30 April 2017

Hating or loving Dangal?

A few days I had an email conversation with a friend of mine on the movie Dangal. She said she hated the movie for the following reason:

Mr Phogat, played by Aamir Khan, foists his wrestling dreams on his daughters. While the girls go on to excel at the sport, this does not take away from the fact that Mr Phogat is undoubtedly a patriarchal figure, who actually may need therapy over his unresolved issues, my friend says.

I could understand her line of reasoning, but I presented some counterpoints:

If you switch wrestling with, say, academic excellence, which would certainly ring a bell with most of the audience, then you would not have a movie. (Actually, academic excellence may be the wrong term. It's just acing the exams that we are after.)

For, that's what it is about: your parent making your career choices for you and making you bring their dreams to reality. 

Yet, there's also a few other things to consider here: there comes a point in the movie where the girls realize they are privileged for having wrestling as a career option as compared to a life of domesticity. Here's where they stop pushing back and own their father's dream. Of course, you may ask what choice do they have? 

But if we do find joy and meaning in what we are doing, does it matter so much how we came unto that choice? Does it matter that there were other roads (worn out though they maybe)?

Thing is, yes if Phogat weren't in rural Haryana, he should have been consulting a shrink. Or, if he was asking his daughters to ace the JEE exams. But because he is in rural Haryana where female-male ratio is one of the lowest in the country, the choices he makes for his daughters definitely make him swim against the mainstream, and thereby qualify him to be a hero. 

Yes, he is making the decisions for his daughters, but would feminists be happy if he were not to? That is, if he were to just accept that wrestling was not for his daughters and married them away? 

If you remove the particular circumstances of a story, you end up with a controlled environment. But then all human reality would more or less be the same, removing perhaps the necessity for art and its criticism.

Dangal can be looked at from the alternative education viewpoint, too and you would arrive at much the same points and counterpoints. Phogat’s way of parenting is very much mainstream, parent-led rather than being child-led.

But does the outcome justify the means? Again, this is not an easy question to answer. For, if it were just mainstream academics that the father was pushing the girls into, the answer would be straightforward enough. However, in rural Haryana, if Phogat hadn’t exposed his girls to another possible world for them, they would have hardly had a chance at life, much less sporting excellence. How would the girls know what they had in them if their father hadn’t shoved them into the akhada?

But does that validate the rat race Indian parents enter their children in, with the justification that they know what’s best? Hardly, I’d say. Still, this movie does pose some tricky questions.

Life, and living it

This is a post I wrote in 2008 and never published. My grandmother (Ajji) lived five more years. Among the people whom I have seen pass away, she and Jyoti Sanyal are the ones who still live fresh in my memory. 

Ajji was a remarkable woman. She once gave me her definition of beauty: "When you have two hands, two legs, and all other organs given by God in perfect shape, what else can you be but beautiful?" She was the kindest, most loving woman I have known. And, her love for children stayed intact after the many years of bearing and rearing children. 

Ajji is standing beside me, peering into my laptop. I ask her if she wants to try her hand at the computer. She doesn't say anything, but comes closer, grinning. I type out her name in very big font. She reads out each alphabet, puts them together mentally, and says with a wide smile, “LAKSHMI.” She stumps me with her life spirit each time I see her. She always has been, all these years. Then, she asks if I can take pictures from the laptop. I say there's no camera attached.

“Oh, I wanted you to take pictures of me,” she says. Am a little surprised, but I just tell her that I can take pics from my mobile. “Oh good, then you must take pictures of me. You'll need it ... later ... give a copy to your mom here..., you too take a copy and go. Aamele bekaagtade (you'll need it later),” she says.

I understand, but only a moment later. My stupid grin disappears. I feel empty in the stomach. My mom is raising her voice over the din of the music am playing, and explaining some recipe to me. My eyes cloud over. I look at ajji, she's still smiling, standing beside me. I tell her I'll take her to a studio. She likes the idea.

My phone rings .... work calling. Ajji moves away.

Life's incredibly beautiful, isnt it, thanks to death?

19 February 2017

Too loud a solitude

Sometime ago when I heard about Ann Morgan’s journey through the world through books, I was fascinated by the idea. Apart from the cost of the books, I can’t see another affordable and authentic way of seeing the world. Of course, it can be argued that one book or one author can’t possibly tell you all there is to tell about one country. But think of it like this: when you meet someone from a distant land on a train or bus, you’re grateful for that opportunity – at least I am – to have been able to peep into another world and other lives. You don’t think of complaining, “Hey, not fair that I only got to meet one person from xyz country?”

I have decided to follow in Morgan’s steps and for those countries that I have no idea where to look for books or authors, I will follow her even in the books she has read. I think there will be a lot of such countries.

So, Too Loud a Solitude is my first step in this world tour. It’s written by Bohumil Hrabal in Czech and translated by Michael Henry Heim. Coincidentally, there’s a thread of commonality between my choice of the book and my renewed interest in waste management: the protagonist Hanta’s job is to compact waste paper. (There are accent marks missing from his name that I know not how to reproduce.)

