Monday 25 January 2016

Getting ready

I run a comb through my hair
To hide the mess under there
Tightly button up my heart
So it doesn't fall apart,
Rub a smile on my lips,
Put a swish on my hips,
Dry my nose, shine my eyes,
Add a tune to my sighs,
Blow some air in each lung,
Spread sweet lies on my tongue,
Wipe the frown from my brow
I think now I'm good to go.
All's still quite hazy and blurred
But I'm ready for you, world!

Monday 21 July 2014

Wonder - by R.J.Palacio: A Brief Review

Sometimes, strange things happen. On a single day last week, two things happened to me: A colleague lent me her copy of Wonder by R.J.Palacio and another colleague forwarded me a link to a TED talk by Lizzie Velasquez titled How Do YOU Define Yourself. (For those of you who have not heard of Lizzie Velasquez, she was born with a rare abnormality that rendered her body completely unable to store any fat at all and causing her to be labelled and ridiculed as 'the ugliest woman in the world'.)

Now when such random events accumulate together, you would think there's a lesson in all of this somewhere. That's what I thought too - when a quick glance in the mirror assured me that I didn't look any uglier than I usually did, I decided that the lesson was somewhere deeper than that.

I read the book and watched the video, and this is what I came up with.

Being beautiful and feeling beautiful are two completely different things. The little group of us met again a little later over coffee. If you looked at us, you would think of us as average-, maybe even above-average-looking women. In fact, if you looked at us from the right angles, you might even think we were attractive. And yet, each of us had at least one story to share when we were made to feel repugnant, ugly, hideous. Too dark, too short, too fat, too thin, you name it.

Wonder is one of those books that you read relishing each word, savoring them, and then when it's done, go back and re-read some parts of it that you had mentally marked (at least I had to mentally mark them as the book was borrowed from a friend.)

The book revolves around 10-year-old August (Auggie), who suffers from an incredibly rare and unpronounceable facial deformity. By the time the book begins, the worst of his health problems appear to be already behind him, and it is only the social and emotional angles that apparently need to be focused on.
The book heralds his entry into regular school and thus into society, after having been home schooled thus far. We see him being taken "like a lamb to the slaughter" and follow his sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes euphoric journey from being the 'orc' or 'Freddie Krueger' to becoming Auggie Pullman, a regular little fifth-grader. He looks exactly the same as he did when he started, the difference is all in the eyes that view him, and more importantly, in how he views himself.

The book is mostly presented from behind Auggie's 'hooded droopy eyelids'. Children can be cruel, we all know that and so it seems can adults. We see the different forms of cruelty - the malicious if childish cruelty of Julian the bully and the more dignified yet doubly reprehensible cruelty of his parents (apples really don't fall far from the tree), the unintentional cruelty of almost everyone who sees him for the first time, and sometimes even of people who have known him forever, the inadvertent cruelty of his only friend and ally, Jack Will, a particularly heartbreaking moment. You fight the urge to gently close his deformed and misshapen ears and protect him from the betrayal of his only friend. His sister Via (short for Olivia) assumes that she is being incredibly cruel when she decides not to tell anyone in her new school about Auggie, so that for once in her life, she can be free of his constant presence in her life.

The universe has been unkind to Auggie is a message that is thrust on us again and again.It is only somewhat at the end of the book, through the eyes of Auggie's sister's boyfriend do we see the other side of the situation:
"My head swirls on this, but then softer thoughts soothe, like a flatted third on a major chord. no, no, it's not all random, if it really was all random, the universe would abandon us completely, and the universe doesn't. It takes care of its most fragile creations in ways we can't see. Like with parents who adore you blindly. And a big sister who feels guilty for being human over you. And a little gravelly-voiced kid whose friends have left him over you. And even a pink-haired girl who carries your picture in her wallet. Maybe it is a lottery, but the universe makes it all even out in the end. The universe takes care of all its birds.”

This is a beautiful book, reflecting both the beauty and the ugliness in the world around the little boy.

Flip side? Well, in a way the book is structured like a social experiment of sorts, a documentary of the journey of August Pullman into society. In documentary-style we see the same episodes from different points of view. The feel is of different people looking into the character and mouthing their words at times. And the end of the book is a little predictable - it couldn't have ended any other way.
Those are just a few faded scars in a supremely beautiful book - a book that is beautiful beyond its beautiful cover.

