‘Being Assertive’ was my lecture title today. Since it is a common enough topic, I planned to keep it short. Most of the slides were about how to adopt an assertive rather than passive or aggressive stance – like:
- Ask, rather than demand
- Learn to say ‘no’ when required
- Hold your response till the correct time to express it
- Check the prevailing mood before speaking
- Collaborate rather than compete
And yet when I tried to do a few exercises with my students, we all realized how difficult it was to come up with ‘assertive’ responses to difficult situations commonly encountered in day-to-day life. Aggression came more naturally since one could simply release the cauldron of irrationality always lurking beneath ; indeed sometimes it was even easier to be passive – just switch off and give over the field to the annoying person rather than expend time and effort in coming up with the ideal assertive response.
Part of the reason, I think, why being assertive far more challenging as compared to its two alternatives is because it requires a careful balancing act – express your own needs but also listen to others’ opinions, say ‘no’ when needed but also fulfil your responsibilities, stand up to the bully but stay calm and so on; in fact it would take a high degree of self-awareness to recognize one’s own self-worth without giving way to a sense of entitlement which in turn can easily lead to an aggressive stance.
One way, I think, that can help is to have an all-round respectful attitude – that way you can express your own needs and even if you disagree with the other person, you can do it without put-downs or sarcasm – respectfully !
“Auntie does she understand Bengali?”
The question was about my four year old German Shepherd and was put to me one evening by my daughter’s friend as she thoughtfully stood outside our garden gate. I supposed the girl was being funny till I looked at her genuinely incredulous face and realized that my mild admonishments to Ginger – my dog – in my mother tongue must have seemed pretty weird to her.
So what does it mean for a dog to grow up in a multi-lingual family? Mostly we speak in English with friends while at times we switch our national language, Hindi. With family members, it is our mother tongue, Bengali, which seems natural and comfortable. Does the plurality of our linguistic identities confuse our dog? Could this be the reason that most of the time Ginger remains regally indifferent to what we tell her to do and more importantly, not to do – like spare my tender marigold saplings as she rushes about chasing a cat in our garden?
Dogs generally learn to associate the sound of the words – or commands, during training – with specific actions. For example, if she learns to come down on her haunches when I say ‘sit’, when one says ‘baitho’ or ‘bosho’ – equivalents in Hindi and Bengali respectively – it will mean nothing to her. Also the tone matters – if I want her to get down from my bed, the same two-three words voiced in stern staccato sounds is more likely to elicit a prompter response than when spoken leisurely and indulgently.
However, animal behavioural experts and researchers are learning new things about our canine companions every day – indeed there are reports that dogs can process language much like humans do. According to an August 2016 study whose results were published in the well-regarded journal Science, a group of Hungarian scientists led by Dr. Attila Andics of Eotvos Lorand University, in a first-ever experiment of its kind, found that dogs could not just recognize what humans say and how they say it but could also combine the two to come up with a correct interpretation of the very meaning of the words – exactly what we humans do when conversing amongst ourselves.
All this I told my daughter’s friend while she waited for my daughter to join her with the badminton racquets. I am not sure how far she followed my explanations but as the two girls walked away chatting excitedly, Ginger gave three short barks which almost sounded like “Hey, you leaving me behind?” Both girls turned back, looked at Ginger and said laughing, “We’ll be back soon”.
From my corner in garden, I smiled at the scene before me and thought, “I guess it’s ok – as long as we all understand each other…”
On a day that I received a whatsapp forward with a link to a news report about a most unsavoury incident regarding two services wives, I was sceptical. So much of fake news is afloat on the internet that I don’t bother to go to the link unless I recognize the name of the news site.
But because this mentioned a specific incident, I decided to click on the link. The details I will not go into but for the purpose of this blog only indicate that a lapse in military etiquette escalated into an incident of reported physical assault. Fortunately I personally know neither individual involved but unfortunately I am all too familiar with the situation. Services wives throwing around the ranks of their husbands and using it to humiliate younger ladies is one side of the picture while on the other side is a pressure-cooker environment where otherwise ordinary personalities crack under pressure of expectations from the upper hierarchy and break out in unacceptable behaviour.
The army is too vast, varied and hence complex for anyone to come up with easy solutions to such problems. All that I realize is that with every passing day is that it becomes more difficult for the organization to live in a cocoon and pretend that it will remain forever untouched by the rapidly changing interpersonal, socio-economic dynamics of the larger society. Equally undeniable are challenging working conditions of military officers which in turn determine their special social and gender codes. The way ahead probably lies somewhere in between and would require reorientation at every step but till it is found, some sensitivity and mutual respect would, I think, go a long way…
Amidst the misty environs of the Nilgiris, few pursuits can be more fulfilling than reading. With a book in hand and a steaming cup of Darjeeling tea, one could easily get lost in winding, twisting lanes of Imagination or get transported to faraway times and places.
