Wednesday, October 31, 2018


In characteristic style, film critic Baradwaj Rangan noticed something about a movie that had escaped many.  In writing about the playful “PeigaLa nambathey” song in Mahanadhi, he detailed how the song was a subtle way of foreshadowing some of the ghastly events to follow.  The hopeless Kamal Haasan fan that I am, I thought of that song on the eve of Halloween!  One line in particular stuck out while I was listening to the number – “AchangaL enum boothamunai andaamal nee oattu…”  This roughly translates into, “The apparition that is fear…drive it away.”  I know of a few people who are utterly fearless.  I have known them well enough and long enough to know that they are not faking it.  Nothing fazes them because they face everything with fierce determination.  Or did I reverse that?  I do not know.  But I have utmost admiration for them. 

I am not fearless.  Have never been, will never be.  But I would like to think that with a few grey cells in the right parts of the brain that I have learned to face my more important fears.  To borrow a favorite imagery of my Aunt, you enter dark tunnels hoping for light, not fearing an incoming train!  As I have written earlier, it is absolutely imperative that everyone has at least one anchor – be it God, science, family or friends.  Instead of delving into my anchors, I shall share five of my fears, some conquered, others not quite.  I have mixed up the lightweight ones with more serious ones.  Regardless of level of seriousness, these are certainly things that I fear. (Needless to say, this list is not exhaustive for the simple reason that I didn't want you to feel exhausted!)

Bark, Bite and Fright – thanks to an insensitive pet owner who was my neighbor during my formative years, I have a morbid fear of dogs.  Irrespective of size, my canine friends make me shudder with very little effort.  I am just thankful for the fact that over the years, I have had some very sensitive pet owners as friends and acquaintances that respect my fear and give me my space.  Well-wishers have tried to help me overcome this, only to realize that they barked (!) up the wrong tree. 

Men in Boo, err…Blue – Being a die hard fan of the Indian cricket team is a boon and a bane.  Victories can be really sweet.  But defeat can be so bitter that even badly made chai would pale in comparison.  To non-cricket fans, this may seem trivial.  But I confess I have a real fear of defeat whenever India plays.  Having grown up watching Indian cricket in the 90s and having seen the Indian team grasp defeat from the jaws of victory many a time, this is a fear that has been partly conquered by enduring, endearing images of Sachin Tendulkar’s sixer off Shoaib Akhtar and the most joyous moment of them all – “Dhoni finishes off in style…A magnificent strike!”

Hospitals – at the risk of sounding pretentious, I shall say that I do not have much fear for myself and my own health.  Whereas near and dear in a hospital?  Now I see the personification of pusillanimity in the mirror.  I have tremendous regard for good Doctors.  Having had the privilege of interacting with a few owing to the nature of my work (in a pharmaceutical company), I know that there are physicians out there with an unerring drive to improve human health.  But the hospital is one setting where emotions trump rationale.  I have had some positive experiences in hospitals but the emotional baggage of unfortunate experiences is yet to be lifted.  One day I will feel lighter.  Until then, I will have to keep my eyes wide open as I walk in, especially when my support is needed.  After all, a bit of selfless focus on others is a surefire way to ignore what is in the mirror.  And making a loved one feel lighter rarely makes us feel heavier.

Single Child Sentiment - Don’t blame me.  Blame my 49-year old Aunt who passed on two years ago.  Why did she have to be a sister, mother and friend all rolled into one?  Why did she do so many things that she didn’t have to?  Why did she never tell me - when she was alive - that she was the reason why I never felt any pangs of being a single child?  Why does she make me feel - even after her death - that true, genuine affection is that exhibited by someone that doesn’t have to?  Why does she make me fear a lack of sense of belonging and relevance?  But as I think deeper, the answer is ridiculously simple.  I just have to emulate my Aunt.  I just have to be a good protective sibling to those that have given me the privilege of being one.  Oh, I almost forgot to tell you - among those ‘siblings’ is my Aunt’s 14-year old daughter.

Delayed action, Useless inaction –Words can be impactful.  Kind words uttered can be as soothing as unkind words spitted can be hurtful.  We all know that.  But I have come to realize that nothing can usurp the importance of action.  Thoughtful gestures and supportive actions can mean the world to people.  Having been a lucky recipient of many a kind gesture, I try sincerely to pay it forward.  But I am no saint.  I do know that there have been instances when my misdirected action, inaction and delayed actions have all hurt people.  I can only say that I am a work in progress.  One with a healthy dose of fear that I will cause hurt if I don’t spring into action timely, thoughtfully.

