Category Archives: Behaviour

Communal

It is communal.. this green is communal property… someone said that to me in England.

Conditioned by a childhood in India I instantly looked around for signs of rioting in the past, markers that claimed the spot in reds, greens, saffrons, or blues or whatever colour was supposed to be on the flag of the ‘community’.

Till I realised that they were speaking in English.

You know, the English English, local stuff.

All they had said was that green patch of grass belonged to all.

 

#truestory

Advertisements

The Airtel Ad missed a trick – togetherness

I should have asked the husband before posting this, but – well, he’s at work and I am taking a break between writing articles, so here goes.

I was a young investment banker and he was a young consultant. Thrust, nay, thrown, flung into the hurly burly that is Bombay.

Anyone who has been young in Bombay knows the drill. The train. The mess. The exhaustion. Anyone who has just started a corporate career knows how demanding it can be. Food – who has time to cook food everyday? Eat out? Young people are on a budget – cannot be done everyday.

So the husband and I had a deal. Whosoever gets home first starts the cooking. Nothing fancy – just get it started. The other person would join in when they could. Seemed fair to both of us.

(Not sure if his aunt, who lived right opposite us, a few floors up liked it. Did not help that our kitchen window faced her windows. Bombay is rather close like that. But that was us. Many years later I heard that each time the husband entered the kitchen, the cry would go out in their house – “O look, he has entered the kitchen again!” To their credit, they did not let me hear of their distress, or discomfort with our way of doing things at all. It would have been fine even if they did – they were a different generation with a whole other paradigm of finding their balance. That was theirs, this was ours.)

What shocked me was a colleague at the trading desk. When he heard of this arrangement he laughed mockingly (yes, he was a delhi, engineer-MBA boy alone in big bad bombay) and said, “Then both of you must be competing to reach home last!”

No, we did not. We were a team. He obviously was someone who could not get that. He had no idea how much fun it was to surprise each other, to cook for each other, to cook together – in tandem, building that rhythm of togetherness.

The non-troversy over the Airtel ad reminded me of that.

Do I like the ad? No. Do I expect Airtel to evangelise for equality? Well, the’ve done what they thought they could. (The boss is the wife, innit. Not good enough for you feministas? Gah, nothing is good enough for you – I can imagine a conversation with the ad guys).

I’m glad they did what they could. Could they have done more? Sure – they could have shown them both going home together, cooking together and then working on their laptops after dinner. As many of us do – we share lives. Do I have a right to say what is right for that couple? If they were a real couple – clearly none of my business.

But they are an ad – they are not just fiction. They are more than that – they are a professional production designed to influence the mass. Am I disappointed that they did not do more? Yes, I am.

There is an opportunity here for men to step up to recognise their multitasking, multidisciplinary abilities. It is okay for men to be as competent as women – why shy away from it? Why deny them the joys of dusting and cooking and garnering praise in advertisements. They deserve that glow too. Many men cook in real life and get their due appreciation. Then why are advertisements denying them their due? And glorifying the super-mom. But unfair to both. Burdensome to the aspiring supermom/superwoman, patronising to the competent yet infantilised man.

Remember that ad in which a mommy asks her family what they would like to eat? Each family member wants something different. A dosa, an idli, an uthappam etc. The mom whips it up to great delight and praise. You can almost see the rings of her various halos in the advertisement. Now, I’d like you to re-imagine this ad – when the question arises – what shall we have for breakfast, imagine the whole family pitching in. Teaming up, playing, laughing, measuring, sharing…would it not have been nicer for everybody. I can still hear the echoes of the laughter from this imagined scenario. As I have seen it in many happy households.

This is why I have a problem with the Airtel ad. It missed a chance for the couple to have fun together. For such a cute couple, itna to banta hai 🙂

Should I Tell you my Stories?

Should all stories get told? Tell yours, they said. We all do, they said.

 

I know, I smiled. I’ve read your stories.

 

I’ve heard you tell the tales of sunshine that slants just so, and smiled. For I had sunshine too.

 

And showers. And clouds. Literally.

