Science, superstition and young minds

January 7th, 2013

Innocence and curiosity, both hallmarks of childhood, are lovely to interact with. I recently had the opportunity of such an interaction when I tagged along with a friend for a small programme he did with a group of children.

The group consisted of toppers of Class IX from 27 government schools in the villages of Dantewada district (Chhattisgarh), who were visiting Pune for a five-day Science Camp called ‘Jigyasa’. The camp was organised by Disha, a group of student-volunteers from Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) for a programme aptly named ‘Bachpan Banao’.

After five days of hands-on activities to get a grip on the fundamentals of science, on the 6th day (kept aside for fun activities), we had to show a film, Vishal Bhardwaj’s ‘Makdee’, to the group and discuss it, based on their understanding of science, superstition and discarding age-old beliefs that do not hold true in today’s contexts and the application of logic to these beliefs. The movie was watched with glee and the discussion that followed was enthusiastic. Some questions raised were tough to answer, considering the aim was not to lead them towards disrespecting culture, tradition and the science behind what have now become superstitions.

In discussions prior to the start of the programme, my friend and I had defined an objective - to help the children understand that curiosity, the passion to keep learning and the ability to question and not merely accept are extremely important for them to be able to grow into wise people. It was only helpful, when we discovered during the course of the programme that most of these children already had the temperament we were trying to encourage. The only hitch was, like anywhere else in the world, curiosity was not as welcome back in their villages.

For long after the programme had formally ended, my friend and I had each found ourselves surrounded by small groups to discuss the subject of the day in finer detail. One girl told me about the constant and fiery conflict between the village’s sarpanch who condoned animal sacrifice, and the village’s chief priest who suggested it to anyone who went to him with a problem. Another boy spoke about an invisible entity in front of the village banyan tree throwing pebbles at passers by after dark. Yet another boy wanted to understand how and why certain sadhus walk on burning coal or sleep on a bed of nails. But whenever the children had asked questions pertaining to these these things to their elders, they had always been either been told off or told, “It’s tradition. Our elders have been doing it forever.”

The most interesting contribution to this informal, after-class conversation had come from a quiet girl who had watched the movie wide-eyed and had sat timidly crouched in her seat afterwards. She said that all these superstitions begin at home. “Don’t you see it? When you are being mischievous, your parents tell you to behave, otherwise the ghost that prowls around the village will take you away. That is when we learn to be scared and not ‘talk back’.” That hit me as quite a bit of candid observation coming from a young girl of 14.

Why do we then discredit schools and teachers, when these basic teachings that guide us through life are first given at home by parents and grandparents? When we city-bred people consider ourselves modern and better off than those living in the ignored rural areas, why do we not stop ourselves from scaring our children with stories of ghouls, ghosts and poltergeists? Aside from the fact that science is still exploring the existence of these supernatural elements, we are are guilty of curbing the curiosity of a child and pushing him towards learning by rote. Education always begins at home, and we need to reevaluate what kinds of temperaments and attitudes we are passing on to our kids today.

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Yash Chopra: School of rebellion and romance

October 22nd, 2012

You don’t expect tragedy to strike when you are at the country’s premier film festival, celebrating cinema. Somewhere halfway through the screening that I was attending, the incessant alerts on my phone led me to check it. It took me a good ten minutes to come back to what was happening on the screen in front of me. Some may mock me for sounding over dramatic, but I had completely lost all interest in the film. The reason for all the romance in my life - Yash Chopra - was dead.

The two German ladies next to me in the theatre seemed shocked when they heard the news and began a conversation about YashRaj Films with me and a few others around us. It was hard not to notice how they knew so much about Bollywood, and particularly, Yashji’s films. That, is the magic and the legacy that he has left behind.