Of course, the last thing that Hanta wants to do is to send fine books to their death. He’s been saving books from the paper compacter throughout his career of 35 years and has ended up with a stash of nearly two tons of books at his place.

Quaint things happen in Hanta’s life. Like for instance, the misfortune of his girlfriend who always seems to get faeces on her dress at the most public of moments. Or, how the kind, absent-minded philosophy professor routinely mistakes Hanta for his employer, an older man, when he has his hat on.

I keep looking for clues to the politics and culture of a place when I’m reading fiction. In Hrabal’s book, it comes in the form of the new-age paper compacting machine and its eager attendants – the Brigade of Socialist Labor – that Hanta feels threatened by, what with its inhumane vigour and its un-reading, uncaring staff.

Hanta is scandalized to see them drinking milk at work: “But the biggest shock came when I saw the young workers shamelessly guzzling milk and soft drinks – legs spread wide, hand on hip – straight from the bottle… think of drinking milk at work when everyone knows that even a cow would rather die of thirst than touch a drop of the stuff!” But his heart breaks when he sees them put in bales and bales of books without stopping for a moment to think about the thoughts and words they crush with their machine.

Soon, he finds himself replaced with these men from the Socialist Labour group. He has nowhere to go and roams around the city, guzzling down beer after beer. Finally, he decides to compact himself in his machine with his beloved wastepaper.  

I loved what he has done here by showing capitalism under the guise of socialism. The doing away of any appreciation of art is, of course, given here, but it also shows a disconnect between even man and the machine.

To Hanta, there’s no way you can travel to Greece without having read about Aristotle or Plato or even Goethe. So relevant in our times of consumerist culture where we flit about from land to land, ticking off places from our bucket list.

There never was a greater lover of books than Hanta, for he chose to be a wastepaper handler just so he could lay his hands on books. “…just as a beautiful fish will occasionally sparkle in the waters of a polluted river that runs through a stretch of factories, so in the flow of old paper the spine of a rare book will occasionally shine forth…”

As I read the book, I become very conscious of the fact that I too am holding a book in my hand and hope that I will never be callous enough to toss it in amidst waste paper. Hrabal renews my gratitude to authors who enable time travel, who pack their thoughts into words and share them with us, who lay bare before us beauty as well as misery. For, “real thoughts come from outside and travel with us like the noodle soup we take to work; in other words, inquisitors burn books in vain. If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh, because any book worth its salt points up and out of itself.”  

03 October 2015

Reinventing Organizations -- Hoping and Working towards the Soulful Workplace

I am a very slow reader and some months ago when I was job-hunting, I saw this among the requirements of a company: Must have read Reinventing Organizations. I hadn’t read it, of course, and was instantaneously disqualified, but the book did intrigue me: What did it talk about that made it so important as to be a job qualification? I went straight ahead and bought it.

And, I must thank the company – Buffer – for making me discover the book.
Reinventing Organizations is that rare kind of book that inspires and opens your mind up to seemingly impossible and new ideas.

The subject of the book is modern organizations, whether they be for-profit, non-profit, or even educational institutions. I’d never have bought such a book of my own volition – am pretty much the last person to be interested in management-speak. But right from the start, Frederic Laloux speaks about the moving force behind each organization: human beings.

This is how he begins:

“Can we create organizations free of the pathologies that show up all too often in the workplace? Free of politics, bureaucracy, and infighting; free of stress and burnout; free of resignation, resentment, and apathy; free of posturing at the top and drudgery at the bottom? Is it possible to reinvent organizations, to devise a new model that makes work productive, fulfilling, and meaningful? Can we create soulful workplaces—schools, hospitals, businesses, and non-profits—where our talents can blossom and our callings can be honored?”

“Guy must be nuts,” I thought. I mean, workplace and soulful? C’mon. Maybe for someone running a resort in the foothills of the Himalayas, but not for someone braving the commute in Bangalore or any other Indian city and getting to work at a place where they didn’t feel stressed and burned out. All my managers quickly paraded through my mind. Luckily for me, most were good, interesting human beings, but a few here and there liked to control the hell out of me and even laughed at me or ignored my presence totally. I’ll not get into the details for the simple reason that there are perhaps gorier stories out there.

My point is, what was this man talking about? Has he even worked in an office? Still, I bore with him and trudged along. 

And, I am glad I did.  

As I read on, Laloux started linking the steps in the evolution of organizations to the evolution of human consciousness itself. I became fascinated by his mere attempt to do so, because it seemed to be such a great mix of breakthrough intelligence and childlike simplicity.

Basically, Laloux talks of five major steps in human consciousness and how it influenced the kind of organizations we built at those stages. The five phases are: Red, Amber, Orange, Green, and Teal. He does talk of two stages preceding Red, but they’re from a very long time ago, going back to 100,000 to 50,000 BC and 15,000 years ago, when our sense of community did not exist beyond small tribes of up to a few hundred people.

