage in training students to sustain a job. Practical orientation is missing and that needs to be incorporated”. “It is the approach that is important”, feels Anmol Jain, a new graduate from Jain College. “We need to get our basics right but should not be confined to conventional formulae because there is an urgent need to be unconventional at work”. He believes in “working smart”, rather than plain hard work. Shayne Holloway of Indo Asian Innovative Block, takes a national outlook. “Ensuring access to quality education for all, particularly for the poor and rural population, is central to the economic and social development of India”, he says.

Aged between 21 and 23 years, this is the quality of intelligence and awareness that we are recruiting into our corporates today. And though there is a fair share of youngsters that seeks instant gratification without doing much for it, the larger community still values ethics and endurance. Supporting the view that we have plenty going for us, Sonali P.S., Account Director at Mutual PR, asserts, “It’s the educational and family system that builds the foundation for any individual. Today’s generation are quite gutsy, they are ready to take risks. And they have the support. The only thing to develop, now, is the drive to self-educate and be well-versed with other cultures and ethics, within India and outside it”.

Variability: our differentiator. It is as much an advantage as it is a challenge. And attitudes are greatly shaped by diversity. Ratna Chengappa, Founding Director and CFO, msc-mobile, is vastly experienced in managing groups of Indian resources, overseas. Having had his moments of frustration there, he reflects on his own experience of India: "The great thing about living in India is that it teaches you to deal with the unexpected. Often, that's why, when things don't go according to plan, we can find alternative solutions to overcome what many dismiss as impossible. A little chaos can go a long way when channelled constructively".

This is our natural behaviour. We work things out. But until someone points it out, we tend not to acknowledge it. Having said that, while a culture, disparate across comparatives, nurtures adaptability, it can also breed infighting. Substandard university programmes result in poor skill sets that show up soon enough and our culture of subservience that remains intrinsic to our behaviour, does not help performance. Personal gain, then, becomes the natural focus and other natural human instincts come into play.

So, how do our culture and ethos that dictate that we need to achieve at all costs; our rewards system that, in parts, still acknowledges the first student that puts his hand up whether he knows the answer or not; our habit of awarding ‘exceeding expectations’, where just doing the job right is inconsequential; and our inherent one-up-man-ship; impact our work ethics today? And then, how does it impact business?

It is the Indian malaise that while our entrepreneurial approach to a task and an intrinsic ownership that ensures that we complete the job, is commendable, the competition that breeds insecurity has negative repercussions on collaborative conduct. Praveen is the Co-Founder of EduNest, and provides web-based platforms for school-student interaction. His view is: “While this attitude (to excel at all costs), in isolation, is good, in an organisation it can be easily termed as over-enthusiasm, non-focused and unrealistic. A good balance of being a big achiever and sticking to the objectives should do the trick”.

‘Balance’ is key. The problem is not so much in the way we are, but the factors that stop us from using our abilities and talents to retain our competitive edge. The lack of strong skills coupled with the ‘chalegaa’ and ‘adjust maadi’ attitude against a back drop that allows little room for error, is quite a contradictory situation. Add to that our hierarchical upbringing that disallows questioning. As Apurva Malewar, Procurement Buyer at ICG Commerce, rightly puts, “Our culture does not allow us to open up or explore further. Our conservatism holds us back and contributes to the lack of quality. The only reason we have our heads above water is because of our hard work and dedication towards it. This brings in opportunities for us”. So, something is still right.

Examining the above, “Capital follows culture”, observes SG. “Our governance needs to acknowledge that in any country, economic might is dependent on the cultural quotient and educational quotient. Our sudden economic growth is unmatched by our social growth. Investment in education has not kept pace with this growth rate”, he points out. The ones that suffer are colleges that are money making ventures and severely under-resourced, particularly in quality teaching staff. Calling them “graduate factories”, SG reiterates that the thousands of colleges springing up across the country are falling short on the basic purpose of their existence – imparting “employable skill-sets and grooming progressive mind-sets”.