The King of Romance is a kind of a misnomer for Yashji. He flouted the rules in a different way - questioning basic human feelings in contexts of everything that the society has always labelled immoral and illicit. And he used a language that did not offend anyone, but made his audience sit up and think about the bases of these societal norms that define right and wrong. Pick a movie out of his very impressive filmography and you will know exactly why he will always be among the finest Bollywood filmmakers.

Yashji gave us the ‘angry young man’ in Deewar, the suspense thriller sans the song and dance routine in Ittefaq and an India-Pakistan partition drama Dharmaputra, which made Shashi Kapoor an actor to reckon with. His first directorial venture Dhool ka Phool was about an illegitimate Hindu-born child being raised by a Muslim. Daag looked closely at polygamy. The multi-starrer blockbuster Waqt which he made with brother B R Chopra launched the ‘lost and found’ formula, which inspired another slew of hits in the industry. Deewar and Trishul are what India’s children of the 70’s swear by — they too raise questions about means and ends, an important moral dilemma that the generation then was faced with.

Then there were his classic romances. Silsila and Kabhi Kabhie explored pre-marital and extra-marital relationships. Mashaal is a violent and dramatic cult classic that stands testimony to the fact that Yashji was never genre-bound. Chandni and Lamhe celebrated his position as the master of relationships. While the former was a raging hit, the latter had received a lot of flak from the Indian audience at the time of its release. It was uncomfortable for the homegrown Indians to watch an inter-generation romance. Critics and the overseas audience were in awe of a movie that was very clearly very ahead of its time. Lamhe is for me, and as confessed by Yashji himself, his best work ever.

Darr produced a generation of obsessed lovers. The impact of the film was such that one could suddenly see desperate declarations of love painted across walls. people talked about how someone had sent them a love letter written in blood, and stalking to scare became the new way to win your lady love. And another favourite of mine, Dil To Paagal Hai is Swiss-cheesy poetry in motion and I mean that as a serious compliment. I dare anyone to make a film with that kind of dialogue, dance and drama and not ruin it. But then again, maybe it has been imitated so many times that it now seems cheesy. I remember being enthralled by the movie, having gone to watch it on the first day itself. Veer Zaara was about lovers separated for over 20 years by border conflicts. It didn’t work for most, but I know a large group of people who still religiously watch it when it plays on TV.

And of course there were the songs in his films. Composed brilliantly, sung most beautifully and picturised perfectly in flowing chiffons, vibrant hues of the rainbow and locales that made Holland, Switzerland, UK and the mustard fields of Punjab every newly-married couple’s honeymoon destinations. This list of songs deserves a separate playlist on every Bollywood junkie’s music player.

It is definitely worth a mention that Yashji also produced his son Aditya Chopra’s directorial debut Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, which recently completed 800 weeks of screening at the Maratha Mandir in Mumbai.

Going back to my first few lines, why I feel this sense of loss you may ask. Confession time - I am a hopeless romantic. I give credit for that to the Yash Chopra school of film-making. That is what Yashji was teaching my generation when I was growing up. Chandni, Lamhe, Parampara, Yeh Dillagi and Dil To Paagal Hai were my textbooks on aesthetics, fashion, charm, songs, dance moves, romance and the whole idea of love - the kind that makes you feel like a warm, gooey, sweet marshmallow inside, or like it is your “do or die” mission in life. Or even in the way when you know exactly where your heart is broken but you refuse to mend it only because you find a strange wholesomeness in that imperfection and pain.

I thought I was done with romance. But only because I am so thankful to the soft-spoken gentleman that Yashji was, I know I will watch Jab Tak Hai Jaan, his last film as director, as said in an interview with Shah Rukh Khan on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Look at life’s cruel ironies here — how his declaration played out and what he had named his film.

If not for Yashji’s teachings of love and romance, a vast majority of Indians, myself included, would have been a big bunch of cynics — just wasting life, having nothing new to look forward to and having nothing happy to hope for. His brand of love will make the quintessential Bollywood fan’s world always go round. He is an institution. And like all institutions, his philosophy will carry on inspiring generations.

