Beyond Borders

It is strange that in this digital age, when the world is getting smaller, it feels as though we are being pulled further apart. It is human nature to seek out people like ourselves; people that we understand and identify with. When people are in their own countries, they connect with those who share their language, religion and region. When they are abroad, they bond with people of their nationality or subcontinent. The sense of safety in what we know and a fear of the unknown causes us to look for the familiar. But, isn’t exploring the unfamiliar the best way to get over this fear? When we surround ourselves with things we don’t know, we start learning about them and they become a part of our lives. In other words, they are no longer out of the ordinary.

So, what happens when we come across someone who is “different”? Are we curious or are we wary? Do we judge them based on preconceived notions or do we try to know more about them? Do we make them feel uncomfortable or do we make them feel welcome?

A few years ago, I took a sabbatical to pursue a short course in a city different from my hometown. I was going back to school after a long time and felt clearly out of place. But, on my first day, I noticed three girls who looked more unsure than I was. They had good reasons to. They were far from home in a foreign environment. With things like different weather and surroundings, unfamiliar people and culture and unknown food and language to consider, they had a lot more to deal with. Not to mention, their appearance set them apart and made them receive quite a fair bit of attention. As an introvert, I kept to myself while other students in my class acquainted themselves with each other.

After a few hours, we were asked to make our way to the lab for some practical sessions. As we entered the lab, it became clear that each system would have to be shared by two students. I took a seat at the nearest available machine. Most people had already decided on who they would pair up with and, as time went by, it seemed likely that my inability to socialise would lead to me having the system to myself. But then I heard a distinctive voice politely ask, “Is this seat taken?” I turned to see one of the girls, described earlier, pointing to the seat next to me. Two of the girls had decided to share one system and the third was left by herself. Since everyone else had chosen their lab partner, I was probably the only option she had. “No, you can take it if you like”, I said. She thanked me and took a seat.

We struck up a conversation and I learned that Agnes was from Ghana and was attending the course as part of a company sponsored initiative. This was my first interaction with someone from Ghana. But, I realised that I had more in common with her than my own compatriots. We were both married and had some industry experience before joining the course.

Over time, I discovered that, like India, people in Ghana have a strong preference for the male child. They also have a dowry system, but the groom’s side pays. They, too, have a tradition of staying with the family after marriage but the family custom determines whether the bride stays with the groom’s family or the other way around. In addition to English names, they have Akan names, which are influenced by the day of the week and the order of birth. I was introduced to Jollof and Fufu.

Agnes was very curious about Indian culture. She found the Indian habit of pouring water from bottles into the mouth rather than sipping from them hygienic. She couldn’t understand why Indians touched the feet of the person they had accidently touched with their foot.

The girls had a tough time with spicy food. A lack of options meant that they, frequently, had cupcakes and biscuits for lunch. Agnes was very adventurous and open to trying out local food. She was also in awe of the variety of biscuits and chocolates available in the supermarket and how cheap they were compared to Ghana; the land of cocoa. I remember the girls spending their leftover allowance on biscuits and chocolates for friends and family back home.

I had rented a small apartment close to the educational institution. Agnes and the girls insisted on visiting me. I tried to dissuade them because the apartment had absolutely no furniture, but they didn’t care. They didn’t utter a single complaint as they sat on a mat on the floor of the living room while I apologized for the lack of chairs.

When the course ended, I was very sorry to see them go. I wish I could’ve taken them home to visit my family. It made me wonder, what if Agnes had not come up to me that first day? I would’ve missed out on knowing such wonderful people; good, kind, polite and generous. I saw the girls face so much ridicule and disdain from some who were quick to judge a book by its cover. But they took everything in their stride.

Many people state their reason for visiting a new place as a desire to experience different cultures. But, should our exploration of cultures be restricted to when we are tourists in a foreign country? Isn’t interaction with people who visit from other parts of the world another way? Some people want everyone to be like them. But, wouldn’t the world be boring if we were all identical? Is it not the differences that spark our curiosity and give us so much to learn?

