Thoughts on turning 42…

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Woman at Writing Desk, 1898, Lesser Ury

More grey in your hair,

the lines on your skin

slight thickening of waist

this nagging within.

Do you have a penny to your name?

Four walls to hide your shame

A beating heart to call your own

Or do you exist unloved, unknown?

Now that I really think, perhaps not

since I have scratched and fought

with Life to let me hold on –

to let me taste its blood.

Perhaps I am but a shadow

whose grasp is half light, half air

but there is something more, I know

each breath, every pulse is rare.

 

 

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What is Sexual Harassment?

As the ripples of the #Metoo and #Time’sup movement continue to be felt around the world, here is a quick refresher on what constitutes sexual harassment at the workplace.

Sexual harassment can be defined as any unwelcome act or behaviour of a sexual nature, whether direct or implied and includes the following:

  • unwelcome physical contact and advances
  • demand or request for sexual favours
  • making sexually coloured remarks
  • showing pornography or inappropriate content
  • any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.
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image courtesy: www1.nyc.gov

Based on the above, Sexual Harassment can be broadly categorized under the following types:

  • Non-Verbal – Gestures like staring or leering; invading personal space; Offensive content like pin-ups, pornography, inappropriate  publications; Offensive letters / memos  as well as Unsolicited and unwanted gifts
  • Verbal – Language of a suggestive or explicit nature ; Unwanted propositions; Jokes of a sexual or explicit nature; Use of “affectionate names” like ‘babe’ as well as Questions or comments of a personal nature
  • Physical – Deliberate body contact; Indecent exposure;  Coerced sexual contact Groping , fondling , kissing and in extreme cases, sexual assault.
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image courtesy: guardian.com

While these make up the essential meaning and common manifestations of sexual harassment, bear in mind that every culture and legal system  may differ in the specifics.

 

3 Stoic Lessons for Today

Recently I finished The Manual for Living by Epictetus, the 1st century Roman Stoic philosopher. Stoics in popular usage now unfortunately signify dour-faced, kill-joys, intent on adopting a long-suffering attitude of forbearance.

 

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Image Courtesy: iamfearlesssoul.com

Nothing could be farther from truth, though. Stoicism actually is all about treading lightly through the minefield of human drama, taking pleasure in the simple fact of existing today without pining for the past, nor obsessing about the future. But while such equanimity holds good for all ages and places, here are 3 precepts by Epictetus that could light the way in this day and age.

  1. Use Reason – in these times when emotions run high on matters of food, dress, temple visits, movies and governance, no wonder we are quick to give and quicker to take offence. Epictetus advises to be guided only Reason and nothing else. This will help you differentiate between fact and opinion, truths and falsehoods besides training your mind to think clearly and for yourself alone.
  2. Avoid popular entertainment – in our times, this would cover the mind-numbing hours spent on social media, aimless party-hopping, futile shopping – all indulged in order to fill a fundamental vacuum in the spirit. Instead take charge of your self-development – read good books, practice music or a sport, support a cause or even travel to connect with other cultures and people.
  3. Decide who you want to be – if anything, today we are confused by too many choices. Do you want to be like that celebrity singer, scientist, entrepreneur, sportsperson – so many idols and options to choose from!
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Who Do You Want to Be?

Which could be good in a way – even 50 years back, life, career and relationship choices were starkly limited for many people around the world. But unless you first define who you want to be, you will end up with indecision and many false starts. So identify your goals first, write down all that it would take to reach there, make a plan based on your resources and then – get moving!

3 Ways Gender Impacts Language

Unlike Sex that is based on immutable biological differences, Gender is all about traits related to the condition of being masculine or feminine as determined by culture and society. And such cultural constructs are built and transmitted by language.

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Image Courtesy: timeforequality.org

So here are 3 major ways gender impacts language:

  • normalizing

What do nouns like mankind, history, humanity have in common. The highlighted letters indicate how words related to a particular gender represent the entire species. This leads to normalizing of the primacy of experience of one gender over another, eventually deciding for all people, no matter what their sex, what is normal, mainstream, usual.

  • Idealizing

Another way gendering of language takes place is when ideal conditions are related to a particular gender. So in the workplace you have the boss praising someone for being his ‘Man-Friday’ or the need to hire more skilled ‘manpower’. On the field, you are told to display ‘sportsmanship’ and while growing up, you are exhorted to practice better ‘penmanship’. If you feel such matters are too trivial to matter, consider that is how ideal qualities come to be associated with a particular gender.

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Image Courtesy: nada.au.org
  • Symbolizing

This is when gender discriminatory terms and phrases pass acquire symbolic meaning and come to represent far more than their literal connotations. Idioms, proverbs, fairy tales, folklore, mythology and popular culture are some of the ways gendered language gain widespread currency and emotional power. So you have idioms like Drama Queen, mother-in-law jokes in popular culture and the image of damsel-in-distress in fairy tales. Proverbs either depict women as weak as the Hindi “Beti paraya dhan hoti hai” which means a daughter belongs to others or as a source of evil (for man especially) like the Roman “ A faithless woman is like a shipwreck to the house”.

What all this means for you and me, is that gender inequality, discrimination and stereotypes  continue to be constructed, disseminated and perpetuated through one of the most basic human processes – language as in speaking, writing, listening, singing etc.

Fortunately for you and me language can also be used to contest gender bias – but that is for another blog post 🙂

 

5 STAGES OF TEAM BUILDING

So much is discussed today about team building and ways to go about it most effectively. Among the earliest psychologists to posit a theory on team building was Bruce Tuckman who in his his 1965 article, “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups” first introduced the 4 basic stages that a team passes through on its way to goal achievement. These are:

  • Forming
  • Storming
  • Norming
  • Performing

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Later Tuckman added another stage called

  • Adjourning

This is the final stage in the team building cycle wherein the members are faced with questions about the future of the team. Having successfully achieved its stated goals, the team now has to take a call whether to disband it or continue with it. if it is the latter, there are be additional concerns like whether to expand the team, contract it or to replace any of its members.

A Team which was formed for the completion of a single specific task will find itself on the verge of being dissolved which is why in some cases, this stage has also been called the mourning phase. it can especially prove to be difficult time for members who have formed close interpersonal bonds or those who are more given to anxiety than others.

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For permanent teams on the other hand, this can be a time of reflection – going over their most recent experience to assess their performance, strengths and weaknesses. Finally the adjourning phase can be a time for reinvention and innovation whereby a team can decide how to change and prepare for future challenges.

 

Groups and Group Norms

A Group as we know is a collection of people known to each other and working towards a defined, common goal.

Group Norms

Groups operate under their own sets of norms which are specific codes about how members should talk, dress and behave towards each other and outsiders. Indeed these norms are only informally set – no one issues orders to bring members in line. Instead simple comments like “What a terrible dress she is wearing” or “That guy deserved a put-down for speaking out” can lead an individual to modify personal opinions and standards – leading him/her to follow group norms.

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President JFK in office

Groupthink

Sometimes group members follow group norms so closely and going along with others becomes so important that there is no space for disagreement. This can significantly impact group performance since members consciously or sub-consciously go along  with dominant decision-making even though it might be faulty, unethical and contrary to deeper personal opinion. Psychologists have termed this group think and identified 3 characteristics:

  • High conformity – pressure to conform by dominant members or group leader leads to an illusion that everyone conforms to group decisions
  • Self-delusion – the faulty thinking that the group is right – irrespective of factual and ethical issues; it is usual when the group is insulated from outside information.
  • Feelings of invulnerability – groupthinking is common in close-knit circles in positions of power – like presidential advisers or royal court.
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Image Courtesy: latinamericanstudies.org

In 1972, psychologist Irving Janis illustrated the concept of groupthink in a study of how US President J F Kennedy and his advisers embarked on the ill-planned and ill-fated 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. Janis pointed out the decision was the result of group-thinking and was marked by all 3 traits. For example President Kennedy had just won the election against all odds and the group felt his decision to be invulnerable. Delusion of power prevented the group to deal with internal questions that was raised by one among them – Arthur Schlesinger who pointed out it was unethical to invade a small neighbour like Cuba. And finally just because the President along with powerful CIA pushed for the invasion, it appeared that everyone was agreeing to it.

In this way group thinking can have long term consequences on group’s decisions and performance.

 

How Kids Grow…Erikson’s theory explained

At a time when Sigmund Freud was the toast of the Viennese scientific society, a young artist quietly worked as a tutor for a family friend of the reputed psychologist. Known to Freud socially, this young painter could not help being influenced by the former’s psycho-sexual theory of the development of children. And yet Erik H. Erikson – the young artist – would fundamentally differ by placing more importance on the social component of childhood influences. The resulting psychosocial theory of development would eventually go on to become a highly influential, if not a rigorously researched, explanation of development of human behaviour.

According to Erikson, a person passed through eight stages of development through life – each stage was marked by contrary impulses and presented both an opportunity and challenge, that he termed ‘crises’. He theorized that an individual’s experience at each stage helped determine the broad traits of his/her personality in future stages. The five stages of childhood were:

  • Trust/mistrust
  • Autonomy/shame, doubt
  • Initiative/guilt
  • Industry/inferiority
  • Identity/role confusion

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Erikson also differed from Freud in including the adult years also in his theory of development. These were marked by

  • Intimacy/isolation – the young man or woman who achieved a strong sense of personal identity and productivity in the previous teen phase now turns to forming stronger ties with others – especially intimate ones like romance, marriage but also others like camaraderie of young soldiers or workers. The failure to develop a sense of self during adolescence can result lingering role confusion, leading to a sense of isolation and loneliness.
  • Generativity/self-absorption – At middle age, the individual tends to develop a greater desire of contributing to future generations – whether their own growing children or taking mentor roles in workplace and larger society. The other side is a deeper self-absorption making the middle-aged person turn inwards – characterized by workaholism for instance.
  • Integrity/despair – Finally an individual reaches the stage where he/she pulls the strands of a lifetime together – if he/she finds only lost opportunities and failures, this last stage is marked by despair but if he/she sees success and a life well lived, this stage is characterized by integrity.

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Recent social trends however has led to re-evaluating by researchers of the boundaries of “middle age” and “old age”. While advancing years do increase the likelihood of physical problems, modern developmental researchers emphasise that elderly humans can continue to develop.

Understanding Attachment Theory

The other day, I was teaching Inter-personal Behaviour and one of the theories that explained it was Attachment Theory. Considering how extensive and complex this theory is, I merely touched upon its meaning and passed on to others like Uncertainty Reduction, Social Exchange and Dialectical theories.

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Here is then a little more on Attachment Theory.