It is a natural phenomenon then, isn’t it, that when expectations are not fulfilled, and ‘average’ replaces ‘excellence’, there is bound to be comparison. I suspect it is also true, more so from a global perspective, that when an entity that has for many decades been seen as the under-dog suddenly raises its head in authority, others will seek to quell its ascent. Insecurity is predictable. That’s when the past becomes relevant again – gaps in memory need to be filled and pride restored.

“India is a country where knowledge and wisdom are indigenous”, reinforces Dr W Selvamurthy, Chief Controller R&D, DRDO. He explains, “India never invaded any country. Our intellect is our own, our dynamism and creativity are our own. We had Aryabhatta, we have our military prowess. We are at the brink of a second green revolution. We have been unstoppable. The Vedas have an answer to every situation that crops up today. It is in our genetics to think big. That’s our nature. But in the context of nurture, we need to recreate an ambience that will encourage expression of our immense capability”.

We have been rebuilding this ambience since independence. 30% of our population is still below the poverty line and yet we have a growth rate of 8.5%. The trajectory of India’s positive growth is attracting significant foreign investment. A progressive attitude to work is slowly becoming the norm and is bound to rub off on the local defiant. “Whether you like it or not, our growth will reach 10% soon and every class of people will move one up. Who’s going to complain about that?” he laughs.

Commenting on the impact of our much criticised lackadaisical attitude and corruption scale on the future of India’s acceptability in the world, Dr Selvamurthy is not worried. “Negativity will be nullified by our positive growth”, he persists. “The people of this country know success. They will affect change. The scene is simply, ‘perform or perish’. With tremendous growth in foreign investment and increasing pressure of success that the private sector is exerting on the public sector, the positive vibrance to succeed will gear attitudes towards achievement and leadership. It is inevitable”, he reassures.

Without a doubt, our corporate culture and even civic culture is gearing towards being process driven, collaborative and politically appropriate without being submissive and defeatist. That is a warm thought. All is, indeed, well. 


Sunday, 24 July 2011

Don't Blame Us For Trying

Sunday Herald, Deccan Herald. July 24, 2011. Cover story.

Having beat the rush hour after a week-long sick leave, we reached school unexpectedly early that morning. With all room doors still shut and maintenance staff only just trickling in, there was not much else to do but wait.

The virtually empty school building worsened the heaviness in my eyes as we sat there, just the two of us, my little boy leaning on my knee. It’s been a while since we officially started life in Bangalore and as I fondly watched my munchkin through the fatigue weighing me down into the cold steps outside the classroom, one question repeated itself: “Is there anything I wouldn’t do for my child?”

Again, I looked at his beaming face, now bobbing up and down along the row of floor tiles, when my eye caught the poster on the wall behind him. Boldly calligraphed was: “Many parents are so anxious to give their children what they didn’t have, they often neglect to give them what they did”.

My heart skipped a beat. Was the occurrence of my personal thought and the quote-spotting immediately after, mere coincidence? Or, was it the simultaneous and sudden rumble of students pouring into classrooms and stairwells that startled me? While the bustle shook me out of what could well manifest as Monday morning stupor, a tirade of conflicting emotions and feuding arguments had set to work inside my very tired mind.

That moment passed but those words lingered on in my head along the drive back home. The heavy traffic slowed my commute just enough to sketch out an intense mental process... some people were about to receive a few calls.

I often think about my childhood. Between Dad’s vast army campuses and rich daily life, well-organised holiday travels and the annual Coorg break at Grandma’s, my growing years were a dream. What I had far outweighed what I did not. And what I did not have, I have to crane my memory to remember. What I do remember is this: smiles and grit. Whatever the situation. In trying to give my child all that I did have, I am left astounded at my parents — how did they manage it all?

On the surface, life today is easier than it has ever been before. With the amenities available (some even affordable), the opportunities accessible and information as ample as one’s intellect can take, a dream is the first step to achievement.