Having a dialogue with people from different cultures increases our awareness about them. It changes our perspective and makes us more sensitive and tolerant of their customs and traditions. It enables us to embrace and celebrate differences rather than dwell on them. It allows us to know the person beneath the surface. To understand their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations and their fears; to know that beyond the differences, we are all the same.

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Science and Religion

I recently read a blog post which dwells on the perceived conflict between science and religion. While I cannot claim to be an expert in either, here are some thoughts.

Many believe that our belief in a higher power originated with the need to explain where we came from and what happens to us after we die. For a long time, natural disasters and epidemics were considered a wrath of God. Human beings thought that the only way to avoid or overcome them was to appease the Gods. It seems, as though, when the answers to life’s questions eluded us, we wanted to believe that it was the work of an unseen and unknown supreme being. It is something that we practice to this day when we say “God knows” to a question that we don’t know the answer to. Maybe, it is our desire to believe that there is some way to influence things that are beyond our control that made us believe in God; that if we are in the Almighty’s good graces, things will work in our favour.

But, soon, science came along. It provided rational explanations for the same things that were once attributed to a divine entity. The reasons for earthquakes, hurricanes and other phenomena were determined and we, even, found ways to predict and mitigate their deadly effects. Causes of life-threatening diseases were identified and cures for ailments were developed. Science went on to explain how all living organisms evolved over time to become what they are today.

Maybe, science answering questions, that were once attributed to God’s handiwork, created an impression that it was encroaching on religious territory. Because, for people furthering the cause of religion, the more that can be attributed to God, the better. This view, however, would mean trusting the unproven over the proven. Religion may have been the only answer once upon a time. But evidence and facts cannot be ignored.

How much a person believes in one over the other depends upon their own experiences with the two. It is akin to a child who favours one parent over another because that parent fulfils the child’s every wish. A person who has experienced first-hand the miracles of modern science will tend to favour it over religion. Take a woman who, after being childless for many years, conceives using IVF. For her, science is nothing short of a miracle and the doctor is no less than God. Whereas, a person for whom science offers no hope, will turn to faith as a last resort. Consider a man who is in the advanced stages of a terminal disease where, despite all its advances, modern medicine can only do so much. If he recovers, his faith in God is sealed. If not, religion offers, at least, some consolation in the idea of life after death.

Science is based on proven facts. It can tell you about the sun, the stars and the galaxies beyond our own, the highest mountains and the deepest oceans. But it has its limitations. As human beings evolved, our lives became about more than just survival. We began to search for meaning in our lives beyond who we were and what we did; a purpose beyond our mundane existence. Scientific theories cannot help here. For example, science does not have an answer for what happens after death beyond the decomposition of our bodies. And, as human beings, who care about life and want to believe that it does not end with death, these existential questions can be very troubling.

Our internal struggles and conflicts cannot be explained or resolved by science. Science cannot tell you what is right and what is wrong. That is a question of morality. While morality is not synonymous with religion, for many, religion acts as moral compass. Morality is an important part of religion and every religion has some guiding principles on how to live a righteous life. Religious scriptures elucidate the idea of an immortal soul and heaven and hell to keep their followers on the straight and narrow.

Another shortcoming of science is that it is difficult for most people to understand. Religion, on the contrary, has a very strong hold. So much so that people tend not to challenge things that they are asked to follow in the name of religion. In some instances, religion has been used to enforce practices that, over time, have proven to be rooted in science. It is possible that people observed benefits of such practices and decided to codify them in religion without knowing the scientific reasons at the time. Or, maybe, it was just easier to get people to follow them if they were associated with religion.

Religion can drive people to be good and do good. It can provide hope and strength like no other. But, at the same time, it can be used to exploit people and justify horrendous acts. No wonder, Karl Marx called it “the opium of the masses”. This makes a scientific approach to religion necessary. We need to question religion rather than accept it blindly. Because, when you challenge something, and it survives, your faith in it only grows stronger. It, also, makes it difficult for others to mislead you. It is easy to blame God when something bad happens when the fact is that most bad things are caused by the actions of men. We need to accept responsibility for our actions rather than blame a higher power for it.

