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Dining Table

“Where is everybody?”, he asked, his eyes glistening as he hoisted his backpack on to one shoulder. The taxi driver took out his suitcase from the boot and handed it to Shibukaka who had run out to help as soon as he heard the impatient doorbell at the gate. It had been two years since Sameer had been home, but Shibukaka would have recognised his doorbell anywhere.

“Upstairs, at the table”, said Shibukaka

“No no, you go on up. I will bring the bags”, he added, as Sameer reached out for the suitcase. Sameer grinned at him, as he picked up the smaller suitcase and walked in through the gates. No way he’d hurt Shibukaka by picking up the bigger suitcase – that would be calling him old and frail – and he wasn’t quite there yet.

The stairwell was as it always was, narrow, dark and steep. As if one were going through the birthing canal, still cool and protected from the outside world. At it’s end came life.

Sameer burst into the familiar room to what felt like a sea of bright eyes and smiling faces, all waiting to greet him. Were they here for him, or were they here because that is how it always was? No matter, it did not matter why they were here. He dived into the oohs and aahs, the hugs, the respectful pranams given and received. Someone took his bag from his shoulder, he did not know when. His suitcases had reached his room, or they must have. He did not need to know it all any more, or track his things. They would appear and disappear magically, just as a fresh round of tea had appeared at the dining table. They were all seated around it, as if they had always been there.

The conversation paused for the tiniest part of a second as everyone savoured the first sip of the latest round. This was always a tricky moment, for they were all connoisseurs at the table and tea was their thing. It’s perfection was a family tradition. It had to be just so, of course brewed. It was only coarse folk of the street or farms who boiled their tea. Utterly brutal, but then who ever thinks or mentions such lesser folk. Sameer even knew what the next sentence would be, and as if on cue, it came.

“Is this the tea that Moni brought from this trip to the hills in Darjeeling? Or is it the new flavour from that Market Street shop?”

Didi was quick off the mark, she did not suffer tea foolishness gladly, and certainly would not let any new blend catch her by surprise.

“Market Street, re”, said Maasi. “Moni’s batch was mostly sent over to her mother-in-law’s house. You know, how it is”

“But they don’t even drink this, do they”, chirped young Bodhan. He was keen, and had just figured out that there were invisible lines drawn in the most unlikely places. Like the tea and its china.

“Of course they don’t”, snorted Didi. “They can’t tell a leaf from a granule, not them. They’d have boiled it all to bitterness by now and would still be waiting for it to turn orange or whatever colour they drink. Uff, what a waste. It was first flush, you know”. Didi’s distress met sympathetic eyes across the table.

I mean, everyone marries who they choose, but did Moni have to like someone in that kind of family? Sameer could almost hear the unspoken question being tossed into the air. It had been said so often that it did not need to be said again, they all knew it.

“Its not as if they are not rich”, sighed Maasi. “But then, when have riches brought taste”, she added in that gentle clear voice of hears that could be clearly heard all the way down the table. Sameer looked at Maasi, at her usual spot at the head of the table, the side nearest to the kitchen. Her face held the quality of repose even when she was laughing, or crying or irritated, though few would have seen her out of control. Even now, as she thought of the tangled mess that Moni’s life was in, the only evidence of it was the way her hands traced the curve of the oval table, restlessly, back and forth along the smoothened edge.

The conversation at the table bounced easily off known patterns, from food to philosophy, and then to fashions and how they spatially claimed a moving space to promote an idea. And then back to college, where a dupatta had just been made compulsory for Bodhan’s sister, Mili.

“I keep telling her to go to college only in Jeans and T-Shirt”, Bodhan said, sure of his change-maker credentials. “But she refuses to take a stand. This is oppressive and regressive, both”, he ended with a flourish.

“We should ask her, should we not? Who are we to decide if she feels oppressed?”. Sameer finally joined in the conversation, almost feeling up to the bracing wind that flew across that table everyday, keeping aantel adda aloft.

“She would not know oppression if she saw it. We grew up in that tiny town, remember? Where all girls were expected to do was follow the rules. All Mili has to do is to spot a rule from far away, and she will rush to make it her own”, grinned Bodhan. He felt a sense of ownership for his sister’s thoughts. After all who could know her better than her own brother. They had not grown up together. Bodhan had been sent to Calcutta early for his education. Mili had come here only three years ago, and had just started college.

“She will make some mother in law very happy”, chimed in a distant aunt who had joined them at the table for evening tea. There were always some relatives who dropped by everyday. They lived close to the city’s busiest market, so anyone who came out shopping came over for a bit of a rest, a little gossip and of course the delicious food that Maasi’s kitchen kept rolling out. Today it was a mutton chop, and the aunt had already had two. Maasi’s table always had more, but she clearly held the reins.

“Would you like some more tea?”, asked Maasi, raising the teapot that sat to her right. Didi grinned, and looked away. There was no one who was better at shutting up random voices than Maasi. The aunt did not even know how neatly she had been bypassed, as her cup was passed back to Maasi for a refill.

“Mili is doing very well at college”, said Maasi as she refilled the cup. “She has chosen to study philosophy and economics, and I think she will be able to use her learning to do much good”.

The cup was being handed back across the table to the aunt. Before the cup reached her, Maasi continued, “Did you find anything interesting in Haldar’s shop today? He has been promising me an embroidered blouse for three months, but I do not think he can source something that is good enough.”