According to proponents of Attachment Theory, the quality of the early parent-child relationship influences later social relationships of all kinds. Thus children with “secure attachments” – whose needs of hunger and comfort were definitively met – are believed to fare better in their adult relationships as compared to children with “anxious attachments” – whose needs are unfulfilled or under-fulfilled.

Children closer to mothers were found in some research to be comparatively more socially active. They were more likely to be sympathetic to problems of their friends, to make suggestions and even more sought out by peers. This led psychologists to believe that it was possible to predict future social adjustments by examining parent-child interactions during the early months of life – in other words the kinds of attachment individuals form at beginning of their lives with their primary care-givers impacts their future inter-personal relationships.

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Image Courtesy: ckwsaxton.wordpress.com

Apart from explaining inter-personal relationships, Attachment Theory plays a significant role in Family Therapy – as in the works of John Bowlby who was actually the first to coin the term. In fact a variation, propounded by Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, also figured as a possible cause for schizophrenia.  However later psychologists have pointed out that the theory places the entire burden of social adjustment of the child on a single gender – the mother. Nevertheless Attachment Theory is often thought to be quite effective in understanding how adult relationships continue to be influenced by one’s experiences with primary care givers in early childhood.

So let me know more about your attachment styles and how it has played out on your relationships…

 

Self-Motivation Simplified

Motivation, at its simplest, can be understood as a set of conditions which activate, direct and maintain behaviour towards some goal.

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Self-motivation is a little different – it happens when motivation is conscious and self-generated.

Here are a few ways to bring about a self-motivation spike:

  • Choose goals wisely – Make sure you keep working towards your goals by linking them to your core values. If you enjoy financial success, it will be hard to remain motivated by working for someone where you are paid less than the market standard. On the other hand if prestige and influence over people is important to you, then you can remain motivated in a position even if it doesn’t pay well.

Again be open to tweaking your goals as you move ahead. For example if the world           vacation that you had planned for your 40th birthday appears to be getting pricier,           rather than slaving at work for the next 10 years, adjust your goal to maybe 5 of                 your favourite cities in a continent. Naturally, goals are not meant to be changed                 entirely, just adjusted from time to time.

  • Enhance the journey – Begin the day right – perhaps with a stroll in the sun, a ten-minute chat with your plants or a steaming cup of your favourite brew without any disturbance. When the going gets tough, link the process of working to your goals to good feelings – like soothing music and pleasant fragrances.
  • Seek help -There are self-help resources galore these days – inspirational books, podcasts, online videos and of course blog posts like these 🙂 to keep you going.

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  • Reward yourself – only when you have actually achieved a goal or perhaps a part of it; but ensure that your reward is commensurate with the goal.
  • Focus on the positives – appreciate your assets like good health or a supportive family; See far you have come rather than always worrying about how much you should have achieved by now.
  • Finally learn to differentiate between what is in your control and what is not. Be flexible about the latter and work hard to realize the former.

 

When Worth Meets a Wall – 3 Tips to Help You Bounce Back

Merit + Hard Work = Success/Appreciation.  Right?

Not Necessarily, actually!

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One of the biggest myths of contemporary popular culture hinges on a direct causal relationship between merit and success. Shows like Big Bang Theory and movies like The Pursuit of Happyness would have you believe that even if you are socially awkward like Sheldon in the former or on your own like Gardner in the latter, eventually the world is compelled to recognize your worth and reward you.

Fact is, it always doesn’t work like that. If you are good at your work and wish you prove that at your workplace, your co-workers, boss and even the organization may not always be willing to give you the opportunity – no matter that it would benefit others more than anything you would make out of it.

Met with opposition, you prove your superior capability, turn on your charm and when nothing works, You push harder! Of course it all backfires. At best, you end up where you started and at worst, you are thrown out. Before you, even with all your genius and dedication, find yourself with a pink slip, here are 3 ways to meet rejection:

  • First out, do not take it personally. Realize that the organization is not yet ready for your innovation. Your boss may not want you to get credit for any good work while your co-workers may be plain jealous of you being better than them. The rejection is not always a reflection of your worth – it is the outcome of many different emotional and organizational processes.
  • Diversify – Remember the old adage, when a door closes, look for a window! Explore other organizations, mentors or even online platforms where your ideas and skills will be appreciated more. The road is bound to be long and hard but it is better than being stuck at one place. And you never know who might like your vision or where you might be a better fit.
  • Finally, do not anchor your self-worth in work. Be thankful just for the fact that you are alive. Practice gratitude exercises and appreciate all that you have been blessed with – perhaps a loving spouse, loyal pet, pretty home and other skills like baking or photography.

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In 1984 the global computer industry was transformed by the launch of the Macintosh computer. But just the next year, the company fired the very man behind the major innovation – Steve Jobs. And yet he went on to design the most iconic devices and emerged as one of the most successful entrepreneurs of all times.

Whether or not you reach such heights, have confidence in your worth – Keep trying but differently!

Kuzari – Halevi and his defence of Judaism

 

Yet another medieval philosopher that I came across while researching for my book was Judah Halevi. he is best known today for his work, titled in English as Book of Refutation and Proof on Behalf of the Despised Religion or simply Kuzari which has come to be regarded as one of the most evocative works of religious philosophy in the history of Judaism.

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I was even more interested to know that in Kuzari he offers a theory of human personality comparable to the ones I studied around a millennium later. There are three main types of influences according to Halevi that human beings are exposed to – firstly the influence of one’s parents and family, then that of environmental conditions like geography and movements of planets etc and finally that of education and learning. And it is as a result of the unique combination of these three influences that one acquires his/her unique personality.

Origins and Influences

Equally interesting is Halevi’s story of growth as a philosopher-poet, especially as a Jew in medieval Islamic Spain. Halevi was born c 1075 CE in a well-to-do family of Tudela in northeastern Spain that was ruled by Muslim powers. he grew up in an atmosphere of intellectual liberalism as determined by his education in a wide variety of subjects from both Arabic and Hebrew sources. Thus before he had even stepped into adulthood, Halevi had acquired an academic grounding in grammar, philosophy, theology, medicine, both Biblical and rabbinic literature as well as Arabic and Hebrew poetry.

The desire to see more of the world took Halevi to southern Spain where he made the acquaintance of celebrated poet Moses ibn Ezra and impressed the latter with his poetic prowess. Ezra convinced Halevi to accompany him to Granada where the younger poet thrived in the air of intellectual sophistication and wrote graceful poetry on secular themes.

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image courtesy:Alchetron                        Judah Halevi                                                                                                                         

Conflicts and consequences

However with the invasion of Granada by the Almoravids, a violent Islamic sect from northern Africa, the refined cosmopolitanism of the city was destroyed and in its place grew hostility to other faiths and cultures. The Jews were worst hit in this religious and political strife which compelled Halevi to move to Toledo in search of a more secure livelihood. There he took up the practice of medicine – one of the few professions open to Jews in Christian society – and settled for some time to a life of success and respect.

Even then a life of perpetual wariness made him question matters of identity, culture and religion to which the Kuzari was a brilliant literary and philosophical response. Titled in Hebrew as Sefer ha-Kuzari, the work is composed of dialogues between a Khazar king who converted to Judaism in the 8th century and a learned Jew who answers the former’s questions about Judaism and in the process counters various accusations levelled against the religion by fanatical sects of both Christianity and Islam. But more than its topical necessity, the book encapsulates Halevi’s theological views especially related to the Creation of the World and nature of Man.

Later Years

With advancing age, Halevi felt the pull of Jerusalem growing stronger. He decided to leave Cordoba for the Holy Land but on the way was persuaded by many of his followers to stop in Egypt. Here Halevi was generously hosted by many wealthy Jewish merchants, judges and doctors. Inspired by the warmth of fellow-feeling all around him, Halevi again wrote a great deal of fine poetry during his stay in Egypt. And yet till the very end, he continued to dream of setting foot on his beloved land of Israel. Halevi died in 1140 still in Egypt where he was widely mourned by the Jewish community.

The significance of Halevi’s writings lies in the refined synthesis of Arabic literary style with the unwavering strength of his Zionist vision. He left an inspirational body of spiritual and sacred poetry as well as in Kuzari a powerful vindication of the lived truths of his people down the history of Judaism.

 

 

3 Freedoms for India

Each time I go back to Tagore’s famous poem, ” Where the Mind is Without Fear…” I am stunned into reflection on how vastly relevant it is now, more than a century later when it was written in 1913. After a morning of rumination on Independence Day, here are three freedoms that I believe India needs today.

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Freedom from violence

This fundamental trait distinguishes life in a civil society from one in a jungle. Each citizen of India and especially  oppressed and subjugated groups in our country – across gender, class, caste and tribe – deserve freedom from violence. And by this I include violence directed at a woman for travelling in public transport at night, at a child simply for being an orphan, at a Dalit for drinking water from a well, at a tribal for demanding education, at trees and forests to make way for garish hotels, at historical monuments without which we lose our heritage ….and all such atrocities which are simply unacceptable in this age. And the cesspool which feeds this Hydra of Violence is naturally, Corruption – the most insidious, toxic and destructive form of violence perpetuated on the people.

Freedom to lifestyle

If I am not eating your food, wearing your dress, living in your home, playing in your yard  – then I should be allowed to eat, wear, pray, drive, run, sing, write, walk, socialize as and how I please. Work is a contentious issue made murkier by reservation policies – even then if I have all the skills, then my gender and origin should not bar me from working where I want to.

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Freedom to opinion

That’s right – you have a right to your opinion as I have to mine. At best we can learn from each other’s point of view , at worst we can agree to disagree. Politely Please. No need to threaten me or my family members with rape. Of course this will be comprehensible only to people who know the difference between expressing an opinion and exhorting multitudes from city pulpits to violence. But there are legal experts who can hopefully clarify such trivial points for those devoid of Reason or Ethics.

There are so many other freedoms that can be added to the list. Can you think of more what India needs today? Tell me….

4 Habits to Give Up Today

Though they demand time and effort, bad habits can be got rid of and good habits learnt anew. So if you are struggling to adopt a positive healthier lifestyle, here is a handy guide to get rid of these 4 habits today.

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Manage your Time

# Putting things off

One of the easiest ways to stop yourself from putting things away for a later date, is to break a big task into smaller, more manageable bits – for example if you need to write a research paper by the end of the coming week, start by drawing a conceptual framework, then write down your hypothesis and eventually get on with data collection etc till you arrive at results. Tackling the toughest bits early in the day, giving yourself a pep talk every now and then as well as rewarding yourself with treat like a pizza in your favourite flavours could be other ways to put an end to procrastination.