So, there you have it.  Let the fears be.  Time may help me conquer a few old ones while new ones sneak in.  To me, facing the apparitions that Kamal sang about is as important as exorcising them.  I don’t think that I will ever be fearless.  But something tells me that with time, I will fear fears less! 

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Hashtag BluePrintForMeToo

Adam Grant could possibly be the new best friend for anyone passionate about the #MeToo movement.  Well, if not him, then at least his book, the wonderfully insightful Originals.  In the concluding chapter of his book, aided by a couple of deeply thought provoking examples, he lays out the blueprint for a long lasting revolution.  None more impactful than the story of Serbian activist Srdja Popovic, who had masterminded the downfall of their dictator Slobodan Milosevic.

Brave victims, empathetic caregivers, driven activists and even passive onlookers of the pervasive, painstaking MeToo movement should take to heart Grant’s single most important line in that chapter – “To channel anger productively, instead of venting about the harm that a perpetrator has done, we need to reflect on the victims who have suffered from it.”  He writes elsewhere, “Venting doesn’t extinguish the flame of anger; it feeds it.”  Grant also makes an oft-ignored demarcation – being angry for someone will result in more justice than being angry at someone.  Not for a moment does Grant suggest that the perpetrators be given undue impunity.  Rather, the excision of societal weeds must begin by sowing the seeds of well-directed, controlled aggression.  That was the story of Serbia, the story of Popovic.

Popovic had the foresight and astuteness to know that direct, overt confrontation of Milosevic would only result in unfortunate loss of life and fleeting scents of emancipation.  In order for the people of Serbia to breathe the air of freedom for a lifetime, he realized that the spotlight had to be switched onto the unfortunate plight of the victims of Milosevic’s tyranny.  A case in point – on New Year’s Eve at the turn of the millennium, Popovic organized a concert where dirge-like songs were played.  And in a dramatic move, he had all the lights switched off and then proceeded to flash on a giant screen gut-wrenching images of Serbian police personnel and soldiers who had lost their lives in the struggle against Milosevic.  Not one image was of Milosevic himself. 

For the MeToo movement to cause sweeping changes in written laws as well as unwritten rules across professions in favor of victims, it is imperative to first respect the sensitivity and privacy of the victims.  The mother of singer Chinmayi – one of the leading voices of MeToo in India – made a telling point in an interview that while she truly believes in the value of the movement, she is simultaneously opposed to the “washing of dirty linen in public.”  At first glance, the two might seem contradictory.  After all, for the movement to succeed requires great fortitude on the part of the hitherto oppressed subjects to come out with difficult truths involving personal, sensitive details.  But the point she makes is that more women and men who have been subject to harassment and humiliation should come out and share their stories.  But what should be dwelled on in public – oh, the media would hate this! – should not be the sordid details of their encounters with coercive demons.  And instead, their hurt must be registered, their voice heard and the movement be propelled in the direction of safe environments for women and men to flourish without pressure or fear.  For all the trauma undergone by their family, Chinmayi’s mother also vocalizes her contempt for people’s urge to slap a perpetrator more than using that hand to hold the hand of a sufferer.  The punishment of the offender would then come as a byproduct of this movement, not the primary goal.  Clearly, great minds – be it in Serbia or South India – think alike!

Another golden nugget actually mentioned in a footnote in the chapter is on catharsis.  Grant writes of how in the wake of 9/11, the efforts of counselors to get trauma victims to purge and express their grief proved counterproductive.  He writes about how vocal expression of grief tends to have a more soothing effect on a suffering soul once sufficient time has elapsed from the time of the distressing event in question.  This is important for MeToo supporters and caregivers.  Too often we have, with the best of intentions, the urge to rush people into catharsis when a bit of time would actually help heal wounds.  The way I see it, our quiet, tacit empathy could be the calming anesthesia that victims need before they put themselves through the painful yet necessary scalpel of detailed, sometimes disturbing reflection.  It is also a reason the media and celebrities alike must not scoff at the time that it takes for victims to come out with details of their depressing experiences.