While most of our parents, and even some of us, found inspiration in success stories only handed down or splashed across newspapers, our youngsters cross paths with the movers of our times. Sharing a stage with Bill Gates on invitation, shaking the hand of Vladimir Putin on a regular working day or enjoying the chance (and eventually, journey-long) company of our own Narayan Murthy on a routine flight, certainly make great stories. But they are our own stories. And the more we tell them, the more lurks the prospect of another girlfriend recounting her days in college with Dr Manmohan Singh’s daughter (an inspiration in her own right).

As urban professionals, this is the kind of profile we share today — successful, effective, robust and possible as long as there is the dogged will to ‘make it’. If we don’t find it by chance, we seek it consciously. If we can’t secure the one kind, we will grab its image. For us, and eventually for our children.

On the inside, these very advantages come entrenched within a silent moat. The still waters keep a close watch and run deep with expectation. Anything that falls in creates a splash. The waves, however gentle, stir something within the ramparts inside. The pressures only build. And its intensity, we alone, as individuals, will understand.

That is why, while at play, when the frustrated primary-schooler stamped on a newly acquired and obviously expensive electronic console, his parent very sympathetically waited it out. Getting another one of those gadgets was easy — who’s more valuable, the child or the gizmo? In contrast, reasoning with the child would require ‘time’ (this doting parent had just another 45 minutes of bonding time remaining) and winning back his favour after he had been drastically upset, would demand resolute ‘patience’: both premium commodities in corporate lives and understandably scarce in the increasingly dwindling personal.

As a doting parent of the other kind, questions and answers, perspectives and inferences, actions and reactions, events and evidence, transgressed relentlessly in my horrified senses. Did I dare confront that preoccupied parent? No. What business was it of mine, anyway? Well, here’s why it became my business: My child was an attentive witness to all of this. And however subtle its manifestations, none of us is oblivious to the power of negative influence.

So now that I, for no folly of my own, had been left the daunting task of ensuring that my child would never take his blessings for granted, should I have taken it up with the other parent?

After deep consideration, I believe, no. Why? Because I had something she did not — the luxury of time with my child. And my child had something his ill-tempered playmate did not — the security of being with a parent for most of his time away from school. If I had upset my child, I had my choice of days to explain my reprimand and the vices of unacceptable behaviour. I had the option to make it up to him in ‘time’ what the other parent would have to make up for in ‘kind’.

The rampant accusation we face today is that as parents, we are ridiculously ambitious for personal gain. As a result, we are becoming irrevocably indifferent and materialistic. Worse, we are passing this sentiment down to posterity. The usual show-cause validates part of the script on the wall as our permissiveness pans across the wish list, irrespective of what we can provide personally. The full-time maid is always at hand to rub pain off a hurting elbow, the handy chauffeur will procure the last available batch of exclusive cupcakes from an even more exclusive baker and the friendly septuagenarian next door will be only too happy to play chaperone for the first show of Cars 2. We did not have, but we give. We can’t give so we have it given. All demands met, all expectations catered to, satisfaction levels among our youngsters should well be absolute. Right? It seems: Wrong.

So, really, is it true that while providing for our children, we do forget to give them what we had — what they might have only heard of? I think it is a difference of realities. I can vouch for the carefree approach we had to everything back then. Cycling to school was a thrill, a sense of pride. The neighbour’s house was our spare room, literally.

Your Facebook wall still probably carries a status update of drinking water off the garden pipe and surviving it — it also probably carries numerous comments sharing the nostalgia. Those were golden times, where we had what everyone else had. What others did not have, we shared. Everyone around meant something in our scheme of things. I can safely say our wants were simple. Our parents were with us through most of our ordeals.

They did not have to trade an arm or a leg or stent-ridden artery to make us happy.

We came from a conservatism grounded in actuality and reason. What we could not have, we did not have — some showed rationale and others called it strict discipline. But that was enough because opportunities then allowed contentment of this sort. We just did not know what else there was to get. As a society, the combination, I dare say, worked.