Thursday 17 July 2014

Confessions of a Grownup Potterhead

Okay I love reading Harry Potter. I have read all seven books many many times and watched all eight movies many times over as well. My daughter and I have lengthy and impassioned discussions about them.

There, I said it, the skeleton is out, so to speak - from the cupboard under the stairs.

But in my defence, it is not just the childlike wonder of escaping the boring world of Muggles into the captivating wizarding world once in a while. Or that there is a certain poetic justice in seeing a wounded and scarred little boy becoming The Chosen One. Of course not! Ok maybe all that. Just a little. For those of you who are decidedly unenchanted by all things magical, before you get all disdainful and hippogriffy, stay with me. I do have a few grown up reasons for liking Harry Potter too.

You see, I work in the field of learning - I live and breathe it day in and day out - and there's a lot to be learnt in these books, at least the first few. Learning that ought to be out there in the Muggle world in schools and in organizations.

For one thing, Voldemort and Harry are in a lot of ways two sides of the same coin, just like we all are. The final horcrux that Harry has to destroy before killing Voldemort was the one that was within himself. This means that Harry and his friends need much more than just book learning. What is needed first and foremost is self-awareness. Nowhere in all the curricula that I have seen is there a course called Self-Awareness. At least not self-awareness in the ways that count.

Again, stop already with the smouldering basilisk eyes that threaten to burn me to oblivion. There's a point to all of this I promise you. I'm getting there.

Take the Mirror of Erised. For the benefit of the uninitiated, Erised is Desire spelled backwards, a little word trick that helped get my attention from the get go not to mention that seemingly meaningless gibberish written on it - Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi. No this is not Parsel Tongue or any other weird magical language. This is simply the phrase 'I show not your face but your heart's desire' written backwards. So the Mirror of Erised shows you nothing more and nothing less than your heart's deepest desire. Harry peeps in and sees his dead parents; Ron sees himself as the head boy. The happiest people, according to wise old Dumbledore, see themselves just the way they are. For them, the mirror of Erised functions like a normal mirror. It gives you neither knowledge nor wisdom, and people have wasted away in front of it, says Dumbledore. Now I'm not suggesting that we pine away in front of it, but wouldn't it be helpful to know what our desires are?

I wouldn't call myself the happiest person in the world, but my Mirror of Erised has always been very close to a normal mirror, which interestingly was never considered a virtue. "You're too content with things. You're too happy with the status quo. You're not ambitious enough. If you just put your mind to it..." were all common exasperated refrains that I have heard all through my school and college days. Come to think of it, I heard it from my boss last week! Oh well, I always knew that whenever my stuff was not in fashion - clothes, ideas, books - if I left it alone long enough, it would be. One day. Who am I to argue with Dumbledore after all?

That was about the heart's deepest desires, now about the soul's darkest fears...

Smartly enough, the Hogwarts curriculum involves putting students face to face with their deepest fears and equipping them to handle them using Boggarts, a safe sandbox environment in which to practise for the real thing. Turns out that Ron's is spiders, Harry's is dementors that bring him head on with the worst horrors of his life. Do you know what your greatest fear is? And what is the Riddikulus spell that you would conjure up to dispel it? Wouldn't it make sense to think about your fear and practise conquering it before it socked you in the jaw when you least expected it?

What about the weapons you have at hand to achieve those dreams or dispel those fears? What form does your patronus take when the dementors threaten to suck out all happiness from the deepest recesses of your soul? Is your patronus a person, or an animal, or a thing, or an abstract concept? Do you know what it is, so you can take strength and comfort from it? Do you know what you can do to make its charm strong and invincible and help it to protect you?

See - I told you there were some wise and grown up points in there somewhere. I can almost feel a long grey beard coming on! But now that I think of it, maybe I wasn't entirely truthful about my mirror of Erised. Maybe if I looked deep enough, I would find something else. Maybe I would see a pair of woollen socks. After all, it has been getting rather chilly in Bangalore!


Thursday 4 April 2013

Matches made in heaven - and set us ablaze!

 A great grand aunt twice removed once called out of the blue to invite us to her granddaughter's wedding. "What, you don't remember me?" She shrieked in abject horror into the phone and proceeded to explain the exact and excruciatingly complex web of relationships that connected us. "Why, I was right there at your parents' wedding!" I apologized that I had missed that event, probably because I hadn't been born yet. She snorted at the namby pamby excuse. As far as she was concerned, in terms of namby-pamby excuses, it was right up there alongside "I was out fighting a war!" or "I was in the hospital having a baby!"