Science and Religion both have a place in human lives. Their purposes do not conflict. Facts are universal while faith is personal. Science deals with the tangible while the intangible is the realm of religion. Science enables us to understand things in and around us. Religion, on the other hand, serves to help us on the journey to discovering ourselves.

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For the love of reading

I have loved to read for as long as I can remember. The habit was born out of my love for stories. As a child, I remember asking my grandparents to tell bedtime stories. I could never get enough of them. When one ended, I wanted another. There was a day when my grandmother acceded to so many requests that, by the time I was done, it was dawn. One day, I asked my father to recite a story. He was caught by surprise and said, “I don’t know any”. A few days later, he handed me a comic book and said, “Now, you don’t need others to tell you stories”. I was hooked. I started with children’s comics followed by short stories and fables, and then graduated to novels.

Once I take up a good book, it’s difficult for me to put it down. I am always keen to know what happens next. I buy and collect books like a fiend. Every time I browse for books to buy online, my husband raises an eyebrow. I happily lend and borrow books and think they make the best gifts. One summer vacation, I reread all the books I had at home. When I was done, I became so desperate that I read books in local languages despite my lack of fluency.

Reading, for me, has always been a means of escape; a refuge. It is a way to forget about the troubles of my life and immerse myself in the world of another. When I read, my mind blocks out everything else. My mother would say, “When Norah is with a book, it is as if she is not in the house”. There were times when I was curled up with a book in my room and repeated calls from my mother for lunch or dinner went unanswered. It was only when she came all the way to the room that I realized that it was time for a meal.

The beauty of reading is that, unlike television and videos, it allows you to visualize things; the story unfolds in your imagination. Like music, it has the ability to affect your state of mind; to brighten, to sadden, to anger, to placate, to inspire, to uplift, and to enlighten. Good books are works of art and can be collected and treasured, just like masterpieces.

Reading has taught me about people and places, cultures and customs, wars and famines, rationality and religion, myths and facts; all from the confines of my home.

It is through reading that I have learned about the many facets of language and how it has evolved and changed over time. I still remember reading the unabridged version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The usage of language was so different from what I was accustomed to, that I had to read each paragraph twice before I understood it in its entirety.

It has made me appreciate the creativity and imagination of others. Growing up, I always wanted to be an author. I dreamed of writing stories that captured the beauty and complexity of human thought and emotion. Over time, however, I realized that I didn’t have the imagination to pull it off. This made me respect writers even more. Making people connect with a story, and experience the emotion conveyed by a written word is no small feat.

It has also made me realize that as long as you have a book with you, you can never be lonely. You could be in the comfort of your home or in the middle of nowhere. There is no need for a power cable or an internet connection. All you need is a book for company and a source of illumination.

Reading makes you think. It unlocks the mind and fuels the imagination. A good story stays with you long after you finish reading the last page.

So, what made you pick up your first book?

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Wants and Needs

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”
– Mahatma Gandhi

I will change this quote a little to say, “There is enough for every man’s need, but not every man’s greed”. The reason I recall this famous line is because it has so much relevance in today’s consumerist world. Whether it is a bigger house, a better car or the latest gadget, we want it all. Money is the means to an end. The definition of the end, however, has changed over time. In school, I was taught that the basic human needs were food, clothing and shelter. But, over time, this list has changed to include things that are important to not just survive but also thrive. What’s more, we no longer know what separates “want” from “need”.

Many of us have everything we need for a comfortable life. But, we still want more. To achieve what we want, we strive harder. When we work too hard, we feel like we deserve a “treat”. In other words, we make our lives miserable by working ourselves to the ground and then try to compensate by indulging in some “retail therapy”. This vicious cycle of struggle and reward becomes very difficult to break.

