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Creating Flow

The Freedom To Be

Tag Archives: Education

To

Dattaram Waghmare,

Procurement Manager

Jefferson Spice Extract Plant

Khopoli Industrial Estate,

Khopoli, Maharashtra

India

From

Arvind Dasgupta,

The HR Director

Jefferson Spice Extracts (India) Pvt. Ltd

Head Office, 95, Kamla Mills Compound,

Mumbai, Maharashtra

India

Dear Dattaram,

I have received your letter dated August 30, 2012. I have used my discretion to keep your heartfelt expression off the record.

I have noted that you are concerned about the lack of effectiveness of testing and training to bring sustainable change in human behaviour and relations. You have made a creative suggestion that we explore honest conversations among employees to build a meaningful and effective work culture.

Your letter made me ponder, as the concerns that you have raised are some of the issues (among others) that I have been reflecting upon throughout my HR career. In particular this question:

What is the freedom available to corporate employees to be creative and honest?

Therefore, Dattaram, my response here, is as much to myself, than just to you.

Given my position as the HR Director of Jefferson Spice Extracts (India) Pvt. Ltd., I was wondering what would be the most appropriate way to respond to your observations. As you may be well aware that being in HR, there is always a matter of propriety (being appropriate). Nevertheless, I was keen to respond to your letter since the points you raised triggered in me a prolonged self-inquiry, particularly your question:

“Why is it so difficult to be simple?”

Keeping all of this in mind, I am writing this letter to you, in my personal capacity as Arvind Dasgupta and not as the HR Director. I believe that only when a person is free of role restrictions can he be truly honest. I am therefore sending you this letter from my personal email address.

After giving it due thought, I have come to the conclusion, that in order to respond to your question at the very root, I will need to share with you something about my life, before I became an HR Director. Like all inquiries that seek to go to the root of the problem, this inquiry also begins with a story.

Arvind Dasgupta’s story.

I was born in a traditional Bengali family. My father, Soumendranath Dasgupta migrated from East Bengal in 1947 when he was 15 years old, along with my grandparents. After much movement and hardships, the family set base in the town of Siliguri, in West Bengal. Siliguri, located on the banks of the Mahananda river and on the foothills of the Himalayas is known for its tea and tourism. Baba through much of his own efforts educated himself, by working part-time at the reception desk of a small hotel and financing his own education. A significant part of his salary would go in running the house consisting of my grandparents and my Bua, his sister. After his graduation he gave the government exams and joined the Indian Railway. His first job was as railway guard on a train. Soon after, he married my mother Rukmini, who was five years younger to him and hailed from a nearby village called SaktigarhMa had studied upto the 10th standard, which was an exception for a girl of her background. Their’s was an arranged marriage. Even though Baba insisted on seeing Ma before the alliance was fixed, which was an exception, as it was not the custom for boys and girls to see each other before the marriage was finalised. I am told, he was finally allowed to enter the room where mother was knitting a sweater, stole a quick glance at her, came out satisfied. Three months later, they were married in a traditional Bengali wedding, spanning many days. Baba was 23. Ma was 18.

Dattaram, you must be wondering why I am sharing about Baba and Ma with you and how is this related to HR and training effectiveness in Jefferson Spice Extracts (India) Pvt. Ltd?  I request your patience. Eventually you will see  how these two, seemingly distant aspects, of my family background and corporate effectiveness are related.

Baba and Ma had dreamed of having their own house after marriage. Their dream came true when Baba was allotted a small railway quarter near Siliguri Junction station. Ma told me that it was a small room and a kitchen. The room and the kitchen were separated by a curtain. The left portion of the kitchen would be used as a washing and bathing space and loft was used to store items not in immediate use. Baba had an erratic schedule, depending on which train he was deputed for guard duty. Ma would spend most of her time cooking, cleaning and sometimes talking to the women next door. Of course I was still not born, so whatever I am sharing with you is based on what I have heard from them.

I was born five years after marriage. Ma had two miscarriages before I was born. She was anxious that a normal pregnancy may never occur. Both Baba and Ma went to the Sevokeshwari Kali Mandir to pray for a normal delivery. When Ma was pregnant a third time with me, she recited the Gayatri  mantra 108 times every day till the day I was born. Baba made adjustments to his duty schedule to be present at the time I was born.

I am told that I was born on a Poornima, on a full moon night.

I received a warm reception from Thakur-da, Thakur-ma, Dadu, Dida, Bua and ofcourse Baba and Ma at the railway hospital where I was born. Everyone wanted to hold me and see who I resembled in the family.  After two days of my birth Ma returned home. On the first night of my arrival at home, Baba held me in his strong arms, looked at me for a long time and promised me something. Something that he had to struggle all through his life to achieve.

Education.