“Oh, Haldar had some nice Hakoba cloth in today”, chattered the aunt. “But I also went into the next shop, the new one you know. They have jewellery just like the television serials. You will not believe what I found there today”. Aunt dug into her bag to pull out a little pouch and opened it to show the table. A heavy but very beautiful polki necklace was passed around the table to more oohs and aahs.

“Can you believe it is not real?”, the aunt added. “They do such good work these days”

“It is lovely, aunt. Where do you plan to wear it first?”, asked a young cousin down the table. Sameer did not even remember her name, though he did remember playing with her when they were younger. Pigtails, heavily oiled hair and neon coloured ribbons, that’s all he remembered. She looked quite different now, her eyes heavy with kohl, hair tumbled casually past her shoulders. It had been too long since he was home.

“I thought of wearing it to your sister’s wedding. Not the main function of course but maybe the aashirwaad or the reception. You will have a reception for Shoma, won’t you?”, asked the aunt.

Roma, Sameer remembered suddenly. The two sisters were Roma and Shoma. Roma was the older one, it must be her across the table if they were talking about Shoma’s wedding. He knew nothing about it, but his mother must. She was in Bombay right now, and must be in a meeting. He’d catch up with her later tonight.

Roma hesitated before answering the aunt.

“We have not decided all the occasions yet. Ma will call you as soon as they are decided”, she added in a soft, decisive voice.

For a moment, it was as if a younger Maasi was speaking, suddenly thought Sameer. He had been away and did not know the story, but even he could feel the sparks that were flying across the table. He kept his head down, as he continued playing a game on his phone. This was not the time to make eye contact. Years of experience around that dining table had taught them much about silence and timing.

“I’ve asked your mother to hold the Aashirwaad here. We will clear the ground floor hall and there will be enough room”, Maasi said.

Roma’s chin took on a stubborn set. That’s when Sameer noticed the tiny little mole on it. Just a bit off centre, a tiny black dot. It stood out now, as if in assertion of her will, and he found he could not look away.

“Don’t worry Maasi”, Roma said. “Why take the trouble? We will decide soon anyway”

Didi looked directly at Soma and was about to say something when Maasi interjected. “It will save me trouble, you know Romashona. I am too old to go out for three days in a row. Here, it will be easier for me. But I will need you to take full charge of all arrangements. At my age, I’m afraid I’ll not be of much use to you”

Maasi’s hands were rubbing the rounded edge of the table again, Sameer noticed. The edge was bright and polished, and that made him smile.

Before Roma could respond Maasi continued, “Your mother knows this is her own house. To hold the aashirwaad in our own house is quite alright. I don’t really hold with these new ideas of hiring commercial places. Tell your mother that her home awaits her hospitality.”

Roma looked around the dining table. Before the aunt could say anything, she jumped up, grabbed her purse, and looked at her watch. “I’m late for work, I must rush. Of course I’ll tell her that”, she said as she gave Maasi a tight hug in farewell. “We will have a grand wedding, won’t we?”, was her parting shot from the top of the staircase. Her smile lit up the room.

A whiff of her gentle fragrance – was it jasmine, or shiuli- wafted past, as she twirled away and was gone. The determined smell of roasting spices rose from the kitchen crowding it out of even Sameer’s mind as he stood up.

“I think I’ll go and wash up before dinner, Maasi”, he said.

“Yes, do that. We have your favourite biryani for dinner, and then firni for dessert”

“Only firni for dessert? Just one?”, teased Didi.

“Of course not, we have more”, said Maasi determinedly. “But that was made for him”. She smiled at him, and said, “Yes, go and rest a bit. You are in Bodhan’s room for now. Bodhan can shift to Mili’s room which is next to you, so he can look after you too. Mili has shifted up to Shibuli’s room for now.”

“So much trouble. Maasi!”, Sameer protested. “I and Bodhan can share a room I’m sure”, he said, looking towards Bodhan, who nodded hard.

“Trouble and all he says!”, laughed Maasi. “See how much he has grown. Now go, do as you are told”.

Even before Sameer and Bodhan had left the table, the conversation had resumed. The aunt was gathering up her shopping and pretending to leave. Sometimes she’d stay for dinner and sometimes she would really have to leave. Everyone was asking her to stay, but she had to go. In the distance, the doorbell had rung again, and Sameer could hear a heavy tread come up the stairs, as if it was familiar with it. Another uncle, from another part of town must have dropped by after work. Some of the uncles came everyday, others once in a while.

Sameer quickly slipped away to wash up before the next round of oohs and aahs greeted the uncle as if he had just come back from a safari, not just office. The next round of hot snacks was served, a fresh pot of tea brewed. Familiar chatter took on its reassuring rhythm, as plates were quickly refreshed at the polished dining table.

(Meeta Sengupta – but I think we should work on a pseudonym)

Student Centricity of Online Test Prep

Our panel discussion on stage was sparkling, and we were all agreed that education is about lighting a flame and building character. As we stepped down from the stage and gathered around our table, friends now, we started sharing. We were now not just educators, but mothers. And we agreed, very quickly, that for our children, between high school and entrance examinations, marks and performance were paramount. We were trapped in the same dichotomy as everyone else, where we realise that life may have to be put on pause for examinations.

