gratitude

#30DaysofGratitude – Day 25

Yesterday was Friendship’s Day in India (is it Friendship Day or Friendship’s Day – grammar nazis, correct me please!). When we were children in school, this day held very very special significance, and entailed preparation from weeks in advance. Making sure all impending fights were sorted out, scouting the market for the latest trends in Friendship bands, allocating time to hand-make bands for the special few friends (the days when n >= 10). Because believe me, the anticipation as you approached school on the day-of, was even more intense than the look on Jamie’s face when he saw Drogon and Dany fly over Highgarden with the Dothrakis! I kid not.

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The goal at the end of the day was to walk away with the maximum number of bands on your wrists, hence being hailed the undisputed Friendship King/Queen. The competition began on the school bus itself. A few over-ambitious ones woke up early and got a headstart by covering friends in their neighborhood. The look of jealousy on kids’ faces when one boarded the bus with 20 bands on their wrists already, was worth sacrificing an hour of sleep for. Try explaining that to your ignorant parents! At the end of the day, the coolest kids always walked away with both their forearms covered with bands, till the elbows! Uggghhh how we hated them, but wouldn’t dare NOT tie them a friendship band!

For many, the day was an occasion to proclaim their “more-than-friendship” feelings to those special someone’s. As Bollywood movies of those years taught us – Love is Friendship. Pyaar dosti hai. Perfect marketing opportunity for Archies and Hallmark, to introduce aptly titled ribbons and bands too! So it was not uncommon to see the beginnings of new romantic relationships on the day, all of which were discussed to death, on the bus ride back home. The fact that those relationships didn’t last more than a week (if lucky), didn’t matter – just fodder for more gossip!

The advent of cell phones in college meant that the Friendship bands were replaced by sappy SMS-es and monochrome MMS-es to the many friends who had moved to other cities – despite the surcharge rates by telecom providers. We’re friends after all – what is Rs. 5 in comparison ?! Cut to 2017, where WhatsApp is free, but no special messages were exchanged among my friends (where n <=10) and I could not be happier !

I was thinking about how much time and effort I wasted on some of those meaningless friendships, the silly fights and arguments on everything from clothes to boys to grades.. If I had to give my 10-year-old self any advice, would I ask her to rethink her entire friendship strategy? Ask her to invest her time only on those people who stayed through those crazy teens and 20’s ? Probably not. These experiences are likes rites of passage, no? – I wouldn’t have the people I call my own today, if I had not met those many others who came and left. It was probably my fight with a “friend” who ridiculed my hair behind my back, that led me to this other curly-haired-girl who has stayed with me for 23 years. And had I not gone through this whole “I-hate-the-girls-in-my-group” phase, I would have never met my now best friend and the first guy I ever spoke to!

So while there will be no sappy messages and friendship bands any more, I cannot help but thank those crazies on my school bus who led me to the crazies I have with me today!

 

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#30DaysofGratitude – Day 24

Last weekend, V and I took a trip to a hill station close by called Munnar. I had heard about the place being gorgeous, but the sights, sounds and smells we experienced there were truly out of this world, and beyond anything I expected! Acres of the greenest greens I had ever seen, clouds that would descend on the fields within minutes, changing the landscape entirely, the slightest hint of a persistent rain that felt like mist on your body and a quietness that was perfectly balanced between being calming and eerie at times! Imagine walking in the middle of these tea plantations all day ! No filters necessary!

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As is typical on most of our trips, the food was a major highlight and we didn’t shy away from trying out everything including the fish, which Kerala is very popular for. On Day 2, our friendly tour guide took us to this tiny restaurant that was famous for it’s authentic Kerala meals – basically a spread of massive amounts of fluffy rice, 4 kinds of vegetables, a fish curry, and an array of condiments that only the Kerala folk can do full justice to. Simplicity at it’s best, but an explosion of flavours in your mouth. The best part of the entire experience was the restaurant owner – now if you want to know customer service at it’s best, this guy was the epitome of it! Within minutes of us having chosen a table, he walked over and explained the entire concept of the Kerala meal to us in his endearing broken English – the different kinds of fish, their size, the amount of bones one might encounter, spice levels. On realizing we are rookies, he made his own suggestions and even threw in two varieties for the price of one – no one should leave Kerala before trying out the fish, he insisted! Before leaving the table, he assured us that if we didn’t like the food, we didn’t have to pay a dime. But of course, the food was delicious – one of the best meals ever, and it cost us less than $6 overall! He checked on us multiple times and even sent over little samples of some other curries, “just to taste”! Now one might argue that he was being a shrewd business-owner – he was used to dealing with tourists and knew how to keep them happy. But in addition, what I also saw was a genuinely nice guy who knew that the only thing he needed for his business to succeed was the right product and the right attitude! The former might be easy to nail, but the latter takes a lifetime of practice and intention!