He told Ma “Ruku, no matter what hardships we have to go through, we will provide the best education to our son”. Ma smiled back and nodded her head silently. It was a pact that would have a significant affect on how my life would unfold. Even though neither of them said it, they instinctively knew at that moment that I would be their only child and henceforth their lives would have a singular purpose. Me.

“Aurobindo” said Thakur-da, my paternal grandfather. They were discussing what would be my name. Sri Aurobindo was a Bengali freedom fighter, philosopher, poet and yogi. Baba wanted a shorter name that sounded more Indian. They settled for Arvind.

“Arvind Dasgupta” announced Ma, holding me up,as though formalizing the decision.

Starting from the alphabet ‘A’ I was usually the third person on the roll call list of my class at school. The teacher would call out “Amit”, “Arijit”, “Arvind”…. There were around 35 to 40 students in the class. St. Josephs Convent and one of the best English medium schools, run by Christian missionary fathers. It was not easy to get admission there, especially not for a Station Master’s son. Baba had gradually been promoted through his dedicated hard-work and held the post of the Station Master of Siliguri Junction, seven years after my birth. Given the promise he had made to me, he wanted to admit me in the best English medium school. After much pleading with the school principal (and using some of his railway connections) he finally managed to get me admitted to a school, the expenses of which he definitely could not afford from his meagre salary. But, that was the last thing on his mind. All he could see at that moment was, Arvind Dasgupta, his son, completing school with flying colours as a “smart-English-speaking-convent-educated-boy” many years later.

St. Joseph’s Convent was a school mostly for the affluent. The school had hostel facility and children from well-to-do families came from various parts of India, and a few even from abroad. A few of us were locals from Siliguri mostly from middle class families like mine. While my grey sweaters were hand-made, most of my classmates were ready-made. I always made some excuse not to accompany them to the school canteen for Campa Cola and samosas. They wore imported shoes, mine were from the local brand. Even though I was aware of this class distinction, between me and them, I never complained.

Baba and Ma always provided for me, the best they could.

Till this day I do not know how they managed to pay my fees and take care of other school expenses. Ma had started a tiffin service where she cooked meals and snacks for a local eatery from home. There were compromises on all kinds of expenses – food, clothing, festivals, social-functions, holidays – except one.

My education.

Neither Baba or Ma, ever mentioned the difficulties they underwent  to provide me a premium education. Their only expectation was that I study hard and get good marks.

Whenever I used to get 60 marks, Baba would ask me “Why not 70?” When I got 70, he would ask “Why not 80?” and on the rare occasion I managed a 80, the question was “Why not 90?” So I was always competing with my classmates for getting the maximum marks. I once managed get 2nd rank in class and Baba asked “Why not 1st?” That was his way of encouraging me to work harder. And I kept studying hard to get more marks….and his love and approval.

The problem, as I see it now, was just that.

We had bound each other.

He had bound himself by providing me with an education way beyond his means and I had bound myself by wanting to meet all his expectations.  Of course we did it because of our love for each other. However, the love that binded us, also blinded us.

Dattaram, you may wonder how can love blind us?

You will say “After all children must meet the expectations of their parents, who give up their own comforts to provide for the best upbringing for their children.It is the natural thing to do for both parents and children.”

But as I see it now, that my friend, is exactly where the root of the problem lies.

Baba like all parents provided me the best education, so that I could excel in life and create name, fame and money for myself. So that I did not have to go through the same drudgery that he had to go through. He therefore admitted me to a system, a school, where I entered the race to excel and beat my fellow classmates. The gaping hole in this process was that no one ever checked with me, whether I wanted to run that race. And when I was made to run a race that I had not chosen to run:

I stopped thinking for myself.

My thinking became automated. I simply followed what I was told. I never stopped to think what I wanted for myself. Where did my own happiness lie?

Did I really want to get 90 marks in mathematics? Was it my dream to come 1st in class? Did I really want to study Chemistry? Did I want to follow the school time-table? Did I want to give exam? Did I want to struggle for more marks?

I had a poetic and philosophical bent of mind, just like my namesake Sri Aurobindo. As a nine-year old, you could find me writing something in my small blue diary which I carried with me all the time. I would often sit under the large banyan tree at the outskirts of the school campus and watch the sparrows and the squirrels play with each other on its old drooping branches. Other times I would visit the bank of the Mahananda river and watch the waters gushing against the backdrop of the majestic Himalayan peaks. Sometimes I would simply lie on a grassy patch of our football field and gaze at the white fluffy clouds, shaped like balls of cotton drift lazily across the blue canvas of the sky. And, I would write in my small blue diary, with my red and black striped Camlin pencil.

Once Baba saw me writing and asked “What do u keep writing in that diary of yours?”

I immediately became self-conscious and after a pause I said “Poems.”

“Hmmm…very good. All our Bengali freedom fighters have been poets.” He said.

After a moment’s silence, he added.