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To a legend, from a reluctant fan

July 20th, 2012

I had never been a fan of Rajesh Khanna - in spite of having grown up in a household where Bollywood of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s rules even today. It often irked me that every third song I would listen to, would bring to my mind:

a) the average joe in a guru shirt tilting his head to the side and winking flirtatiously while serenading his lady love with the most elaborate lyrics and sweet melody that was pure romance,

b) the distraught and forlorn man looking somewhere into the horizon as he sang sad and philosophical songs about life. (He probably has had most songs about zindagi/jeevan picturised on him).

His was not a rags-to-riches story. He was not an active political figure (then). He was not very good looking, not well-built, not even remotely “attractive”. His acting skills were not exceptional. What, then made him so popular?

Even today I find people who favour him, scratching their heads in total bewilderment, wondering as to what was so special about the 16 consecutive solo hits which he delivered between 1969 and 1972. They were all regular Bollywood dramas.

He, however, ushered in a new brand of melodrama for the male protagonist of Bollywood cinema. It was no longer unfashionable or sacrilegious for the “hero” to cry, be forsaken by the woman of his dreams, or even die at the end of the movie. The vulnerability he brought forth on screen, coupled with his amourous looks for his lady love made every woman want to protect him and take care of him.

Catapulted into the hearts of men and women alike by the songs he immortalised on celluloid - I believe it was the songs that made him who he was - Rajesh Khanna became the screen icon of romance in his days of glory. Written, composed and sung by Anand Bakshi, R D Burman and Kishore Kumar, every song is a gem. Paired opposite every leading lady India knew back then, from Asha Parekh, Mumtaz, Sharmila Tagore and Rakhee to Tina Munim and Shabana Azmi, he set hearts aflutter whenever he made an uninhibited declaration of his love for these women.

I had honestly not cared much even for the Havells TV commercial that he had last appeared in about three months ago - except I felt somewhat bad that someone of his stature was back on screen after eons and what he faced was ridicule for the tone of the advertisement and the way he looked like “a bag of bones.” Fame sure is a fickle friend, and adulation only attaches itself as an attractive accesory when one is on his way up the popularity scale. The generation that hadn’t seen the spectacle of the Rajesh Khanna brand of magic will never know better.

But when on a dark, rainy afternoon at work, I heard of Rajesh Khanna’s demise, I was partly stunned into a melancholic passivity for a good five minutes. So much for a Bollywood star I thought a movie-lover like me didn’t care two hoots about. If the news of his passing away had such an effect on me, I can only begin to imagine how it must have affected each of those women who had written letters to him with their blood, married his photograph, slept with a picture of his under their pillow, stood outside his bungalow for a glimpse of their prince charming, screamed themselves hoarse whenever he made an appearance, tried to commit suicide when he married Dimple Kapadia or kissed his white Impala while wearing red lipstick.

Such mass hysteria was unseen and unheard of in India till then.

No wonder he was India’s first superstar… he deserved nothing less.

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Twitter: The better customer care platform

May 30th, 2012

While some of us do continue to wait on the phone for often-disinterested and sometimes over-enthusiastic customer care representatives at call centres to hear us rant off our displeasure at how we may be feeling cheated about their product or service, some of us have also taken to expressing our plight on social media. And believe it or not, I have always received the promptest response, and very easily the best kind, to any “dissatisfied customer” tweet I have put up.

In the first case, the website of a well known chain of movie theatres was blocking the payment gateway in a way where I wasn’t getting any confirmation for my booking, but my bank was messaging me about the corresponding amount having been deducted from my account. After three such instances, I happened to tweet about it. Voila! The firm responded to me on Twitter and asked me for certain relevant details. Within the next hour, I had a confirmed booking and a couple of emails telling me about the refund process for the faulty online transactions.