# Spending Beyond Your Means

The best way to stop overspending is to give up all your credit cards but one to pay only utility bills. Draw up a budget on paper so that you can see your income and expenses in black and white. Another useful tip is to sign up for auto-debit feature in your salary account, so that as soon as your pay comes, a part of it is swept into savings. At the same time, learn to be more aware of the power of consumerism so that you develop the inner resources to resist the lure of advertising.

# Not Moving Enough

39% of the world adult population are overweight and 13% are obese, according to WHO statistics which means that one of the most physically harmful habits is lack of exercise. In order to get moving, choose any activity that you enjoy – start brisk walking around your neighbourhood or lifting weights in the gym. Take a Yoga class or join the gorgeous gang in aerobics.

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Affirm Your Self

# Putting Yourself Down

None of the above bad habits can be completely unlearnt if you do not affirm yourself. This simply means to separate your selfhood from your bad habits so that while you recognize the harm caused by your actions, you do not get into the vicious cycle of self-blame, negativity and then more bad habits. Make an effort to give yourself the gift of unconditional self-acceptance so that you are not only ready for positive changes but attain emotional balance and inner peace in the long run.

Crazy about Karaoke – 3 Ways to Get it Right

Whether it’s a night out with pals or a date with that special someone, doing karaoke makes for loads of fun. However if you are not a trained singer, the idea of being in the spotlight with a microphone in your hands can be a little scary. Here are 3 surefire ways to banish the jitters and get crooning with karaoke.

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Crazy about Karaoke 

Your voice sounds best when the microphone is held a little away from your mouth. Actually imagine you are holding an ice cream cone for that perfect distance.

When choosing tracks, stick to what works for your voice and what you are familiar with. That way you have got some chance of actually sounding like the song you are supposed to be singing. However if want to do a song whose words you are unsure of, avoid dancing. This will help you to focus on your singing and if you really feel the urge to move, gesture with your hands and keep your feet still.

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Finally you can enjoy karaoke even if you are totally tone-deaf or unbearably shy. If so, head out in a group – that way you wouldn’t have to sing A) because there probably won’t be enough mikes to go around and B) the more confident singers would likely hog them anyway, so you can merely hum along as you soak up the experience.

 

Helping Heritage with INTACH

Did you know that beneath that luminous marble, is a core of bricks?

Seriously? The Taj Mahal? This fact about the most familiar monument to Indians, and many more such nuggets about our heritage took me by surprise. But then, I should have expected as much since I was at a workshop by INTACH or the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage of the Nilgiris Chapter. The location – the YWCA building opposite the Race Course in Ooty – was itself imbued with historical and architectural significance as Dr. Suresh, convenor of Tamil Nadu INTACH, explained in the end.

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The newly restored Reference Section of the Nilgiri Library

Conducted over two days, 13th and 14 July,  the workshop sought to acquaint school teachers with the need of and skills for starting heritage clubs in their institutions with the ultimate goal of protecting national heritage.On the first day Ms. Purnima Dutt, the resource person conducting the workshop, used an interesting mix of talk, audio-visual media and games to give an overview on the goals, aspects and methodology of running a heritage club while the second day passed in a whirl of activities including a much-anticipated visit to Ooty’s heritage buildings like St Stephens Church, the Nilgiri Library and the Stone House built by John Sullivan, the first Englishman to arrive in Ooty and hence the founder of modern history of the famous hill station. The warmth and bonhomie evoked at the workshop venue served a cheerful counterpoint to the chilly breeze and slate grey Nilgiri sky outside.

 

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Exquisite Stained Glass Paintings at the St. Stephens Church, Ooty

 

Satiated by a hearty lunch, as we began walking out of the dining room, hitherto unnoticed details like a jade green gravy boat on the  sideboard and a piano with candle-holders on decorative hinges caught our attention, taking us back to dining and partying ways of decades ago. This new heightened awareness of heritage took a while to sink in and as we left on our own ways, I am certain many of us were already thinking of how best to pass it on to the younger generation.

 

 

7 Football Fun Facts To Crank Up FIFA Fever

The other day, I asked my daughter about the official song of the ongoing FIFA World Cup. Turned out she was as clueless as yours truly. So in an increasingly rare instance of mother-daughter joint endeavour we looked it up together and found out that it was “Live it Up” by Nicki Jam, featuring Will Smith and Era Isterefi .

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The exercise led me to dig up other facts related to football or soccer as the known in some parts of the world. Here are seven interesting facts about some of greatest names of the Beautiful Game:

  • Though he was eventually fully exonerated, Bobby Moore – captain of the only FIFA World Cup winning English team – before landing in Mexico for the 1970 World Cup faced arrest by the Colombian police on charges of jewellery theft.
  • David Beckham is said to suffer from ornithophobia or fear of birds! Actually it gets weirder – he also has ataxophobia which is – hold on – fear of untidiness!
  • Maradona – whose antics of elation on the stands this time grabbed more footage than Rojo’s match-winning goal against Nigeria – had to exit the 1994 World Cup mid-tournament for testing positive for drug ephedrine.
  • As a child, Messi was diagnosed with a type of hormone deficiency; when treatment in Argentina proved expensive for his middle-class parents the FC Barcelona club pitched in, impressed by budding footballer’s potential.
  • In his youth, Pele started a team with boys of the neighbourhood who couldn’t afford gear and thus were known as ‘Shoeless Ones’ – eventually this game of pick-up soccer took on his name and became famous as ‘pelada’.
  • For scoring a goal in his debut league match in 1991, Zinedine Zidane was gifted a car by his club chairman, Alain Pedretti.
  • Apart from South America and Europe, no other continent has produced a World Cup winning team.

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Table For One

In a Post-Truth world, I am wary of messages on social media. But a recent one has got me thinking for some time now. And having just watched  71 – a hard-hitting independent British movie about a soldier inadvertently left behind on the riot-ridden streets of Belfast at the peak of Northern Ireland conflict, I began to realize the enormous significance of hope in the midst of fear and violence.

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A Still from ’71                                                                                   Photo Courtesy: The Guardian

At National Defence Academy, India’s premier training institution for young military cadets, the dining hall is a prime attraction for outsiders. Officially known as the Cadets’ Mess, it has a seating capacity of 2100 cadets at one time. But little do people know that just outside, stands a solitary table set just for one with its chair tilted forward. This arrangement is in remembrance of all those brave souls either Missing In Action or taken Prisoners of War.

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On the table is a vase with a single rose indicating the love of the families who still hope for their return.  Tied around the vase is also a red ribbon to show solidarity with all who demand a proper accounting of the missing. The candle on the table is never lit, symbolizing lack of light and happiness in their absence.  A slice of lemon placed on the bread plate stands for their bitter fate while the salt is reminiscent  of the tears shed by their loved ones. Finally the glass is upturned indicating that they cannot dine with us tonight.

What a remarkable symbol of the sacrifice of all those who left to do their duty by their country but never came back!

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“Let the chair remain tilted

Let the lonesome table still be set

The candle keeps its dark vigil

lest we forget, lest we forget !”

When you have so much more…

The more I think about it, the more I wonder…How would it feel, knowing that you are not allowed to?

OK, then let me start from the beginning.

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There was a time last month when we had guests drop in rather frequently for dinner. I found myself hosting three get-togethers within less than three weeks, I think. Fortunately I had help with the preparations since my exams were right round the corner. Though I prefer to cook for parties myself, having someone to peel, chop, grate, crush, mince, dice, julienne and such-like paraphernalia is a blessing. But something has been bothering me recently about those memories – how would it feel to handle meat, exotic vegetables, imported fruits and quantities of expensive ingredients, when you know you cannot afford them in your own home?

Even though we are not regular party-throwers, my insistence on a wholesome diet means that I often buy foods that ever-rising inflation places out of the reach of many families, like that of my help. So perhaps one day, searching for a spice, she comes across bottles stocked with dry fruits like cashews, walnuts and almonds. Or she may find herself cooking an amount of goat meat enough to feed a party of 15; Or she is washing up even she feels heady with the aroma of saffron-infused basmati pulao that I have just taken down from the gas range – what can possibly go on in her mind when her own children may not have had such stuff on their table for many many months. Then there is the  boiling of chicken, daily, twice a day for my dog!

Indeed, my train of thought began ranging further. How does it feel for a poorly paid accountant to  handle vast sums of money – especially in cash – when his own child may be suffering from lack of expensive medical treatment. Or perhaps for a night-shift nurse in a hospital  caring for patients when her own mother is old and alone at home, with nobody to pick her up if she stumbles in the dark room and falls.

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Such morbid thoughts, you say…but just think, once, how much we take for granted!

Back To School

Let me get this straight

“You mean you are actually – willingly – doing this?”

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Back to Studies

My daughter’s incredulity would’ve been funny had the scene been playing out on the TV screen, like in a Man with a Plan type of family comedy series where teens perpetually talk to parents with an arched eyebrow.

“Why should it be so strange that I might want to do a course?” I tried to keep my equanimity even as I felt fine tendrils of self-doubt uncurling in my heart.

“Who would want to voluntarily study, take an exam, go through this —?!” the last word was quite expressive of the hatred that kids have for exams.

As you may have guessed by now – this mini inter-generational drama was all about my signing up for a college course.  I had a sneaking suspicion my teen daughter’s reaction was actually resentment at the possibility of not having me at her beck and call for a few months the following year when I would be in the thick of my studies. But over the next few weeks my suspicions evaporated. I found her actually happy that she had a co-sufferer now and eventually my darling even began taking on the much-despised pet-related chores off my shoulders.

The rest of the family was just relieved I had found something to plug my intermittent whining about the absence of a ‘proper’ career.

Outside, my revelation was generally met with varying degrees of interest – from an off-hand “oh really” in the middle of a rambling description of shopping in Dubai’s Gold Souk to real concern that I might be subjecting my brain cells to more than it could bear at this age. Two reactions stand out in my memory – one:

“Really – But why? What possible good can any course do now – will you even make enough to cover course fees?”

And the second was, of course, what started it all:

“I see…if you are so interested in the subject, maybe you should go ahead with it – just find a way.”

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Minerva and the Nine Muses by Hendrick Van Balen – Minerva is the Greek Goddess of Wisdom

Some words, uttered by someone, in a moment of pure congruence – you never know where it can lead you.

 

Lessons In Letting Go

Can it happen already?

I remember the first post written after I settled down in my cosy nook here, in the Nilgiris. There I had reflected on difficulty of uprooting oneself and changing homes ever so often.

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And almost exactly a year later, I am back facing the same questions. Freshly moved to another house though still in these sylvan surroundings, here I go planning wall decor even as my half-awake mind seeks the familiar door handle at 3 in the morning when I have to let out my dog.