But today, the entire universe awaits our enterprise. Chameleon-like perspectives of success and blinding contention have rendered the finish line out of sight. Celebrity endorsements and ‘wish karo’ slogans, though motivational in themselves, personify the attitude of an entire generation that is racing mad. That this race is an unrelenting relay where even batons are designer-ware and every runner carries the dream of the passer, is a truth that gets lost in the frenzy of the very race. Everyone is out there for themselves. There is no time to stop and turn around. There is no time to think, let alone put up with thinking and its resultant tantrums.

It is a time to do. Our children are ticks on our goals-sheet and they live our unfulfilled lives. They have all the toys we wanted and all the pastimes we enjoy. In not realising all our dreams, we have already lost time. Now, while we want to hang around to see our children achieving our triumphs, the sand is only sifting.

We are aware only of the quiet ripples closing in. Everyone is disturbed and every corner harbours threat. Our child is not free to roam the streets. We are not free to guide them through it. What we cannot give to our children from our childhood, we attempt to give from our present situation. We cannot create a safer world singlehandedly — we can only keep our children safe in the one we live. If we had the freedom to be, we give our children the freedom to be able to be. So what if a few moments of their happiness are mail-ordered or bought off a shelf? This is the contentment that we can afford to hand down, irrespective of any constraints. Indeed, we do not neglect to give our children what we did have, we give them as much as is possible and whatever aspect of it is applicable.

Maybe I am just consoling myself in thinking so, but the reasoning is rather sound.

Today, we do tend to overprotect our children. But that is in comparison to what was. Of course, too much protection will weaken them. But, in the plethora of opportunities that open several doors today, though we should teach our children integrity and diligence, I am also dismissive of depriving them of any reasonable advantage that we can add to their prospects. Time defines action and we have to recognise the call.

In building their resilience to life, however, and what it can throw back, I tend to agree with the indispensability of personal attention and importance of quality time — like many, I have the good fortune of showering them on my child. But, for how many more of us do individual aspirations and non-negotiable commitments allow this blanket freedom?

Our country did not gain her independence by staying content. We did not become a nuclear power by closing our eyes to progress. We are not a self-reliant generation, today, by staying in. Our children, irrespective of where they come from, dream big because we can go out there and build the launch pads for them.

Yet, the truth facing us is that a lot of our children lack regard for what has been given to them on a platter, that they keep wanting more and cannot endure reality; that as parents we are really not there for them enough, or in the right manner. That’s a tough one for those of us who are doing the most we can. And against such odds, even parents like me (and there are plenty of us), who actively strive to nurture humane and core values in our children and devote maximum time to them, are looking at an equally grim battle ahead.

What’s right is open to judgement. And as adjudicators of our lives abound, our options attract harsher scrutiny. Can what our parents gave us fortify us against this assault?


Sunday, 29 May 2011

‘Boy’gone heirs

Sunday Herald. Deccan Herald. May 29, 2011

Just over nine years ago, I was this miracle maker that produced the most wonderful 21 inch wonder of all – a Baby Boy! I was congratulated, applauded and celebrated. Add to that, I had provided the family the first grandson of the generation, the only one in a decently long line of probables.

Some time back, a dear one brought back old memories. The stimulus for this talk was a young couple, in the close circle, expecting their baby. Speculation was rife on whether my son’s exclusivity would be challenged!

Well, that record remains for the time being, but as for my personal glory, let’s just say, “I know the feeling”.

To set the context here on, I must explain that I have the fortune to be amidst the fun-loving, academic and professionally very well accomplished, who continue to further their illustrious ilk. So while I had comforted myself with the thought that this obsession with the boy-child held sway with only the senior generation, and even that, more out of habit rather than conscious decision, I was rather surprised to discover that even the younger lot shared similar sentiments.

Obviously, the gap between high flying careers and genetic coding is rather hard to bridge, because in an instant, all education, all exposure and all enterprise had been relegated to the first page of a rather desirable curriculum vitae.

Need we even consider the ‘less progressive minded’ among us at this point?! I have no doubts in the power of the past over our present, and I hold no objection to it either. But I remain awestruck at the fact that a present that bears only a little resemblance to the past, can be such a seamless extension of it.