In the second case, an online shopping site had not been delivering my order for more than five weeks. The payment had been made at the time of placing the order and the estimated time for delivery was two to three weeks. In spite of three impossibly long calls to their customer care cell, which had me wanting to bang my head on the desk because the information I was being given every time was utterly useless, I was yet to receive my order. On the fourth call, I was told that the order was never shipped because they had fallen short of stock, and I was asked to send a screenshot of the webpage that showed that I had “made the said purchase so that the company can begin the refund process”.

Exasperated, I refused to share a webpage screenshot from which my banking account information could be extracted, and also to ask for something that belonged to me. They had to return me my money. Three consecutive tweets, and I immediately was contacted by their head of customer relations who apologised profusely for the “inconvenience caused”. The refund amount was credited into my account the very next day.

Some customer care reps are extremely patient and helpful and treat the callers respectfully. Just this morning a problem with my bank account was looked into and sorted out in a matter of minutes. Then there are others who have no clue about what they are doing. I had once called my mobile service provider to report the loss of my phone and to block my SIM card, and the boyish voice on the other side replied enthusiastically and cheerfully, “We are very sorry for your loss, Ma’am”. No, he didn’t sound sorry at all, not even sombre when he said it. Calling my mobile phone service provider always leaves me wanting to bang my head against the wall. The time committments are false and the information provided is always different from what I see in my bill.

Social media is proving to be a useful tool to help sort out customer issues because the very public nature of the complaint gets the company to react and perform some kind of action for damage control. But unless there is some quality control in this aspect of their business, their efforts at damage control will soon go to waste.

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The career and comfort pickle

March 20th, 2012

My cousin is studying to be an architect in one of Mumbai’s premier institutes. All I see the girl of 20 doing is slouch over huge sheets of sketches, sit amid a pile of instruments to make models of her building designs and, if time permits, sleep. Over the last one month, she has barely managed to sleep for more than four hours every 24 hours on an average. She cannot pursue a hobby. She does not go out with friends.

We may try suggesting ideas like efficient time management and smart work, but all that serves nothing really. I have seen upfront how most of these students sit night after night working on their assignments and travel intimidating distances (typical of Mumbai) to college and back.

What is worse, is this is likely to continue for another couple of years before she can be on the job. There is no guarantee that things will be any easier then.

An acquaintance of my cousin, suffering the same deal in college, recently dozed off while riding his bike to college, and suffered a fatal accident. He had not slept a wink in two days. His mother continues to blame the rigours of the course for what happened to her son.

The institutes say that professional courses such as these mould students into growing up into sharp individuals, willing to work hard and seamlessly to produce quality results. They say it prepares the students to cruise through the difficulties of a competitive professional life and pile on as much work as they can.

Parents, caught between their children’s aspirations, concern for their health and wellness, but worried about a secure career, are torn and helpless.

Where are we headed towards with this brand of “professionalism”?

We are all training ourselves to become rats, running after the proverbial cheese. What we don’t realise is, it is just within reach, only if we change our manner of approaching it.

We want a career to make money - to be able to buy the things that make us happy - so that we can go on vacations and spend time with loved ones - to be able to pursue hobbies that are thrilling, and so on and so forth. We just want too many things to make us happy.

Very well. But we are so busy pursuing a career that we are forgetting to live. We buy things that we barely get to use - because we are too busy. We sleep through holidays and vacations - because we are too tired. And hobbies? No! That’s for kids anyway.

We may be in that positions in our careers where we live in 5-star hotels and travel business class in flights while travelling for work. That sure counts as “comfort”. But how long has it been since you haven’t lived out of a suitcase or ate a meal cooked by your mother or wife? Do you know the names of your children’s friends? When was the last time you spent a good two hours, doing just what you wanted to without being interrupted by an official call?

So, in effect, we study to get a job, to earn money and live a comfortable life. But where is the comfort?

Look under that long list of wants that you have begun to label as your needs. Maybe you will find it there.