 

I have had days when all I could do was count the dust motes in the bright shaft of sunlight that came into my room. And other days when we drove across the autobahn, with no speed limits in the middle of a cloud – as it burst. At night. Our only guide the dim red light of the car ahead of us  – we hoped it was a car, there was no way of telling. There was no way of telling whether there was a road beneath us except the fact that we had not fallen through yet. There was nothing to our left or right but grey cloud. We were young, our child strapped in his seat behind us in the car, our cycles strapped on high above the car. Raising the centre of gravity, making us more unstable. Buffeted to and fro, the wind, the water and us. We live intensely in these moments – just us, the task and survival.

 

We survived. I am here to tell the tale.

 

Been there, done that. I have lived a rich life. Been through much. The ceiling dripping over my perfect Christmas party laid out for forty. The roof – mid repair- being torn apart in a storm, the rain water causing the bulb over my bed to explode. Unpeeling myself as I held it all together. We held. We all did. Is that a story to be told?

 

Or is the story about what we have gathered? Though they say a rolling stone gathers none. Should I tell of how that was done?

 

Should I tell the tale of my beautiful lake and how she spoke to me? No, not literally this time. But each lake carries its own depths, its own reflections – and when I add mine to the ones I have visited, we make a story of our own. There were those that were said to have monsters in them, but to me, they were friends to picnic by… Climbing down a little slope, we found our own little ledge. There was a tree nearby that gave no shade – it was in full bloom with pretty blushing flowers, not a leaf in sight. We needed no shade by that cold bright lake as it lit up our faces with the reflected sun. No riches can be greater than that moment when we sat together upon that ledge. Shall I tell you what we said, and how profound it was?

 

Maybe another day, maybe never. It may spin a good tale, but it is mine to have and hold for now.

 

I could tell you of the apple and cheese picnics that became a ritual as we drove across continents – stopping by a lush waterfall – ignored, for there were greater beauties around. On a grassy knoll next to a little bridge that let the rivers chose their path and arrive at the greatness they deserved.

These rivers were another story, finding each other across gentle slopes and holding hands till they became one, and then again, finding another and another. We sat between them, those that had found their friends, and those that were just about to. We could see them as we sat in a soft, cozy spot between the streams. Our apple, cheese and bread often thrown to the fish we could see through the clear cool waters. We would drink the same waters soon.

 

We follow rivers, often. From their clear mountain birth, drop by drop, from snowmelt to salty sea. We walk by them, we drive, we cycle. We love them, and they gurgle lovingly to us. From these rivers come our stories, our poems, our strengths. We watch them – shiny, foamy, intense. Calm, deep, persevering. Strong, fast, purposeful. They change colour with the land around them, some reflecting the stone around them, some the metal and some the woods. They take them all in their stride, accepting them as circumstance when they must.  Yet we remember the river, not its colours along the way. She bears her twists and turns with forbearance, her moods known only to those who love her. To the rest she is cool, distant.

Hungry often, she has stories to tell too – stories of young sailors she gobbled up along a bend in revenge for a lover lost. You can see that spot marked by a rock in the middle of one of the largest rivers in the world. No young handsome sailor was spared, they said. For the beauteous girl had been denied her man. She died at that spot in grief and sorrow – and now none may pass. The currents are strong, dear one. The rivers, they carry their own strength within them.

 

Shall I tell you their stories in simple syllables meant for all? Or would that be betraying their trust?

 

Yes, I have tales of mountains to tell, and of glaciers walked and oceans swum (fine, others dived, I paddled; and I only took a few steps on the glacier). Of dolphins seen in cold north seas, and cold south seas – and then in a river when they said I would not. They played with us in captivity but they played for us when they were free. The whales that spoke, the sharks that we skirted. Yes, literally.

 

I have stories from around the world, but not all of it – there are more I will gather as I go along. Some stories from my backyard, and some from the backyard of giant mountains. Tales that came from dust in my bright house, and then some from desert sands traveled over by camel and machine. We sang songs of fire and ice with the gypsies in Moorish mountains, saw underground rivers cross with scant regard to borders. We danced with bright scarves and black skirts. Across lands their beats matched those of our heart. We danced as sisters do, knowing we would never see a sunrise together. Sisters in beat, in breath. But no more, except in memory.