You see, the Great Indian Wedding is the ultimate 'do' where you are expected to turn up, turned out in all manner of finery, so that you can chalk out all manner of circles of reference between everybody present. A wedding is not declared complete until all those in the hall have been linked to everyone else, and everyone has been introduced to everyone that can be introduced. That's why a good wedding takes anywhere between 2 days to 4 days. The good old six degrees of separation simply doesn't work with everyone and the old family tree has to be literally uprooted and examined to find invisible tendrils of connections that links the brat who has set up base at the ice cream counter to the matriarch to whom all lesser mortals are kowtowing.

Match-making seems to be a part of our genes. We seem to have this primeval need to desperately form patterns all the time between everyone we know, a need to prove again and again the cosmic interconnectedness of the universe. Facebook and LinkedIn help by showing us exactly how many people we have in common with every person we know on the planet.

"Oh you're in XYZ company?" People ask me ever so often. "Do you know so-and-so? I have no idea what department he's in or which branch. In fact, I barely know his full name. What, you don't know him?" The company has about thirty thousand employees across about eight offices in the city. But that makes no difference. I still have to endure the accusing and disappointed glares of people whose so-and-so I have just refused to recognize. And what if, by some miracle of probability I do actually know the person? How does it help anyone really?

My husband is routinely asked whenever a conversation with a new acquaintance veers to matters relating to alma maters. "Oh you studied in IIT/IIM? My so-and-so was a professor/student there..." Well, so what if it was about ten years before my husband was born or twenty years after he graduated from said institution. Or if the said institution he was in is about a thousand kilometers away from so-and-so's?? IIT is IIT and IIM is IIM right? Whenever, wherever.

No wonder then that a wedding is a rite of passage of sublime importance, higher on the scale than even births and deaths. Never mind if the bride and groom have already been living together for a few decades. Never mind that both have been married several times earlier. Great grandmothers are still in attendance with their wheelchairs, oxygen masks and other apparatuses in place. Hugely pregnant sisters-in-law are expected to keep their contractions down to a decent frequency.

Of course, at the critical moment in the wedding, when the nadhaswaram has reached its crescendo and drowns out all the chatter around anyway, all conversation comes to a standstill and the whole family along with its extended branches and circles holds its collective breath as the wedding garlands are exchanged and the mangal sutra is tied tightly in place. A sigh of relief wafts through the hall like a hot summer breeze. The attendees can now go about the business of living. Grandfathers can now have their insulin injections, hungry babies can now be fed, the sisters-in-law may now deliver their offspring in peace.

And of course more matches can be made. "You know, I have this lovely divorcee grand niece of mine, you wouldn't happen to know a handsome widower or divorcee, would you? Wait, you do? He's in IBM? Wait, you know, my husband's mother's sister-in-law's nephew's colleague's father-in-law is in IBM. Let me ask him if he knows him."

Monday 25 March 2013

Left and right brain

'Be rational," says my left brain,
"No be creative," says the right.
I think they should talk it out,
So I send out an invite.

But my left brain says it's busy,
So I propose another time,
Then my right brain has a conflict,
And (regretfully) has to decline.

Finally, we agree on a day and time,
A room is booked, the agenda drawn -
We're ready to find out how
The two sides of my brain can get along.

But despite my best laid plans,
I'm still plunged in gloom,
For the conference team in my head has
Rejected my request for a room!

And so I walk around the place,
Perplexed, confounded, and bereft,
Always wondering if I'm in my right mind
Or if even I have one left!

Sunday 3 March 2013

Day 30 - My 30-day Challenge - The good, the stats, and the (relatively) ugly!

So, my 30 days are up! Here are a few interesting things I found during this experiment...

The Good
1. I completed the challenge that I set out for myself - no one was monitoring me but me, no one cared if I made it or not but me - and I did it anyway! If I can do this, I can do anything. Bring it on - life!

2. I have tried to look at life from 30 different points of view - a triacontagon prism of life if you will (that is apparently what a 30-sided polygon is called). See, that's another thing I just learnt.

3. I have managed to write 30 original articles/poems every single day, no forwards, no stuff done by the older me (or is that the younger me), all the posts were done by the me of the day!

4. I looked at everything closer, better, clearer- I smelt the roses, well enough to describe the fragrance. To write a coherent post about it, you need to be clear about what you are writing.

5. Because I tried to write mostly humor, I got to laugh at some things I might otherwise have been angry about - I like to think that I saved myself a couple of arguments while putting a grin on someone's face.