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The great V-Day tamasha

February 13th, 2012

I first became familiar with the whole idea of Saint Valentine’s Day while reading Archie comics as a child. And within no time of greeting card companies making an entrance in India did we have a new set of days to mark on our calendars - Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, Rose Day - and if I were to believe some of the trending topics on Twitter, Proposal Day, Teddy Day and Promise Day!

Corporations and businesses are beyond rejoicing the sudden burst of love in the air. Added to the agony of having your eyes blinded by too much exposure to reds and pinks everywhere, you also see a sudden flood of V-Day offers. As if fine jewellery, dining, flowers, chocolates and stuffed toys holding red hearts were not enough to profess one’s love, now gyms offer discount on couple memberships, spas and resorts offer discounts for couples and beauty salons have special packages that allow you to prettify yourself (whether to look pretty for your existing Valentine or to attract a new one, that’s left to you).

Mobile phone operators have special discounts for calls to be made to specific numbers during the Valentine’s week, Couples get bigger discounts at retail outlets, and, I may not be quite off the mark if I say builders and developers also have tricks up their sleeves to dish out a special treat for their buyers on V-Day.

There are also special V-Day movie releases that make our candy-floss brand of filmmakers the most sought-after celebrities to be interviewed in every form of media. While I do love love stories, the idea of a movie made specially for the occasion for one to hold hands with their Valentine seems a little too much. Policy makers worldwide, not to be left behind, are also spreading their share of love and have set #FedValentines trending. Of course, the double entendre in Fed chief Bernanke’s constant talk of stimulus to ease economy is just too hard to resist.

On the other hand, preservers of our sacred Indian culture are balking at the whole thingamajig. In the three years since the Pink Chaddi Campaign, instances of violent protests against public displays of coupledom on V-Day may have gone down, but the attempts to curb the “immoral foreign influences” from “soiling Indian culture” still exist. Right-wing activists and supporters see red (pun intended) and stay in the news for their agitated comments against the whole concept of V-Day. The Chhattisgarh government seems to be trying to adopt the middle ground by renaming February 14 as Parents’ Day. I cannot help but be reminded of a certain Bollywood blockbuster whose tagline said “It’s all about loving you parents.”

On the personal front, I was trying to buy a cosmetic item yesterday. I couldn’t decide between two different brands that seemed equally good. To help me make up my mind, one of the sales ladies helpfully pitched, “Mam, if you buy our brand, you get a box of two decorative candles free. It’s a special Valentines Day treat”, and held up a tacky packet of two rose-shaped candles. That was not incentive enough for me to pick the brand and I said so to the lady behind the counter. She seemed amused and asked me if I believed in the concept of Valentines Day. I said I did till everyone decided to try and make money or gain publicity out of it.

Needless to say, she looked at me like I were the Mr. Scrooge of Valentines Day and decided to treat me like a customer who did not warrant even a smile because of her apparent anti-Valentine sentiments. I bought the brand she was selling anyway.

Sigh! So much for love.

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Effervescent charm, indefatigable spirit

December 6th, 2011

A fitting tribute to Dev Anand (or Dev Saab, if I may) can only come from someone who knew him closely, or had at least interacted with him. I only knew him from his movies, his songs, his interviews that I read. I never knew him personally, but going by what I had been seeing and hearing about him ever since I began to make sense of the world, I could have never associated death with the evergreen and young-at-heart Dev Saab. But to be woken up with news as this on a Sunday morning leaves one lost for a long time.

Why lost? Somehow, his energy and enthusiasm for life rubbed off on people when they were low. Things just seemed simpler when you saw an octogenarian conduct himself with such charm and effortless suaveness, as if the world sang to his tunes. When you see a man like that, you willingly bend over with respect. His perspective on life, the stardom - which he never took lightly, but also never shoved up people’s faces - was handled with graceful dignity. And he cared a damn about what the world thought of him - A perfect blend of power, attitude and fame. That’s the kind of man every man wants to be. That’s the kind of man every girl dreams of being with.