Sometimes, the wants are fuelled by the desire to have what someone else has, even if it means taking on a liability to get it. In the words of Robert Quillen, it is, “Using money you haven’t earned to buy things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like”. Society, often, equates money with respect and status. And, the easiest way to show that we have money is to buy expensive things. When this happens, we lose the ability to decide what’s best for us. What others think of us matters more than what we think of ourselves. Unfortunately, we fail to realize that, in this never-ending quest, there will always be one more thing to be acquired.

In our struggle for material things, we miss out on the simple joys of life. Things like spending time with loved ones, a good night’s rest and a stroll in the park take a back seat. Vacations become more about showing off to others than taking a break.

There are other aspects of consuming more than we need. When we don’t finish our plate of food, it shows apathy towards people who struggle to feed themselves. When we change our entire wardrobe to match the latest fashion trends, it shows lack of regard for people who can barely clothe themselves. When we replace our electronic goods every year, millions of tons of e-waste end up in landfills, causing irreparable damage to the environment.

This is not to say that we must all become ascetics and renounce worldly pleasures. Aspiring for a better quality of life is part of human nature. Things are invented so that they can be enjoyed. We must all aim for a comfortable life to be free from the chains of a day-to-day existence. After all, life is about more than, just, survival. The only question is where do we draw the line?

My mother’s family never had money for new clothes when she was growing up. All her clothes were others’ hand-me-downs. This makes her complain when money is spent on clothes and accessories which lie unused in my closet. She says we don’t realize how lucky we are to be able to buy what we want. They didn’t have enough to, even, meet their basic needs.

There are people whose personal worth is more than the GDP of some countries. But, they shun ostentatious displays of wealth and, instead, use their wealth and influence for the betterment of society. Some have, even, gone on record to say that they will donate most of their money to ensure that their children create their own wealth and do not grow up with a sense of entitlement.

Indulgences, when moderated, are something to look forward to; when not, they become empty accomplishments. So, the next time temptation strikes, we would do well to ask ourselves whether it is a want or a need. Because, needs may be satisfied but wants never end.

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Life as a working woman

“You are a girl. It is not appropriate to just sit around all day!” mother would say. And, I would fly into a rage. My first trial with being a woman started when still in school. My mother, a conservative woman, thought it her duty to prepare her daughter for the expectations of the future. This would mean helping her with household chores like cooking and cleaning – things that I had absolutely no interest in. My mother was not unreasonable. She only expected me to help on holidays and ensured that her requests did not interfere with my studies. But, I viewed these menial tasks as an imposition on my free time; time that I wanted for my own pursuits. This was the biggest bone of contention between the two of us; a difference of opinion between women of two generations on the expectations of their gender. Very often, the fights would end with either or both of us in tears. My mother had my best interests at heart. She was only trying to ensure that I was not caught unawares when these responsibilities fell on my shoulders later in life. But, the fact that the same expectations did not exist for my brother made me mad. It was my first taste of how unequal the world was.

As I completed my education and stepped into a male-dominated industry, these differences became even more obvious. To begin with, everyone questions your merit. It is assumed that you have either been hired because of your looks or because the company wants to promote gender diversity. You have to work doubly hard to prove that you are as good as or better than any other man in the team. This, in an industry which measures a person’s worth more by how long they work than how efficiently the work is done. When women finish their work and leave on time, they are not considered as hard working as men who take more time to complete the same job. I remember a conversation with a former colleague a few months after I’d moved on to a new job. He said they had a discussion recently where someone remarked, “I have never seen any girl work as hard as Norah”. Another replied, “I haven’t, even, seen a guy work as hard as her”. My colleague intended this as a compliment. Instead, my anger caused me to retort with, “Should I be flattered? Do you think women don’t work as hard as men?”

Women are not expected to be ambitious. I, even, had a male colleague remark to me that I did not really have to worry about higher education or a good career because, as a woman, no one expected it of me. When female colleagues get married or have children, people speculate and say, “Well, she won’t be staying back after office hours now!” In a society, where women are still expected to cook a meal at the end of the day and take care of the children, how can a woman possibly win?