Grant ends the book with some truly inspirational lines on Originals – that they “embrace the uphill battle, striving to make the world what it could be” instead of settling for what the world has given us.  Let us respect, applaud, support and above all, listen empathetically to the voices of pain.  As Popovic so ably demonstrated, the collective voices of pain have the power to silence people in positions of power more so than a philippic ever can.  And by the way, he wrote a book too – Blueprint for Revolution!

Reference: Adam Grant’s Originals – the final chapter titled, “Rocking the Boat and Keeping it Steady.”

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Gifts of the Future

No sooner had I uploaded my previous write-up, “Presents of the Past” than I toggled to a few of my favorite albums from the 90s during my ride to work.  It felt just right.  It was not as though I was wallowing in past memories – a few songs in a 35-min drive, just enough to hum a few notes from the pages of nostalgia.  One song that made me pause considerably was the scintillating, “Putham Puthu Bhoomi” from the caper Thiruda Thiruda.  A quartet of small time crooks stumble upon a truckload (literally so!) of money and launch into a song.  But the lovely twist is that the song doesn’t feature a single line about money or wealth.  It is about a utopian future, sans poverty, hunger, a world where lasting peace satiates the mind’s appetite for a better tomorrow.  Subsuming the ideas springing out of that song under the larger fabric of thoughts that stitched itself in my mind in the wake of my Aunt’s second death anniversary, I have put together a wish list of 10 items (in no particular order).  For each of these ‘gifts’ that I would like to receive, I shall add a couple of lines on what attracted me to it in the first place.

-          Ability to speak loudly with actions
o   Ever since I heard Anu Hasan state that it is imperative to shift focus away from content to intent, I feel that I have to put more thought into the possible reactions derived from my actions, over any possible resonance that my words may hold.

-          Thoughtfulness to appreciate effort regardless of outcome
o   The CEO of a startup that I worked for in the 2004-05 timeframe once came to the cubicle of every employee before we headed to an important conference to thank us all for our hard work in preparing for the launch – he made it a point to not wait until we got to see labor bear fruit.  Just the labor merited praise and acknowledgement.  As William James once said, “The deepest craving of human nature is the need to be appreciated.”  Our CEO has surely taught me a thing or two on how to cater to the cravings of my family, friends and colleagues. 

-          The magic mix of analysis and storytelling
o   As I strive to advance in my career as an analytical marketer, I hope to never lose sight of the value of a well told story.  My former manager once said, with his tongue firmly in cheek, “Never let the facts come in the way of a good story!”  Well, let me find ways to make them co-exist. 

-          The alertness of a thinking leader
o   Sanjay Manjrekar wrote of former captain and current prime minister of Pakistan Imran Khan that when on a cricket field, he had never seen Imran’s focus shift away from the action.  He wanted to make things happen, not wait for them to happen.  If not for anything else, the thought of Imran (thanks to Manjrekar) is likely to help me resist the lure of multitasking and the distraction of my dumb…err…smart phone.

-          Patience to convey pain without hiding it in a capsule of anger
o   A dear friend of mine once told me in a very low tone, years after he got married, that he was very upset that I didn’t make it to his wedding.  I have never felt a stronger urge to apologize.

-          The zest to read non-fiction
o   Given the abiding impact that non-fiction authors like Susan Cain and Charles Duhigg have made on me, I wish to never be bereft of meaningful words.  After all, every author gifts me a fresh pair of lenses to view the world through.  It all started with Sheena Iyengar who urged me to “be choosy about choosing.”

-          The zeal to write about what is right
o   When I lose myself in a train of thought, writing seems to provide the directions to the right stop where I must disembark and change tracks.  When I write about my value system, I sincerely feel that the words come first, the thoughts later.  It is strangely comforting and during times of need, the pen (well, the keyboard) becomes a friend indeed.

-          An Undying love for cinema
o   Movies have been an integral part of my life for as far as I can remember.  To enter and exit worlds created by others is a gift that I am truly thankful for.  For the characters to then enter my world and stay in the deep recesses of my mind is a kind of magic that I am very grateful for.  Exhibit A – Rhythm.  Exhibit B – Iruvar.

-          The blessing of relevance
o   In recent times, this has become a prized commodity for me – the strong need to feel that I am relevant, that I matter to those that are relevant and those that matter to me.  May long distances not result in my fading out of sight.  And that the mirror of thoughtful reflection correct any issues of myopia.

-          And finally, the wealth of good health
o   If I continue to receive this gift, then I am rich.  If my loved ones all get this, then I will be superrich.