 

Memories we made as mothers too, watching over each other’s children like our own. Strangers in supermarkets who became friends, telling us off for our anxieties for they had known them too. Home making years, when the back yard was a forest, and the house a dump. Transformed magically to a homestead when the others were all at work. I could tell you stories of being the aunt, the sister in law to a generation, handing over to them when they were ready. Of cakes baked to moist perfection, of the natter that seemed to have no reason but comfort. Of worlds of crisp linen and soft bedsheets, the gracious hostess creating an oasis for world weary travellers. They used to write poems about women like that, of comfort, of love, of homecoming. Of strawberries and cream, of trifles.

 

Are trifles tales? All stories lie in trifles. Layers, like life. The sudden juicy sweetness exploding in your mouth, filling your life like nothing else. The surprising sour that you strive to accept with grace, wincing quietly to your insides. Perfectly positioned in glass bowls that could crash and shatter at any time, taking all the work with it. Making a mess for mother to clear.

We mothers, we had stories to tell. And long years to tell them. To all the others with the same stories. Of love and soft hugs. Eyes that looked at us in trust. Of soft skin that was one with our own skin, we had made it from within. We had stories of breaths that merged in happy laughter at the wisdom of the tots, and then merged again as we wept together, hot and wet tears melding, finding comfort when our hearts met, the beats becoming one again.

Still moments, when I sang to the baby and the world stopped for us. When we danced together, till we fell. And picnicked by the brook, or on the green. Everyday an adventure, at every turn, we grew – gathering stories along the way. Yes, caught some nettles too, but there were plenty of petal strewn paths. And kings and queens, and castles – some they built and destroyed, some we did.

We traveled.

Past mountains, oceans and lakes; past deserts, valleys and rivers; through glaciers and cathedral towns; with animals wild and tamed, we traveled. Homes grand and small; food recommended by the stars of Michelin or the stars that led us to the hovel by the road; toilets where attendants waited on us with soft white towels – hot and cold, or those where the branches above were our only shelter – we traveled. We traveled with those who had come from us; with those that brought us here, and then with those we found. And Loved. And in each breath, each curve of smiling lip, in each wave of a hand lit by sunshine, or eyes lit by the grand visions they saw – there were stories.

 

Did I even tell you of climbing a volcano, tripping on the dry ash it had left behind? Or leaning in over a cliff, almost pushed over by a gust of wind into the cold green wet cauldron below? Did I tell you of how we swam with the horses in the sea, climbing over rocks that told of battles old to dry ourselves over hidden caves? Or of ghostly fireflies that chased us as we found ourselves at the end of the road at a haunted fort – the map said there was a road, we saw but shadows, and fled. How do I tell you of the ghosts we chase, of the ones we left behind? There are some I keep, for they are mine.

 

Did you say, tell me a story?

 

I would tell you, but they are mine.

Conversations

 

 

As children we would play in the evening, often starting by one of us landing up in another’s house. We would chatter a bit while the friend’s mother made sure they had their milk and evening snacks (no, they did not call it tea in India – for dinner was to come later after nightfall) before we were allowed to leave. Gathering a quorum we would step out to play in the green till nightfall. In the garden we were a large group – the real friends were the ones who dropped in to each other’s houses unplanned, ate food cooked by all the mommies and spoke of things from everywhere and nowhere. It flowed, almost organically.

 

It was only later that I realised it was not so for everybody. One year I had this friend who – I think – had never had any friends before. She was a lovely person – warm, intelligent, talented, well read, very aware of the world. Like clockwork she would come home at exactly the same time, often waking me up from my afternoon (power) nap. And her first question invariably would be – “What shall we talk about today?”

 

Everyday, and even now as I remember this, the mind still boggles. That is not how conversations work. They are expected to flow freely, meandering from the mundane to to the meaningful finding their own highs and lows. Sometimes one takes away something good from them, sometimes just a comfort from casual companionship. Some are more, some less and that is the nature of the beast. Every conversation cannot be a seminar, every conversation does not have to be about something specific.