As time went by and I interviewed for new jobs, the interview always included questions about my marital status. When I was single, these questions were: “Are you married?”, “When do you plan to marry?” When I got married, these questions became: “Do you have children?”, “When do you plan to have them?” People seemed to be more concerned about my personal life than I was. Sharing personal details and plans with people, whom I barely knew, was uncomfortable to say the least. Especially, when all I wanted was to find a job that I liked and do my best. I was assured that they were equal opportunity employers and this would not have a bearing on their decision to hire me. But, if it is not important, why ask?

When I got married, I was constantly asked by relatives about my cooking skills. No matter how much I had achieved in my professional life, it was as if I was not good enough if I could not prepare a decent meal. When I complained to a relative about the amount of time I spent travelling to and from work on a daily basis, she said, “Why do women need to work? It’s such a needless hassle!”

I enjoyed my days of freedom when I could work for as long as I wanted and come home to a warm meal prepared by my mother. I had no other cares or worries. All I had to focus on was work.

Now, when I drag myself home after a tiring day at the office, a mountain of household chores awaits. When there is no one to share the burden, it becomes a cause of frustration and friction. Resentment breeds when there is an inequitable division of labour or when the expectations of shared work are not met. There are days when I just don’t want to get home because of what’s about to come next. Not that my family expects anything of me. No one would object if we were to eat out everyday. My concern for health, however, makes me loath to the idea.

I wonder about the fate of women who don’t have a supportive family. I remember a married friend waking up early to cook breakfast and lunch before leaving the house for work and then having to cook dinner after she reached home no matter what time it was. Though she lived with her in-laws, she couldn’t hope for any help. The family is happy with the money her job brings, but will not make her life easier at home. What is her quality of life? There is no concern for the long term impacts on her physical, mental and emotional health. I have heard worse stories of women, with good-for-nothing husbands, who work in menial jobs to make ends meet. They return home in the evening only to be beaten and have their earnings snatched by the drunk or gambling spouse. My mother was amazed at the dedication of these women who, despite their troubles, would take care of their men, pray for their long lives and wish for the same companion in their next life. My life, in comparison, is a walk in the park.

When I stay back at the office, after working hours, I wonder how I will manage to cook a meal in the little time I have after I get home. Some days, when it gets really late, I constantly worry about my safety – a fact that most employers don’t even consider. Instead, they choose to question your commitment.

My aunt is a qualified teacher and the most educated of her siblings. After marriage, she gave up her career to take care of the home and raise her children. I never knew how she felt until, one day, she remarked, “It is as if, after marriage, I have lost my identity”. In some ways, I can totally relate. As a woman, I have always taken pride in my work and aspired to be more than someone’s wife or daughter.

This is not to say that women who don’t choose to have a career are, in any way, inferior. My mother is a stay-at-home parent and is very happy to be one. Personally, I believe being a homemaker is a full-time job and women who care for the home are not valued enough.

I only wish for every woman to have a choice. They should neither be forced to take up jobs nor be confined to the house. And, if they choose to have a career, they should be given all possible encouragement to follow their dreams rather than be bogged down by unrealistic expectations.

No matter what their role in life, women are simply not given enough credit. As housewives, they are taken for granted. As working women, they are caught between two worlds. When a man lends a hand around the house, people sing glorious praises about how lucky his wife is. When a woman manages both work and home, no one bats an eyelid.

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How I ordered my first chequebook online

My disastrous experiences with technology never seem to end. Apparently, technology doesn’t like me very much and I am afraid the feeling is mutual. You might wonder how one person can have so many ill encounters. Truth is, even I can’t claim to know the reasons. So, let me tell you about one such instance and if you can figure it out, please be kind enough to let me know.

We live in a modern world. Internet has seeped into every aspect of our lives – be it business, education or, even, travel. With terms like e-commerce, e-learning and e-medicine dominating our vocabulary today, everything seems to be just a mouse click away. If only things were that easy. Most of you might be familiar with the term e-banking. Banks offer online services to customers for the convenience of those who are too busy to visit a branch. At least, that’s what I thought.

I had exhausted all the leaves in my chequebook and had to get a new one. I had seen my friend B apply for one online. So, instead of submitting a written request for a new chequebook to the bank, I decided to bypass all the hassle and try my hand at this online business. Little did I know what lay in store for me.

