Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Daily Race

From the moment we open our eyes in the morning, we're running: we are either just in time or a few minutes late. Sometimes, a few hours late.
There's always that mad rush - to finish. Chores, tasks, responsibilities, neverending duties. The list of items that come at us one after the other, or a few together. We puff and pant, we splutter, we catch our breath. Quick, quick, quick! In the next five minutes!

Traffic drags us back. We begin to panic. Time is running out! The backlog looms before our eyes. We could have finished three tasks in the time we were stuck on the road. We try to get ahead, by working in the vehicle: making calls, delegating, distributing, and making promises we can't keep.

At the end of every day, in our tasks list, despite the mad rush to get everything done, there are still a few that are not. That's okay, we tell ourselves. They're low priority. I got the high priority ones done. I will tackle these, maybe during the weekend. If we don't, either we fail someone else or we fail ourselves.
And so the weekend continues to be a rush too.
Satisfaction is getting up to 80% of the tasks done.

We flop before the TV to relax - we have thirty minutes before the next race begins. We're timebound - our life is boxed. Each task in a box.
Vacation is boxed too. You're allowed two weeks to get away and do what you want to.
WhatsApp gets a few minutes between boxes.

Somehow we proceed from one day to the next, shoving each hour out of the way. If you aren't running, you might be a social outcast or something. Or maybe you are wealthy enough not to be partaking in the race. Or you have a real reason, which we don't want to hear about.

Is life supposed to be this continuous race, or are we doing it wrong? Or is it that we do not have a choice anymore?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

No one's Conspiring

I hate to say this, my friend;
I hate to break your bubble:
But I see your dangerous hope,
I sense your deadly expectation...

There is no universe conspiring,
There's no miracle in the making;
Your hardwork sometimes pays,
But mostly, much of it doesn't.

You see, the way it works-
The universe has much to do,
It has crowds to take care of:
Others appeal to it like you.

You get it, it's human too!
(I know that's ridiculous.)
Friend, you know what I mean.
They sometimes call it Chaos.

The universe cannot conspire
To give everything everyone wants;
If it gives you yours, then
Someone else is denied theirs.

So it's just fine, your optimism,
If you're prepared to wait forever:
Your chance may or not come
In this life, or it may never.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

SuperMoms and SuperWives

"Breakfast main kya loge?" asks the mother.
And from different parts of the house emerge shouts of "Dosa!" "Upma!" "Rava Idli!" "Vada!"
The mother cheerfully springs a few pairs of imaginary hands and sets to work, and within no time, all these yummy breakfast items are ready on the table. (Not to mention the chutneys that go with vada, sambar that goes with the dosa and whatever it is that goes with upma.) Did I mention that the mother is smiling all the time?

I can't speak for all mothers, but I know that many bristle at this advertisement. (In defense of the ad, it does convey that these easy-to-make breakfast items are very easy to make.)

There is another breakfast ad featuring the gorgeous Madhuri Dixit. While we all love the way she looks (we so missed her all these years!) when she works out with her family, I (we?) can't help but wonder, how can a mother be so stress-free? How on earth does she look so refreshed? Does she have no worries or has she learnt to get past (rid of) them? Did she not have to work late last night? Does she have no deadlines today? Isn't her boss sitting on her head? Are her children so perfect that they get up and work out so well with family without whining and have a "healthy" breakfast without grumbling? Do they do their homeworks on time by themselves and help their mother keep the house clean? Do they (Heaven forbid) do their own laundry? And does her husband behave and do as he is told? What in the world is she so excited about? (Is she high on something? Does yoga or meditation keep her so happy? The string of questions keeps on going long after Madhuri and her entourage have vanished.)

Oh, come on, it is an ad, you say. There is no truth or sense or fact in it. Just watch and forget. Buy their product, if you like.

But this does give wrong ideas to people - that mothers are or ought to be like these moms in the TV. (We already know the power of ads.)

Have you noticed that the mothers in the ads know everything? (Except for that one mother who is surprised when the doctor talks about oral hygiene. Cavities? she asks, as though she is hearing it for the first time.)

I must mention another ad featuring Rahul Bose in which his wife lazily says "I will make tea in a while" - 'lazily' being the key word. I can't explain how relieved that makes me feel.

Mothers try to convince themselves that they are not supermoms, and that they can only do what they can. But with this type of competition (people like Madhuri, for God's sake!) they have to at least pretend to be 90% super. I am not saying there are no supermoms. I know a few (though they do not know it themselves. They almost kill themselves managing everything and are happy when they do it.) But the pressure it puts on the rest of us is considerable. It takes all my willpower to convince myself every day that "there are things I can do, and there are things I can't. For the latter, I have to seek help without considering it a weakness or a failure. For the former, I should be proud of myself." It is by no means easy. I have to go through this self-convincing routine for a long time; it is an effort in itself. I can't explain how many times I had to face the caustic response when I said "I do not enjoy cooking". The listener immediately assumes that I starve my family. (How can a mother say such a horrid thing??)