“But remember poems cannot get you a job. Only a good degree can. And for that you need good marks.”

“Yes Baba.” And I put my diary away.

In that moment, for the first time I felt guilty.

I was reminded of the difficulties Baba and Ma were undergoing to educate me. I felt torn between my love for poetry and my love for Baba and Ma. I felt ashamed for indulging myself in a pursuit that would not translate into anything practical. A bigger house, new clothes or more food at the table. I said to myself “How can I be so selfish, when Baba and Ma are sacrificing so much for me.”

You see Dattaram, my future was more or less charted for me, very much like the future of most men born in a Middle Class Family.

“Degree-Job-Marriage”

Later when I was to join College, I made one last attempt at being selfish.  I considered taking up Arts and pursue psychology and literature. I was always good at writing and thought maybe I could consider being a journalist or a writer. I still remember the time I shared this with Baba and Ma and the grave look on their face.

“Will psychology and literature get you a job?” said Baba.

“I think you should give it some thought?” said Ma

“Why don’t you take up Commerce. You could get a good bank job?” said Baba

“You are bright, you should give the Civil Services exam” said Ma

I realized then, as I had always known, but did not want to believe.

Education was not about learning. It was about earning.

After all, for The Middle Class education is an investment. An important investment. And like every investment, it is expected to give a good return. You see, investments are of two kinds. Financial and emotional. The financial can be repaid, but the emotional investment has no measure. And repayment can last a lifetime.

You know Dattaram, you may see me as “The HR Director”. But below this black business suit of mine I am not very different from you. What is common between us, is our love for our families. For our parents who have done so much for us. For our children who mean the world to us. But sometimes Dattaram, we use love unknowingly, to enslave ourselves and others.

I have learnt from my experience, when we are not allowed as children to be loyal to our own happiness, we give up our freedom. To think and question radically, as you have. We become followers of The Existing System, pursuing what everybody else does. Seeking happiness in a degree, designation, salary, house, car and what others say about us. It becomes irrelevant whether we enjoy what we do. It is of no consequence whether we believe in what we do. And some of us even fool ourselves into believing that all of this normal. We believe that this is how life is meant to be lived.  And it is easy to fool ourselves, because everyone else is doing the same thing. As though the only criteria for assessing what is normal is what the majority does. We rationalize it by saying “Let us be practical”.

I believe if there is a root of corruption in the world, then it is:

“Not allowing children the freedom, to be true to their own happiness”.

I eventually did, what most of the other students were doing. Graduated in commerce and did my Masters in Business Administration, from a reputed business college renowned for its Human Resource specialization.

“Which business college?” you ask

You see Dattaram, from here on the details of my life do not matter.

“Why?” you ask.

Because from here on, as you will see, my life takes the predictable pattern of most educated men and women belonging to the Middle Class. Degree-Job-Marriage.

The Middle Class calls this process “settle down in life”.

The business college was a heady experience in more ways than one.

Gradually, I began to believe, like most of my batch mates, that we were on our way to make a difference to the world and fulfill The Great Indian Middle Class Dream. Buy a house in the city. Just like my Baba and Ma dreamed of having their own house, when they got married. Only in my dreams it was a bigger house, than our humble railway quarters.  And instead of the blue scooter on which Baba would take us shopping on Sunday, with me sitting in the front and Ma behind with her big pale red shopping bag, I dreamed of a big car. When I shared my dreams with Baba and Ma they smiled with satisfaction. They felt that their hard work was paying off. I was on the right track. So what if I did not want to work in a bank or take up the civil services, I was now thinking of “settling down”, the sole parameter used by The Middle Class to consider that all is well.

The other “headiness” at the business school was of concepts and ideas. We discussed and debated theory after theory. Applied psychology, organizational behaviour, management  principles, labour laws, systemic thinking, training methodologies, psychometric instruments, recruitment processes, performance and evaluation systems. Everything and anything related to managing human beings in organizations. Human Resources we called them. As though we were talking of a large mass or an impersonal force of nature that was to be used in the most effective manner to produce goods and services.

I have realized that one can find great joy in debating concepts and theories. Creating intellectual delight! Yet life is an experience, that no theory can capture.

I realized this in my very first job.

It was with a reputed Indian Company. I was responsible for recruitment. To arrange for the right candidate to fill the vacant job position. It mostly required co-ordination between manager, placement agency and the candidate. I also took interviews. At times, I wondered when will I get a chance to use all the HR theories and concepts that I had learnt in my reputed Management College. After a year of experience, I realized one fine day, that the world of theories is different from the real world. The real world wants fast results and measurable outcomes. And if I had to survive, leave alone grow, I had to show a Return On Investment. The Company was investing in me. And, I had to prove to them that I was a good investment.  You see at the end of it all, everything boils down to investment and return.