With a handsome face and the tuft of hair falling over his forehead, a disarming smile that set a million hearts aflutter, a demeanour that made men want to woo their women in the same flirtatious manner, but most of all a zest for life, a constructive restlessness that set him apart from all lesser mortals including you and I, Dev Anand remains a man beyond all definitions we can make up to describe ordinary human beings.

My home was a place where elders sang film songs with lots of enthusiasm, and while my generation was growing up with the trashy, but addictive movies of 80s and 90s (which I watched a lot too!), my sensibilities were unconsciously getting more and more attracted towards songs my parents, uncles and my grandfather loved. They were a constant presence in my life. Sometime during those carefree days of childhood, I remember looking at Dev Anand while he sat atop a car and serenaded Asha Parekh singing “Jiya ho jiya kuch bol do” while she sat in a train, and telling my mother, “That is such a handsome man!”

In a black and white world (all pun intended), his contemporaries Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar played the righteous heroes who advocated everything pure and pristine. The villains were purely evil. Dev Anand was among Bollywood’s first leading men to don shades of grey, making him human… making him someone the audience identified with. That nonchalant smoking of a cigarette while he sang “Main zindagi ka saath nibhaata chala gaya” remains a favourite with most cinephiles and the image speaks of rebellion in its its most understated yet potent form.

His production banner, Navketan, started with brothers Chetan Anand and Vijay Anand, launched careers galore, made superstars out of junior artistes, collaborated with the best in show business to give us cinematic gems like Jaal, Baazi, Hum Dono, Guide, Johnny Mera Naam, Hare Rama Hare Krishna, Jewel Thief and many more. More than a fair share of mimicry artists make a living only because a legend like Dev Anand lived.

It is unfortunate that in the last decade or so, Dev Anand’s work met with a lot of ridicule and criticism about everything. His choice of actors, scripts and the fact that he continued to act in all his films made everyone find something sarcastic to say. There was a multitude that marvelled at his willingness to keep working, the unbounded energy that refused to keep him sitting down, that did not allow him to “act his age”. The fact that the 17 odd films he made in the last 20 odd years sank at the box office without a trace, and he zealously continued to make films, not caring what the world thought of him, not caring to “belong” and to conform, says something about his indomitable spirit. He sure could teach us a thing or two.

Dev Anand’s filmography is vast, and so are stories that people have about him; all of them being centered around his creative passion. He had apparently once said, that some day, when he retires he would like to relax, watch his older films, read books, and maybe write. That was never to happen, for a man with as much energy and such boundless passion for life, never retires. He just moves on to a place that appreciates him for who he is. And that is when we know we have lost something priceless.

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Power Play

October 25th, 2011

It is surprising to observe what power or access to power can do to most human beings.

Some friends and I were standing outside a mall, saying those extended goodbyes that come about when college friends get together and reminisce the good old days. There was a lady with her shopping cart full of things, waiting for her husband to get the car from the parking lot. Out of nowhere, an old SUV comes along - full of women in the backseat and driven by a man who looked positively inebriated - in reverse and bumps the lady to catch her off guard. She begins to shout out to the driver, who is oblivious to her shock, anger and the glares of the bystanders. He continues to take the car in reverse. While the lady moved aside, she couldn’t pull her shopping cart out of the car’s way in time, prompting everyone around to start shouting out to the driver to watch where he was going.

The driver stopped. Dazed and obviously simmering from being told that he was wrong, he looks out of his window and asked in a sinister tone, “what’s wrong?” He clearly was warning us against telling him what was wrong. The matter then escalated to a full-blown argument between him and some five of us among the bystanders. None of could understand how he was so unapologetic about his carelessness and moreover so arrogant. Even the mall’s security guard stood timidly in a corner, saying nothing. Knowing that this was going to be a futile exercise, the public decided to ignore the drunk driver, who then had no choice, but to go back and drive his car.