Someone recently told me that all comedy shows, movies and TV shows invariably have at least one wife who makes her husband's life miserable. There: you see her nagging him, finding fault with everything he does, shouting at him, jealous about him, never supporting him - that you feel so sorry for the poor, wretched man. "There must be some truth in it." How many scenes do you see where the situation is reversed (except when the husband is the main, evil villain of the story)?

So we struggle to not "nag" even though a worry has been gnawing at our hearts for days or weeks that we need help with. We try not to complain, even though we feel we deserve a little more support or compassion. We try not to shout even though the splitting headache on top of everything is making us to. In the end, the whole thing accumulates and piles up and causes a suffocation that transforms into an atomb bomb that is merely biding its time. (And then comes Madhuri with her family dance and all hell breaks loose.)

What we see is what we believe. Our systems are tuned that way - if that's how it is on TV, it must be true, in general. We subconsciously arrive at the conclusion that we are so incomplete, incompetent, inconsiderate, below-average. There must be something wrong with me if I cannot be at least half of what those mothers are. I must be so nasty and evil if I am at least a fraction like those nagging wives. If I am not a failure already, my plane is definitely headed there.

So what do we do to find some steady patch of earth to stand on? We pretend that we are supermoms and perfect wives like the ones on TV. It is a survival tactic. Darwin must have written about it.

To all those who will say "it is better to be yourself", my answer would be, "It is much easier and safer to pretend otherwise. It is heartbreak either way, but at least when you pretend, you don't make it to the family gossip."

Monday, August 18, 2014

Caged

The cage is open; but the bird does not flee:
She's bound by reasons that seem strange to me.

Torn is her heart as she peers at the sky;
Mountains and meadows invite her to fly.

No one nor nothing compells her to stay;
Why does she dither, why not fly away?

The trees and the rains, the wind of her dreams;
The temptation fails to entice her, it seems.

If she spreads her wings, she'll never be free:
The burden along will she have to carry.

A lump in her throat, in her thoughts as she wades,
Her choice is made; in her eyes the light fades.

What her heart yearns for, she cannot choose;
What she's been granted, she cannot lose.

She takes a step back, she closes the door;
She won't look again; be tempted no more.

Her faith in herself - therein her strength lies;
She's content; though some call it... sacrifice.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Who will remember?

In one of the recent episodes of House M.D., a homeless old man dying of lung cancer comes to the hospital but refuses treatment, saying that he wants to die suffering. Dr Cameron, as can be expected, is appalled at the suggestion, but the old man explains that it is the only way someone will remember him.

Take a deep breath.
Isn't that what we are all afraid of? That we will leave this world and no one will remember us the next day? Maybe, a few friends or family might remember for a few days, if we are lucky. If we have been kind, some more people might sigh at the mention of our name. But mostly our actions have slipped past, escaping everyone's notice. We have not exactly been creating history all this while or doing a huge service to mankind. Throughout our lives, most of us walk on, crossing each personal hurdle that comes, making no significant dent of our own anywhere, (though each of our achievements are astronomical to us) and the chances are high that we vanish as easily as a shooting star and there is not even a ripple or smoke trail to mark our passing. The people whom we lost and remember are still only a shadow in our own minds; an occasional memory of an ache that diminishes with time, but nothing more. Why should it be any different with us?

We can't stand that feeling, can we? We have lived, smiled, suffered, endured, made a few others happy, and we've been kind, hardworking, dedicated, sincere, and everything, but we did not make any remarkable memory anywhere? Let alone history, we are not even going to make it to the local newspaper? No one will remember us?

What can be more disappointing than that? If we realise that our existence is not going to matter, are we going to consciously or unconsciously make any change in the way we live? Are we going to make an effort to create a dent or rewrite history so that we're not forgotten? Or are we content to just remaining as we are, insignificant, unimportant, except in the lives of a handful?

Saturday, August 2, 2014

... and Punishment

He came to me today,
Resigned and ready to die:
There was nothing to say;
I knew it was good-bye.

I saw them in his eyes:
The suffering and the pain;
He'll have to travel miles
Till he was free again.

When my roots were shaken,
My life itself pulled down,
His shoulder he had given,
So that I could go on.

He came to me one day;
I saw him as my saviour.
He fell to knees to say:
'Know that I am a murderer'.

He'd axed two lives down!
One was friend to me...
The news was over town,
But none knew it was he.

He left me fearful, speechless,
A raging storm in mind:
A man who took two lives,
Could he be so kind?

Though, but for this deed,
His life was till then spotless;
He was free from greed;
How could one be flawless!

Callous, unkind, brutal
Men always get away;
I could not see him cruel,
Try as though I may...

Regrets he had none, on
account of what he did;
The action and the reason,
Were, in his eyes, valid.

So I vowed to follow him
Where this would lead us,
Until he found his freedom
I'll pursue his footsteps.

And when he left today
Uncertain of his fate;
There was, I knew, a way,
But long have I to wait...


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A story that inspires me

I heard this tale over twenty years ago. I guess the effect it had on me is evident that I remember it so well, even now. Truth be told, it comes back to me every now and then. There is more than one message in it; and every time you look at it with a new perspective, you find something new shining out of it. It's like opening the Bible or the Gita to find answers. Or maybe it's all in my head.