I got lucky in my next job as Head of the HR function of a newly set up engineering multinational company. There, I learnt the ropes of managing the management on one hand and the employees on the other. It is a tight balancing act, that cannot be taught at any business school. But, balancing is a natural skill of The Middle Class. We are always to trying to find a balance between our growing needs and the limited resources available to meet them. It did not take me long to apply “balancing” at work, with good results. It was during this time that I got married. It was an arranged Bengali marriage, and even though she is not convent educated (a pre-requisite for all good middle-class Indian brides), she is slim and fair, as Ma insisted upon it. She wanted her grand children to be fair. And by God’s grace (and Ma’s sincere prayers) they are fair. Two of them, a girl and a boy.

Thereafter life has been a blur of activity. Late working hours, children’s education, meeting social obligations and two more jobs. Jefferson Spice Extracts (India) is my fifth job. I am 52 now and the HR Director of a big multinational Company. I am an example of what it means to be a successful.  Once a year I make it a point to visit Baba and Ma at Siliguri, during Durga puja.  Baba spends most of his time managing his fixed deposits and pension. He uses a stick to walk now and Ma has arthritis in her knees, but they are remarkably active even in their old age. They are immensely happy that I have fulfilled the Great Indian Middle Class Dream of settling down. They share with pride about their son’s meteoric rise in the corporate sector with whoever cares to listen. You see Dattaram, among all the Gods The Middle Class family prays to, there is only one that it truly worships.

The God of Success.

Both my children are now in America. My daughter Indrani, is pursuing medicine and son Abhijit, is doing his management in one the most reputed college there. They are the love of my life! Just like my Baba and Ma did for me, I too am offering them an education that stretches my financial resources. I have taken an education loan to pay for their college fees. And just like my Baba and Ma wanted to see me settled down, I would like to see them successfully settled in their lives. Both Indrani and Abhijit, tell me (now in their American accented English) that they would like to look for jobs in America after they complete their studies. Pursue the The Great American Dream, just as so many Indians before them have and found success. They are both intelligent children and I am sure they have a bright future ahead of them.

When I reflect on the three generations, I see the progress our family has made each generation. From Baba and Ma being middle class, me moving to upper middle class and now Indrani and Abhijit likely to become Non-Resident Indians. I sometimes wonder, what will be the fate of my grand children, if  they are born in a foreign country, with abundant resources available to them. Will they educate themselves for learning or earning? Will they be allowed to pursue what gives them happiness? Will there parents pressurize them to become successful? Or will they be confused about who they are and come back to India in search of their roots?

Of course I will come to know in time to come. Even though the mind tends to wander into the future as I come to the end of My Story, Dattaram.

Now let me share with you how the story of Arvind Dasgupta, a simple middle class Indian boy coming from a traditional Bengali family, is linked to corporate effectiveness.

But before I do that let me address your observation.

On the lack of effectiveness of testing and training to bring sustainable change in organizations?  

This may come as a surprise to you, but what you say is not new to me.

I myself have questioned many times the effectiveness of what happens in organizations, leave alone testing and training.  In my experience of working in various organizations I have often seen (and been a part of) a variety of activities that in my view were a waste of time and resources for the intent they were meant to achieve. And often, people do not always mean what they say.

I have heard about the “open door policy” where I was told that I could walk into any cabin and freely discuss whatever I wanted. Only to know that I actually had no say when it came to making decisions.

I have spent hours working on a “presentation” that was filled with colourful graphs and pie charts detailing the company vision, that left me and the audience unmoved.

I have attended “meetings” where the real issue was never discussed, because none of us wanted to risk being the one to ask difficult questions.

I have attended “training” programs in the most exotic locations, when what was really needed was to budget expenses and make important decisions.

I have created “developmental frameworks” because they looked good on paper and were easy to present, but often these did not result in any development or change at the ground level.

I have hired “branded consultants” because they offered the latest popular management concept and it was safe for me to hire them.

And sometimes I have asked people “to leave” not because they were bad at what they did, but because the Company needed to cut costs.

All of this is part of the work I do.

I see all this. We see all see this. Sometimes I speak up, sometimes I choose not to. Sometimes others speak up, sometimes they choose not to. You see it is all about “maintaining a balance”. In every organization there is something called the “mandate”. It means an authorization to act in a certain way, given by a superior authority to a lower one. There are different kind of mandates. Global mandate, Management mandate, HR mandate. In other words we all, including me, have somebody controlling our actions from above. One of the unspoken laws of the corporate world is that “one should speak only as much as the mandate he has”. Speaking beyond your given mandate mostly creates trouble for the person who breaks this unspoken law.

And no matter what happens we rationalize and find explanations to justify our decisions and actions, as long as we have the “buy-in” of the person on top. And if your boss were to pull the rug away from your feet, then no amount of explanation or rationalization works.

Let me share a secret with you.