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Over the past few months, I’ve grown increasingly fascinated by small business owners. People who focus on niche products, creativity, resource-scarcity and true autonomy to make a dent in their corner of the world. And I have been trying to support them as much as possible, because it is truly admirable to run a one-man-show. Like my most recent acquisition from this guy in Bangalore who makes the cutest succulent planters using unique objects like metal measuring cans! For someone who loves plants, but has a home without much direct sunlight, this was the perfect solution! Anyway, I digress… Coming back to my Munnar trip, one of the big highlights for me, beyond the gorgeousness of the place and food, was this friendly restaurant owner who showed me that with the brightest smile, and a fantastic product, you can win the hearts of two non-fish-non-rice eaters!

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#30DaysofGratitude – Day 23

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One of my allll time favorite quotes is by this incredible poet called Allama Iqbal – the quote is in Urdu, but this Quora article has a beautiful translation and explanation of every verse. The quote loosely translates to –

“Excel yourself to such a level that, before granting a fortune, God Himself asks you, what do you want!”

I was probably in my teens when my mom narrated it to me for the first time, and its one of those things that resurfaces from the hidden corners of my mind, every now and then, when I’m doing the most mundane things like cleaning! And I always stop for just a few seconds, in awe of how powerful it is. Now I admit that I am not an Urdu literary genius, nor do I understand the depths of Islam and its philosophy on Khudi, destiny etc. So my fascination stems purely from my interpretation of it.

I was brought up to believe that all our life is a manifestation of God’s will and nothing we do can alter the path we will eventually end up on because it is pre-destined. I remember battling with this concept for a really long time because firstly, it took away all control I had over my life and that just seemed ridiculous to my mind – Why would my parents ask me to study so hard if my path was predestined anyways?! (There’s an easy out, eh!) Secondly, it made me feel like a mere player on stage in Shakespeare’s world – is that ALL life amounts to? As I grew older, I rapidly moved to the opposite side of the spectrum with a strong sense of my life, and my actions and my control that I will NOT give up. But there were still those incidents that I just could not explain or rationalize. A random sequence of events that brought me places I could never have dreamed of – some good and some painful – now how do I explain that? How could I have had control over something I didn’t even know could exist in the first place? This dichotomy existed in my mind for a good part of my 20’s as well and I went from being religious to spiritual to agnostic to atheist back to spiritual etc etc..

It is probably in the past 3-4 years that I have come to an acceptance of this game of life, and this quote helped me get there in many ways. And that’s what I call it – a friendly game between the Universe and Me – something like UNO – now if I was better at games, I’d have compared it to something complex like Settlers of Catan, but that’s too much exercise for my mind, so keeping it simple here! So UNO –> at each juncture, we have our cards, and we play our game not knowing what the person in front is going to play next. We have our own agenda – I’ll play the Reverse Card first, and then the Skip Card and save my Wild Card for the end….and just when you think you have a good game going, the Universe drops a Draw Four and oh well…you get the picture. But at no point of the game, are you stressed or fretting about the loss of control. You’re just playing the best game you can and trying out different strategies. If you lose, move on to Round Two and try this all over again – this time, you hopefully have learned lessons from Round One, and can figure out a better strategy – maybe don’t be such a wise ass and expect an easy game.

The key idea here is – there is always a next round, but the important thing is for you to keep playing your game! What that translates to, in my interpretation, is to keep trying out new things, new projects, ideas, paths – maybe there will be the one time when the Universe won’t have a Draw Four card, and you’ll remember to call out “UNO!” when you have one card left, and you’ll win !!! Taaa…daaa….

And that’s what I like about the above quote too – you’re not a Shakespearean character – God knows how bad an actor you are, come on! – you’re here to make friends with the Universe, play your game, learn, have fun, try new things, do your dance. You win some, you lose some. Sometimes, you lose a lot but you shuffle up the cards again, and go for the next round. Always.

(There’s a second part to why I love this quote as well, but this  post is turning out to be as long as my Masters Thesis, so I’m going to continue this tomorrow… Come back! :))

 

#30DaysofGratitude – Day 22

One of my favorite teenage rebellion movies was Ice Princess (yes, I am willing to close my eyes and ears right now, while you take a moment to point your finger and laugh. oh well, I was that girl!) I guess my 15-year old mind identified with that nerdy schoolgirl who’s mom expected her to excel in Science class instead of in sports or arts. Anyway, I thankfully got over that movie pretty quickly, except for this one line which stayed with me. The line was said by the protagonist’s figure-skating coach who was upset because the nerdy girl couldn’t stand up to her mom. The line went something like this (and I’m paraphrasing) – “You’re never going to win the championship because you’re too polite. If you want something, you have to be willing to push past everyone and everything and just get it.” Too polite? If you know anything about the classic Indian upbringing, there is nothing called “too polite”!