In a nation obsessed with tests and certification, it is easy to find oneself in a bind where the progressive conversation amongst parents and educators alike asks to rise above the din. Marks don’t matter, and examinations need to be redesigned for meaning and mastery, we all agree. At the same time, we realise that in a large nation, growing larger, the only way to differentiate ourselves is to out do others in competitions and tests. Testing is the most fair way to select those of us who can survive the path ahead, from those of us who would struggle. Much of testing and rote learning gets push back from educators because it seems to come at the cost of true learning. In the hands of poor design, immense competitive pressure, or mediocre teaching there is a real danger of test-centric education doing some real damage.

Testing for learning, however, is a constructive use of the tool, as is testing for diagnostic assessment of student potential or teacher quality. While most testing is originally designed to test the teacher and the school, and enable them to identify where to teach better, the pressure of the test eventually falls on the students. Even in the huge and large competitive test preparation market, the intent is to help the student identify their potential and select their career path, but in reality it ends up being a series of crammers and tests to enter coaching, which in turn trains for the test to enter the learning institution, which again is test driven. This is about four to six years of test preparation for major competitive examinations. For the students, this may be learning for mastery, or this may be learning for memory, but it is indeed learning by stress.

For the test prep market, this is clearly an opportunity. This is an estimated INR 40 bn market that is estimated to grow in line with the Indian demographic dividend. Both the industry and the pressure will inevitably grow if the focus remains test centric, as it currently is, rather than move to becoming more student centric. It is surprisingly rare to find a student centric product in the edu-tech space, most of them focus on clever tech rather than student solutions, especially in the test prep space.

Diagnostic tools are rare at school, though EI does offer similar at school levels, across subjects. Tutors often develop these skills that help their students focus their remedial efforts, but these are not always easy to access for every student, especially in these days of mass coaching. Mass customisation is possible only with online test prep tools and we have seen a plethora of them in the market in recent years. So when Pearson invited me to collaborate on the launch of their new direct to consumer test prep tool, skepticism and conditionalities preceded the demonstration, though old associations made me curious too. I used to do some Instructional Design work with them in London way back in 2008. I wanted to see how learning online had progressed in that company in a decade. I remember the attention to detail, the precision and the shift to accessibility. The move within India to directly reach students made a lot of sense to me, as did the approach via troubleshooting for high stress exam preparation. Address the pain point with quality content.

It is a step forward in the right direction as the student gets evidence to pin point the areas that need remedial work. The trend towards this in the test prep market is to be lauded, though one wonders about what differentiates one from the other. Quality can only be seen in the choice and design of the question, and the nature of the remedial feedback – better design leads to better student efficacy. The aim of the platform, aptly named My Insights, it is about giving the students specific revision requirements rather than looping all the way around to re-doing the entire topic. A supplementary testing tool, it does not over-reach and interfere with the student’s learning rhythm – they can carry on with their regular training schedule and do better, they can test to see if it is keeping them on track. Anything that reduces the stress and load of a student studying for these behemoth examinations gets my support, as does the targeted approach here.

Empty Nest

Mummy!

She could hear the cries. Again and again. Incessant. Every morning the same.

Mummy! Where did I keep my badge? Where is the belt! The bag. The bottle. The homework. The shoes. The laces. The shirt. The buttons. The thread on the buttons. The thread by which she was hanging…

She heard them now. Even after they had all gone. The birds had flown, they said. Empty nesters they said.

How will you survive, they asked. Won’t you miss them they wondered.

The questions never ended. The probes. The curiosity. Trying to get inside her head as if they paid rent to stay there and put nails on the walls. As if they even cared, they just wanted a little tour inside her head. She wondered why. Were they bored of their own? Maybe they just did not have enough interesting stuff going on inside their own heads, so they needed to visit others. Or maybe, they just had fun dropping by and messing around with other people’s heads.

Socialisation, she said. Socialising they called it. Visiting the insides of other’s homes, minds and heads, and leaving bits of themselves. Circulated bits, like unwanted gifts that do the rounds for years. Leaving a mark in every home, till after a while you cannot remember where it came from, only that it now was a part of your home. That cup, it was yours now. That notion, that the mummy was in service to the progeny, much like the chipped cup, a part of the household. The stale box of dry fruit biscuits, the one that no one wanted, but you had to finally one day. We consumed these beliefs like those biscuits – they were ours after all. We ingested them. Knowing we would feel slightly sick, but we could deal with it.

She remembered all those biscuits. The day she could not go for that job interview because her son was sick. No, there was nothing else to be done, she had to do what was right. So she swallowed that. Or the day she cancelled her … who remembers after all these years all those things that she had missed.

She missed them, of course. They lit up her life, they brought love and laughter. She brought some, and they rose together. That is why they were family.

And now they were gone. The house was quiet. So quiet that all she could hear were here memories.

“Mummy!”

“Where did I keep my green sash! Miss said you have to wear your sash on Fridays! Help!”

“Why don’t you look after your things, Priya! If you tidied up, everything would always be found. I’m sick of your things getting lost!”

“Mummy! Stop lecturing, and help me! I don’t have time for this mess”

“Exactly what I tell you! You don’t have time for this mess. What a stupid way to spend your time – hunting for stuff! Grow up, I won’t always be here to help you. You are on your own!”

“Mummy…!”

“Is it this one?”

“Yes!!!”
“At least say Thank you!”

“Thank you mummy, you are the best!!! Oh, and I won’t be home till evening – there’s an event. Bye!”

And so she had whirled away. Far far away. All of them had. It was only right and fair. Life moved on.

The house could be clean now, but she kept it a mess.

After all, it wasn’t an empty nest.