Day 1: I haven’t the faintest idea about how to apply for a chequebook online. My forgetful nature means that I have to set a reminder to ask B about it. The reminder goes off and I march to B’s desk and inquire about the procedure. It might seem strange but, at the very moment that I ask her, I realize that I need my customer ID to log in. I don’t have it at that point and, not surprisingly, can’t recollect it. So, the task gets delayed by a day with a new reminder.

Day 2: I reach B’s desk before the reminder goes off. B launches the bank website and I enter the Customer ID to log in. The trouble is I remember logging into the portal once and changing my password but can’t recollect what I had set it to. The first and last time that I had logged in was more than a year and a half ago. I enter what I think is most likely to be the password and cross my fingers. Miracle of miracles, it works! “That wasn’t so bad”, I say to myself. A few mouse clicks later I reach a point where it asks me to confirm my request for a new chequebook. When I do, it prompts me for my internet transaction password. At this point, B tells me that this password is different from the login password. She says that when you log in for the first time, the portal prompts you to change both the login and transaction password. Now, I remember changing the former but not the latter. She says that if I haven’t changed it, it is probably still the one provided by the bank. Unfortunately, that password is at home. And, so, it seems like I’ll have to wait another day.
B then logs into the bank site and applies for a new chequebook for herself and the entire process takes no more than a couple of minutes. I am fascinated and optimistic that, once I have my password, I will have the same experience. After she is done, I decide to try my login password as my transaction password hoping that I had set both the passwords to the same sequence. The truth is, after B made it look so easy, I am tempted to give it another shot. So, once the login screen appears, I key in my login ID and select the checkbox to use the virtual keyboard.
Now, this virtual keyboard is a fantastic feature. It is an application that provides a keyboard on the screen in which the key locations change with each character entered. The user has to enter the password by clicking on the keyboard with a mouse. In this way, the virtual keyboard is designed to reduce the risk of password theft. Seems like a good idea. Unfortunately, after I select the option to use the virtual keyboard, I wait and I wait and then I wait some more. A few letters show up but the rest of the keys show no signs of getting loaded. After a frustrating few minutes, B suggests that I stop waiting for the virtual keyboard to appear and enter the password using the normal keyboard. So much for password security! I manually key in my password and log in.
After waiting for a few more minutes, all I see is, “This page can’t be displayed”. On further investigation, to my dismay, we realize that the internet server is down. What perfect timing! We decide to try later when the server is up. A little later I manage to log in and key in my login password as the transaction password. It doesn’t work. No surprises there. So, the only alternative is to get the default password and try my hand at it the next day.

Day 3: I don’t need a reminder anymore. I log into the website and use the default transaction password hoping against hope that things will finally work. Well, somehow, where I am concerned, that never really happens. Now, I see a new notice which says that your account has been locked and you have exceeded the number of attempts to log in. This means that I have to apply for a new password. When I click on the link to do this from the company’s restricted network, I see a notice which says, “This page can’t be displayed”. B suggests that I call customer care and raise a request to reset the password. So, I dial the number, select the appropriate options and a recorded voice at the other end asks me to enter my ATM/Debit card number and PIN. Caught by surprise, I ask B, “What number?” She, in her trademark style, replies, “You fool, the number on the ATM card and the PIN that you use to withdraw money”. Now, I didn’t know this was a requirement and don’t have the card on me when I call. So, I hang up. I rarely carry my ATM card but, on that day, it happens to be in my bag. Thankfully, I had forgotten to remove it from my bag a couple of days ago. Being forgetful can be a blessing sometimes. Or maybe, God decided to give me a break after so many spells of rotten luck. So, armed with my card, I place a second call only to have the person at the other end tell me to raise an online request for the new password. So, there I am, back to square one.
The only way to do this is to use the lone PC in the department which has unrestricted internet access. So, I log into the site and place a request. The request fails. This is just great! Now, the bank server is busy and unable to service my request. By now, I am at the end of my tether and cursing the bank and the whole concept of e-banking. I log in a second time and place a request again. This time it goes through. But, there is no elation or sense of accomplishment. Only a sigh of relief. I get a service request number for tracking purposes and a confirmation that I will get the new transaction password within 8 days. I try to track the request just to confirm that it has been logged. And guess what? It says that the record does not exist. I am so fed up at this point that I abandon any more attempts. Since, the password will arrive in eight days and I can only request for a new chequebook after that, it is clear that I won’t be seeing my chequebook for, at least, another 15 days. And, here I was, thinking that internet banking made things simpler and faster. That’s one myth shattered! I decide to submit a written application to the bank instead.