But most of all, my heart searches for the colours and blooms of the garden I have left behind. The burst of colours on the flower-beds, grass so green it would hurt the eyes and the perpetual humming of bees as they hovered over the hedges.

And yet I find myself embracing my new surroundings with some equanimity now. I roam its expansive grounds, feel the silken warmth of gladioli petals that bloom here in abundance and admire the gorgeous bougainvillea that embraces the porch.

But curiously I feel no desire to do more. No compulsion to impose my ideas of Beauty on these grounds, no need to recreate what I have left behind. I sit in the filigreed shade of the pine trees and watch my dog chase squirrels and rats. I know the boundary is secure but thankfully I have no more exotic flowerbeds to obsess over.

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Am I moving towards the Nirvanic ideal of detachment? I’d like to think so…and turn towards an ancient Australian Aboriginal proverb for understanding,

“We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. We are here to observe, to learn, to grow, to love, and then we return home.”

A Trusted Travel Companion

I decided to play a little game –

With eyes closed, move my head around; stop randomly, open my eyes and then the first thing I notice – write about it.

Yes, writer’s block can make you do strange things.

Back to my fun experiment – my gaze had come to rest on a suitcase. Old but not too battered, roomy but without the works. The piece of luggage had been with me for almost eighteen years now but none too worse for the weather. It had accompanied me to different parts of the country, the most recent being my trip to Kohima but this was already after having breathed the cool climes of Landsdowne, basked in the southern sun of Kovalam, romanced the stone forts of Mandu in central India. This sturdy dame had done it all.

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But, then I remembered with a shard of regret how it had also missed out on the Rhine cruise from six years back as well as the Seoul city tour from two. It was not deemed fast enough for the airport of Hong Kong nor fashionable enough for the luxury of Venetian Macao.

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And yet, I have it still. When I have to zip across nearly two thousand kilometres to my hometown at two-days’ notice or worry that my snazzy luggage will my ruined in the grimy train interiors, or need to pack in so much of my Kolkata shopping that I have to sit on it for the lock to click shut – I fall back upon what else – my old trusted suitcase.

Not too pretty, a little frayed around the edges, understanding of my needs and the proud bearer of so many marks and stains that on the conveyor belt, it just cannot be confused with someone else’s luggage – that’s my trusted travel companion.

So here’s looking forward to many more journeys together !

Worry Woes – 3 Wily Ways To Fix Them

Dog’s appetite

no career

maid’s holiday

exam questions

garden weeds

daughter’s college fees

varicose veins

blueberry cheesecake

saree blouse designs

scratch on the car

party over the weekend

friend’s promotion

 

Can you guess what these are?

That’s right ! items buzzing in my overcrowded brain accompanied by much hand-wringing every day – leading to ridiculous waste of my time, mental energy and head space. So what do I do – here are 3 quick worry shooters that i have personally found helpful. And believe me, coming from a chronic worrier like yours truly, that’s saying something.

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The Worry Bogey

Focus on the friendly 5

Simply focus on your 5 senses – what you see, hear, smell, taste and feel around you. And before long you will actually begin to enjoy the exercise. Like the warm envelope of a soft dressing gown straight out of a cold shower. Or the day-long bird chirrups around my Nilgiris home which I hardly paid attention to – or was thankful for – till i arrived in Kolkata in the peak of summer. In fact for me the faint earthy smell of a dog is truly comforting and i want to get as much of it now before her 11-12 years are up. Keeping your mind on the feast of senses works wonders to keep worries at bay. The catch is of course, that it takes practice before you get to see results. It is only too easy for chronic worriers to lapse back into picking mind warts. Indeed even unpleasant sensations can help you to keep off niggling worries – right now just as i started worrying about the dismal readership of my blog, I immediately shifted my mind to my uncomfortable writing posture. and well, it helped me to go on.

Ditch Products – For experiences

OK there goes my chance of finding sponsors for my blog – but really, retail therapy is one of the unhealthiest ways to deal with chronic worry. Buying something gives you a just a momentary mood spike but you can be sure the euphoria will wear away sooner than later. Even worse, if like me, you cannot afford unnecessary purchases, rest assured you have added another item – credit card bills – to your already long list of worries. Instead try and acquire experiences – like baking a batch of cookies, playing with your pet, calling your Mom, listening to rock music at an un-neighbourly volume!

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Fix a time

Chronic worriers may find it helpful to actually schedule worry. Sounds counterproductive, right – if not outright bizarre. But keeping aside a fixed time for worry will help you tell yourself, “ Hey, its OK – if worrying means so much to you, let’s find a time when you can worry without interruption. But then don’t do it at other times – deal?” And trust me, most of the time you’ll find yourself agreeing.

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Look for help

Finally, take care of yourself. If you find your worries getting out of hand – like interfering with your appetite, sleep or straying to thoughts of self-harm – get out and look for professional help. Life is the best gift of all – and nothing, absolutely nothing is worth damaging it.

But ending with a widely-loved quote on worry by, who else, Mark Twain:

“I have spent most of my life worrying about things that have never happened”

Agree??

Kohima Chronicles

No, I didn’t spot a hornbill – nevertheless there was much to marvel in this Land of the Brave and the Beautiful.

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The brave…

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Sprawled across the slopes of Japfu range is the capital city of the state of Nagaland – Kohima. The city and its people walk with a calm balance – here sunny mornings can give way to sharp, gusty showers later in the day. gorgeous blooms of roses, geraniums and hibiscus grow in dusty pots, if not plain poly bags.

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And the Beautiful.

Though the tinned roofs of the cityscape are an eyesore, the predominance of bamboo walls could be a lesson in organic growth to other Indian hill stations. There are no opulent bungalows and sprawling hotels but neither there are reeking poverty-stricken shanties. Apart from KFC, I didn’t notice many big brands but was elated to find so many shops selling musical instruments and plump succulents. Here is an attractive example of inspirational graffiti art:

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I was warned that the Naga market with its raw display of meats was not for the faint-hearted yet I was found so many types of organic grown greens on sale. Then again despite the messy tangle of corruption, extortion and politics, people appear satisfied and self-contained. In fact my whining about the bone-jarring drive from Dimapur to Kohima was met with mischief-marked smiles – leading me to believe that they don’t mind the torturous access so much if it keeps crowds away. And yet over the first week of December, Kohima throws open its arms to the world for the Hornbill Festival.

Not surprisingly I returned with more questions about this land than answers…I would love to hear more from anyone who has lived and breathed its moist, mist-scented air!

New Market Matters…

Paisleys, stripes and waves dancing on royal purples, jade greens, ruby reds – a myriad colours, patterns and textures shimmering before my eyes. I lapped up the sensory feast though fabrics were clearly not on my shopping list.

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But then, this was how one of Kolkata’s most popular markets made a lifelong follower out of you. Typical of the city’s paradoxical attractions, New Market continues to be called so, despite the fact that it is more than a century old. Built on the express initiative of Sir Stuart Hogg, then Chairman of Calcutta Corporation, it was inaugurated on 1 January 1874 as the first municipal market of the city and a much-needed destination where the colonial settlers could shop for their stationary from R.W. Newman or Thacker Spink or buy their dresses from Ranken and Company. Later the market was named Hogg Market but eventually came to be known as just New Market.

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New Market in 1945

Today, I was interested in a bewildering spectrum of stuff – leather hand-bags, baking accessories, summer shorts, wine-glasses and finally biscuits from Nahoum and Sons, the only confectioners in India that I have come across who sell the Turkish dessert baklava on a regular, no-frills basis. Smoky Bandel Cheese is again one of the cherished offerings of New Market and might well be among the remaining traces of Portuguese cuisine in India outside Goa; just like delicious pork sausages that my friend tells me cannot be matched elsewhere in price and flavour.

Dripping in the humid heat, nevertheless we plodded on – she rolling her eyes at my “under-developed bargaining skills” and I guiding her through the semi-lit, steaming, maze-like lanes. Eventually when our arms could no longer bear anymore weight, we hailed a cab. Truth be told, I a little reluctantly, since my brain was still ticking off the items I could have still bought to take back to the Nilgiris.

Maybe a slice of hot, smoky cosmopolitan Calcutta to carry to my cool, hill-side home. Yes, I would have liked that !!

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New Market now

Lasagna Lessons

A One-act play on human nature!

Yes, that is what unfolded last evening at the dinner table. At the heart of it all was the bubbling casserole of lasagna that I placed with quiet triumph. And my lesson at the end of the day was that there are roughly 4 types of human reactions to your success.

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Be damned with faint praise

“Oh my! So you made lasagna today. Hmmm…very nice. Reminds me of Aunt Mildred and her amazing Sunday brunches. The table would positively groan under the weight of all those courses. And her lasagnas of course were the creamiest, tastiest ever!”. For such people, no matter how great your achievement, how much effort and time you have put into it – you are never good enough…

Focus on faults

If you were wondering how to respond to such high praise for Aunt Mildred at your dinner table, save the bother. This reaction would not even take the trouble of coming up with an unflattering comparison but cut straight to the faults. “Hmmm tastes good but maybe you can go a little easy on the salt next time? Don’t worry dear, you’ll get there. Eventually.”

The Royal Ignore

Did you really mess it up? You look for confirmation from another guest. Nothing. Not a word about your efforts. Instead conversation flows, “I told Susan to take that sorry excuse of a presentation and shove it up her…” You look at the big spoonfuls of lasagna she is shovelling in her mouth and wait for a response, “…Would you believe her nerve? And all this right in front of me, in my office!”. Yes. You do believe. That some people can have minds that are so small, so petty that a word of praise for another’s success can actually threaten their entire existence.

Pure Joy

Finally, you get the reaction that celebrates all those hours of effort. A broad grin that makes the eyes dance. Ecstatic groans that rise all the way from a satiated alimentary tract. “Mmmm…best lasagna ever…” By then you don’t need to hear any more. You are half-way through your own dinner.

And you know exactly how Success tastes !

 

 

October on my mind…

A week after its release, I finally managed to watch October – a finely-nuanced Hindi movie about love, loss and waiting for both. Director Shoojit Sircar sets it in Delhi – that rare Indian metro city where autumn is properly felt as a season and not just a transit between the humid summers and cool December. The title appropriately evokes the themes of near-death, near-love in the backdrop of near-winter.

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October mornings in Delhi. Photo courtesy: DNA India

But this is not a movie review.

This is more about thoughts on what, ultimately, makes Life worth living? Having someone to love? Like a 21-year old daughter in coma who cannot even say ‘Ma’ but for whom the mother spends nights in the hospital and days earning the money needed to keep the life-support machines running.