 

Nor do conversations ever need to follow a specific pattern. Papers have a pattern, speeches do, as do corporate presentations. Conversations must be allowed to have their spontaneous flow. They are journeys that we take – into friendships, into relationships, into learning and indeed into ourselves. They have lives of their own, individual personalities. Some you remember, others are easily forgotten. Some are like the awkward youth who showed you the way in unknown neighbourhoods, some like the graceful diva who sat next to you at the state dinner. Some just the everyday corner shop boy, and some the comfort of a cousin’s embrace. Some stutter themselves into silence and others just seem to find their voice just as one had given up on them.

 

Do you know what keeps them going long enough to find themselves and lend meaning to those around them? The doldrums of small talk. Small talk terrifies many of us because it is no man’s land. Like all spaces that belongs to none it is dry, arid, threatened, threatening. It is the brave person that sets foot on it without protocols, because it is these protocols that keep you safe. Those who do negotiate no man’s land everyday do so with ceremony and precision – a slip and you may be gone. So too with small talk. There are protocols to it, a sequence – and this is not real conversation. Why talk about the weather, and how it changed, and then about football (oh yes, it is as trivial as the next thing) or something that happened on the way over to this place you find yourself?

Why bother? Because it leads to some beautiful places.

Small talk is just the first stage of a conversation. It starts by reassuring. By exploring and defining no-go territories. By fine tuning itself as it goes along it finds common ground. The safe lands, the ones with no minefields. A path onto the next stage – which again sounds like chitter chatter to the untrained conversationalist. There is a line here that seems to meander meaninglessly. But it is not as languid as it looks. It is a vital, thriving beast that seeks segues to branch off the main mundane trunk. The trunk reassures them it is always there, steady and waiting if that exploration does not work out. Go, play a bit, it says. I am here. The conversation snakes into these side paths, rapidly working out probabilities and cost benefit numbers almost subconsciously. We call it comfort. Some are effortlessly successful, others less so. Good conversationalists are good because they can sniff these out at the nodes, avoiding the branches where they would struggle and moving on rapidly to exploring easier ones.

Does easy mean simple? Not necessarily.

What makes for an easy conversation? Consideration. And collaboration. Conversations only work if those engaged in it collaborate, gently negotiating their way through a protocol that they create with great delicacy and some nimbleness as they go along. Delicacy? That sounds difficult does it not? Not really – it is only the small matte of good manners – consideration for the other people there in the space. There can never be a single protocol for every conversation – no, leave that to the minefield, the no man’s land of small talk. Good conversation creates its own music as it evolves. It may use a grammar that is familiar, maybe parts of it have a grammar that makes for familiar patterns but only a bore would create music with just one pattern each time they talk. In fact, do try an unusual grammar every once in a while, an unsung music. You never know, it might lead to an unexpected dance. Or a chase down rabbit holes. Quests that become the stuff of lore.

 

But before I leave, a word for those stuck with a bore, one who insists on doing things just so. Only their way of talking will work, and they will not budge from the way they want to do things. Yes, one does feel sorry for their – ahem – unique world view. Unique because it is the only one they can see. The world has been charted for them in straight lines and grids, and they can at best play snakes and ladders within that grid. And that is the good ones. What does one do with those? Do tell me if you have ways of shaking them out of their plane, but I resort to good old grease – chitter chatter. Refuse to give up on them, it is time to call the conversational snake to duty again. Work the trunk, explore the branches, sniff one’s way around conversational nodes. It is hard work, but who knows – there may be a node that becomes a branch where a thousand flowers bloom. It is hard work, but by the grace of chitter chatter, one may even find one’s way to a beautiful meaningful conversation to remember.

 

Speaking of Chitter Chatter, may I share a poem? http://thepointofatangent.wordpress.com/2013/11/29/chitter-chatter/

On Domestic Staff

“If she has a help at home, then what does she do?”