There is plenty in the lack

Cottage Living. That’s what the comic strip called it, such a charming little piece in six panels. Of course it did not show the washing, and the scrubbing and the hard bits, but then I am old enough and experienced enough to take those in my stride. Most days it is as effortless as giving it to a machine. One powered by electricity or by myself.

There is charm in this tiny living. The place is small. Barely enough steps to teach a toddler how to count and you are out of the back door again. But it does have a back door, and that is already a bonus. It is simple, and pretty and the California sun shines through its windows all day long. The nights are gently chill, enough to make me wish that the fireplace was functional. I am not going to try it, for the house is old, but it has been refurbished by builders who are new – they may not have done it right.

I have everything that I need here, just enough and no more. The kitchen is tiny, and there is only one frying pan, but then who needs more than that? The same colander is used to wash my greens and to drain the pasta – and that is more than enough. The cutlery does not match, but my guests do not mind, and I don’t mind it if they do. I have one comfy chair, and one straightbacked chair, all thanks to people who move about so much – away from this university town in America. The experience is not disjointed, I am not culturally misplaced and there is no dissonance. There is only the simplicity of life, and an occasional smile exchanged with a stranger as both of us head for the milk table with our coffee cups – we are both there for the free wifi, we know.

Is this happiness? To be here, on my chair dragged into the sun, surrounded by plants that are gently nodding in the cool breeze. The sun is warm, I am toasty in minutes. I can smell the delicious warmth of my skin, soaking it all the way up to my cold heart. It may open up, and I am waiting.

It is a strange place, no doubt. A meal cost me more than a small sofa, and a month of internet costs me half that much. Things that last are sold at the same price as things that will be gone in a day. Maybe the day matters to them as much as eternity – maybe that is what it means to be a young country. Every town has it’s number, I now realise. London and Berkeley are at 15. Everything is 15 here, as a base – pounds or dollars. Here in America, they said that there is a premium for convenience. True. But more than that – there is a penalty for not having space. If you cannot buy in bulk, you will be charged more. Students and the poor pay more, and that does not seem fair. Fair is not a word I hear much here, except in this university town. Even here, I hear of reparations, of rights, of reaching out – but it’s about the fight, not about being fair.

But it is a nice life, if you are living it simply. The cottage life is easy. There are few friends, even fewer visitors. There is little space and even fewer things. There is nothing of the flotsam and jetsam of life that makes it complex. You wake up and switch on the kettle and coffee maker. As they bubble and brew reassuringly, you crack that egg on the sizzling pan. Done and wiped up in a few, the day opens it’s doors. The sun shines in, inviting you to life. You choose – the inward one or the outward play. Tired, you pause a few hours later. A slice of cheese, a small avocado salad and more coffee that has been waiting for you. The day slips by smoothly – the hike, the trek, the shop, the write – they are all tantalisingly close. Reach out. A meal, soft lights, gentle conversation, a dream or a story, and one is ready to drift off. Nothing ruffles the feathers, there is nowhere to flock.

There is plenty in the lack.

Working Mother

A precious little bundle, fragile and tender is handed to me. I have been carrying him for months, I know his moods already. What I do not know is the sheer physicality of the experience. And the surge to protect.

Having children does a lot to parents. It changes us in ways we had never seen, or known – then how could we expect it? It shows us deeper love than we have ever known to be possible, one that flows like a constant river, giving even if it does not receive. And that is joy.

Oh, not all joy of course – the first few years are madness, but then I would not have missed that madness for all the world. So what if there were a few sleepless nights and toes stubbed on lego pieces in the hallway. (When I say a few, I do mean a few years – not just days and nights). It is a crazy time when the workplace seems to be an escape to normality. At least the old normal. Because the new normal changes everyday. You learn to deal with the unexpected – and how does one delegate that? It tears you apart, you would not forgive yourself if the unexpected horrible thing suddenly happened to your little one.

I cannot forget the time I get a call on the way back home from work. “I did not want to disturb you at work, but there is a letter from the nursery saying that the child was exposed to a serious meningitis case. They have said something about antibiotics.” Panic. Meningitis.in.babies.can.kill. I know the case they are referring to – there was a girl, both parents doctors. She contracted it and was gone in four hours. They could do nothing. I did not know she had attended my son’s nursery that week. But she had. And he was at risk.

I looked at my watch. It was seven minutes to six. My doctor’s surgery (that is what they call a clinic in England) was shutting as I was looking at the ticking hands of the clock. The letter had arrived at lunchtime. My son only did half the day at the nursery. I hear of it now. I have no idea how he is, whether I can breathe or not. I disconnect rudely. Call up the doctor. Try to keep calm as I speak, or how will they understand me? I cannot speak, but I must – there is urgency in my voice, panic breaking through. Would they even have the antibiotic? Would they keep the surgery open for me? Can I get him there in time? Why was I not there to take the letter? Why did I even let the child out of the house? Focus.. Focus. Injection. Co-ordinate. Ensure next steps. Don’t worry about breathing or bags or other silly material things.

I do not remember the next few minutes. I do not remember how we got to the moment when the right liquid was being injected into the little one. It was in, the doctors were kind. (Remember, this was the NHS, they could have been bureaucratic. Remember, this was the NHS – the treatment was free at the point of use). I could breathe, but must be watchful. I was given a bunch of brochures. I read them diligently. And much more online later, as the tiny little thing slept next to me. I watched him as I had watched him newborn.