Or maybe being loved by someone makes the real difference – like by the young man who daily checks her urine output and is the one to jumpstart the healing process by bringing her favourite flowers to smell.

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October flowers – Shiuli

Perhaps it is those young interns who are actually right – having found the balance between practicality, carrying on with the business of living and still concerned enough about their hospitalized friend to shell out precious cash for her medicines and cover for the guy who wants to be there.

One might even wonder if the cantankerous uncle – who never stops whining about ballooning hospital bills and the prospect of lifelong paralysis – is nearer to the brutal truth of what physical and mental faculties actually define a quality life. Much as we would want him to shut up.

Who knows who is right, what is right ? Scriptwriter Juhi Chaturvedi does not leave us with easy answers. The movie and its questions linger long after the closing credits – much like the faint fragrance of Shiuli – the delicate, short-lived flower of October mornings.

An Idle Question

Now what??!!

The question accompanied the sinking feeling of having made a bad choice. The strawberries of course, sat in the bowl innocuously – shimmering in ruby red colours perfectly accessorized by their green tops.

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“Too sour” – my daughter echoed what I already knew. And with her reaction, drained away the lukewarm hope that her teen palate wouldn’t mind the tart fruits. I had asked someone else to do the veggie shopping and now I heartily wished I had gone to the store myself.

With a heavy heart, I reached for my phone and Googled ‘sour strawberry recipes’. Apart from some pretty useful search results, what really surprised me were search prompts like, “what to do with sour strawberries”, “how to sweeten sour strawberries” and so on. Cheered up by the realization that I was not the only one struggling with the sour-strawberry-dilemma in this world, I sauntered to my garden – the culprit bowl in one hand, my phone in the other. The green lawn were lit up by a golden sun, the bees were humming around the honeysuckle hedge and I chose my favourite spot near the jewelled petunias to sit and go through the search results.

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The tips were the usual mix: macerate the sour berries in a mix of honey, lemon/ fruit juice, bake them in muffins and cakes, blend them into a smoothie, cook them into a spicy chutney or just douse them with sugar and keep overnight. However my mind was already totalling the cons – honey would rack up calories and cooking would ruin the nutrients.  May be, I should take the easiest way out but as I glanced at the bowl to gauge the quantity of the berries, I was taken aback.

Only three remained – had I absent-mindedly been popping them into my mouth all this while? May be they weren’t so unpleasant, after all. I wish I had enjoyed them as well – the taste, texture, their luscious tartness with just the right degree of crunch…

So much like Life – we fret about what is not right, why we should have decided otherwise and how we can make it better – whereas all the while we are living it, spending it and forgetting to enjoy its sweet-sour moments !

 

Follow the harvest trail…

Today amidst the flurry of New Year wishes, one particular post on social media caught my attention.

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The fact that we Bengalis – as a linguistic and cultural community undivided by international boundaries –  share our New Year with festivals in other parts of India invariably gladdens my heart every time April comes around. As we get ready to feast on kosha mangsho and payesh – must-haves on the traditional Bengali spread – Tamil Nadu is celebrating Puthandu, Kerala is enjoying Vishu Kani, Assam is swaying to Bihu, Punjab is rocking to Vaisakhi and Orissa is marking Pana Sankranti.

Interestingly, many parts of South and South-eastern Asia also usher in their traditional New Year around this time. Thailand, Laos and Burma are awash in the colours of Songkran, Pi Mai Lao and Thingyan respectively.  The Cambodian Choul Chnam Thmey literally means “Enter New Year” in the Khmer language and the Sinhalese New Year is known as Aluth Avurudda. The official calendar of Nepal, Bikram Sambath too is unfurled around this time. Indeed Bangladesh celebrates Pahela Baishakh  in a most spectacular manner with the Mangal Shobhajatra in Dhaka now being declared by UNESCO as a cultural heritage of humanity.

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Photo courtesy: The Asian Age

There are many ways of explaining this concurrence of festivities. Astronomically, this time marks the beginning of the Aries zodiac known as Mesh in Sanskrit – thus countries which had been influenced Sanskrit/Hindu astronomy historically, for example as a result of invasion by the Chola dynasty, still follow its cultural observations.

What I like to think though is that all these communities are bound by ancient rhythms of seasons and agriculture. Not so long ago and still so in some places, harvests would be gathered in at this time, larders filled and prayers of thanks offered for Nature’s bounty. What else could explain so many rituals associated with rice, water and earth?

Today, with increasing urbanization, many of these harvest rituals are fading away. And yet, the spirit of cultural belonging remains strong. If music, food, art and nature help Bengalis push religious and national identities in the background to come together on Poila Boishakh, young Khmer girls dress up in all their traditional finery half-way across the world in Georgia, US.

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What an amazing place is this world of ours !

Awash in Purple

It is that time of the year when the verdant horizon glows with splashes of purple!

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That’s right – Jacaranda trees are aflame now in the Nilgiris, painting the landscape a deep mauve in places. The Wikipedia informs that Jacaranda is technically a genus of flowering tree that includes as many as 49 species of plants, bearing the signature bluish-purple blossoms. The variety most common in Asia and the one most blooming all around is the Jacaranda mimosifolia.

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After a gusty night, the paths appear to be covered in a rich violet carpet. Indeed if you happen to walk through an avenue of jacaranda trees on a breezy day, you are likely to be greeted by a shower of delicate lilac-coloured petals – enough to make you feel as though receiving the most vivacious coloured benedictions from the heavens.

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Jacaranda has lent its name to many a bungalow, lifestyle outlet and road in these parts. The visual extravagance of its blossoming draws tourists from the plains and in fact places like Grafton and Brisbane in Australia have their own Jacaranda festivals.

A good idea for the Nilgiris, really – and yet another opportunity to ruminate at length how these Blue Hills got their name…

3 Ways to Get Going

These days I have a powerful quote as my laptop wallpaper – and it serves as a highly effective motivating mantra

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The only thing really to do is to start! Forget about being in the right mood to launch into that novel, the right frame of mind to update the resume or even the right weather conditions to weed the garden. If something is bugging you deep within, it is never the right moment – instead just dive into what you have been wanting to do. Remember how that annoying know-it-all uncle from childhood would drone on that you are never gonna learn to swim while splashing at the shallow end? Or how your older sibling would threaten to take out the training wheels from your bike? That’s right – you just gotta start – and then figure out, as you go along, how to do it better.

This though doesn’t mean that you cannot use a little help. Rope in positive people to keep your spirits up – apart from supportive family and genuine friends, it could be a former teacher, a kind neighbour or even that kind person at the deli counter who really listens when you dreamily talk about your longtime desire to go hiking in Bhutan. Since this kind of support is really not within your control, do what you can make it easier to get going. Just yesterday a few of us were discussing how playing our favourite music makes it easier to wash dishes and finish other such boring chores. Apart from music, lighting an energizing fragrance or sipping a cup of freshly brewed lemon tea could do the trick.

Finally, do what you can. Break up a difficult venture into small, realistic, regular targets which have greater chances of success because they seem less daunting. Reward yourself for each target accomplished but as we agreed in our life skills class – let the reward be commensurate with the goal. So rather than splurging on a new pair of shoes for finishing one chapter of your Research Paper, wear your fire-red lip colour or scarf to work/college that day. Keep bigger indulgences for major goals met.

And before you know – you will be raring to go!

 

 

 

 

Today Tell Your Story

 

“IF A STORY IS WITHIN YOU, IT HAS TO COME OUT”

-William Faulkner

How important is it to tell your own story?

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Human lives are densely interwoven with stories – we are born as the result of intersection of two people’s stories, grow up listening to tales, acquire morals, warnings, inspiration through them and inevitably construct our own narratives – replete with sub-plots, twists and turns, climaxes and temporary resolutions till another complication begins to take shape. In fact I think our stories do not even die with us – they might figure as a prologue in our children’s or sub-plots in other people’s stories and anything else that we leave behind as a legacy.

And who best to tell your story than you?

A few days back our book club met to discuss Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Remember Liesel, and her inexplicable tendency of swiping a book wherever she comes across one? Even though in the beginning of the novel she cannot read ! Eventually Liesel moves beyond “collecting” books – she learns to read and most importantly, write. The act of writing her own story saves her –  metaphorically, as it imbues her life experiences with meaning and optimism and then literally in the end as she falls asleep in the basement while writing her book and thus escapes the bombing which wipes out her foster family.

And yet not all personal narratives need be positive. The theory of narrative therapy as propounded by Michael White and David Epston, points out how problem-saturated life stories can lead to unhappiness, worry, anxiety and such psychological issues. The way ahead lies in re-interpreting, re-framing negative events and episodes to construct a positive narrative and looking for “unique moments” or opportunities to bring about beneficial changes.

Writing your story can be cathartic when emotions and feelings are raging inside you, can give coherence when you can’t make sense of your life and finally closure, when you need to get over episodes or people to be able to move on. Finally, as one of my favourite poets, Maya Angelou says,

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Image Courtesy: Brainyquote.com

 

The Elephant in the Quilt

A quilt shaking as though it has a life of its own, like an elephant in there – a pair of young female eyes  is struck into silence by what she sees…

This is how the 1942 short story, Lihaaf translated as The Quilt ends which was eventually hailed as a trailblazer in women’s writing about class, gender and sexuality in the Indian subcontinent. The author was a bold, irreverent 27 year old woman named Ismat Chugtai whose liberal upbringing and a keen awareness of patriarchal politics made her take up the pen. Later in life, her non-fiction work, Yahan se Wahan Tak would read, “The pen is my livelihood and my friend, my confidante…Whenever I want I can send for anyone via the pen’s flying carpet, and when these people arrive, I can say anything, make them cry, laugh or reduce them to ashes with my harsh words.”

Ismat-Chughtai

It is this fire from her pen that charted a new kind of writing where women could use the form of the short story in Urdu to talk about not just female sexuality but about other kinds of discrimination, oppressions they faced on a daily basis. This however did not go unopposed by patriarchal institutions as stories like Lihaaf faced court cases and others like Angaarey were banned at various times in the subcontinent.

 

Apart from Lihaaf, Chugtai is today best known for her story collections like  Chhui Mui, Thori si Pagal, Aik Baat, Do Haath, novellas like Ziddi which was made into a hit Hindi move of the same title but most of all for the novel, Tehri Lakeer or The Crooked Line which was considered her magnum opus. Later her non-fiction work like essays and memoirs especially Kaghazi hai Pehraan too received much appreciation and renown. Official recognition came in the form of a slew of media awards including the Filmfare Award for best Story for the Partition classic Garam Hawa on which she worked with noted Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi as well as state awards, including the Padma Shri in 1976.