It was her tone of wonder that started me thinking about this as we came back from visiting someone, who, unlike us, had a full time help at home. As the debate about the visa, the pay, the lying and the shocking violation of diplomatic norms in the Devyani case spirals out, I hear another question rising – “Why do Indians need domestic help? Other people seem to manage fine without it.”

Sure. Other people are other people. People who grew up in India were trained and brought up in their own way. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Firstly, it is a matter of personal choice. Rather poor taste to comment on the lifestyle choices of others. And, effectively having commented on what others can afford, or how they choose to spend their earnings. Not quite on, what?

I go back to the question asked right upfront, and realise that this is not about Indians and non-Indians. It is about not being able to comprehend how the ‘others’ live. Having lived and worked both in India and abroad, I have met people in both countries who fall along the spectrum of ‘cannot survive without help’ all the way to ‘cannot abide a stranger in my house even if they help with the work’. It takes all sorts to make up this world.

Those of us who grew up in India, whether middle class or rich India, may have to acknowledge that working with our hands was never given much premium while studying and getting good marks was a priority. Many of us never learnt to multi task, never learnt to pick up after ourselves. Some of us did. But if there was a choice between washing the dishes, sharing the family chores and studying for that examination that was almost upon us, every parent knew that they were under pressure to ensure that nothing disturbed their child at work. Even today television advertisements replay this syndrome – a good child focuses on achievement, nobody glorifies – or is even seen to do any domestic work. Does that demean domestic work? Not really, but it does deprioritise it. Honestly, some of us just don’t know how to meet domestic and professional demands simultaneously. For good reason – read on.

There is just too much to do. A typical Indian household has between three and four hot meals a day. Cooked fresh. In the traditional way of doing things, the clothes are washed and put to dry by 11am, collected at 4pm, folded, ironed and put away by 5pm. The cleaning happens before and just after breakfast. And so on. A typical professional needs to be in office by 8 a.m. in most countries in the west. Shall we say, a normal commute of between half an hour an one hour? Eight to ten hours of work at middle management levels, much more if higher? Commute. Cook hot meal to be at the table by 6pm? 7pm? 8pm?

Oh, of course, children – I forgot about children. Be at work by 8, and of course drop the kids to school at the same time. Be there to pick them up at their various times, take them to their sports, dance, music lessons, be their support for their SATs and other exams, read them their bed time stories, embed good values – all while being in office  – AT THE SAME TIME – and cooking dinner and being the perfect spouse. Did I mention a social life? Indians often (used to) drop into each other’s houses unannounced. That is a hot, freshly prepared mini meal, often more complex than a dinner that must be produced on demand.

Shall we run a time and motion study on that?

How many man-hours per day does that work out to?

How many people does it take to run a household? For a household that is run like a hotel, where members are more consumers than contributors to the work, let us use the rule of thumb that hotels use.  A quick enquiry reveals the ratio is 2-4 members of staff per room, sometimes more, upto 9. If there are children, old people, guests and a modicum of comfort for all and a state of good repair for the house, then an average Indian household needs at least two members of staff.

Did I say earlier this was not just about Indians vs. not-so-India? Yes, yes, this is true all over the world. All of us need help in the house if we want to do anything other than housework. I could not be sitting and penning this right now (and I should be working on two other documents!) if my help was not preparing for lunch, or the driver had not been sent out to drop some papers off to a client’s office. Marissa Meyer would not be able to do what she does if someone did not look after her infrastructure. Nor would Bill Gates. If we are to have an egalitarian argument and say everyone should survive without domestic help just because they are physically able (‘not disabled’ said one commentator) then shall we call on the achievers of the world and ask them whether they could do it without help?