The constant refrain. I should have been there. I should not have been at work. He would not be at risk if I had been there to take decisions. Four hours without the antibiotics. Anything could have happened. Anything still could.

I was watching for blood poisoning.

I could not delegate this to anyone else. Took the day off work the next day. A jangle of nerves by then, but steeled, for I must be the one to make it right.

Sure enough, by the next afternoon, they came. The rashes. I did the glass test. All parents must know the glass test, everyone must. If the rashes don’t change colour when pressed – and you can see if they do through a transparent glass – then there is trouble. A normal rash will go white when pressed, a dangerous rash would not.

This one did not.

I took a deep breath. I am glad I did, because it would be hours before I would allow myself another one. Called the ambulance. I did not know what was ahead. The ambulance crew was sympathetic. They understood. They had taken that other little girl to hospital, with the doctor parents. I did not want to hear this. I did not want to hear anything but that sentence – “It looks fine now, nothing to worry about. You can go home safely now”. It would be a few hours before I heard it. Thankfully I did. He had the rash, the meningitis had touched him and gone. The antibiotics had just been in time. Just. A close shave. I still cry when I remember, I am crying now.

Parenting shows you how vulnerable you are. Parenting shows you your insecurities. Parenting is about fighting your fears. And losing often.

It also makes you do things you thought you’d never get around to doing. I learnt to drive, because you never know when you need to dash to hospital. I learnt to swim, to be able to play and laugh with the little one. I learnt not to be afraid of smaller pay cheques and freelance fees. I learnt that I was not my job title or the network of CEOs and presidents I met with in my work-day life. I was me, and I was the shine in the eyes of my child.

I did try, and worked, and learnt, and led and built businesses for others. My job was exciting. I was building a business school in a completely different model. They were an offshoot of a community college, they were showing a pathway to the corporate ladder even if you had skipped school or lost your way. Bright young and old people joined in to become chartered accountants in a few years or climb the HR ladder and more. It was the brave new world of skilling, and I was leading a charge. How could I resist, I knew I was good at building things that had just been started.

But the child’s school ended at noon, and this job needed me to be at work till 10pm at least half the time. Every mother faces this, so did I. There was the usual barrage of – “millions of women work and use childcare, why can’t you?”, “you are lucky that you earn enough to afford childcare”, “Our local council is so supportive and this is such a nice area – surely you will find something good”, “there are so many options if you look” and so on. But all I could see were the newspaper reports of childminders locking up and starving their wards, or worse. The good news stories were either not plentiful or were not news. What did I know – I just could not find them. I spoke to other mothers, and none had a good first hand tale to tell. Their neighbours who used to look after their child for two hours after school (before the parent came back from work) would not feed their child. The childminder used to leave the children alone at home and go to the shops. The nursery – of course would not keep children after 6pm, every five minutes cost a huge penalty and I heard tales of a child once left with the janitor for the parent to pick up. These were stories – surely that could not have happened… but what is a mother to do?

Other than take each day at a time.

Parenting teaches you myopia. You plan for the next three minutes, for the next week, or at best till the next annual holiday. Beyond that, you know that all your visioning and forecasting is going to come to naught. Because here come dependents. I never quite figured out who was the dependent here, but in a sense we all were – the family.

There will be many tales told of jobs juggled, of childcare sorrows, of days the baby is unwell. There are stories that make you laugh – later – when they are done. Remember the moment when you were making a presentation and the projector lit up the burp patch on your shoulder? We all learnt to wear shades of beige. Remember when it was time to feed, and the meeting just would not end? We learnt to wear breast pads. We learnt of the sorority of motherhood, and another world opened up for us. The in-between world of jugglers.

We mothers lived in a twilight zone. (Maybe fathers did too, but I did not know enough to speak of them. There were many who cared, who shared). The twilight zone had track-pants and cushiony sofas with a sleepy baby perched on us with a bag of chips to hand. It was a piece of heaven. Sometimes it was softness and lace and fragranced bedrooms with a gentle light on the little ones – the days the cleaner had been. But the twilight zone was not a place you could linger in at all. There be doors. And each led to a different stage. Enter, stage-door left – and you were in your heels, clicking away importantly at nation building, or doing the accounts – both important to your business. Stage door right let to the perfectly coiffed and muffined mommy meet – over glasses of champagne in the evenings when you connected in ways so new, and yet so familiar. Another, a birthday party. Oh – will they not allow gelatin or gluten? Fine – in my stride I take this too. Did someone say roller coaster? Sure, except you have no idea whether you are stepping into – the one with teacups or the Space Mountain ride. It made us better workers in many ways. I still don’t yawn in long conferences, I still smile when pulling an all-nighter for work. Other doors would open up unexpectedly, and you had to be ready for them all. You were mommy, you could take it all.

We learnt to be nimble.

Parenthood teaches you to be prepared for everything. Remember that mountaineering gear that you carried with you when the children were small? Yup, that’s when it began. You have no idea what you might need, be prepared – or it might be a crisis. I still write my presentations like that and it is tough weaning myself away from it. I will have an extra 60 slides – just in case. Those who see the process are lost (yup, never ever see a sausage being made) because they cannot see that I am planning for all doors from the twilight zone. It stands one in good stead, this being prepared. It has costs too – and we live with those regrets everyday.

Who here has not had that discussion about parents being given time off for looking after sick children whereas those without children have to pick up the load. Who has not retaliated with ‘choice’ and not had a pleasurable half an hour discussing this threadbare before it was time to go back to those wearisome deadlines. A parent of course often did not join these discussions because they had to work feverishly, sometimes skipping their lunch break to be able to meet their quota of work before their ‘flexi’time arrangements kicked in and they had to leave an hour before the rest so that they could make the school pick up deadline.