Chugtai died in 1991 in then Bombay but not before she had been successful in ‘Lifting The Veil’ – incidentally the title given to an anthology of her stories – from the reality of gender and class politics in the subcontinent and offered women writers to come, new avenues in literary form and style.

For my Daughter – On her Birthday…

It took me a while but eventually I found it !

The perfect poem for my daughter on her birthday

Titled “The Writer” and written by Richard Wilbur, the poem is a visual and finely-pitched exploration of a parent’s thoughts as he/she wishes strength and perseverance for the daughter to fight, learn and fly.

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THE WRITER

In her room at the prow of the house

Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,

My daughter is writing a story.

daughter

I pause in the stairwell, hearing

From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys

Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

 

Young as she is, the stuff

Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:

I wish her a lucky passage.

 

But now it is she who pauses,

As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.

A stillness greatens, in which

 

The whole house seems to be thinking,

And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor

Of strokes, and again is silent.

 

I remember the dazed starling

Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;

How we stole in, lifted a sash

 

And retreated, not to affright it;

And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,

We watched the sleek, wild, dark

 

And iridescent creature

Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove

To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

 

And wait then, humped and bloody,

For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits

Rose when, suddenly sure,

 

It lifted off from a chair-back,

Beating a smooth course for the right window

And clearing the sill of the world.

 

It is always a matter, my darling,

Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish

What I wished you before, but harder.

(From New and Collected Poems, published by Harcourt Brace, 1988. Copyright © 1969 by Richard Wilbur. All rights reserved)

Many thanks to this page at poetry.org where I found a collection of evocative poems on daughters – the love, joy, youthfulness and hope they bring into their parents’ lives, the strength that they display through life’s challenges but also their differences with parents which eventually mark them out as individuals in their own right.

Mummies of Egypt – an ancient science and a lasting wonder

Of the original Seven Wonders of the World listed by ancient Greek travellers like Antipater of Sidon and Philo of Byzantium, today only the Great Pyramids of Giza remain. Egypt though continues to draw travellers from across the world for a related attraction – mummies.

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The Egyptian God Anubis attending the mummy of Sennedjem

Ancient Egyptians believed that earthly death was the beginning of the person’s journey into the next world. If the person was to live in another world, the body had to survive and to this end was invented the science of mummification. This was a process of preservation of the body – all the internal organs of the dead were removed and put in canopic jars. The body was next covered with a mixture of salt known as natron to remove all moisture. Then the body was wrapped in thin strips of linen, decorated with protective amulets and placed in mummy case or coffins.

Because of the highly expensive and lengthy – the mummification of a single body could take up to 70 days – the process was reserved only for the rich and powerful. However , all Egyptians in those days would be buried with certain goods essential to make the supposed journey to the other world – these would include food, household objects like bowls, grooming tools like combs and other trinkets. The wealthy were of course were expected to make the journey into afterlife in style and hence were buried with jewellery, furniture and later with certain symbolic objects like shabtis and scarabs.

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A complete set of canopic jars

No matter how elaborate the burial arrangements, the living however could not expect their responsibilities to diminish – they were  supposed to continue to visit the tomb of their deceased relatives with food and prayers –  talk about the dead not giving up !

Gossip, Interrupted

There – I had managed to do it! It had taken some concerted effort on my part, but I had stuck it out, held on to my guns and not given up. In case you wondering what all the self-congratulation is about, I shall give you one word – Gossip. and I had managed to survive an entire party without giving in to its temptation.

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 Oil on cradled Panel titled ‘Gossip’ by Eugen Von Blass, 1903

In his best known work, Faerie Queen, Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser, described Slander as a Blatant Beast who wreaks havoc, less by brute physical force and more by sneaky rumour-mongering. Indeed the wounds inflicted by the Beast in the lengthy poem turn out to be almost incurable since they not just physically hurt the victim but destroy him/her psychically.

Seems a bit fanciful today, doesn’t it – after all, everyone indulges in a little harmless gossip now and then. And yet, is it really harmless?

A snide remark here, a loaded suggestion there. Rolled up eyes and a meaningful wink – so many weapons to shoot a reputation down, attack a person behind his/her back. And oh, this kind of arsenal is gender neutral – men use it as much as women to strike.

Is this why people gossip – to bring down others? Is this the only pay-off? This word is actually a loaded term from Eric Berne’s Games People Play where one of the psychological games described is Blemish. In fact, he really classifies it a classic Party game and yesterday, as I was revising Transactional Analysis for my students, I realized with a jolt, how often have I seen it played out before my very eyes – and daresay at times, participated myself!

“ ‘Blemish’ players do not feel comfortable with a new person until they have found his blemish,” says Berne “… It has internal psychological advantage of warding off depression, and the external psychological advantage of avoiding the intimacy which might expose the player’s own blemishes.” (from Games People Play, Eric Berne)

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As I pondered on the pay-off, a more contemporary metaphor came to my mind – maybe not high-falutin’ Spensarian allegory but I wondered if gossip does not act as a drug! You start with only this amount to get a high – the Bernian pay-off – and then proceed to increasingly higher doses to attain the same level of pay-off.

But as Berne also points out, a script can be changed – rewritten too if driven by awareness and enough volition. And as I think back on all the exciting conversations I had at the last party with guests other than the gossipers, I realize that I had managed to beat back the Blatant Beast – take that Gossip, I don’t need you anymore !!

And yet I am aware that this requires hard work and will-power –  after all tomorrow is another day, another Party…

 

PTSD – How to help

On a day that our guest lecturer dealt with the topic of Stress and Trauma Management in a highly impactful way, I came back home and started pondering on PTSD. Standing for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, it is a psychological condition that affects those who have suffered a major trauma to the psyche and/or the body.

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Actually I knew nothing of the acronym or what it meant the first time I saw it in action – in an Oliver Stone movie, Heaven and Earth where Tommy Lee Jones plays the role of an American soldier who returns from the Vietnam War not only with a wife but also inner demons which eventually drive him to turn the gun on himself.

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Courtesy:Warner Bros

If your loved one is suffering from PTSD, here is how can you help:

Know the symptoms

Ideally, the person should be seeing a counsellor as part of his/her recuperation process from the traumatic incident. If that has not happened, watch out for unusual behaviour. Signs that can alert you to a PTSD victim could range from apparently minor ones like sleep disturbances and a tendency to avoid social situations to extreme ones like intense fear, anxiety, helplessness, hypervigilance and even hallucinations. If such symptoms have been continuing for a month at least, it is time to look up a doctor for the right diagnosis.

Get Help

See that he/she continues with treatment which could be therapy, medication or a combination of both.  This is because though symptoms can vary from apparently mild to obviously debilitating, they can quickly take a turn where the affected person can put their own selves or those of their loved ones, in harm’s way.

Really Listen

Be available when the victim wants to talk about the incident or about anything else. Avoid arguing and interrupting him/her but when you are concerned, wait your turn and voice your feelings clearly. Above all, don’t offer advice – rather ask what you can do to help.

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Finally, offer your complete support. Invite him/her to accompany you out of doors for some time everyday – like going for a walk, feeding the ducks in a nearby park or some such peaceful activity. Encourage him/her to take small steps to get back to family and friends but never rush a victim to “snap out of it” – recovering from PTSD is a complex process and both the victim as well as his/her loved ones like you need to give it time.

 

RUMI – The Mystic

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The other day I managed to beat the alarm.

After lying in bed and staring at the darkness for what seemed an eternity, I decided I might as well enjoy some coffee.

Now fortified with caffeine, I was raring to go. But rather than diving into work, I wanted to do something different – “let me use the early hour”, I thought. As I stared at the wallpaper, I realized a change was long due – soon I was browsing for a suitable replacement.

Rumi has always been a favourite voice for inspirational quotes and images. While I have quite a few of these on my phone, I hunted for an image of good resolution for my wallpaper.

But first a little about the person himself. Jalal-ud-din Rumi was born sometime in first century AD in Balkh – a flourishing centre of arts and learning in Khorasan, north-eastern Iran. Like his father, Rumi became highly respected as a teacher and philosopher, even before he turned 30.

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But soon his life was to be turned upside down. At 37, he met a wandering dervish named Shams al-Din Muhammad bin Ali Malikdad Tabrizi and was deeply influenced by the latter’s mystic teachings. However Tabrizi’s fame earned the jealousy of many and the seer left without telling anyone. Though heartbroken at Tabrizi’s disappearance, Rumi was inspired to write Divan Shams Tabrizi, now considered his greatest poetic work. Eventually all of Rumi’s teachings and philosophy came to be compiled in six volumes of Mathnavi, by his loyal disciple, Hesam al-Din Chalabi.

Today Rumi’s words quite often find their way into lists of inspirational sayings and quotes. One reason why they are so popular could be perhaps that even when taken out of context, they do surprisingly well. Then again their essential mysticism means that they lend themselves to varied interpretations – depending on the inner compulsions of the reader. Finally the natural imagery, fluid verses and a sparse symbolism means that despite being translated from Persian, his words glow with hope and generosity across time and space.

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Why the Republic Matters

Today India celebrates its 69th Republic Day.

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A Republic is understood, technically, as a nation where supreme power is exercised by elected representatives of its people. In India, the President is elected by Members of Parliament and State Legislatures who in turn are elected by the people. Granted the process is circuitous, but at the end of the day, even the highest executive authority in the land cannot govern just because he/she happens to be born into the right family, gender, caste, religion or class.

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If the Republic is the temple of Indian democracy, then its reigning deity is none other than the Constitution. The longest written Constitution in the world, this lays down the fundamental rights as well as the duties of Indian citizens.  The Preamble crystallizes the essence of Constitution, laying down for all time to come in clear, ambiguous terms the core principles of the Republic namely, Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

The real message to take home after all the pomp, splendour and self-congratulation is over.

3 Top Signs You Are With A Frenemy

Among the more colourful portmanteau words to have invaded pop culture in recent times is Frenemy – someone who appears to be a friend but often, insidiously, behaves like an enemy. If a couple of people in your personal circle send out such ambiguous signals and leave you feeling confused, here are top 3 ways to spot a Frenemy.

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Back-handed compliments

Do words of apparent praise from this person actually leave a bitter taste in your mouth?  If yes, watch out! Say you just pulled off a negotiation with that difficult client and instead of celebrating a sure-shot fat commission or a corner office coming your way, he/she says something like “Wow, now you can go on more out-of-town office tours in business class” , focussing on the minor negative – longer tour hours – rather than major positives like higher pay or perks.

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Goading you to make bad choices

Yet another sign of a toxic pal is him/her pushing you to make choices that may be couched in trendy words but are clearly bad for you – a lip colour that makes your skin look paler or stripes that make you appear stouter. Once you have fallen for your frenemy’s suggestions,  he/she is sure to smirk and point out that they would not be caught dead wearing THAT.