It was obvious afterwards why so. The number of his car revealed he was associated with a major political party with considerable clout. The man was very evidently nonchalant about his mistake and his unwillingness to even come anywhere close to accepting it. People just deiced to go their own ways after helping the lady with her shopping cart.

It took me back to a certain case study discussion that dealt with power and access to power. While the concept in sociology is quite contested and does not have a particular definition, certain situations bring power play among social group to the fore very prominently. Marx’s sociological theory of conflict with the ruling class oppressing the subject class by virtue of its ownership and control of resources fits in here to quite an extent. But the resistance, and the subsequent lack of attention to the “ruling class” member here reflects the general state of affairs in the country; in fact all over the world. It is not long before the indifference will turn into a raging movement that will turn the entire power game topsy-turvy.
Had the public decided to bring the man to task, I am fairly positive he would have preferred to made a half-hearted apology than be stubborn and get his bosses involved in a matter so trivial. But in this case, indifference was the best solution, since the man was revelling in the attention. It was a smart move to deny the very thing that was proving the fuel for his arrogance.

This is a subject very often talked about. What I have written has been very often said and written about too. We see new agitations brewing up in every corner of the world every second day. Dictatorship doesn’t work any longer - look at West Asia and North Africa. From the looks of it, neither does democracy - look at the US and India. All other prevalent from of governance seem to be exposing their flaws big time too. We need clarity in thought, freshness in execution and the optimism to see it all through.

On a lighter note, the first two are amply available on social media fora like Twitter and blogs such as these. I wonder how we are still as pained and wronged a society as we claim to be despite the pearls of wisdom floating about in the all-pervasive cyberspace.

But, to put in a serious thought, we need the third to make it possible.

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Everyone wants a Mr. Miyagi

September 5th, 2011

September 5th is a day when memories of childhood come back and make most of us smile. There are reminders all around that today is a day we pay our own personal tributes to people, who, only second to parents shape us as individuals and help us become who we are. It’s Teachers’ Day.

I grew up in a boarding school, and from lessons on literature and social studies, remedial classes on math and physics, to building courage to face the grimy realities of life, my school teachers were instrumental in making me capable of getting out into the world and meeting every challenge head-on. And not to forget, they taught me how to enjoy the finer things in life - music, arts, films, sports. My learning experiences were very similar in post-graduate school, which again became my haven for I was again lucky to have met people there who helped broaden my understanding of the world around me.

I have had teachers who became my friends and continue to guide me through my ups and downs in life with a strange combination of affection and objectivity. I have friends who are as good as teachers when I so often manage to goof up. That is the wonderful thing about teaching. One doesn’t have to be a teacher by profession to make an impact on another. I have had mentors outside classrooms - among relatives and friends, mentors at the workplace and even people I have met on online networking platforms and taken a liking to.

Then comes the life everyone wants and dreads at the same time - getting a job and having to prove your worth to your organisation and superiors every day… day in and day out. But not all bosses and superiors are unreasonable as popular belief makes it sound. Some seniors at work turn out to be teachers, or mentors - the kind who make you want to outdo yourself every time and face any kind of adversity with assertiveness and confidence. These veterans of the workplace and in most cases, of the industry, always have tidbits to share that make you more adept at tackling abnormal situations that life is so good at throwing at you, life being the biggest teacher of us all.

A newbie anywhere learns the tricks of the trade best under the wing of a master, be it in the arts or in business. Numerous studies in organisations across the globe have reiterated that those who have had mentors earn more money at a younger age and are happier with their career progress. There have been mentors and proteges throughout history, in the field of philosophy, arts, military and even in sports. These relationships balancing on the thin line of personal-professional rapports have helped create legends, who credited their success to a strong mind and a never-say-die attitude to a bond based on mutual respect, pushing the limits, and unshakeable faith. You don’t need a mentor to achieve only materially. Mentors, have more often than not, proved to be excellent guides on everything about life - in not providing answers, but in giving their followers a line of thought that helps them figure out the solution and look at the problem eye to eye.

