Sunday, September 14, 2014

A lot to be thankful for

This week has been one of the toughest weeks of my life for many reasons. The good news is it is over. I need to adapt to the changed circumstances and quickly regain the momentum. Before I get lost in the craziness of planning and execution, I want to spend a few minutes looking at the bright side of the week that went by.

I am thankful to Pritish for reaching out and considering me a true friend.

I am thankful for how Metamorphians saw this week through. This week gave me a chance to see the independence which my kids have achieved. They were incredible. In a week when I was lost and lessons were haphazard, they held the class together on their own, showing tremendous patience with me and a lot of grace under pressure in handling the class. I owe them a celebration.

I am thankful that our 7th grade team is reunited. We had parted for the sake of consistency and connect with the kids, but circumstances have brought us back together. As Neerja and I were thinking about the new structure, we believe we will be able to drive significant learning for all 140 kids in the units to come. It does seem a step back for now but it will lead to much synergy in the time to come. It is only about meaningfully seeing the next two weeks through.

I am thankful for having Neha as my manager and more importantly, friend. Like me, it was a week of many firsts for Neha. What we learnt about one another will give us a chance to take our collaboration to a whole new level and impact the school more strongly.

I am thankful for having closely worked with Rajesh and Harry. There cannot be a bigger example of selfless giving and caring.

I am thankful for Neerja's new found resilience in coming to school every single day of the week despite all the aches and pains and being there for the kids and me. Without her, I would have broken.

I am thankful to Piyali for sharing and caring.

I am thankful I work in an organization where people are always at the centre of everything we do and where empathy and gratitude are practiced and encouraged.

I am thankful for the understanding shown by my parents, sister and Pallavi - giving me the space and time I needed for more pressing work related issues.

I am thankful to my Masis for having managed the household chores in my absence without asking for appreciation. It saved me a lot of effort and time in what was a stretched week.

I am thankful to my seven year old cousin for tolerating a boring baya at home.

I am thankful that my health  did not get any worse than it was at the start of the week and Akriti did not have a relapse of her illness. Fingers crossed for everyone's well being.

And I almost forgot, I am thankful for having Jigar as the one person who has truly intended to be with us through every day of the week and faced the frustration of not having been able to do so. 

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Get Well Soon

The monsoon season brings with it the onset of seasonal diseases. A concentrated number of incidents occur in areas which have a conducive environment for the vectors and microbes of illnesses to thrive, like Shivaji Nagar, and the high density of people in such areas ensure they spread rapidly.

No matter how much care one takes of themselves, failing health is a constant challenge during the season. A five day outbound retreat, multivitamin supplements, preventive medication, regular exercise, additional hours of sleep - nothing works. I have strong plans for my kids, but I don't know how to over power the constant attack of illness. I recovered from viral fever last week and am currently suffering from conjunctivitis.

Further, it doesn't help when not just you but the whole team is struggling with the problem. A team member recovered from malaria a fortnight ago, another has just recovered from typhoid. My co-fellow had a bacterial infection accompanied by high fever last week. All the absenteeism significantly increases the pressure.

I have been focusing on everything positive for the last many weeks. The only thing that is currently keeping me going is my love for my kids and my desire to utilize every second I have left with them. It has helped remain gritty and be in school every single day of the last semester.

There is only so much mental strength you can conjure to face the daily stress of working in the area. However, it has not been easy. I can't wait for this season to end soon and my health to fully recover so that I can shift gears from this conservative pace.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Excellence makes NO excuses

Aliya (see picture) is one of the sharpest and most hardworking students of my class. She is an exceptional leader. Above all, she is tenacious and raises her bar every time we require her to. Considering how most parents are in Shivaji Nagar, I had assumed her parents would be well educated to have trained not only Aliya but also their other two daughters well. I had assumed that they would be financially well off to afford education for all their three daughters in private schools or colleges. My visit to her house today proved me wrong.

I had never visited Aliya's house because I always prioritized other parents over Aliya's  considering her parents' and her own investment in her education was high. I was at Mehfooz's house when he told me that Aliya lives in the neighbourhood. I told him to take me to her house after I had met his parents.

He took me down the pathway to the street bordering the garbage dumping ground, which is  the largest in Mumbai. The stench was appalling. The lane kept getting narrower until we finally reached Aliya's house. Unlike many of my students who live in pucca houses with asbestos roofs, Aliya's house had walls and roofs made of asbestos sheet.  I removed my sandals at the doorstep to enter her house. My foot fell into a puddle as I took the first step into her house. At that moment, I realized her house had no flooring. The walls were so thin that you could hear one neighbour's television and the other neighbour's conversation. The house had minimal lighting and no air circulation.