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Makes you feel bad

So why do people stick with such toxic personalities at all – frenemies usually take pains to be nice in the initial stages of a relationship and by the time you have recognized them for what they really are, they have put you down to their heart’s content and thus got their pay-off before moving on to other unsuspecting souls. Again such personalities are usually hyper-social and appear to be very popular, fashionable which attracts people rather shy or less self-assured.

Unfortunately the high of being befriended by someone apparently popular is a very brief one as sooner than later, their words and attitudes leave you feeling more miserable and introverted than before.

So wise up to that cool girl/dude feeding off your insecurities and before he/she can hurt you again bid your frenemy goodbye!

A Walk through Calcutta History

1724 – Calcutta gets its first European Church, built by the Armenians.

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The Armenian Church Spire

So, what else is happening across the world in early 1700s ?

In mainland Europe, the War of Spanish Succession pits the Grand Alliance of newly united England and Scotland, the Dutch Republic and Austria against France, the kingdoms of Naples, Sicily and supporters of Philip in Spain.

North America is still a stage of colonial struggles among the British, French and Spanish though the colonialists are facing far more defiance in the southern continent from its original inhabitants and slave communities like Maroons.

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St. Andrews Church at a busy Calcutta crossing

Europeans have arrived in Africa in search for trade opportunities and found slaves to be the most lucrative prospect; Australia is still being “discovered” by European explorers while the Qin empire  around this time has made China the biggest economy in the world. In the Indian subcontinent, the Mughal empire is past its prime, 1707 being the year of demise of its last powerful ruler, Aurangzeb.

Fourteen years later Calcutta already has a thriving Armenian community who have the resources to build their first church. As more European traders flock to this hub of trade and commerce at the mouth of the Ganges in eastern India, the city opens out its arms to communities and people from across the world.

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The Portuguese Church in Mediterranean colours

And this is what the walk, was all about. Over the course of three and half hours lit by a weak winter Calcutta sun, we explored old churches, temples and synagogues practically hidden by shops and stalls on busy streets but all of them rich repositories of a diverse, multi-cultural ethos that Calcutta is still proud of today.

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Gorgeous interiors of the Maghen David Synagogue

Along with the Armenian Church on (ahem !)Armenian Street, we looked up St Andrews Church in Dalhousie Square, the Portuguese Church in the Bara Bazar, the Beth-el Synagogue on Pollock Street, the newly renovated   Maghen David Synagogue on what else !, Synagogue Street, the Saifee Masjid in Chitpur and the remains of the older Fire Temple on Ezra Street. The walk was rounded off with the visit to the Chinese Sea Ip Church on Terita Bazar as well as the Burmese Temple next to Central Avenue.

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intricately carved wooden panel at the Sea Ip Church

Cheekily titled, The Walk of the Unfaithful, the tour was conducted by let us go; well-known blogger and guide Rangan Dutta regaled us with facts, legal tangles and trivia about all these heritage structures and the colourful past that they symbolize.

Calcutta – so proud of you! Can’t wait to go back and sign up for another walk…

 

My New Year treat – date palm nectar

What sweet libation is this…Nectar fit for the Gods!

The date palm is not among the more famed offerings of the east Indian state of Bengal. Sweets like rosogolla, fine cotton and silk textiles, umpteen variety in freshwater fish delicacies and a penchant for the artistic temperament – yes! But date palms? Isn’t that part of the usual desert landscape? Or the mandatory prop of an oasis scenery ?

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But come winter and the date palms that dot the Bengal countryside – unlike anywhere else in the world – offer the most delicious liquid molasses, known in Bengali, as jhola gur. The sap from the date palms is collected in earthen handis tied to the trees and then after a bit of cooking on wood fire results in a golden brown liquid very similar to maple syrup in appearance but much more fragrant.

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Further cooking on the fire leads to a thickening of the syrup which is then poured into moulds made within the earthen floors of the thatched huts of gur-makers.

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In fact the final product may be of two types – a lighter brown jaggery that is mellower in taste and smoother in texture

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And one that is harder and slightly grainier with a more intense sweetness. Where this variety scores over the former is in its longevity as the lighter coloured version tends to spoil sooner while this harder version keeps well in the refrigerator, over an entire year even!

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I wish this blog post could reach Champaka Haldar, and her family who are among the fast dwindling tribe of creators of this truly delectable variety of jaggery.

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Unfortunately the range of skills involved in its processing – starting from the climbing up the palm trees and tying the handis to collecting the sap and cooking it on the firewood stove for varying lengths of time to get different textures is on its way out. With fields being cemented into urban settlements, younger generation migrating to cities in search of work, lack of government support for such cottage industries and winter setting in later or temperatures not dipping enough, I fear that the art of making patali gur may not survive for long – and with that Bengal will not only lose the flavour of nolen gur in its prized winter sweetmeats but the distinction of being the only culture with the knowledge of processing this tree nectar into the tastiest of molasses and jaggery.

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Talking About Gender Inequality

Apart from a few soft gasps, the room was silent!

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This quote from a 1980 UN Report made up the first slide of the Gender Sensitization class that I took yesterday. Though women in most societies do more than men was generally accepted as a fact by my students – themselves all women – when framed in numbers, the very extent of the inequality shocked them into silence.

Over the next two hours, we covered a few theoretical concepts and then moved on to some of  the ways gender was relevant to language, communication and workplace dynamics. Along the way we not only explored various ways, language posits – for example through words like ‘sportsmanship’, ‘penmanship’, ‘right-hand man’ etc –  the male gender as the norm but also how popular psychology concepts like the masculine ‘report’ vs the feminine ‘rapport’ style of communication construct, disseminate and perpetuate gender stereotypes and hence inequality. Eventually we arrived at various gender issues at workplace, ending with the most traumatic of them all, sexual harassment.

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Though I tried to keep the lectures as focussed as possible to the course curriculum, the ‘digressions’ were especially enjoyable. We covered possible causes of patriarchy and talked about Gerda Lerner’s social historicist hypothesis in the Creation of Patriarchy. How immensely valuable is such research – using data from anthropology and culture studies, she historicizes patriarchy which eventually frees women from the notion that existing gender inequalities are timeless and universal.

 

What made the class truly enriching were inputs from my students as well. Kamla Bhasin for example was pointed as one of the foremost feminist voices in the Indian context and at one TED talk, she reveals how patriarchy impacts both genders – oppressing not only women but dehumanizing men as well. What it has done to the third gender, I asked the class to reflect, on their own.

I however not only conclude the class without a mention of the person, who started it all for me – my Gender Studies professor from Jadavpur University, Dr. Indira Choudhuri. I did my best in the last few  minutes of the class to share with my students her erudition, ground-breaking research as well as the sheer dynamism of her personality – while also regretting that as a student more than 20 years ago, I was barely equipped with the experience and sensitivity to optimize my learning from her.

Thankfully we all grow and come to know better – herein lies my hope for society as well!

3 Quick Feel Good Fixes

Haven’t we all been there sometime? Down in the dumps – the result of perhaps a skirmish at work, a nasty comment by a frenemy, fight with a better half or just the December chills getting to you. So if you have been feeling low lately, here are three simple ways to bounce back…

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Set and Meet Personal Goals

Consumerist culture like ours posits leisure activities like getting a massage or shopping as easy sources of happiness. The truth though may however be quite different. People who strive to reach personal goals by engaging in purposeful leisure like learning a new language or trying out a different sport may end actually end up happier, according to research by Bernardo J. Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University. Setting such goals and striving to reach them appears to give an individual a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment, as compared to buying a service or a product.

Connect Meaningfully

One of the surest ways to start feeling happy is to nurture positive relationships with people you care about. No wonder then family and close friends have consistently ranked high among the must-haves for a quality life. However to really feel good about the people in your life, your relationships must be meaningful – in other words, a bond where you actively give rather than just take so that you are not just looking for company or approval. So get off the computer or phone and rather than looking to ‘friends’ and ‘contacts’ at social networking sites, get involved with the real person who is important to you and you will surely feel better than before.

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Free Yourself from Expectations

Though meaningful relationships and activities can help you feel positive, it is equally important that you don’t have unrealistic expectations. For example, the day after your birthday, have you ever woken up with the feeling, that your special day wasn’t as much as you had thought it would be? This happens for the simple reason that you had unrealistic expectations of it – like your colleagues at work throwing a surprise party for you or your partner getting you an expensive gift. Once you are able to liberate yourself from this focus on what you can get, it becomes much easier to take pleasure in the natural processes – whether connecting with others or doing something pleasurable – which are ultimately what makes us happy.

The Mystery of the Missing Flower

I am not a little proud of my garden.

This little patch of paradise in the Nilgiris shines with so many jewel colours on a sunny morning – beds of impatience unfurl their many shades of reds and pinks while nasturtiums climb in vibrant shots of yellow and orange. White and cream geraniums raise their bunched heads and crimson salvia looks confidently around. Fragile angel wings glow in pale ivories and peaches, glossy begonias beam even as the stalks of lily wait to burst into hundred small starry petals.

Then there are my potted plants – graceful ferns, elegant palms, proud ficus, slender bamboo and a luxurious Christmas fir all blink awake to the morning sun. Not before long, these lose my attention to ruby azaleas and gorgeous fuchias which hang like so many jewelled ‘jhumkas’ or drop earrings.

But what is this?

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Where is yesterday’s double-flowering fuchsia that had bloomed in twin layers – a pearly core surrounded by overlapping magenta petals! I look around the base of the pot to see if dropped in last night’s gusty rains? And then half-suspiciously at Ginger to see if she has been bounding across the garden causing the flower to fall from the delicate stalk? Even if that happened, it should have fallen somewhere around!

Unwillingly I make way for a less-than-pleasant alternative – could someone have stolen into my garden at the crack of dawn to pluck this solitary flower? Unlikely, considering that the rose shrub is still showing off its blooms and rows of succulents sit primly in all their miniature glory.

As my family wakes up and one by one, they stream into the lawn still glistening with diamond dew drops; I ask them about the missing flower – they evoke polite interest before transferring their attention variously to the newspaper, phone, dog or coffee.

I am left wondering at this curious incident…my eyelids droop lulled by the humming of bees on the honeysuckle hedge and the streaming warmth of golden sun…at the very edge of my hazy vision, a graceful figure wearing a flowered wreath wafts past fragrantly just as my daughter’s voice jolts me back to wakefulness, “Did you know Mum, according to this blog, Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and gardens is said to have helped herself to whatever blossom caught her fancy from a garden – isn’t that sneaky…?”