And so, a long-held dream was given shape when our very own book club met for the first time. It included members from fields as diverse as pure sciences, management and literature. We began talking about the kind of books we read and subjects that interest us. What a myriad colours went up to make the palette – travel, fiction, poetry, philosophy, biography and so much more. We discussed the perplexing plot of The Time Traveller’s Wife which is nevertheless made relatable by its charming comedy. Also up for discussion was the philosophy of spiritual leader J Krishnamurti and the challenges involved in its comprehension. Far more engaging was the digression to Rishi Valley School, based on Krishnamurti’s vision of education and its relevance to present-day educational system. Scattered mention of Oprah Winfrey’s new biography as well as Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet added variety to our discussions.
Eventually we got down to the business of choosing a book and headed for the library’s biography section. After a good deal of rifling through shelves and badgering the assistant librarian about book titles, we decided to go with four different biographies of the first woman Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. With her being at the helm of several controversial and decisive moments of the country’s history, the texts promise to be interesting!
As I looked for the candles, one of the stories from Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies came to my mind. In this short story titled, “A Temporary Matter”, an estranged couple makes a series of confessions over four nights of power outage which eventually impacts their marriage in important ways.
Will this evening bring about such significant changes around me too? Unlikely, I thought as the cheery voices of my neighbours rolled in from their balcony, singling ‘Mamma Mia, here we go again, My My how can I resist you”.
In these times of social media compulsions, masks and faces have become increasingly difficult to differentiate. Perhaps, this darkness brought about by a two-hour power cut might be one of those rare occasions when, with no gadgets to fall back upon, human souls would be compelled to dig into their innermost resources. Thus while some belted out songs from a carefree past, one settled down with a book in the light of the candle. While I rustled up comfort food in the flickering kitchen lamp, another persistent soul, I realized with a rueful smile, sought out the powerbank to connect the smartphone.
What would people have done long ago, I wondered as I sat down beside my dog – petting her occasionally, unfamiliar as she was with this kind of darkness. In the past, when people’s lives were governed by the rhythms of nature? They would have got up with the sun, worked in fields or shops or travelled, and then winded up things with nightfall. Life would have been simpler ; indeed the significance of the Bengali ritual of lighting the evening lamp struck me now – in the gathering darkness, the first lamp to be lit in the home would be at the sacred altar accompanied by prayers for the family’s safety and well-being as well as the blowing of the holy conch. In fact according to my mother, the sound of the conch would serve to scare of any wandering snakes trying to get too close to village homes…
A chill ran down my spine – simpler, maybe, but never easy. Life has nowhere, not at any time been easy!
The twentieth anniversary of the release of the first Harry Potter book, saw a flurry of media articles on the way J K Rowling has changed kids’ reading choices forever. A lot was discussed on how stories of the boy wizard making his way precariously through the forces of good and evil has caught the imagination of both young readers and their parents. And statistics have been quoted to prove how the habit of reading was alive and kicking among children.
And yet, why are these trends so rarely reflected in our own families? Why do I find it difficult to engage my teen with books? A major reason, I am told, is the vast range of recreational options available to kids these days. Smartphones, tabs, laptops, Playstations, the telly – a virtual Disneyland of electronic entertainment which streams endlessly into our homes… Why then take the trouble of choosing a book and make the effort to read and use your brain to figure it out too?
Experts on the subject have no dearth of suggestions on how to get kids and teens hooked to the world of books. Make them relevant, some say; why take them to Malory Towers and Hoggwarts, when the wide open fields or the fantastic mythology one’s own country can be the setting for stories? Again others believe one has to make an extra effort to get these kids’ attention – sign up for story reading workshops, take them to celebrity book launches or get movie stars to act out the stories in films and TV series so that they can go back to the written word.
Or maybe, just find the time to sit and read together. Though the initiative comes from me, and I have to call upon my limited dramatic skills to make the narration as lively as possible, after a few days of doing this, she picks up the book on her own and looks for the page where we left off. I guess, this works best with my teen – let me know what works with yours…
Today I came upon an interesting bit of news, tucked away in the inner folds of the newspaper – actress Emma Watson leaving around copies of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale all across Paris in an attempt to enhance awareness about women’s issues.
Despite being in an industry where an image is carefully crafted to appeal to the widest public opinion, fortunately Watson has no qualms calling herself a feminist. This got me thinking about iconic feminist books, one of which is The Feminine Mystique by the American writer Betty Friedan. The title refers to “the problem that has no name” – a sense of worthlessness women feel in roles that require them to be emotionally, financially and intellectually and dependent upon their husbands.
Published in 1963, the book grew from the responses Friedan got to a questionnaire she sent to other women in her 1942 Smith College graduating class. Most answers indicated a vague dissatisfaction with their lives which led Friedan to expand the scope of her research, including not only suburban housewives but also looking into the psychology, media, and advertising of the time. Through her findings, Friedan hypothesized that women are victims of a false belief system that requires them to find and meaning in their lives only through their marriage and motherhood.
The impact of the book was immense – it asserted that women’s issues were not merely a private matter but were shaped by forces of politics, culture, media and commerce. More importantly The Feminine Mystique went on to influence theories in other related fields such as politics, sociology, history and literature as well as women’s studies, thus ushering in the second wave feminism in United States.