Also, please do appreciate the fact that I have not said that this is about how women are loaded with these responsibilities. (But c’mon, have we not all been to those dinner parties where the men sit and talk cricket or politics and the women help the hostess? Hand on heart!) There are these wonderful men who pick up after themselves, who vacuum the house, load the dishwasher just right (don’t tell me you haven’t had these battles!) and of course throw the garbage out without being reminded. There are women too, who manage to have the house spotless, dishes washed before the dessert is served. After a whole day’s work. Yes, singlehandedly. It is possible. There are families that pitch in and make it happen – and honestly, that is the only way to make it work if one is not to rely on domestic help. (How does one do this? I’ll have stories in another blogpost soon. Very simply – pare it back, be organised, share the load)

But why deny the domestic help their profession? They do respectable work (and I for one do not deny them their service, nor do I shy away from the wonderful word ‘servant’). Yes, I can do the work they do, and do my own work. As well as they can, maybe sometimes even better. But I do it at the cost of other work, which only I can do and they cannot. In economics we study this as the law of comparative advantage. Even if I can do both jobs, it might be sensible for me to focus on being a mother, or an investment banker or a teacher (if it paid well enough) and leave the domestic work to others. They get employment – as they choose, and at the market rate while I get to choose the things I want to do. Both of us have a better quality of life with this exchange than otherwise.

Did that answer the first question? If the domestic help does the house work, she, or he, does other stuff that adds more value. Ergo, a better world for all.

Maybe what is missing here is respect for the help. They are as much a professional as say, a government servant or a babu in a private office. A desk and a chair do not make up the man – there is as much dignity and collegiality in serving chai as in serving up that presentation. And the same amount of formality. The minute we forget this, we have slipped into an unprofessional space where poor working and living conditions or worse become possibilities. Domestic help are a resource, just as we working bees are. And each of us works to our personal and professional goals, on contract, at the best fees that we can negotiate.

Which brings us to pricing. Here we do have a problem. If wages are allocated by hour, then the assumption is equal productivity. Which may not be the case. I spoke about this differential earlier – here. It is not just in domestic wages, even IT professionals and others who work both in Indian and global markets recognise that they are paid differential rates. This then is about global equality, not just about domestic servants.

Blue Mist

Blue Mist

The gentle blue mist that envelopes the far trees on the hills yonder is pierced by the oncoming head lights. The trucks shrug past, the cars trundle, their double lights belying their struggle on the bumpy road.

The harsh lights flashing past were shining orbs in the distance only moments ago. I look for the moon. Its calm, steady golden glow has kept me company on many a long lonely night, keeping pace with me and mine. Where I went, it would follow, keeping a benign eye on me when all others had given up and gone to sleep.

But today the moon was too new. A scarce crescent in the sky. It had no comfort to offer. Nor did I have anything to give that would make it glow more. Magic had been put away for the day.

It been taken. Taken by the streams, racing callously down the hills. Unhesitatingly, the waters raced on, as if unaware of the ravaged roads they left behind. Like a shameless driver in a hit and run accident. The roads lay brutalized by the rains that must have lashed them mercilessly, their top layers torn away. All their pits and holes laid bare to the world that rode roughshod over it. Unseeing, unheeding of its pain. Lifting up their skirts a bit lest their hems get sullied by one so beset. They slowed down, not in respect, but to save their own.

The road had company. The waters had attacked the trees and the carefully kerbed dams, slashing through with a viciousness that was its own testament. And now, their job done, the armies gathered to flow downhill in orderly waterfalls. Their songs were surely songs of victory. The mist that rose, kicked up by their heels surely carried their tales of bravado. The rutted road had tales too- each of its scars bringing smooth journeys to juddering reality. But these were not stories to be retold. One looked away from the miseries below to the far hills and lush jungle. The rocks that glistened in the last of the lights. The mist that rose again with the blue dawn.

(Written from the bumpiest bus ride in the world, through rain ravaged ghats)

The Paradox of Privacy

Privacy is a strange concept – paradoxical even.

We tend to keep private what is ephemeral. The shared human experience is never private – it can never be private even if it is solitary.

We seek privacy for our names, our phone numbers, our money (won’t push this one too far) and for spaces where we can be foolish. All things that pass. All things that will leave little mark upon this earth during or after our lifespans.

The deep human experiences we have are all the same – and will find resonance with another even when the stories are not told. The stories, we seek to keep private, thinking that they are ours. But as before – we too shall pass, as will our stories. No biggie. The big emotions – teenage angst, birthing pains, anxious nights, pre-exam nightmares, the mid life crisis, the embarassing failing of one’s wits.. all of these are true for all. The pain of unrequited love – how can that be private. We all have moments like that! The loneliness in a laughing crowd – you are not alone in that, we have all known it.