Among all the competencies you listed for your job in your letter, there is an important competency that you missed out. Even though it is not listed, it has been a requirement in all organizations I have worked.

Conformity.

Organizations want individuals to be proactive and innovative. But within the “defined framework”. At the end of the day we have to do our task and show results. Including HR. Which means “recruit, train, evaluate, engage etc.” Keeping in mind what “recruit, train, evaluate, engage etc.” means for the top boss or the set culture. We have to follow The System that we are a part of. It changes from company to company. Management to management. And with every new job we have to adapt and maintain this fine balancing act. We do not decide how The System functions, we just maintain it.

It is not difficult for The Middle Class to demonstrate conformity. Just like balancing, it is something that comes naturally to us. In fact after a while it makes us comfortable. That we do not need to decide, and someone else can decide for us. Just as I did not have a choice in what I studied at school, we have limited choice and freedom at work. Other times we are limited by our own inability to think beyond what The System wants us to think. I like to believe I am free, but deep down I know that:

I am a part of a larger wheel.

The wheel can survive without me, even though it is doubtful whether I can survive without the wheel.

Dattaram, you speak of the need to have real conversations.  Being honest with each other to resolve our problems and achieve our goals.

For honest conversations to happen we need freedom. And the question if there is one to ask is:

What binds us?

You and me Dattaram, we may have different roles and backgrounds yet we have something in common that binds us.It is the same thing that binds every corporate employee, from the MBA educated Director at the top, to the office boy who gets tea for us, at the bottom.

Our sentimentalism.

After a while the reports, the trainings, the power points, the assessments, the meetings and the management jargon stop making sense. Jobs gradually lose their meaning. We learn to go through the motions. Or we make ourselves believe that this is how life is meant to be and seek meaning within our circle of engagement. After all happiness is a subjective transitory experience and our ability to seek happiness is restricted by the boundaries of our limited knowledge. What is real though, are the EMIs we have to pay for the loans we have taken to meet our responsibility, to the only people who truly matter to us in the world.

Our children.

We live for them and we are willing to die for them. In fact we die a thousand times for them without their knowledge. Just to see them happy and comfortable. We give away our freedom for the love of our children. Unfortunately, we take away theirs too.

They say The Buddha was a free man. He left his sleeping wife and child to earn his freedom. I do not think it is possible for you or me to do that. I rather be a sentimental slave, than a heartless free man. Infact, it is not choice I make. The choice was made for me, when as a child I noticed the sacrifices Baba and Ma made to give me a Convent education. When Baba reminded me that poems do not get jobs. When I decided to fulfill the Great Indian Middle Class Dream, to buy a house in the city and have a big car.

When I stopped thinking for myself.  

That is the story behind why I, as HR Director, does as much as I do and cannot do more than I am asked to do. I have to work within a mandate. And, I have to show results that can be seen and are recognised, like reports and trainings, even though you may find them confusing and their effects temporary. After all, honest conversations cannot fill the training calendar.

Dattaram, you ask me why is it difficult to be simple?

I do not have an answer for that, but I have other questions for us to explore.

Is honesty possible without freedom?

Is freedom given or is it taken?

What does it mean to be free?

I do not have answers to these questions either, but I feel for the first time as Arvind Dasgupta, I am beginning to ask questions that really matter. They may not impact my immediate corporate goals as HR Director. They may not even have any practical use, just like my childhood poems didn’t. But, I have now learnt through life experience, that practical solutions often result in practical problems and we keep running in circles fixing problems that would have never arisen if we had chosen to be “impractical” to begin with.

You say “Can we start being impractical now?”

I don’t know Dattaram.

Perhaps, we could.

Perhaps the time has come to experiment with impracticality to achieve practical results. Perhaps the invitation was always there. I was not ready to take it.

This letter to you is my first step towards having an honest conversation.

I hope it is not the last.

Yours sincerely,

Arvind Dasgupta

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The blank canvas. Looking for black and white ink. Squiggles, curls and dots. Squiggles? What is a squiggle? I look up the synonyms. Scribble, wavy line, scrawl, doodle, mark. Hmm…can one squiggle or doodle with a key board? The fingers press on the keys leaving an imprint on the monitor. When was the last time I wrote? I mean really write. With a paper and a pen. Writing a cheque does not count. That does not count for self-expression. I give up reflecting. I have been punching keys on the keyboard for a very long time.

Why this sudden, inquiry into expression through pen and paper.

I remember the time when I was first given a pen to write with. A fountain pen. I was excited. It was a fountain pen and one had to fill ink in it by pulling the small knob attached at the end of the plastic tube. The ink flowed into the tube using the suction principle. Not that the ink knew about this principle. It was something that we were taught in science class. There was an ink bottle kept on the table in the corner of the classroom. After we had finished filling our fountain pens with ink, we used to wipe the nibs on the side of our heads. I do not know who started it, but it became a kind of ritual and all of us did it. As though we needed to wipe the nibs, clean after their morning bath in ink and the extra ink would soak into our scalp and make us more intelligent.