Day 4: It’s a Saturday and brings home an unexpected, but pleasant, surprise. A courier has arrived from the bank. I almost snatch the envelope from my brother’s hand and confirm that it is, indeed, the new password. My happiness knows no bounds. In fact, I am smiling so much that my mother and brother probably think I have gone mad.

Day 5: After four tiresome days, I think I deserve some rest and that is exactly what I do.

Day 6: B starts dreading the moment I mention logging into the bank portal. I don’t blame her. I feel the same way. I call her to my desk this time. Knowing my track record, she asks me to log in and call her only if I am fortunate enough to get through. I try logging into the portal twice and, as usual, fail. After waiting a while, the efforts bear fruit and, with B’s help, I finally complete the procedure.

Two days later my chequebook is delivered. And, what’s more, it even arrives before B’s chequebook. So, I guess, all’s well that ends well.

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The Power of One

When the Prime Minister of India started the “Swachh Bharat” or “Clean India” campaign, I was pleasantly surprised. The most prominent individual in the country had chosen to highlight one of the biggest problems plaguing the country. It had been decades since anyone had chosen to regard cleanliness as even an issue worth mentioning. With politicians being more interested in mudslinging or paying lip service to seemingly inconsequential issues, it was highly unusual. But, it was about time. He has, since, used every possible medium in the country to propagate awareness about, what is indeed, the need of the hour.

While this movement has stirred a lot of people into starting local activities along similar lines or contributing in their own small way by not littering or spitting, there are still many of us who have chosen to ignore the message and go on unperturbed. And, the worst part of it all is, that, most are actually educated and intelligent. We spend so much time on social media but have scant respect for the environment. We have all the time in the world to comment on our friends’ posts but can’t be bothered to spare a thought for all the health and safety hazards that our actions are causing. Even if someone tries to educate us, our only retort is, “When others don’t bother, why should I?” or “How can what one person does make a difference?” This kind of herd mentality is the primary reason for all our problems. We often think that our actions, in the face of others’ apathy, have no effect. The problem is – every other such person thinks the same way. And, we are back to where we started. If everyone thinks that what they do, as an individual, has the power to make a difference – the power to effect change, the country and the world as we know it will be very different. That is, indeed, the Power of One.

You would think that it is easier to convince an educated person about the need to be conscientious. But, very often, the answer is otherwise. It is easy to tell people something, but, to convince them is another matter. This is even more true, when they think that they know better. We, as human beings, are not only gifted with the power to think, to rationalize, to analyze and make decisions for ourselves but also with the ability to introspect and reflect on the consequences of our actions. However, it is sad to say that, very often, we refuse to exercise these gifts and instead make our decisions by simply following what others do – either because we deem it to be easy or acceptable or because it seems like a safe option. This attitude benefits no one, least of all, ourselves. It is futile to be pessimistic and say “Things here will never change” when we make no effort to change.