Why are these private?

This is precisely what we have in common.

This is what makes us human.

In denying this as common, we are denying the connect.

And this is how the tribe dies. When we do not connect in shared emotion, we do not build on our ties with each other. In creating our little private silos, we forget to laugh at ourselves, our foolishness making ourselves a little more linear, a little tougher on ourselves and others.

Is this an argument against privacy? No.

It is but a reflection on the consequences of an obsession with privacy.
And a sharing of my confusion of this paradox of privacy.

We seek privacy for what passes, or for what is common to all.
And what is public is what is not even real.

The public domain includes opinons, data on the material collective and negotiations. None of this is about universality. All of this is about parcels, sharing, lines and boundaries. Ownership, cliques and a tug of war. Moves.

It doesn’t parse.
The paradox.

(P.S. The accountant in me is asking: Does this mean stock variables are private and flow variables public. Go Figure)

On the Art of the Compliment

On the Art of the Compliment

The highest art form, a performing art indeed. The deft compliment, received with grace. It is an act of pure charm, that creates a little bubble of a moment. The giver and the receiver embraced by the fragility – nay – the transience of it. The moment that must pass. The glow that will remain.

A compliment is often merely an appreciation of something done or achieved. No more, no less. And yet it is the gateway to much more. A compliment can bring a team together to work with greater vigour. A compliment can bring a warm blush to one’s cheeks. A compliment can bring awkwardness to the moment. It is the gentle nudge, a little breeze that pushes against unresistant gates. To come up against resistance is to to court awkwardness.

The perfect compliment is always light hearted, intended to do no more than bring a smile to the present. It is the antidote to ennui, lighting up the moment, bringing a few light notes of music to the moment. A little gift, easily returned, easily reciprocated.

The science of the the compliment is rather complex, and we know that people perform better after receiving compliments. Teachers use it in the classroom all the time. Gentle flattery is social grease – too much and it becomes icky. Too little and it becomes speculative, often opening pathways that are best left alone. Unless innuendo was intended, which is when it moves on from a compliment to flirtation.

The sharing of compliments is clearly not flirtation, but is often misconstrued so. The giver or indeed, the receiver may place a notional premium where none was intended. A simple response to the compliment may be seen as validation of that premium. Often, silence is perceived as consent. The compliment plus, as it were gets established as the baseline. Rather unfortunate if not, of course.

To give and to receive a compliment is a skill. It requires a little foreplay to test the waters, a little nuance to phrase it in the right range, a little modulation to pitch it right, and a little twinkle to shield it from harm. A delicate little thing, being sent out into the world, its first flight the only legitimate one (Nothing worse than a compliment used again, it stinks). Who knows how it may fare, the gentle spark. It may die unseen. Or it may just land and become a twinkle in someone’s eye, which is possibly, quite satisfactory.  Tentative shots run the risk of misdirection, and someone will have to clear the inevitable mess, unless the compliment was totally missable – in which case – what was the use?

Compliments have this charming ability to scaffold to higher levels of finesse. A deft compliment, delivered well is like a serve in a game of ping-pong. A worthy opponent can lob it back just so. The volley that follows is a delight both to the players and observers. As in ping pong, the advantage is to those who can surprise, and yet keep it within the limits of the table. The game ends if the limits of the table are crossed.

Of course, all compliments are not what they seem. There is a universe full of meaning in the subtext of the compliment. Some compliments are just the opposite of what they seem.  “Oh, you look bright today” could well mean – garish and overdressed. “That dress looks comfortable” is clearly indicting a sloppy dresser. “Healthy” has of course often been used as a euphemism for fat. The oblivious or the dense are the right candidates for such barbs.  Protip for the well mannered who choose not to reciprocate – a light and breezy – “right back at you” fixes the best of the barbies.

The perfect compliment of course is the simplest one. Said straight, without art or enterprise. Truly felt and yet not intense. A light remark that eases one into comfort. A beginning, yet not an intent.