Mothers’ Day came and went, so did International Women’s month and I find myself wondering about the day that we dedicate to the source of all life. One whole day in the year – rather generous, huh?

Mother Nature, we say... Goddess of Spring ... Dame Fortune ... Lady Luck. She is essential for all beginnings, preservation and nurture. And yet, when the time comes when another is born in her image, the family ‘line’ suddenly looks short.

If there was a doubt to the contrary in my mind, it was firmly put to rest by a response to a recent article of mine in the same pages. And while this paragon of modern virtue, who has disallowed her post-graduate daughter-in-law from pursuing a high-paying career in a reputable company, praised my efforts to the hilt, she did not miss using 15 minutes of my rather precious walk, to ‘agree’ with my ‘excellent observation’ of ‘gender roles’. That the entire page was dedicated to changing times and a call for changing actions as a result of that, was, fascinatingly, ignored. I am quite certain that her above-mentioned ignorance was banished immediately after my counter-response, but hey!

Logic must be a man – there is no grey there! For, in femme fatal world, it will be a Pandora’sbox that will open and the Damsel-in-distress will weep longer than her labour. And it will be another Step-mother-Witch casting a curse upon the Fairest-of-them-all – poison apple and all.

This never ceases to amaze me. We blame men for everything. Not that I’m about to stop now, but just to make a fair point, there’s a reason their lives outside the office are simple. They are not emotionally strung (so, they say). They see, they want and if they are ‘man’ enough, they get. They, generally, don’t waste precious time niggling others’ nerves and intentions.

We women, on the other hand, are laden with the hand-me-down doctrines of love and compassion. Deception, we deal with routinely. Rejection, is a resident we love to hate. Expectation, we fulfil by default.

We are taught to keep. We keep home, we keep husband. We keep of the husband. We keep of ours too. We also keep jobs. We keep the outside as well. And when a child comes along to expand this universe of joy and toil, we pray to our various Gods, to keep us! Usually, it all works out.

So, why change something that is working, right? Mr Simple Man, has no problem plodding on. And he does so as long as he continues to look good. That there is always a woman taking care of the essentials, to make sure that he never stops, tends to get quickly forgotten in the thin air of successful heights and points of no-turning-back. Same is with Ms Conscientious Woman, funnily. At least, until she is stretched beyond reasonable resilience. And today, blame it on beaten down thresholds and progressive laws, if you will, but she is beginning to see the end of reason, sooner and sooner. Not funny anymore.

Notice how one issue spirals into another and the tirade winds out like a tornado gripping our simple pacts of community.

Someone had put to me, long ago, that if you don’t respect yourself, why should anyone else. The gurus said, “love yourself”. I was still in my preteens and vulnerable. I was also sensitive to such deep motivation. It is something I have tried to keep in mind, but find hard to unequivocally adopt.

Our social norms, our beliefs and the expectations that we are trained to fulfil, have inadvertently squelched our pride in self and the instinct to question the irrational and selfish. Custom and doctrine remain steel-fisted and are hard to break. Years of coding have rendered our personalities complaint to assimilation.

I strongly believe in this code of society for it is, really, a nurturing one. But I stand against the practice employed. Because, if the wheels are to stay in motion, all cogs need to turn in sync. Why do we tend to, habitually, forget this?

Be it your work, a person or a dream, you’ll realise, it all boils down to Love. To always know Love, it is imperative to respect the one that gives it to you or the thing that makes it happen. And to make sure that Love remains respected, it needs to stay unaffected. Tough, I agree, but crucial.

And though it is woman that first teaches it, it is another that keeps it alive. Those in between are merely recipients and vessels of carriage and transport. That’s really it. It’s nature.

And just as nature will retaliate when excessively and unfairly distressed, so will those born to her. Like in nature, there will be a new course and all will have to move along it.

And, oh yes! Gender Supreme, Fairer Sex or Mata Mahan, none can change what’s natural. Just accept it, it’s simpler. ■