It was a myth, you know, this part time work.

You sign up for a three day or four day workweek, but you do the same job that others do in a week. It is just that you get paid half of what the others are paid. We work because we are good at it, we are there because we can work it. The job is us, wholeheartedly and there are parts that cannot wait or cannot be delegated. We care about getting it right. So we put in hours that we have not even signed up for when we negotiated the deal. Was that poor negotiation? Maybe. It is easy to be insecure and on the defensive when you live in the zone of many doors. You know that there are few more roller coasters ahead. As my grandmother in law is famously known to have said, and said it often, “This is not called fear, this is called caution”.

We learnt to operate with caution.

Research reports that women understate their abilities compared to men. They will not even apply for jobs unless they are wholly convinced it can be done. Men, it seems, will apply even if they are 60-70% sure that they can do it. I wonder – and I must look at the datasets. Where were the mothers, I wonder. I learnt this from being a mother. Because there is no 70% in being a mother. A child has to be picked up on time, all the time. 100%. A child has to be fed, 100% of the time. You deliver 100% on everything. You don’t leave it to the client/boss/child to decide whether you are suited for the job. Nope – you are there, in the spot. You make it happen.

We learnt to work anywhere.

We learnt to be device agnostic. To not care about ‘working conditions’. Or where we were. We learnt to write presentation when cheering for games. To send work emails from the hairdressers. Radio interviews done in cars, negotiations conducted in cinema hall foyers. We were anytime, anywhere, working mommas. Yo. Sure, there are many of us. We all work whenever we can. Together or alone, we hold up the wall.

We learnt to deal with crumbling walls.

Each time it was built, the experienced ones amongst us knew that something would give soon. And the mad scramble to prop it up would begin again. A child would fall ill. Another, from a perfect family – would start stealing – unexpectedly. The childcare arrangements would collapse. A parent would need attention. Something. Some of us became anxious parents, some utterly calm. Multiple crises over years does that to you. It changes you. Parenthood, you see – makes you what you thought you’d never be – and no, I am not going to acknowledge that I have become my mother. Though that would be nice too. She held, still holds many walls up – work and home. She too had the same choices – and fears. You cannot outsource parenting, even as you outsource the repetitive chores of parenting.

You learn over the years to let go, bit by bit.

You must, for they have to fly on their own and be safe. You learn to hold the reins a little more lightly as the years go by, though every crash puts you back in the driver’s seat. You learn to be the spider at the centre of the web you organise – making pathways, nudging with finesse. An occasional tumble. You manage. Dusting your knees, as you pick yourself up again in full public view, you learn humility again. And again. You fall, and rise – but you keep everyone safe.

That is what matters at the end of each day. Keeping us safe. Every decision is based on this for a working mother. Careers are balanced not on ambition and guilt, nor on pressures from peers or traditional self images, even though all of them have their influence. Of all the things that can contribute to the decision to stay in the workplace and climb the ladder at the pace of their potential, there is this – the most basic of all – that can make it or break it. Safety. If the career is an inconvenience to one’s children, family, tribe or community, then one finds ways to negotiate and resolve. If the career seems to affect the emotional or physical safety of our children, we as mothers must respond.

Each time I receive a call from the clinic at school, I thank the powers that be for allowing me the freedom to go rushing off when I am needed. Broken bones or fevers, you need someone who cares. Even if you pat the child with one hand and type with the other, it helps to be there. I have not always been there, sometimes projects called me away to other towns. Remotely managing a stapled hand is an exercise in hell. Nod, if as a parent you too have been fuming on a bunch of phones in an office or hotel room far away as someone else handles the emergency. You know they will miss the real questions, they will be asking questions to which you already know the answers – time is of the essence – comfort and heal the child, please. I have not been there for many prizes and plays, the child has played his music for strangers, but that does not trouble me as much as those moments when I (or his dad) should have been there to keep him safe, to make him well. Not all of us have the luxury of responding to the call. Some cannot because of their circumstances. For many of us the response is clear. I must be there for what I have made. The choice was mine, so the responsibility is mine.

It does hurt, you know, to walk away from all that you have built at work. Emotional and economic. It is a loss. Knowing that you have done it before, and may have to do it again. Wishing that there was a smarter way of keeping the shows on the road, smoothly, with no disruption to anyone. Knowing how tough it is to build again from the middle. We break too, as we take a work break. We walk away and worse, see it handed over to another for them to claim as their own. (Am I saying the work is another child? Maybe I am – in a way). But even as you watch it go, you know there is more ahead.

You learn. You learn to relearn.

You learn to rebuild. From the skill-sets of academic life and real life, from the battles in the board room and the nursery rooms. From the negotiations at the dining table and the ones in the conference room. You grow your skills. You learn to be indefatigable and formidable. You are here to get the job done, and you have more things to do. There is a force here, and it will build and grow. Like her or not. She has rebuilt herself many times over. She will relearn. She knows her weaknesses better than you can, you cannot hurt her there. She knows her strengths even better and uses them with practiced ease. There comes this time when the back to work mommy rises again. This time not in the image of her male colleagues but her own person, born to win.

What of the lost years?