The Stats
1. I started off looking at stats, how many people were commenting, how many people were responding. In the beginning, it spurred me on.

2. I realized fairly soon that stats only measure the breadth of the post, not the depth. There are a few posts that were not exactly prvate in nature, but would have more meaning for a few selected individuals. Their responses were breath-taking.

3. I realized that all posts were not the same for everybody - even within my circle of friends and  acquaintances, there were a wide variety of people who seemed to resonate with different things, some that I did not really expect. Different posts struck different notes with different people. It was like a jala tarang of sorts and I enjoyed the music.

4. My three top posts (most viewed posts) are in order - Why Women Put on Weight, Postcards of Varanasi, and The Art of Shopping. Perhaps because these keep showing up on popularity feeds, they keep getting more and more popular - which kind of ets you thinking about life in general, doesn't it! Not too different with 'lucky' people in life who just seem to keep getting luckier.

5. So does that mean the most popular post would be of a fat woman who shopped to go to varanasi? Just thinking aloud, I know it's a flawed premise.

The (Relatively) Ugly
1. The days I put stuff up on Facebook, I was sorely tempted to keep checking for updates and on occasion was a little disappointed when they didn't make the waves I hoped. I stopped doing that eventually and started sharing posts independently with the people I thought might enjoy them.

2. I was so engrossed with writing the next post, that I realized I wasn't internalizing what I was reading or listening as well as I should.

3. Spinning a new story every single day was not easy - some days were uninspired and I tried to squeeze stories where none existed - those who have been following my blogs faithfully will know which ones those are. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing!

Saturday 2 March 2013

Day 29 - Journal of a teddy bear with an identiy crisis

I am a dark chocolate brown teddy bear, tall, soft, and handsome, with a large soft grey bow. I was given to Dhwani on her first birthday.The family called me Charmain after an ad for a brand of toilet paper in which a teddy bear happily wiggles its presumably clean bottom after having used Charmain. Apparently I resembled that teddy bear.

In Toy School, we are prepared for our lives after we are adopted by a family. I am twelve years old, and in teddy bear years, that is very very old! I have heard of friends who have been disembowelled by love within a year of adoption, whose arms and legs hang by threads. That is the destiny of a teddy bear, we are told in Toy School, a destiny we should embrace.

But Dhwani did not seem to need me very much in those early years. I stayed sadly intact for years, perched up on the shelf and saw many toys come and go, either get broken by use, or misplaced before they could be used. I saw dolls desperately in need of baths and a few that actually got one but still remained damp and smelly. I saw toys with dribble and drool and chocolate stains and several other unmentionables on them. Well, if you name me after a brand of toilet paper, you have to be prepared for some toilet humour!

Anyway, after a few years, along came Dhruv who inherited all those stuffed toys, the clean and dry ones, as well as the wet and smelly ones - and me! He did not bother to rechristen too many of the other toys, but decided to rename me Teddington, a dignified name if ever there was one, after a character in a children's show. But suddenly, Dhwani (who was now eight years old) decided that I was far too precious to part with. So they fought over me. They grabbed me each by an arm, and just as I thought I would finally achieve my destiny and get an arm torn off, their mother always intervened.

The matter was often settled depending on who needed me more at the time. Sometimes, Dhruv would settle for the monkey, the lion, the kangaroo, or one of the many dogs. Those nights, I was Charmain, guardian of pre-teen nightmares, warder off of dreams of teasing love-struck pimply pre-pubescent boys, or thoughts of stern teachers peering from over horn-rimmed glasses. I did not have much to offer - after all I had spent my teen years in various toy cupboards - but all she seemed to need sometimes was someone soft, non-judgemental, quiet, and supportive. I seemed to fit that bill very well indeed.

But when the matter could not be so amicably settled, I became Teddington, defender against dreams of big grabby sisters (the very one who came to me for support the previous night), guardian against bullies on the playground, whispering tips on how to colour within the lines and write cursive 'f's'.

Sometimes, it would start with me going to one bed and then being snuck off with the one who slept last. I would start my night as Charmain and then somewhere in the night turn into Teddington, or the other way round. This is rather a strain on my old body and older mind. In Toy School, we are taught to expect and welcome grievous bodily harm inflicted upon us, but we are not prepared to have our minds cleaved in two, step out from one character into the shoes of another. But maybe, I should have read the fine print better - Expect the unexpected.