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Now, I know…!

A Lost Soul

For a fraction of a second, I lost control!

Though my hands were firmly on the steering wheel, the sight of that brown slender body darting across the road forced me to halt on a side and get out of the car.

It was a beautiful black Dachshund. And it was clearly lost.

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I strode up and down the road, looking for its owner. I even asked a few passers-by which direction it came from. I looked for a sentry on traffic duty to keep it safe – no luck. And all the while, the little creature kept darting to and away from my heels; running uncertainly on its stubby legs towards, and then almost immediately, away from my car. Clearly the dog was looking for its owner – its instinct for safety made it come near me and my car but then its senses probably told it that we were not who it was looking for.

There was not much more I could do then – I clicked a pic to circulate it in the neighbourhood Whatsapp groups. I left – wondering how it came to be stranded on a busy road – a gate left ajar? A door not latched? Or an owner who could no longer be bothered? For a moment I was even tempted to let it hop into my car but had to drop the idea since I knew someone back home would be far from welcoming.

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As I parked my car in the garage and walked up the steps of my home, Ginger – my brat of a German Shepherd – ran out to greet me. However its enthusiastic licking soon gave way to a quizzical look as it realized that, today, my thoughts were somewhere very far away…

Personality – in the stars? Or me?

There was a time I used to write about zodiac signs – not so much because I was an avid believer in human destiny ruled by stars but because I was paid to do so!

Soon though my web content-writing assignment topics – strange though they initially seemed to me – piqued my interest and I began wondering whether there was any truth to the notion of behavioural traits influenced by zodiac signs.

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With my birthday a couple of days away, I thought this would make a timely topic for a blog post. So let’s see how much I do and do not agree with characteristics typically ascribed to a Sagittarian:

Most definitely, a higher purpose in life motivates me – what I do, has to be more than about just making money, interacting socially, keeping home and so on. Like the Archer’s gaze, I like to aim higher and like Jupiter – the reigning deity of this zodiac – it is usually at something that will further my search for wisdom. Naturally my greatest pleasure is travel and fear, being constrained emotionally, psychologically, physically. Among the usual Sagittarian follies are an incorrigible tendency for social faux pas and I guess, a limited ability to see into people.

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Then again, there are so many traits supposedly associated with this zodiac which I barely find within myself – optimism is unfortunately not my strong point and neither do I badger people with my lets-save-the-world ideas. I don’t gloss over details in a project; nor do I forget to pick up the laundry! Again, though I value the truth, I hardly go around forcing it down others’ throats.

…so what can we make of such zodiac personality traits? Astrologers and experts will point out that there are complex factors involved in the determination of a personality type – the date of birth being only one among many. My own studies in psychology have acquainted me with a plethora of personality theories ranging from psychoanalytic and behaviourist to humanist and those based in physical traits and genetics.

At the end of the day, I like to believe that rather than being cast in a type I am a work in progress – I think, do, bond – sometimes goof up, other times succeed – but most importantly, I never stop trying!

A Taste of the ‘Figs’

The first time I came across her words were actually in a collection of quotes – I forget now, on what subject. But the haunting simplicity and quiet intensity of the words had me hooked:

“My candle burns at both ends

It will not last the night

But oh my foes and ah my friends

It sheds a lovely light.”

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I dug deeper and found out that this was actually an entire poem titled ‘First Fig’ by American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Edna St Vincent Millay who was famed as much as for transforming the sonnet with a new sensibility as for her independent sexuality. Her life and art are filled with instances of standing up to sexual and social norms of the time and one such anecdote that caught my interest was her struggle to claim her own name early in life. Apparently despite being named Edna, she wanted to be called ‘Vincent’ and even crossed swords with her school principal on the matter.

This biographical anecdote lent a fresh perspective to yet another favourite piece of mine from Figs from Thistles, titled ‘Prisoner’:

“All Right,

Go Ahead!

What’s in a name?

I guess I’ll be locked into

As much as I am locked out of!”

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Dream On…

Can it be really true?

That every face from your dream has crossed your path in real life – sometime, somewhere…?? Ok that thought now gives me the shivers! What about the skeletal person I encountered at an empty circus ground in my last dream? Or the old crony from a familiar nightmare? Is it possible that I have actually come across them in my waking hours.

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This time at the Feeling Bookerish workshop, the theme was “Dreams” and looking for some trivia about dreaming, I came across this page. We also discussed a few more interesting  tid-bits like how people who are born blind can also dream, one cannot read or tell the time in a dream and especially the phenomenon of sleep paralysis when you most wish to escape your pursuer in a dream, you find yourself unable to move.

But how strongly are these fun ‘facts’ backed by science? Not much – I could not find any news or institutional source on the internet where these have been proved by  systematic research. That my workshop participants and I had a lot of fun, imagining fictional situations bearing out such ‘facts’, was another matter!

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Additionally we discussed books where dreams play a crucial part in the theme or plot like Alice in Wonderland, A Christmas Carol, Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix, The Mummy’s Foot and, of course, the inevitable Interpretation of Dreams. Personally I came away delighted having made my acquaintance of a new word, “oneirology,” – the study of dreams – and loving the roll of the word in my mouth – “oneiron” !

Just my cup of tea

On a sunny Wednesday morning, three of us set out for Tenerife, an elegant bungalow cradled within the emerald slopes of tea bushes in Coonoor. We had signed up for a tea tasting tour at a private plantation which marketed its gourmet teas under the brand, Tranquilitea. After a winding walk through tea bushes, we arrived at the bungalow which serves as a plantation farm-stay and was now to be the venue of our journey through the finest Nilgiri teas.

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Currently the third-generation owner of the plantation, our host Sandip at first took us out to take a look at the tea plant which if left untrimmed can actually grow to the height of a small tree as well. The ancient method of plucking “two leaves and a bud” is apparently still the best harvesting method and the phrase took me back to the similarly titled novel by one of India’s earliest English fiction writers, Mulk Raj Anand. But before I could warm up to the issues like class exploitation and migrant labour that the novel deals with, I found everyone walking back to the bungalow and so, followed as well.

Upon our return, we took our places at a round dining table, glowing with finely polished wood. As Sandip guided us through the stages of tea processing, his soft, cadenced explanations were the perfect complement to the wispy mist building outside the bungalow. In all we tasted 6 types of classic teas – neither blended nor flavoured – ranging from the rare and highly aromatic silver tipped leaves to the widely available and robust CTC, crossing an entire spectrum of colour, fragrance, taste, body.

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Our tea-tasting experience ended with an invitation to refill our cups with a brew of our choice and then share our perceptions. Looking at the six carafes with variously coloured brews, I mused, how very like Life this was. How Life too, brings us experiences infused with varied emotions, sensations and hopes. Our host’s gentle voice wafted through my reverie, responding to the guests’ suggestions of a woody after-taste, a citrusy note or mellow texture, “there are no wrong answers, ladies and gentlemen, no wrong answers…”

 

 

Cry for Nature

It had been quite some time since I had read The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. So when I came across another title by the Lebanese poet, at a friend’s place, I asked if I could borrow it. The Storm turned out to be a modern translation of Gibran’s prose poems as well as a couple of short stories. Narrated in his distinct style – soaked in mysticism and lyricism – so many of his central themes reached out to me : like the essential isolation of the human condition, the shackles of organized religion, the hollow materialism of the world and so on. The one theme however that spoke to me with the greatest urgency was the beauty of Nature and its inevitable degradation by humans.

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Aurore, ‘The Dawn’ by Kahlil Gibran

‘ ” Sweet Brook,” I asked, “why do you mourn?”

“Because I go unwillingly toward the City”, it answered, “where Man will spurn me. Instead of me, he will drink the juice of the grape and use me to carry away his filth. How shall I not weep when soon my purity become foul?” ‘

– From ‘A Lamentation in the Field’

Recently back from a trek through the Niligiris, I could not but help obsessing over the muck and mess human habitation spawns all around it. Towns looking like an ugly heap of tin roofs, sewage drains spilling on roads, traffic forced to a stand-still by reckless parking, vehicles belching out black fumes despite ban on unclean fuel – I could go on…

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As we climbed higher into the hills, the air became purer and the surroundings cleaner. But then, we hardly saw any people around – slopes of tea plantations eventually gave way to forests and then to steep slippery narrow paths to the summit, known here as the Bakasura-malai. Why should one have to compromise on human company if one wishes to live amidst beautiful natural surroundings? How do other countries, societies manage to retain picture-postcard appearances despite having thriving communities?

I am aware these questions lead me deeper into issues of population, poverty, exploitation, corruption and many deeply inextricable civic matters. At this moment, however, I rue my limited time in this corner of paradise here and dread going back down to the madding crowds!

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My Worst Team Experience – and what it taught me

My most difficult experience as part of a team goes back to the time I was the senior English faculty in a school. Within six months of my joining, I was tasked by the Principal to bring out the school magazine in two months. The editorial team was made up of language teachers, art teachers and students from different classes. However because of lack of commitment from some faculty members, article submissions could not meet their deadline while the Principal’s insistence on a highly unprofessional publisher resulted in a final copy full of errors. The experience taught me some tough lessons:

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#1 Trust actions, not words

#2 Be polite, but firm

#3 As the team leader, get the job done – identify hurdles, present and prospective. And then see how they can overcome. But also learn to let go of the things not within your control.

 

Overview of Personality theories

Personality can be defined, very simply, as a unique set of characteristics that determines a person’s identity and behavioural patterns. The 4 major theories of personality were proposed by:

matryoshka-970943_960_720Sigmund Freud – according to him personality has 3 components – the id, ego and superego. The id is driven by Will to Pleasure while the superego always tries to restrain this.  The main task of the ego is to achieve a realistic balance between the two. To cope with constantly changing – or dynamic – psychological conflicts among these 3 components, humans develop characteristic defences. So according to the psychodynamic theory of personality, personality is the individual’s pattern of behaviour to resolve these conflicts.

Carl Rogers – Rogers and Maslow propounded the Humanistic theory of personality.  According to them humans strive towards an ideal of self-fulfilment or self-actualization. Personality thus depends on a person’s unique perceptions and experiences.

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Alfred Adler – He said that the drive to overcome inferiority and the ‘Will to Power’ provides the primary motivation behind human behaviour. Adler started out as a Freudian but then went on to develop his own theory of personality, sometimes known as Individual Psychology.

Victor Frankl – A survivor of Nazi concentration camp, Frankl believed that the Will to Meaning provides the fundamental motivating drive,  since people are confronted with the need to detect and find meaning or purpose all their lives. This provided the basis for Logotherapy devised by Frankl. He is associated with Existentialist theory of personality.