Could she not have done this before? Without all the angst, the drama, the fear? Sure, if you could ensure that things worked all the time and everybody would be safe. In the workplace and outside it – and now we enter the realm of policy. Safe cities, support systems needs to be a policy pledge. Corporate policies must adapt to talent. I am tempted to blame academics who defined corporate strategies and structures in linear terms. Success mantras were borrowed from armies designed to kill and conquer – not to nourish and grow. Emphasis on grand strategic wars in business-land missed out on much progress in gentler spaces. All leaders know that their job is not just to create grand visions and sweeping change but also to nurture the everyday. They have inherited linear structures based on simplified theories. Life, sirs, is neither linear nor simple. It is a rich kaleidoscope where the landscape changes every minute, you need to respond. To be nimble. To manage the change. To leap from one crisis to another. To learn to relearn. To work anywhere. To rebuild your crumbling walls. Sorry – do I repeat myself? Have I just said this right above?

Consider this a call to rethink structures to respond to life, not theory. Tinkering at the edges of this change has told you that it works. Embrace the complexity – we have the tools. And the skills. Globally, it is time for the next stage of evolution of work.

The future of work clearly has to be more inclusive. In every sense of the term, and one more. For me, that means including the family in my workspace too. If they take some work time away, they save me plenty – printing, sorting files, researching, editing and sharing in the joy of work done well. We grow up together, professionally and personally, and I am sure future employers would not object to trained interns coming their way soon.

The Last Laugh

At the risk of being either very popular, or very unpopular, I have to admit, it is a joy watching Modi play the crowd. He has a keen sense of the buttons to press, and which ones are sensitive, and which useless to his game. This goes beyond his spatial awareness, he has the rare quality of emotional spatial awareness, and that too at scale. There are innumerable examples.

Let us take his very finely tuned remark on the ‘cackling’ laughter in parliament. As an impartial outsider, one knows that give and take within parliament across party lines can be very sharp, often hurtful in the most civilised of countries. Or pretentious ones. In other countries, fights are not uncommon. To laugh mockingly, and to repartee is all par for the course. But to do it and hit several goals with just one sentence is an art, and here we see it in its highest form at play.

The context does not matter, since the giving and taking would have happened in any context. What happened was that a seasoned parliamentarian, Renuka Choudhary, currently in opposition, laughed loudly at something the Prime Minister said. When admonished by the chair, she did not need to respond, for the Prime Minister graciously asked the chair to let her continue, as he had not heard such laughter since the Ramayan.

Oh Modiji, when you are good, you are very good.

In one smooth move, he pulled together the entire sweep of the BJP’s successes in the past. Aligned all behind the sacred word Ramayan. Not just that, in a rare stroke for this party and its supporters, he cracked an in joke! This was the remit of left-liberal-intellectuals, and look, how he showed them that he could play them at their own game. One needed to know the Ramayan to know who he was referring to – and yet left enough ambiguity in it to allow his supporters room to play. Denial, demurral and other such cat and mouse games, for once, it was the religious who were able to gain the upper hand. And did they have fun.

The feminists of course, had to rise. If not as one. Modi’s feminist credentials are debatable, as are those of most men in power today. His schemes support women’s education, his cabinet has very powerful women and he is not afraid of women talent and power when it supports his causes. He does not exclude women, nor does he seek them, which is fair in my book. Yet, his party and supporters have consistently been denigrating of women which has riled – hopefully – everyone, not just women. Outrageous statements have been tolerated. This jibe too, was like the fine Indian game of kabaddi. It touched the line and raced away, thus gaining points and staying safe. Just a mention of laughter and the Ramayan, and no more.

In the Ramayana, the story of an ideal king, essentially illustrating ideal behaviours in specific roles, there are few occasions were there is laughter, especially in adulthood. The ‘bhadralok’ (see what I did there?) do not laugh, they smile gently. Control, including self control being one of the themes of the book(Valmiki version, let us say. Not that the party or the country demonstrates much self control, but then Ram Rajya is a distant utopia, not here and not now. Laugher is seen as uncontrolled, thus represents evil, or the asura tendency. The most famous laughter is that of Shroopnakaha, the asura sister of Ravan who was assaulted by Lakshman (Rama’s brother) as he chopped off her nose and ears in response to her sexual aggressiveness. This – is as retold and reinterpreted. (Yup, don’t outrage, we were not there. All we have is interpretations)

In any case, laugher was allocated to the ‘other’ side in the Ramayana. As in the tale of all victors, the other is bad. I will not even dare to do more than mention the intersectionality of gender and caste/level issues that emerge here – there is much literature on that. Laughter, in the text, is an act of othering. Just like in racism, mocking a behaviour creates a line between sides, often leading to aggression, mocking laughter is used as such an othering device, and eventually builds the narrative to war. Modi, with impeccable timing, used this laughter to remind us of this, and emphasise his declaration of war on the ‘other party’, in this case via elections expected soon. It is no coincidence that the language of elections used colloquially often is the language of war. Now, the bugle has been sounded, and a classic milestone in the narrative towards the battle has been achieved. Laughter, or mocking across battle lines always starts the face-off.

The laughter of women in Hindu mythological literature has always been seen as an act of unwarranted aggression, and has been a milestone towards war in both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, where it was Draupadi’s laughter that angered Duryodhana. Women thus, seen as overly aggressive, as the cause of war, but surprisingly this is not seen as power. They are the blame holders in the narratives, for failing to rein themselves. For women must always be seen in restraint.