Ms Panero was our class teacher. An unmarried woman in her sixties. She had a sharp nose and round rimmed glasses perched on that nose. We had heard she was from Calcutta, not Kolkatta, and she was the senior most teacher in the school. As I try to reach back into the memory section of my head to recall the events of that day, I cannot recall them. Infact, I cannot recall the other days of school either. What exactly did I do? Is it because I was too young? I do recall myself playing, particularly marbles in the mud until my fingers ached from bending them backward. I recall the time when I made a paper airplane and it flew far higher and far longer than other planes. I recall being part of gymnastics and the smell of the musty mattresses when we landed on them. The memories are there, thank god. Only the portion of time I spent in classrooms seems to have become blank. Or maybe one large undistinguishable mass of blankness. Remarkable.

Anyway coming back to the business of fountain pens and Ms Panero. Both symbols of my growing up. The fountain pen meant that I was old enough to use ink. It meant my written expression would be more vivid and clear. There was also an unstated expectation that what I write would not be cancelled or rubbed. And I could be trusted with that. In recognition of that trust, I was handed the fountain pen. As though I was being knighted for coming of age, under the strict supervision of Ms. Panero. She told us how the fountain pen was to be used. In case of any errors, which were not expected of us, we were to cancel the word in a clean systematic manner. One stroke for one alphabet. We were also told that the stroke had to be a backslash, not a horizontal line, not a forward slash, but a backslash. It was cumbersome to cancel each alphabet one stroke at a time, yet that is how we were told. That is how I did it.

We did not get a chance to see each other’s books, or our collective artistry with the fountain pen. I felt my writing was fairly clean and synthetic to go under the gaze of Ms. Panero. When the English class was over, that is what she taught us, a shrill bell rang signalling the end of this class and the start of another. We quickly closed our books and screwed back the cover of our pens. Oh! And I forgot to mention each of our pens had our names on it. A small white strip of paper with a transparent scotch tape pasted over it. I got up and put my book on the table along with my cherished first fountain pen. So did everyone else. Ms Panero collected the books in one big pile and put all the fountain pens back in the bag that she had got them in. The books were for correction. And the fountain pens were for her safe custody. Even though the pens were symbols of our coming adulthood, we were not considered adult enough yet to take care of them. As she left the class with our books and pens, we got ready for the next teacher to teach us another subject. It is remarkable that I cannot recall what I was taught, that day.

The next day Ms. Panero handed our books to us. I eagerly opened to see what remarks I had got for what I had written the previous day. I was aghast. The page was bathed in red. It was a battle of her red ink over my blue ink. There were red backslashes everywhere.  / / / / /  These lines. An army of them. Overpowering the army of my words.  I wondered what is it that I had done wrong. The spellings were in order, the words touched the line evenly and I had cancelled the misspelt words in exactly the way I was told to. I turned another page and there at the end of it was written in the unmistakable scrawl of Ms. Panero’s writing “Write towards the right.”

Write towards the right. Write towards the right. Write towards the right.

I pondered on that sentence over and over again. Trying to decipher the deep mystery behind those words. No matter how hard I tried, I just could not understand what “Write towards the right” meant. It would have been easier to go up to her and simply ask what she meant, but then for me it was like crossing the Pacific Ocean. I don’t know why I say the Pacific ocean and not the Atlantic, or the Indian,  maybe in my mind back then the Pacific was the most difficult to cross. Never mind. The point was asking Ms. Panero what she meant by the red remark in my book was taking a huge risk for my eleven year old self. What if she showed my book to the entire class and everyone saw the sea of red plastered on my pages. What if she made a statement that would allow my classmates to make fun of me for rest of the day, rest of the term, maybe rest of my life? I just could not allow that to happen. So I did what any self-respecting eleven year old would do. I sat quiet and acted as though nothing had happened.

As I handed my book to Ms. Panero that day, I was dreading what would come my way tomorrow. I was hoping that I had written the way she wanted me to. Made extra sure that all my T’s were crossed and I’s were dotted. But deep down something in me knew that this was not the end of it.

The next day Ms. Panero returned everyone’s book for writing their lesson. Except mine. She held onto my book. I panicked. Just imagine your classmates with their books and writing the lesson for the day and here I was the only one who was without a book. There is nothing worse for an eleven year old than exclusion. To not be doing something, that everyone in the class was doing. Being part of the group was like oxygen. Vital force of remaining alive. Even if the group was being given painful injections, I rather be a part of that group and undergo the same painful experience, rather than be left out without an experience my friends underwent. I sat in misery awaiting my fate.

