Friday, May 31, 2013

Don't Ignore Those Warning Signs

This is my first entry to Indiblogger's "The Moral Of The Story Is...." contest in association with Colgate. Check out My Healthy Speak Blog.

It was past midnight. All the everyday noises of domesticity had died down some time back. First the pressure cooker whistles that announced that supper was ready had fallen silent, then the clanging of pots and pans as housewives washed up the dirty vessels of the night had quietened, the soap opera on the neighbours’ TV had finally shut up; then the voices of men, women and children discussing the mundane details of their day had ceased as people gradually surrendered themselves to the night. I could hear a street dog howling in the distance and the lone tak, tak of the night watchman’s stick as he went on his rounds, as the 10 year old me sat chewing on her pencil – like I had been doing for the past hour.

“If Mala had 25 apples and Raghu gave her 10 more….” The words were starting to swim before my eyes. Arrghh! Why did maths have to so difficult!? Tomorrow was my maths exam and I had hardly finished studying half the syllabus. I still had to work my way through algebra and geometry and graphs and what not! My dad was looking at me, waiting for me to figure out the solution, but after a 10 hour work day, I could tell that his patience was wearing thin.

I was not a bad student but this was a common scenario at home before each of my maths exams. First, my mom would try to teach me. After I had used up all the reserves of her strength, my brother would chip in. After I had irritated him too, my dad would try his best. And after a sleepless night, I would walk into the exam hall dreading every minute of it. Once I had finished the exam I would feel elated – Done. No more maths till school reopens. Yay! And then of course, when the results are announced I would wait with my heart in my throat and eye the top scorers with envy.

My best friend Aruna, who was also my neighbour, was a maths wizard. Maths exams were a piece of cake for her. While I would be breaking my head, she would have finished prepping and would be happily lounging around in front of the idiot box – and the next day she would be all bright eyed and bushy tailed, while I looked like something the cat dragged in.

Maths was the only subject which I tried so hard – and yet didn’t do too well. The funny part is my dad, my mom AND my bro are bankers! But no matter how much hard work I put in I could never get my head around maths.

My feelings were exactly the opposite for my English exams. I always looked forward to getting my hands on my English books during my vacations and I would read all the books before school started. I waited eagerly for the English period and was thrilled when the exams came around. I loved writing long essays and was ecstatic when my papers came in with “Very Good!” or ”Great Job!” scrawled on it with red ink. When my English teacher praised me in front of the entire class, I had a wide grin plastered on my face the whole day.

I guess those were the earliest warning signs; but as it so often happens in life, I failed to notice them.

Warning bells are ringing!

Eventually it was time for me to choose my stream of study in the 11th standard. Well, what was there to think about? Everyone knew that the Maths & Science group was the best. There was huge competition for it and Engineers and Doctors obviously had the brightest future. Did I pause to think if this is what I was interested in? Yes I did. And a little warning bell went off in a corner of my mind – Are you sure? It asked. But I pushed it out. Afterall, if all the bright minds were taking up maths and science then it must be the right thing to do, no?

And so life went by. Only, it got much worse. I could hardly pay any attention in class. Maths and Physics and Chemistry did not excite me – they simply bored me out of my mind. I found myself day dreaming with the page of formulas staring at me. I went for tuitions and my mind wandered away. Science group students face so much pressure that the weekly Sports period and - horror of horrors!- English period was almost always taken over by either the Maths or Science teachers. But I had to get high marks. My friends were all doing well and my brother too. They were constant comparisons and statements like “Look at him! Why can’t you study like him?” So I tried, somewhat half-heartedly.

But here and there were a few rays of sunshine. My poems got published frequently in our school’s magazine. Every time it happened, I pinched myself to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming.

Anyway, even if you aren’t Sir C.V Raman, hard work pays off to an extent and I managed to get a decent score in my exams. I appeared for various professional courses entrance exams too – but all with a niggling thought in my mind. Do I really want to become an engineer or a doctor? Is that what I really want to do? What about everything that you hear about following your heart? What about chasing your dreams?

BA English Literature beckoned me. I secured admission in a leading Arts college. I was among the top performers in the class and a bunch of us were chosen to attend a specialized course in English. I was thrilled. When many of the other girls bunked classes and sat around the cafeteria chit-chatting I was happy to be in class – listening to my lecturers talk about the classics. I savoured every moment of it.

But nobody could understand it. This is India. When thousands of people are vying for an Engineering seat why would anyone throw it away for an English Lit one? Whoever heard of such nonsense? Only dumb people who couldn’t get admission into any other branch took up Literature. It was an absolute waste of time. It won’t take you anywhere in life.

Or so my critics said. My instincts warned me “No, they are wrong! Stick to your decision!” But I ignored it – yet again – and spent four mind-numbing years, earning my degree in B.Tech IT. The first year I was also elected as the English Representative of my class but I was so relieved when the last day of college rolled by.