Though I call it a story, it is a real incident. There are two boys involved; I have never met the first, I barely know the second. The story was narrated to me by a person who knew both of them well. It does not matter if every single thing about this story is not true.

So, this boy, let's call him K, completed his school and got his admission to the National Defence Academy. Naturally, there was a lot of celebration in the neighbourhood for the soldier-hero-in-the-making. When the time came, K said goodbye to his friends and family and went off to join.

Anyone who knows anything about Defence knows that the training at NDA is by no means easy. It's gruelling and brutal and bordering on cruel, and it takes nerves of steel to survive. How can it not be so? - the kids will soon be sent to a place where kindness and love become mere memories. A lot of young men and women who enthusiastically join, hoping to serve Bharat Mata, soon decide that they can also serve her by working in corporate offices or by participating in sports, and quit. The honour and the glory were all great in theory and in pictures, but were not for them. The Academy leaves its doors open to allow them to run. They don't need deserters. Better they run now than later, at the battlefield.

It wasn't long before K ran back home.

The second character of the story, let's call him Z, was a year or two younger to K. It so happened that he was also keen on NDA. After K returned and shared the harsh, inhuman routines at the NDA to every excruciating detail (he must have naturally exaggerated it a little, I am guessing, so that people won't consider him a weakling), the neighbourhood was shocked to learn that Z wanted to join too. His parents pleaded with him to reconsider. Z was a quiet and gentle boy but he could be firm when he wanted to. Seeing his determination, his parents reluctantly gave their consent.

K went through a host of emotions when he heard the news. On the one hand, Z was his friend, and he wanted to stand by his decision; on the other, he had never quite gotten over the fact that he could not survive NDA. He suspected that people laughed behind his back for his cowardice. He could imagine the comparisons the society would make now that Z was headed that way too. He prayed that Z would not get the selection, but he did. Under pressure from these thoughts, K behaved just the way any teenager would. While Z was busy making his preparations to join the Academy, he strolled over and said, "I don't think you would last much at the NDA. Life is too tough and you would run away just as I did. Maybe even earlier."

Z stiffened, smiled and went on with his packing.

After Z joined, his parents got one letter every week from him. Each letter had the thickness of a newspaper - he wrote pages and pages about his experiences, the brutality, the unkindness, the ragging, every bit of it. I suspect his mother shed a few tears on reading these. She might even have asked him to drop it and return. But he wrote, "I know. I want to run away. But if I run now, it will only prove that K was right, and that I am just as weak as he said I was. I will stay. I can take this." He wrote this several times, in several letters.

Every time he wanted to vent, he wrote to his parents. Every time his resolve weakened, he thought of K and that gave him the strength to face one more day. As weeks passed, the size of the letters began to decrease. He began to complain less. (I doubt if K would ever have imagined the power his words held. In fact, Z might have given up just as easily if it were not for him.)

Z never quit. He battled the most trying years of NDA and beyond, clinging to his determination to prove K wrong. Today he is an officer in the Indian Air Force, serving somewhere in North India.

I wonder if he recalls any of this. But every single time I hear his name, I remember this story.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"How is work-from-home treating you?"

I was asked this question recently.

When faced with a situation like that, you get about two seconds to figure out the intention behind it, and one second to frame your response. (During which you take a deep breath and say 'errr....' for their benefit.)

The first thought that crosses your mind is, She is jealous. She thinks of the road, the traffic, the dust, the heat, the nasty boss, the creepy colleagues, the tasteless food, the stressful work, the meaningless meetings, the late hours, the countless reports and - then she thinks of you working from home. She is jealous, of course, that you get to sit at home, walk around the rooms with your laptop, watch television when there is a good movie on, work at night or day whenever you please, make reports only when you want to, skip meetings when you are bored, eat or make tea when you want to, watch the rain, meet friends, do pretty much anything when you want to without having to answer to anyone. God, she is jealous.

Quickly the idea is replaced by the thought that maybe She thinks you are a loser. She thinks you do not have the courage or competence to go out to an office and work. She thinks you are pathetic that you chose to work from home with surely a meagre pay and not have fun with colleagues; she thinks you miss the daily gossip, the vending machine tea, the month-end get-together, the appraisals, the promotions, the bonus, the challenges, the teamwork, everything. She thinks you are lonely at home and not earning much, and you have to chase the laundry and do the cooking and supervise the maid, and you are merely putting up a brave face that everything is fine. You see yourself through her eyes - one hand tapping the laptop, the other shoving food down the throat of your child, one foot inside the laundry bucket, the other stirring the pot on the stove and your face contorted while yelling at your maid. She thinks you are jealous of her.

Then you think, maybe she isn't even curious. Maybe she isn't thinking about you at all. Maybe she is just making small talk. You're sitting opposite each other in awkward silence, waiting for someone else to arrive. She just had to say something.

A milli-second later, you wonder if she was thinking of giving up her job and working from home. She has an infant whom she leaves with a maid. You know very well the pressures and worries that come with it.

The question may sound simple but it isn't easy to answer.

And as the three safe seconds following the question fall to a close, you say: "Well, I get my siesta," and shrug.
Whatever that means.