Okay, I’m exaggerating. But in all fairness, in most south-east Asian cultures, there is a lot of emphasis on being very linear, within the boundaries of accepted norms, placing the wishes of our elders first, and generally keeping your emotions in check. I can see how this can translate to “politeness”. And while I have nothing against my culture or upbringing at all, I am realizing more and more, how this can get in the way of people in these countries wanting to follow an offbeat path. There is a certain level of aggression, defiance and foolhardiness almost, that is needed for real innovation to happen. Especially in today’s world, where the next big idea is always around the corner – you have to be willing to push past obstacles along the way (which are mostly mental, but can be certain people and situations as well). There are going to be hurt emotions, in pursuit of the greater good.

“Hustle” is the new golden word being used in almost every motivational podcast or video around. And the idea behind it is simple – if you want to achieve certain results, there are sacrifices to be made – there will be no time for family, and no weekends with friends, and no time for TV and social media. But hustling has one prerequisite – putting your dream/goal before anything else – that is what gives you the drive to make all those sacrifices. This mindset can be developed over time, but is also so dependent on one’s upbringing (and culture). Why do children of businessmen end up starting businesses? Why do sportspeople always have stories of their parents waking them up at 4 AM for practice? We emulate what we see our parents and societies practice, and that is what defines the norm for us.

This is not just relevant with respect to one’s career. This attitude plays out in personal life choices as well. I know someone who was told by her parents while choosing a life partner to “realize that she isn’t going to find anyone better than this guy anyways”. How does this compare to being told that – “there are good people everywhere, what matters is that you follow your heart.”

This post is almost like a rant, and I apologize for that. We always say with respect to gender equality that empowerment begins at home. The same philosophy applies here as well. Cultural change happens slowly over decades, but in the meantime, we need to really think about what we are teaching our children – the language we use, the ideas we promote. Do we ask them to settle, or do we ask them to fight ? Do we expect politeness or do we encourage just that little bit of rebellion that can make a difference to their future?

#30DaysofGratitude – Day 21

It is a good day when you have a thought-provoking and insightful conversation with your Uber driver. With most chatty drivers, the conversation follows a similar trajectory – a look of surprise when they realize I can’t speak the local language, multiple inquisitive questions to figure out where I am from, and what I am doing in Kerala, and an attempt at solidarity by talking about the time they visited my hometown, and what they thought of it. I realized how ingrained my Indianness was, when I started telling them involuntarily that I was from Bangalore and not Pune, silently hoping that I would be accepted more if I told them I was part of South India like them, and not from “North” India (as Pune is often considered to be…). At times, the conversation veers off into more personal territory such as family, income, women living alone etc.. This morning, my friendly Uber driver and I started discussing about life in the Arabian Gulf. For the uninformed, almost 80% of Kerala has migrated to “the Gulf” at some point of time – Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait etc. This guy was among the remaining 20% who did not choose that route, and had some insights into the effects of this migration on peoples’ mindsets. Home ownership being a critical one.

He was telling me stories about how social status in Kerala is judged on the basis of the size of your home – since income from “the Gulf” means that one can afford much better homes than they could have, had they stayed back in India. Now the bane of societal living is that if your neighbor owns a large home, it is almost incumbent that you do too. Choosing to not pursue large-home-ownership could have serious repercussions, especially when you have daughters who needed to be married, which was one of his big worries. Prospective grooms’ families would not be as impressed. He was a practical guy though, arguing vehemently about how ridiculous it was to put his family through the pressures of a 20-year home loan, which would only be passed on to their children. What sense did it make, he continued, to have a beautiful looking house on the outside, but be struggling for money on the inside? After all, even though he was a mere Uber driver, they were *happy* in their smaller, comfortable home. “This society, I tell you.“, were his final remarks knowing there was little he could do to change it.

We love to blame social media sites like Facebook for distorting reality and lowering self-esteem by presenting an unrealistic, perfect image of our peers . But if you take a step back and think about it, the tendency to hide our imperfections and “fake it” has always been part of our innate nature. It begins with school, where we are taught to paint within the lines- and graded based on who does it best. We always want the external picture to be pretty and actively participate in oneupmanship because it makes us feel good about ourself. Until a few years ago, the building blocks of this imagery were shiny degrees on the wall, cars parked in the driveway, the perfect 4-bedroom house. Facebook and Instagram have changed it to X-Pro-II-filtered foreign holidays, fruit bowls and status updates! And of course, made it incredibly easy to open our perfect doors to 2 billion people around the world.