No more Java, no more C++, no more Data Structures & Algorithms, no more Digital System Design, no more Digital Signal Processing, no more maths, no more numbers, no more calculations…. But wait! I had a job in an IT company. Great! Air-conditioned offices, a big fat pay cheque at the end of the month, overseas travel and the pride that comes with introducing myself as a “software engineer.”

But you know that inner voice that sometimes just refuses to leave you alone no matter how much you threaten to punch it? Well that voice kept popping up now and again – warning me. “This is not what you are meant to be doing,” it kept insisting as I tried to design a flowchart. “What are you doing here? Why are you still here?”, it kept questioning as I took the late night cab home. “Why are you chasing a mirage when your destiny lies somewhere else?” it repeated when I was stifling a yawn sitting in a client meeting.

And just as that tiny little cavity which you neglected to get filled gets bigger and bigger until the entire tooth is eroded forcing you to fix that long pending appointment with the dentist, one day the voice grew too loud to ignore. I resigned.

The moral of the story is...

Have you ever had a bad tooth that was troubling you for a long time? And finally when the dentist fixes it, you tentatively test it out. You run your tongue over it gingerly and take a careful bite. Voila! No pain! Everything is perfect! A wave of relief washes over you. You sit back and enjoy the ice cream.

So, what is the moral of this looonnggg story? If you know what you want in life and if you know that you can be good at it - then don't ignore those warning signs. Believe in yourself and go for it. I traded in my settlement money and did a Journalism course. Today I work with a women’s magazine and I love it! I might not make as much money as in my previous job but this work motivates me and gives me complete job satisfaction. And it urges me to dream new dreams – maybe write a blog post and enter a contest like this one… maybe write a book, someday? Who knows, if only I had not ignored my warning signs maybe I would have written one already!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Poor Little Rich Slum

Poor Little Rich Slum by Rashmi Bansal and Deepak Gandhi offers us a peak into one of the world’s most famous slums – Dharavi. 

I’ve never been to Mumbai (so many years since it has been renamed and I still prefer calling it Bombay). It is the only metro in India that I haven’t visited yet but I have heard so much about it that it is high up on my wish list. I hope to explore it sometime in the future. However, I am quite sure that I probably wouldn’t be dropping into Dharavi. 

I really doubt if any Indian – except politicians, researchers, the religious, social workers or those who live & work in slums and those who avail of their services – would voluntarily step into a slum, unless forced to and especially not on a vacation. Somehow, Westerners seem to be enamoured by India’s slums. Call it an after effect of Slumdog Millionaire (a nice movie although why it won an Oscar is puzzling!) the spotlight seems to be suddenly shining on an entity which we Indians usually tend to ignore. Most of us are so used to seeing slums in our cities that we are pretty much oblivious to them. 

Mumbai’s famous slum has been covered a lot in recent times – but almost always by foreigners. Hence it is interesting to note that Poor Little Rich Slum has been created by Indians with a focus on the spirit on entrepreneurship in Dharavi. Also, I think that the book is written specifically for an Indian audience too - because there are a lot of quotes in Hindi for which no translation has been provided. The book has a coffee-table-book quality to it – although it is quite slim. It is made up of short, easy-to-read chapters, each talking about the bigger picture of Dharavi through the smaller stories of its inhabitants. 

The book is peppered with photographs – most quite fascinating while some, well, how do you capture filth and dirt beautifully? But the stories themselves and the enterprising people we meet during the course of the book are nothing short of inspiring. There are days when we, the privileged, seem to crib about the silliest of things in our lives; moaning that it is too hot to get any work done or that our neighbours were too noisy to let us sleep in peace. Therefore it is amazing to realize how much can be achieved with practically next to nothing – except courage, determination and perseverance. 

It is clear that the soul of Dharavi is its people. There is Jameel Shah - whose shoes are patronized by Bollywood biggies, Hanifabi and Salma – crusaders who are help women battle domestic violence, Panju Swamy – whose idli stall is Dharavi’s connection to South India, Faheem and Tauseef – the bright, young founders of Be The Local Tours & Travels and so many more resourceful people who have risen above the poverty, the uncertainty and the chaos that surround their lives; people who have not let their hopes and dreams to be overwhelmed by their circumstances. 

Perhaps because the negative aspects of Dharavi have already been well documented in mainstream media, this time the authors have tried to portray a different side of Dharavi by showcasing its positive points instead. Poor Little Rich Slum shows us that Dharavi is a lot of things to a lot of people; a place to call home, a workplace to earn a livelihood, a school of life, a novelty for tourists, a curiosity for outsiders and most importantly, a place that offers numerous opportunities for survival - but one which also pushes you to test your inner limits.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Anger: Vice… or Virtue?

I’ve always been someone who loses her temper easily. Everyone who is close to me know that I can fly off the handle quickly – you can say that my short temper is one of my flaws. I do think that I’ve somewhat learnt to control it – although I agree that I have a long way to go still. Now, I accept that blowing your fuse at the drop of a hat is definitely not a good idea, yes blind fury can be dangerous. However I also believe that the sentiment of anger has received far too much flak. It has even earned a spot among the 7 deadly sins. True, too much of anger is bad – but does anger by itself deserve to be tagged as an inexcusable vice? Is there not such a thing as "responsible anger"?