All of this, the discourse and the chatterati were triggered by this one remark. Now, I too join them, but I am enjoying myself hugely in exploring the ideas and understanding the reactions. Modi’s masterstroke was in deflecting the chatterati from the mega defence contract conversation that his opposition were trying to lead, and he was trying to avoid. This, the throwing of a pebble into the shallows has achieved exactly what he needed.

How much better can it be, a seemingly impromptu remark, the gleeful support of those who had scattered but now return to the rally, the riling of those who annoy him with their pretentious superiority and serious issues of both gender and war sidelined as the ripples inevitably settle. I believe, in this round, it is Modi who laughs last.

(Standard Disclaimers: This is my personal blog. It is not my professional space. Look at the tagline: Pretentious, unending gab. Look at the name: Aantel-adda. This is fun)

Counterpoint: https://wordpress.com/post/thepointofatangent.wordpress.com/793

The Arrogance of Ignorance

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meeta sengupta
Jan 27
The Arrogance of Ignorance
There is the ignorance of those who know, because they have worked hard at knowing the world. Maybe even peeked over the parapet, dizzying as it can be for first timers.

Then, there is the ignorance of those who do not know, because all they wanted to know was their world. It was only their world view that was important, and the rest of ‘them’ would have to fall in line. This is what was demonstrated by the now infamous French journalist who asked the celebrated Nigerian (I will not call her American today) author Chimananda Adichie if there were libraries in Nigeria. The breathtaking audacity of the question only served to highlight the unwillingness of the Frenchman to look beyond his little parapet. A frog in the well indeed.

I would apologise for the pun, but for the fact that it actually illustrates the point I am making. The cliche of a frenchman as a ‘frog’ reminds us that the English too, and so many others have used the arrogance of ignorance for the purpose of ‘othering’ their interlocutors.

There I go again, a newsy reference to Shashi Tharoor’s use of the word ‘interlocutors’ which has a very precise meaning but caused him to be ‘othered’ by the ignorant who were arrogant about their ignorance. It is the purpose of a language, of words to have meanings that convey a precise visual and emotion to the reader. To be ignorant of that is no matter of pride, but has always been the source of arrogance. Because ignorance combined with power begets this arrogance.

The Arrogance of ignorance is a force, a storm that blows often through the history of mankind. A species that prides itself in surviving because it is smarter, sentient and has the ability to progress based on cumulative knowledge, a people that pride themselves on the ability to think, feel, imagine and then respond is now facing a similar storm. It has led to great destruction, witnessed by the library and Alexandria amongst many others. The Dark Ages came upon us led by these storms.

The Arrogance of Ignorance was a fundamental tenet of colonialism too. The ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the British Empire had a long and rich history of Empires that came and went, most of them originating in its own soil. The ‘Akhand Bharat’ idea postulates that all the land between Iran and Australia was India at some point of time in history. The ebb and fall of conquerers and empire builders was part of its history. Then came the Company Bahadur, and that too slowly adapted, like other attackers into the rich and comfortable cultural soil. Mulched, they too would have become a part of that soil. But a Colonising force could not allow that to happen — and thus was fostered wilful Ignorance and this was given the cloak of Arrogance. The denial of all that was good in the ‘native’ was intended to declare the aggressors superior. The ‘burden of the white man’ was born of this intent, to bring the morally affected into the fold of this force. Arrogance of Ignorance was the source of power, and it lasted centuries.

The rise of ‘common sense’ is to welcomed, but not when it comes at the cost of sensibility, and indeed of expertise and erudition. We progress on wisdom and knowledge, and this is not a simple aggregation of ‘common sense’, but a complicated architecture of opposing forces designed for good. Imagine it as a brick building. There is a difference between a single tower of simple bricks laid one upon the other and the grand brick architecture of the Bishnupur temples or the Grand Duomo of Florence. The single brick upon brick structure is also building, common sense tells us. But till the bricks were put together in intelligent juxtaposition of opposing forces, we do not arrive at anything that is either useful or beautiful. The wisdom of opposing forces brings us to greater heights of achievement, even literally.

The Arrogance of Ignorance will continue to ignore truths that are above their current capacities. How much easier is it to be lazy and strong, to not work hard to figure out complex stuff like architecture. Look we have bricks and stones, let us throw them! It is fun and we get to win! Some of us are bewildered, as we find ourselves in the middle of such stone throwing parties. This is not a world that we want to recognise, but if we don’t, we too would be giving in to the Arrogance of Ignorance. We have evidence of the Brexit vote, of the American election and so much more to tell us that the common prevails now, and wields power. Do not underestimate the power of this Arrogance. It is purely rational, self serving and solid. And predatory.

It would serve us well to be prepared for this storm that is heralded by the Arrogance of Ignorance. It has brought dark times in the past. It may do so again. It is ironical that those who refute Darwinianism (thus implicitly dumping the idea of linked up thinking and chains of evidence) also prove to us that it still holds true. For those of us who consider intellectualism and imagination a virtue, heed Darwin’s theory of adaptation in order to survive these times. Historically too, the wise have adopted many guises in times when the arrogance of ignorance held power. Courts have had their jesters and fools, the only ones permitted to speak truth, for who could take a fool for more. If we let the Arrogance of Ignorance prevail, then we should welcome again the Age of the Fool.

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View at Medium.com

PostScript

Someone said this was the Dunning Krueger effect. Not quite. That is about stupidity. I am talking about a wilful choice to ignore or work away from getting to know complex things better. The smartest people choose this path to power.