I saw Aliya sitting on a mat on the floor and studying while her father was lying down on an old bed, that was in no better condition than the house itself.  Her father  was dressed in an old torn towel and a t-shirt while Aliya was still in her uniform. Unlike the houses of my other students, there was no storage space except a rusted metal cupboard. There were very few utensils and almost no crockery. There was no bath or toilet in the house. Considering the size of the house, I assumed only two members would fit on the bed while the remaining three would have to sleep on the uneven floor using a carpet laid out on a plastic sheet as their bed.

As I spoke to Aliya and her father, I discovered that her father had diabetes due to which his foot was in a pain. His medicines cost him Rs.1200-1500 in a month. As a result of his pain, he couldn't work with the same intensity he used to. Aliya's mother contributed as much to the household as her father, but even then they earned only Rs.12000. In Rs.12000,  they managed the cost of their daughters' education, utilities, medical expense, travel and groceries.

Despite all their constraints, her father spoke with great pride about his three daughters and his intention of sending each of them to college. He said he will do everything for his children's education because it is the most important gift he can give to them. He spoke with great interest about my own background. I shared with him stories of my sister's and my own education and work.  He urged me to stay in education and continue helping other children like Aliya. In the meanwhile, Aliya had forced me to eat something saying "Bhaiyya, you have come to my house the first time and it does not look good if you don't have something."

I was having a discussion after school with a group of my class, of which Aliya is the leader. Each student had to share a story that inspired them to work hard or work for the good of others. While other students spoke about incidents, Aliya spoke about her father. He had started working in the villages of West Bengal at the age of 8. He never went to school. However, he was one of the wisest and most hardworking persons she knew. Unlike other fathers in Shivaji Nagar, he did not want to get them married. He only wanted them to do what he couldn't - study and work in a comfortable job. I realized the respect and pride was mutual.

I had tears in my eyes after I started my journey to return home. I should have visited Aliya's house not because Aliya needed it but because I needed it. If Aliya can be excellent despite all the hardships, I certainly have no excuse to be mediocre with the comforts that I enjoy. Excellence makes no excuses.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Raising the Bar

I have been thinking a lot more about the year with my students in school. My vision for them is to leave them with a sense of independence so that they can drive their own actions everyday to become better people, regardless of how good or how bad their next teacher is. I want them to be people who go to a college, work honestly and contribute to their family, community and country. I want them to be people who are critical thinkers and strong speakers who can differentiate between right and wrong. I want them to be open to new ideas, culture and people.

I started on the right note - setting clear norms in the classroom and creating a common language among the kids. I can see the difference in the class with things being much better than they were this year - both in terms of lessons and in terms of classroom culture. However, being better is not enough. My children have to be excellent.

For being excellent, I have to change the tone from one that is negative to one that is positive. I have to change the culture from being reward and consequence driven to one that is self driven. My children should start doing things because they believe it is the right thing to do - not because of the fear of consequences or the love of rewards or recognition. My children should do things for the love of learning - learning that will help them walk on new paths and move to a world that is full of opportunities. For this, my children need to be consistently managed, but at the same time, they also need to be deeply invested.

I am fairly clear about what next steps I will take to move a step closer towards excellence. That is my own journey. While I know the path they must walk upon and I can show it to them, I cannot force them to walk on it. No outside force can lead to lasting change. Only small steps taken by their own choices can make change meaningful and permanent. While I know what they need to do, they need to tell me how they want to do it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

What is so holy about matrimony?

I live with a high degree of objectivity in most everyday aspects of life. On the other hand, I also live with a high degree of romanticism about certain things -  nature, friendship, purpose and poetry. Marriage falls somewhere in between the two where the lines of romanticism and objectivity meet.

On one side there is romantic love. It is unconditional and selfless. It does not have an ounce of materialism but tonnes of spirituality. It is organic, flowing and boundless.

On the other side, there is a 'ritualistic project' that has an objective of showcasing  the union of two families to the world, or at least those who they know in the world, on a scale that appropriately projects the image of the two families. Henceforth, I will call this project a marriage for the ease of reference.

Being five months away from my own marriage, I am facing a tough act juggling the two - my firm belief in romantic love and the 'ritualistic project' that is my marriage itself. I am inherently biased towards the former because of its appeal to my subjective spiritual self and biased against the latter because of its lack of sound reason. My family thinks otherwise, which means I have to constantly check the weight I assign to my beliefs in making choices for the ceremony itself.