The Perfect Husband

The following is a true story. As seen from the eyes of a child.

My mother’s closest friend was getting married. To her best friend. I was .. maybe.. 7. Some details are fuzzy.
But I remember many evenings over tea and fresh pakoras lit by their laughter. The house they visited buzzed with their joy. (No, this is not a story about whether he was a good husband or not. Carry on)

The lady came from a Gandhian family. Her mother and father had both worked closely with the Mahatma. They were Gujaratis from Ahmedabad. They were academics and writers. Activists and thinkers. Khadi was a way of life for them, among other values – I am sure. Khadi is what she wore to the wedding. A little border to a plain sari.
The gentleman came from Uttar Pradesh. Well, not quite, for I remember his glorious tales of ravines and dacoits that held me spellbound. He came from a family of poets. Some famous. Others erudite. They came to Ahmedabad for the wedding.
Some were startled at the simplicity of the affair – simpler than most Gujarati weddings. (Another day I shall tell the story of how some Punjabis came back from a wedding, starving, having only been fed one tiny icecream. Those were simpler times). It was, as tradition would have known.
As with North Indian weddings, the boy’s side seemed to take the lead. As with Gujarati weddings, the girl’s side began to look – and look away. But they were a well matched family. The bride and groom walked the seven steps together. The bantering was fast and furious. The jokes irresistible, the repartee quick.

As the pandit wrapped up, the guests got into their stride. It was time for the baithak. The famous poet, who was the groom’s uncle, had composed a poem for the occasion. After the metaphorical candle had been passed around a few times, he took centre stage. The poem was on marriage. On the perfect marriage. He spoke of Ram and Sita. Of their marriage that began young. Of their devotion to each other. Of their commitment to their joint cause – the maryaada. Of the sacrifices and suffering in the cause of what was right and just. And their unshakeable loyalty to the glory of Ram.

(As I write this, I am reminded of a little ceremony that I saw in a Bengali household. The bride was made to watch over the boiling pot of milk – to ensure prosperity – that must not boil over, for that would mean waste. And then she was to hold the pot with her bare hands, indicating her willingness to endure for the sake of the household. I kept my mouth shut that day, for the husband had no such ceremony.)

Back to the wedding and the poem. As the poem gained momentum, the restlessness on the bride’s side increased. The bride and groom were colleagues at work, equals in every way. The girl’s pedigree was certainly very visible to her family. They were evenly matched, word for word.

A subtle huddle ensued, pen and mind were applied. The words flowed.

They composed a poem right there. And then recited it – it was the story of Shiva and Shakti.

Of how Shiva was the desired one, of how Shakti in her various forms sought her salvation. Her purpose and her path were through Shiva. And of how he was incomplete without her. Of their perfect understanding. Of empowerment. Of how stories strengthened their bond. Of how the only time things got messed up for them was when families intervened. Of how the perfect wife and perfect husband were a team. Regardless of appearances and extreme moments. Of investing in continuity.

As the poems were exchanged through the night, a seven year old stayed awake.

Dance, Flirt, Leave

In that order.

Dance first. Give before you seek. Proof before possibilities.

Dance

Dancing is about grace, about seeking and feeding attention.

Dancing is about creating a spell so that nobody can leave.

Dance to lead, or to join.

Nobody dances without a beat, nobody dances without rhythm. Nobody dances alone.

Nobody dances for the first time.

Dance to the memory of all dances before.

 

All dances have form. And bounds.

Pushing at boundaries, seeking the drums, within some rules, and yet only one’s own.

Dance, to show you can.

 

Flirt

Humour. Kindness. Flint. Probe. Discover.

Flirting is a safe journey of discovery.

Of possibilities.

Gathering information.

Potential explored, but not tested.

Without consequences. Due Diligence.

Leave

Leave before the music stops.

Leave before the conversation turns heavy.

Leave before the party becomes a market.

Leave the market for the ‘morrow

Leave when the magic is high, the chase nigh.

Leave, so you have time to prepare for the battle.

You started it.