So before we go on a social media detox, it’s worth thinking about how we see ourselves first – why do those lines exist in the first place and how rigid are they? what if there are smudges here n there? what if we want to completely disregard the lines, and freehand on a blank piece of paper? It’s probably not going to be as pretty, but it will be our own. Are we really okay with that ?

#30DaysofGratitude – Day 20

I’ve mentioned multiple times before, that I am a huge addict of TEDTalks. No surprise then, that a lot of my daily doses of inspiration come from talks that leave a strong mark on my thinking. Yesterday, I heard the TED talk of Raj Panjabi, a physician, social entrepreneur, and winner of the TED Prize in 2017 among many other accolades. His company, Last Mile Health, trains community workers on essential skills that can help them provide lifesaving healthcare to the remotest areas of West Africa. His life’s work is based on one fundamental belief – no one should die because they live far away from a doctor. Such a basic principle, isn’t it ?

My sister, a gynecologist, spent last week working at a government hospital in my hometown – an experience that shook her, as a new doctor entering the real world. She was appalled at the quality of healthcare being provided to pregnant women, the sheer lack of infrastructure and resources, and the callousness it led to, among the doctors and nurses working there. Healthcare in government hospitals is a complicated intertwined system, so I would not be arrogant enough to blame just the doctors – I know they mean well and are not valued enough. But the people at the end of the totem pole are these pregnant women, who, due to the failure of this entire system, just don’t stand a chance to get quality care, let alone survive without complications. People at this hospital die, not because a doctor isn’t available, but because the doctor isn’t able to give them the care they deserve.

As an outsider viewing this system, the critical thing I see is lack of empowerment at every level from hospital management to staff, that cascades down to frustration and therefore, disregard for quality healthcare. On the other hand, what works so beautifully in Last Mile Health is that common people who didn’t even have a stable job, are being empowered with these medical skills that help them make a difference in the lives of others. They are more invested in what they do, not just because it provides them with a means to improve their own lives, but also gain satisfaction from serving others.

This idea so beautiful in theory, but even as I think about how it might apply to the healthcare system in India, I feel helpless – can I change this? if yes, what is my next step? am I being too idealistic? what are the ugly truths I am not seeing yet? One of the first lessons we were taught as Acumen Fellows was to be comfortable with the questions. Seems like a sucky lesson to be taught, right now! (sorry Acumen)

The thing that inspired me the most about Raj Panjabi’s TED talk was the way his face lit up, when talking about his company and his people and the impact they are having. It was not grandiose, but rather, the kind of humble satisfaction you feel after having scaled a massive mountain – taking just a moment to acknowledge the days of arduous climbs behind you, and knowing there are tougher mountains to scale in the future. That look right there, is what I aspire to.

#30DaysofGratitude – Day 19

If you analyze the flood of social media posts on Father’s Day, here are some of the common adjectives you would find – strong, hero, rock, smart, supportive, inspirational, leader. Almost all through literature and movies, the image of the father has been of this loving, but distant person who’s primary role was to be a strong anchor of the family, an inspiration, a stoic and composed human who would often spew out words of wisdom, and who’s acceptance we would always seek – not love, but acceptance. Art imitates life, or life imitates art ? – Who knows, but this is just the reality of the norms we see around us.

When I think of my father, most of my memories are of us discussing politics or books or movies or financial matters. Sarcasm is something we have in common, so there are memories of jokes at the lunch or dinner table. They’re all fun memories, but they’re not impactful, in that, they don’t involve major life decisions, or moments of despair, confusion and fear. We went to mom at those times. My mom and dad lived apart for almost 8 years due to their careers, so for all my adult life, I have seen my mom make key decisions around the house – that helped blur the image of a traditional “mom figure” in my mind to someone who was warm and cuddly, but also authoritative and powerful.

But the dad image never changed. He has always been goofy, fun and caring, but I always felt like there was an unbroken barrier. I never knew what his thoughts, aspirations, fears, worries were. I have never heard stories of his childhood, forgotten dreams, disappointments, and successes. My past few visits home have been about trying to change that. When he’s particularly chatty, he will talk about our childhood with great enthusiasm. I recently heard the story of his struggles, as a 27 year old, of bringing up a new baby when he didn’t even have a house of his own, or any savings. Did you know there were times he had to choose between a pack of biscuits for me, and a bus ticket for him to get to work? What must those times have been like for him? I knew my mom’s side of the story, but never his!

One of the things I really believe is that in understanding people, context is everything. People behave a certain way not because they are good or bad, but because their experiences have made them that way. And in having these conversations with my dad, I understand so much more of his context – how his parents were, what he’s given up on, and what he’s fought for, how did he view his dad, what did he wish was different. And today, I don’t need him to be a strong, supportive, inspirational superhero for me. But my hope is that there is more openness, realism and depth in our moments together. The goofy jokes will always stay, of course!