Our outlook, as individuals, is rooted in our upbringing and our values. This is often formed at an impressionable age as a product of our learning, experiences and observations. After several debates on a range of issues with friends and colleagues, what I can surely say is that the only way a person can change is if he or she truly and deeply wishes to. There is no other way. In Mahatma Gandhi’s words, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

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A Matter of Choice

Life is full of choices. From something as important as which field to make a career in to something as mundane as to what to wear to office every morning; every decision involves a choice. And, you make decisions every minute or rather every second of everyday. Sometimes, the decision is easy; made subconsciously as a matter of routine so much so that you don’t even realize that you have made a choice. At other times, the decisions are so agonizing that you wish you didn’t have to make a choice or that someone else would choose for you instead. Take for instance the simple fact that most of us take the elevator to our workplace. We rarely give the fact that we choose the lift over the stairs a second thought. On the contrary, ever had to pick a mobile, a digital camera or even a laptop amongst several options available with a limited budget? Yes. Life is, indeed, full of options. And, it is when you are faced with difficult choices that you wish there weren’t so many alternatives. Most often, it is the consequences of our decisions that frighten us more than the choice itself.

Ever considered the lives of people who don’t have a choice? I still remember my mother’s words when I would bother her about what to wear on special occasions way back in school. She’d say, “You wouldn’t have to worry about making a choice if you had just one good dress, would you? Your confusion arises because you have so many.” She couldn’t have put it better. While deciding on something may be excruciating at times, we are fortunate to have a choice in the first place. This freedom that we have – to choose what we want – is a gift that most of us take for granted. Imagine being born in a country where the government decides where you will live, what occupation you will undertake and even how many children you will have. Would that have been better? For those of us who have tasted the freedom that democracy offers, this seems unthinkable. So, the next time you worry about picking something, think of those who have no choice or those who do not have the means to have a choice.

The liberty to choose is a very powerful gift. Ironically, most of the decisions we spend sleepless nights over are rather insignificant in the larger scheme of things. The choices you make determine the person you are, what you make of your life and how those around you see you. And, the beauty of life is that you always have a choice. The freedom to choose, however, is meaningless unless you make the right choice. Not making a choice is a choice in itself. Let me not reiterate what we already know – that doing the right thing is always more difficult. But, the fact remains that what sets extraordinary individuals apart from the rest are their choices.

Robert Frost, the celebrated American poet, describes this beautifully in his poem “The Road Not Taken” with the following words,
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

All actions have consequences. But, a wise choice made after careful deliberation will never give cause to regret. No one said life was going to be easy. But, no one can make you do what you don’t want to. Making a choice and learning to gracefully accept responsibility for our actions and its repercussions shows true character. The following quote sums it all up:

“It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
– J. K. Rowling

We all have abilities – some inherited, others developed. But what we choose to do with these abilities will shape our character and our destiny. So, the next time you choose – think twice.

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The Beginning

It all began with a seemingly innocuous rhyme. I can not remember when I first heard it or who I learned it from. All I can remember is that I took to it like a fish to water. And my world changed forever. My love for the English language started then – right there in a playground amidst a group of children prancing to the words of “Ring a Ring o’ Roses…”. And it has only grown stronger with time.

I never gave the rhyme a second thought – passing it on to other friends and children alike. Like most others, I assumed that it was just some playful gibberish with a catchy tune passed down from one generation to the next – much like heirlooms. That was probably because of my presumption that most nursery rhymes were created for the entertainment of children and to foster bonding on the playground. To say that I was mistaken, would be an understatement. My curiousity was first piqued when a television show mentioned that the rhyme may, in fact, have allusions to the Great Plague or the Black Death. And, so my research began. The only thing I was right about was that the rhyme was certainly old. I will avoid relaying facts here as there are several websites (including Wikipedia) which carry a great deal of information about this. And, “Ring a Ring o’ Roses” is not the only one. Apparently, there are a host of other rhymes which are thought to have hidden references including some to death and even slavery. And, while the jury is still out on whether these references are valid, it is needless to say that it provided quite a lot of food for thought.

We often associate childhood with innocence – a time when children are sheltered from the harsh realities of life. It is meant to be the time of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Unfortunately, we seem to have unwittingly passed on some unpleasant truths as part of our endeavour to educate and entertain children. But, even if we know the facts, what should we do? Should we eliminate these nursery rhymes altogether for fear of exposing children to such morbid facts? Or, should we continue the timeless tradition dismissing these references as unsubstantiated allegations? That is a very tough question to answer.

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