Red or Impulsive-Red is when we start growing fiefdoms and proto-empires and it dates to about 10,000 years ago. This stage is marked by “hostile environments, combat zones, civil wars, … or violent inner-city neighborhoods.”

Organizations that are still at this stage of consciousness are the street gangs and mafias.

Next, is Amber or Conformist-Amber. This is when people started settling down, thanks to agriculture. Roles are strictly defined and conformity is by default. There are only a handful of truths out there and you’re expected to swallow them whole.

The Catholic Church is the best example of an Amber organization, Laloux says. The strict stratification introduced at this stage brings about the first true divide between planning and execution. That is, planning happens at the top and the plan is executed at the bottom.

In Achievement-Orange, rights and wrongs are not so absolute any more, but it doesn’t completely do away with some beliefs held at the Amber level. It does believe that people should be free to do as they choose, that everyone should be accountable, and that if anyone has made it to the top, it is because of meritocracy, and as such hierarchical structures need to be maintained.

Pluralistic-Green is not so comfortable with power and hierarchy, and likens organizations to families.

Evolutionary Teal uses a completely new metaphor than any other stage of human consciousness: it likens organizations to organisms. And, this is the fascinating part of the book, where it talks of actual companies that are operating from this paradigm. Organizations that belong to this stage operate like, well, organisms. No one person or group tells the other person or group how it must react in a given situation.

Instead, they self-manage, follow the advice process, and take decisions as a group, according to their knowledge and expertise, the data that they have at that point and trust each other to do the right thing. There are no managers or job titles, yet it’s not anarchic.

My description of Teal is very simplistic and short. And, to get a real understanding of what self-management is, what is the advice process, and other processes and structures (yes, they do have structures, just not the strait-jacketed ones we’re used to. They’re more like networks.) of Teal organizations, you must really read the book.

What makes Teal work is that it recognizes us as human beings and operates on basic assumptions of trust and respect. We need to trust each other to do the right thing. Yes, people may make mistakes, may get selfish, or try to cheat. But such acts are exceptions and such wrongdoings are easier to catch when all of us act as colleagues rather than mere cogs in a stratified organization, where we’re certain no one is going to listen even if we raise the alarm.

Naturally, this way of operating organizations demands that such beliefs actually go beyond the organization itself. That’s when the future starts to get interesting.  

I am not doing justice to this book by ending the review here, but this is part of my weekend writing project, where I only give as much time to writing as my daughter deems it fair. So, though there’s much, much more that can be said about the book, it’s best that you explore it for yourself. 

31 December 2014

Love languages, not fear them

My toddler's language skills are pretty advanced in both her mother tongues - Kannada and Bengali. I don't teach her English per se, but she has learned quite a bit of that, too, as there's always some English in the environment. That was the precisely the reason why I am not emphasizing on English at this point, because she cannot escape English and ultimately, she'll learn it.

I am concerned that she'll lose one of her mother tongues or both to English once she starts going to school, because I see quite a few young Indians today converse completely in English. If you talk to them in their mother tongue, they do understand, but the reply is in English.

I was recently told that I do need to teach her English or else it may hurt her admission opportunities to schools. Learning language for opportunistic reasons doesn't sound that great to me, though I am aware that quite a bit of language learning is opportunistic and language teaching in itself is a huge business.

Still, there is a difference between learning languages because you're curious about it, the culture, or the people who speak it, and learning something just because you want to advance your business or fear that you may be left behind if you don't learn it.

Language is a lot about curiosity. That's the only way children learn about new words, when they keep asking 'what', 'why', and 'how. And of course, by listening to all the language around them.

There could be nothing better than learning about another culture and I don't think this can be intimately done without speaking the language of that culture. And, power languages like English can easily ruin this process of discovery. Well, only if you let them.

I studied in an English-medium school and use English for work and personal expression, as in this blog. But I was also among the few students in my class who were comfortable in their mother tongue, too. I have never written professionally in Kannada and that could be the reason I perhaps don't feel as confident in it, but that's just a matter of practice.

I have always loved reading Shivaram Karanth, Jayanth Kaykini, to name a few Kannada authors. In my mind, there is no power equation between English and Kannada, but I am aware that it exists. That's why I am saddened when I see a lot of young Kannadigas grow up completely detached from a beautiful and diverse culture, inspite of being physically located in it. And, this is true for a lot of other young Indians. Often, they do not know how to count beyond 10 or 50 in their language.

Parents are a child's first connection with their culture and their language. So, they do have a responsibility to introduce children to their roots and keep the connection going. This can be done in a fun way by introducing them to rhymes, stories, or children's movies in their languages. With a lot of Indian language content now moving online than before, this isn't particularly tough to do. Publishers like Pratham Books are also a good source.

Learn languages because you love them, because you're curious about the world like a child is. Or maybe, come home to your own language.