Some say the wedding day is one of the biggest days of our lives. It is a day when the fate of two families are intrinsically bound with each other for the rest of their lives. We will tell stories from this day for the rest of our lives. However, is an Indian marriage actually focused on us - the bride or the groom? Again these proponents of a traditional marriage would yes. I differ in my views.

The actually ceremony itself is a one to two hour long ritual that does not require anyone except the bride, groom and their parents, along with a priest and some basic ritualistic material. If the believers of traditional Indian weddings  were right, then they would stop there. The wedding would still be the 'biggest day of our life', stories of which we could share for years to come.

However, we complicate matters a little - just a little. Since it is the 'biggest day of our life', we need to look good. To look good, we need fancy clothes. With fancy clothes, we need jewellery. Since its a marriage, not any but only authentic gold or diamond jewellery would do. To capture these moments for life, we need a photographer. Now that a photographer is going to be hired, we need to ensure our make up is professionally done, so all our flaws are artificially concealed - not that we look hideous but it is important to look perfect.

It is not only the biggest day of our lives but also our parents (probably because I may be their only son or daughter). In order to share their 'happiness', they need to celebrate with others. We need to call everyone whose wedding they ever attended. Phone and e-mail are impersonal - we need to make invitation cards that will be personally handed over to each and every guest.

We need to book a venue that can seat all our guests. Since they are going to be with us for a few hours, we need to serve them food. To make the atmosphere feel like one of a celebration, we need to decorate the venue - again only real flowers can adorn such an important gathering.

We don't stop at just the  marriage - there is a reception, sangeet, mehandi, cocktail party, bachelor's party - among other things. Yes, we need to click a picture with whoever was present at the wedding. Yes, we need to announce our love story to the world by distastefully dancing to the most cliched love songs that are played at every wedding. Yes, we need the world to see how henna is put on our hands.  Yes, we need to get drunk and dance with random relatives. It is after all "the biggest day of our lives." Not really - they are now the "biggest days of our life."

Logistically, we require money and time for everything we choose to do. The money we spend could be used for many other useful things - like buying a house, a comprehensive insurance plan, higher education or a rejuvenating holiday. While these things may not bring us lasting happiness, they will at least improve our personal well-being in the long run. If we have enough for our own needs, rather than spending it on a marriage, aren't we better off helping people in need? On the other hand, it is also probable that the money we spend is not even our own but borrowed, but we will borrow because it is the 'biggest day of our lives'. The alternate use of time is something I don't even need to get into - but think about everything we could do in 3 complete months of man hours given back to us.

We are social animals and we need to live within the norms of the society. We need to share our happiness with others. However, is there no other way to do it in a manner that is more meaningful? Is the magnitude of the celebration worth the hype? Is it truly the biggest day of our lives?

No, marriage is not the biggest day of our life. The logical argument to this is as follows. If marriage is the biggest day of our life, what about the day we found love? What about the day we have our first child? What about the day we lose a loved one? Another way of looking at it could be that if things go wrong on the day of our marriage, would we mourn the day we got married as we would celebrate every anniversary? If our marriage fails, will not the biggest day of our life become the biggest mistake of our life?

Marriage is a means to an end, which is a union that is socially and legally compliant. In our endeavour to live up to our own societal image, we unnecessarily scale up and complicate this act of compliance. Instead of celebrating everyday of our lives together after the marriage, we make a big deal of this one day and spend the rest of our lives reliving its memories.

Happiness is nothing but our achievement minus our expectations. If the difference is positive, there is happiness, otherwise there is regret. The very nature of human happiness is such that it can never be attained. We may be happy for a few moments or days after attaining a goal, a milestone or a materialistic possession, but eventually we will start craving for something bigger, better or newer. Think about the last time a new cell phone gave us a lasting high. A marriage is something very different, yet the high it gives us is similar to that of a new cell phone. How can one spend so much time, effort and resources on something whose effects on our personal well being and happiness are ephemeral?

 A marriage is full of materialism where as love is spiritual. A marriage is all about pleasing the ego - our own and that of others - where as love is selfless. A marriage is governed by the norms set by the world but love is governed by the voice of the heart. A marriage is a tangible event, love is an unending journey. A marriage, in its current form in India, can never be a celebration of something as pure as love. At the most, it is only a willfully, forcefully or ignorantly accepted contradiction of love.

PS: This is not an account of my own experience. However, parts of it may be true and applicable to my own case. Please read with discretion and focus on the intent rather than actions.