While the others were busy with their writing, Ms Panero called me to the table. I approached the table in front. I could smell her. It was distinct smell of…of…of…. errr… pencil eraser. The kind which has floral fragrance and looks good, but when you use it leaves a black smudgy mark on paper. Maybe it was my imagination. “Yes Miss.” I said as soon as I was standing within hearing distance of her. “I told you to write towards right. Why are you not doing that?” she asked with a genuine concern just as a doctor would address a patient, who is not following the simplest instructions for his own betterment. I looked at her, not knowing what to say. Finally, I said “I am sorry Miss. I don’t understand. What is right towards right?” She was taken a back for a moment. Probably in her own head, she wondered how could anyone not understand “Write towards right.” The simplest instruction in the world.

She opened my book and showed my writing to me. “See here. All your written alphabets are slanting towards the left. I want you to write all your alphabets slanting towards the right, so that eventually your alphabets will become straight and centred. Do you understand now? ” She asked. “Oh! So that is what write towards right meant” I said in my own mind. “Yes Miss.” I said to her excited at having finally deciphered the mystery of right towards right. “I understand now.” She nodded her head in approval and gave me my book. I quickly returned to my seat before anyone noticed something was wrong.

So, I started writing towards right.

***

If my blog theme supported writing in italics, you would be seeing the balance of this article in italics font. Unlike Ms Panero, it does not. Anything written in italics is transformed into capital letters. So I am colouring the rest of it in blue. But you could tilt your head a little towards the right and imagine it is slanting to the right. If you please.

***

Until this day, I write towards right. I slant my writing towards the right. Ms. Panero forgot to correct me that I had written enough towards the right and it was time to centre my writing. Neither did I bother to remind her. Ms. Panero was my class teacher only for that class. The next year I moved to another school and another class where the teacher never bothered about how I wrote, much less what I wrote. So then, there was no reason to centre my writing.

Years later, someone was analysing my writing. He said, “You are ambitious and forward-looking, as all your alphabets are slanting towards the right.” I smiled. It felt good to hear that. Maybe I was. But now you know that is not the only reason why I right towards right.          

 “Write towards right!” I can still hear Ms. Panero saying to me in red.

***

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I was excited when I first went through the brochure of the Learning Societies Unconference. For two reasons. One, it was a gathering of people, in a manner I had never experienced before. Two, they seemed my kind of people. They were expecting more than three hundred people from across the world, with a variety of backgrounds to explore new ways of learning and living. Moreover, there was no structure to the conference; hence, it was called the un-conference. It would emerge as we went along. It worked for me. Anything that questioned mainstream education and economics and believed in going with the flow definitely had my vote. It seemed as though I had found my community at last.

As I reached Hideout, the rural venue, three hours from Mumbai, it took me a while to settle into the variety of people I suddenly came across. People who had attended earlier conferences greeted each other with shouts and hugs, like long lost family members. I smiled politely and shook hands. I was new to this family. Yet the distinctive character of the community was felt. These were people who had walked out of mainstream institutions, schools and corporations, and were searching for new ways of educating their children and living more authentic lives. Some had covered ground in that journey, while others were just beginning. Most importantly, it gave me a sense of community. I felt mainstream here!

The next five days were to be devoted to learning, sharing, listening and bonding. Each day began with an open space and members offered to hold workshops on a variety of topics. The workshops offered were mind-boggling! Ranging from the power of spaces, making of caps, sharing unschooling experiences, effective listening, radical honesty, creative letter writing, tarot cards, non-violent communication, belly dancing and the much anticipated unconventional relationships – to name a few. I offered one on finding inner authority. Then there were mela-shops of different organizations doing a variety of work in the developmental sector ranging from education to ecology. This seemed like a learners paradise.

I floated mostly. Without any agenda.  Allowing the day to unfold. Here is what I learnt.

On Learning

My primary learning was that learning and unlearning is a myth. There is nothing to learn or unlearn. Every learning or unlearning results in a new answer. Another concept. And each concept comes in the way of experiencing life. We keep replacing old concepts with new ones and perpetuate the illusion of learning. Giving precedence to learning over living.

Each time I think I have found a new way to live, to relate, to educate I feel fortified with answers. Until the answers crumble when dashed against the incomprehensible mystery of life. Then the mind searches for new answers, new masters, new books, new theories. Once it finds the new answer, it rests for a while. Until the cycle is repeated. Little realizing that the problems of living stem from the mind, the questions come from the mind and the mind finds the answers too. The mind labels this activity learning or unlearning. A poor substitute to living.

On Relating

Just as the nature of the mind is to create constructs, we look for the ideal construct to relate. Marriage, the traditional construct having failed, the mind now looks for new answers through unconventional relationships. Each construct – open marriages, polyamory, fidelity, commitment – is picked and examined closely. A hidden hope that the exploration would give the magical key into this mysterious terrain of relating between a man and a woman. Some of us have questions, some have answers, while others have stories to share.