Look at Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid. An unlikely old man, who not only teaches Karate to Daniel, but also become a surrogate father and gives him lessons that give a direction to young fatherless Daniel’s life. He is a teacher and a mentor. Similarly, at the workplace too, a mentor understands your drive and gently urges you to compete with yourself, to surpass your previous achievements and create newer goals.

There are a humongous number of movies that portray the beauty of a mentor-protege relationship, Here’s a list I drew up (with help) of some of the more unconventional and unusual ones to watch and feel good about having a great mentor or being a protege who learns with an open mind - Chowringhee (Bengali) by Pinaki Mukherjee, Manin Densha (Japanese) by Kon Ichikawa, 9-5 (American) by Colin Higgins and Kyojin to Gangu (Japanese) by Yasuzo Masumura, among many more.

And of course, there are the uncountable stories on screen and in yellowed pages of books that talk of this fantastic, mostly psychologically stimulating and symbiotic relationship between people. It all makes us want to be as impactful in the way we conduct ourselves every day. It makes us look forward to learning more every day. It makes us want a Mr. Miyagi to teach us how to beat up the baddies.

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Compulsory Social Responsibility

July 5th, 2011

There was quite a buzz sometime ago about making Corporate Social Responsibility compulsory for all organisations. Corporate Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid had proposed that companies in India should set aside 2% of their profits for spending in a socially and environmentally responsible way. The government was all for passing the Bill and incorporating it into the legal framework. The idea was to promote inclusive growth.  The intent behind the proposing of the Bill may have been noble, but can performance of something that is done to fulfill legal obligations be called “responsibility”?

For now, the conundrum has been set aside, after some of India’s largest corporate houses (and best known for their social initiatives) protested against the passage of the Bill. But in a complex democracy like ours, such puzzles keep finding  ways of reasserting themselves into political agendas, news headlines and our conscience. We are then forced to ask ourselves - How do I view this issue?

It is interesting to observe that what started as a way for an organisation to give back to its surrounding community, has now become a long-term strategy for companies to build goodwill in the market and gain visibility. It is now more or less a kind of branding exercise. It is, however, still difficult to deny that there are some organisations that do it out of a genuine and benevolent wish to do some good for the less privileged. The difference between the two kinds of companies is definitely huge, and the numbers are skewed in favour of the ones seeking tangible or intangible returns on investment. But the end result has been welcome nonetheless.

I am not sure whether mandatory CSR spending would make much difference in terms of the results and tax benefits for the organisations. But the “responsibility” bit in CSR has an allusion to the character of an organisation. Enforcing it would mean removing that criteria altogether while judging an organisation’s ability to coexist with and ensure the development of the community around it. Even now it is not a foolproof means of understanding a company’s’ real motive. But the sanctity of the idea prevails. Making it mandatory would completely decimate the last shred of dignity attached to the philosophy and concept of CSR.

Take this – a 10-year-old boy parts with his hard-earned pocket money with a child begging for alms on the street. The boy does it out of compassion and because he wants to. Another boy’s parents force him to part with his pocket money to help a needy child and this one is kicking and screaming in protest, feeling nothing but malice for the poor boy. If we had to pick favourites between the two boys, there is no doubt about whom one would choose.

The example above is just a feeble attempt in trying explain my point of view about compulsory CSR. The optimist in me would still like to believe that our organisations actively engage in CSR out of their free will and in a dedicated effort to help uplift the lesser privileged sections of the community. We do not need an iron hand forcing us to do that.  What we really need is a  set of guidelines to streamline and ensure that the right problems  are addressed and the funds allotted by every organisation is managed efficiently without wastage.

Hopefully when we are confronted with this point under discussion, we will have sufficiently matured to be able to negate it by virtue of having been proactive participants in the CSR arena.

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