There are times in life when one needs to get angry. Take for instance the recent public outrage on women’s safety in India. It was only because the people of India were angry at the injustice meted out to one unfortunate young woman in December, that today women’s safety is being discussed at the international level and both the people and the government are atleast beginning to sit up and take notice.

Or let’s talk about the recent news about IPL spot-fixing. Were you not angry that a few louts cheated an entire nation? Your anger is justified. Or when you hear about child sexual abuse? When you see an alcoholic husband abusing his wife? Or when you find out that your partner has been cheating on you? When a rogue hand in a crowded bus sneaks up and pinches you? Should one not get angry? Well, I think you should. You have every right to be angry. You deserve to be angry. 

Some people may ask – what is the point of getting angry? What is it going to achieve? Indeed it is anger that prompts us into action. Whether that action is positive or negative is upto you. When someone passes a sexist comment on you and you don’t get angry, it simply means that you are too conditioned to accept sexism. You need to get angry. But if you get angry and then declare to the world that all men are perverts, that is not only stupid but it is also useless. Instead if you channel that anger and talk about it to spread awareness about sexual harassment, that positive action validates your anger. 

If you are stuck in an abusive relationship and allow yourself to be exploited instead of getting angry that you are being ill-treated, it can mean that you don’t love or value yourself enough. When you choose to leave a cheating partner, there will be nights when you feel all alone and miserable; when the urge to call him/her is eating you alive. But then, deep down, that tiny spark of anger must burn – reminding you of all the times that the jerk has let you down and hurt you and broke your trust. And that anger will give you the strength to help you let go of any self-pity or remorse and move on with your life. 

Or even getting angry with yourself. If you've set a goal and find yourself slacking simply due to laziness, get angry with yourself. Scold yourself . You don't have to put yourself down but you could give yourself a pep talk - by being angry at your laziness - and push yourself to achieve your goal.

In fact, I think more people should get angry. Angry enough to stop paying bribes and to report corruption. Angry enough to vote for responsible leaders and throw out the useless ones who have been looting the country forever. Angry enough to stand up and raise your voice against inequality. Angry enough to question wrong-doing.

People say that we can achieve true happiness when we are not affected by external stigma – but when you read about an 8 year old girl who was raped by a 60 year old man – your blood should boil; you should be outraged; your conscience must be troubled. Even the Gods get angry - Jesus got angry when he saw that the sacred temple of God had turned into a dirty marketplace, Kali is known for her fierce temper and Shiva’s temper is feared by one and all. And if the Gods themselves can lose their tempers, surely we mortals are allowed to get angry?

Friday, May 17, 2013

Hung Up On Accents

It’s funny how a language, any language, can be spoken in so many different ways. Take for instance, my mother tongue Thamizh. It has so many variations ranging from the robust Chennai slang to the melodious Coimbatore one, the sing-song Thirunelveli Thamizh and the rustic Madurai one. The same goes with Hindi, with various parts of India contributing to it with their own slang and accents. Likewise with English. My most favourite accent in the world is the British one but it so interesting to observe all the other accents and my! How many of them! Scottish, Irish, Cockney, Australian, Yankee, the Southern drawl etc, etc. While I cannot imitate any accent I am fascinated by the way an inflection here and a clip there adds so much layer to a language.

But one thing that definitely does not catch my fancy is the fake accent that many Indians seems to adopt after only a few years of living abroad. I can understand if someone with Indian origins but was born and brought up abroad or has grown up abroad speaks like an American (or British). Sure, I love listening to Hugh Grant or James Bond. But if you start rolling your r’s literally as soon as your foot touches foreign soil, I’m sorry buddy, but you ain’t fooling no one!

I fail to fathom the thinking behind putting up a fake accent. Can’t these people hear themselves speak? I mean, the accent is so fake that anybody can see through it. I cringe visibly whenever I hear it and just feel like screaming, "Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!". Most people who suddenly seem to be speaking “American” cannot do it consistently. So half of their words sound American while the rest sounds quite desi and the amalgamation of this frankly sounds rather embarrassing. What is so wrong in speaking with an Indian accent anyway? As long as you pronounce words as they are supposed to be pronounced – as in Zero instead of Jero as I’ve heard some people say - and you are able to communicate smoothly, is it really so bad to speak the Indian way?

In fact, I’m not too sure with what accent I speak English but if I do have one that would probably be a Thamizh accent – which is natural as I come from Tamil Nadu. When I met with some clients in the US a few days after I moved there for work, an American lady told me that I speak English very well. As long as people are able to understand you easily isn’t that enough? Do people who speak with these fake accents think that it is beneath them to speak normally? Do they feel that they are somehow superior if they can speak in the American way? If so, well here’s news for you – you don’t. You simply sound ridiculous. So, I beg you, for the love of God, cut it out. My ears are aching. Enough is enough.


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