In the search for a new construct, I realize that I am missing a crucial moment of relating. To myself, in this very moment.  And if I am not relating to myself, how will I ever relate to another.  Thus theories, concepts and constructs relate to one another other, leaving feelings unfelt and needs unarticulated.

On Authority    

Every time I seek an answer from another, I create authority. Every time I give an answer to another, I become an authority. From some I seek answers. To others I give answers. What is common is my need for answers. Where does this need stem from? What is it like to live without answers? Is it possible?

Yet I speak. I speak of how to be free, when I am bound. I speak of becoming independent, when I cultivate dependence. I speak of relating, when I myself do not relate. I speak to humans, when my own humanness awaits expression. Have I become a commentator on living, at the cost of living?

On Freedom

Does freedom mean being unbounded? What if my unbounded expression creates inconvenience to another? How does one then live as a free individual within an interdependent community? Is being free flowing, allowing for chaos to create, letting it evolve organically, indicative of my ignorance or my reactiveness to the system that confined me for so long? Can individual freedom truly exist without agreed norms and boundaries?

In the absence of basic norms, who decides? In absence of clear time boundaries, who waits? In the absence of clear roles, what remains undone? If my primary purpose is to learn, when will I learn that freedom and boundaries go hand in hand?

On Sensitivity

I talk of being sensitive to the environment, to nature, to the value of hard work and honest labour. But what of my sensitivity in communication to fellow human beings. Does not sensitivity have more than one flavour?  How swayed am I by my commitment to a singular value, that I am blinded to my own verbal violence? Am I so lost in my own story of sensitivity that I do not see my insensitivity to others?

How different am I from the terrorist or the rioter who kills for his value? Have I lost my sensitivity and rationality in my story of self-righteousness?

On Facilitation

I wish to facilitate inclusiveness. Facilitate listening. Restore peace and harmony. What is my need to do so? In the process am I giving up my authenticity to play a role, live up to an image of what I aspire to be? Am I listening to myself? Am I at peace and harmony? Have I explored myself deeply enough or am I seeking solutions from the outside?

What would happen if I gave up the security of a technique to communicate? Or the crutch of an approach to facilitate?  What if I got up one day to see all that I had learnt had been erased? Would I then get in touch with what I felt in the moment? Would I then risk becoming vulnerable to express my need to another? Or would I become immobilized if there was no one to facilitate me? And I run to find another mask that would make me socially loved and accepted?

On Feelings

Why is it so hard for me to be in touch with my feelings? The most fundamental aspect of my being. What draws my energy constantly towards the concepts and theories of the mind? Seeking answers, giving answers in a symbolic language that by its very nature is untrue, fragmented and static. Inadequate to meet the needs of a life that is dynamic, animated and whole. How do I perceive this whole without fragmentation?

Am I myself fragmented? Seeking completion, belonging and acceptance from family, friends and community? Will my search ever end?

On Creating A New World

In my pursuit to create a new world, a better world, for my children and the generations to come, am I missing out on another world? The world inside of me. Have I ever looked inside. Not introspecting, analyzing or interpreting, but simply looked and noted without words. Or am I so busy setting the world right that I have no time to stop and note the world I carry within.

Can I ever bring integration outside, if I am divided inside? Can I bring peace and harmony to the world, without bringing it first into my heart and mind? Is the world a reflection of my own mind? Am I the world?

 ***

During the conference I stayed in a dormitory in the home for the aged run by Christian nuns. It was reminiscent of my growing years in a convent boarding school. There was fixed time for everything. The gates of the home shut at 10.00 pm sharp. Often we had to wait outside in the hope that the Sister would be kind enough to open it. She mostly did and we would scamper inside muttering “Sorry” under our breath.

What I loved most about the place was the lake adjoining it. There was a dam and the water flowed into a small pond with rocks and pebbles. I went there for a bath every morning. It became my morning ritual. Often as I used to go for my bath, I would come across a few participants gazing at the sun. Drawing energy from it. Everything about the place was so energising. The cool air, the green cover, the gushing waters, the still rocks.

As I stepped into the waters and took the first dip. I entered another world. A fluid world of swirling gushing current. The world above me lost for a moment. Till I emerged for a breath of air. The sun continued to shine radiantly. The morning breeze played harmoniously with the trees, caressing the leaves with playful curiosity. For moment everything seemed perfect. Everything in nature seemed as it was meant to be.

Was I not an integral part of nature? Why then why did I seek perfection? Change? Evolution? Growth? Standing right in the middle of The Garden of Eden I sought it everywhere, other than where it seemed to be. Inside of me.

As I arrived in Mumbai I needed a day to ground myself. Even though I had traveled a mere three hours, I experienced a mental-emotional jet lag of many eons. I felt as though I had journeyed into the cosmos of each person present there, a catharsis leading to a realignment of my own cosmos.

Bringing me closer to myself.

***

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