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It's important to be silly, to be serious, to be strong, to be frail...for what is life if we only shared a mask?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

D: Destiny and Slumdog Millionaire

As the credits rolled at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin on Friday night, the audience clapped and cheered for this movie. You stand up reluctantly because you know that movies like these don't come by often enough and you don't want it to end. Danny Boyle takes unknown faces, adds a stellar crew and a terrific soundtrack from Rahman to create a movie that epitomizes the spirit of humanity.

Set in Mumbai, this is a Dickensian story of a slumboy whose life is in equal parts love, passion, luck and destiny. You care for this slumboy and root for him till the very end, leaning forward and holding your breath as he walks his tightrope life without a safety net. It could be that despite incredible odds and a life characterized by brutality, Jamal is pure. Despite the harshness of his environment which enslaves his brother.

This stark love story is anchored in Jamal's fierce intent to find his childhood friend,Latika against all odds. Love, passion and courage create luck and can rewrite destiny as it is said that even the gods can't fight that kind of force. How often do we see that kind of faith and trust. Jamal journeys from the slums of Mumbai to Agra and back, landing finally on the set of "Who wants to be a Millionaire".

Was it just Destiny that brings him on the gameshow with a slim chance of winning millions...not sure. Destiny can be fickle. Which is why no astrologer or palmist can accurately predict the future. They may be able to see the signposts. There are a few pre determined conditions that are present in life (your birth, parents, place etc) and multiple cross roads that take us in different directions. And who can forget cause and effect.

Two brothers, same environment, different choices and therein lies the heart of this tale. We are not just the sum of our experiences but how we interpret our experiences.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Saving the stories...pass it forward

Everyone loves to hear a good story. It can be cautionary, exemplary, inspirational or even tragic. A good storyteller manages to communicate the essence without preaching. Very often the silence, the untold, the material left to your imagination is what absorbs and grabs your attention.

When I was growing up I loved to listen to my grand aunt’s stories. We knew she added many layers to keep it rich but it enthralled us anyway. We loved it most when she talked about their days in British India. She had us spellbound when we listened to her father’s exploits, the exotic clothes, the jewelry and the lifestyle they led. Big houses, wide open fields, joint families and fates that were often decided by the elders. We would rush to corroborate the story with my Dad, who would absentmindedly say “Oh your Chinnama talks too much”

From my mom’s father, I learnt about the Partition days, when there was fighting and how Delhi was in turmoil with families torn apart and living in fear. We also heard the stories of the Gods and Goddesses, their dramas, and the cliff hangers which decided the balance between the three worlds.

Fast forward to the present day and I realize that we rely more and more on books and sadly have lost the art of story telling. The gathering, the passing of knowledge and wisdom from elder to the young. We live such harried, hurried lives, striving constantly to fight time that we have sacrificed the ritual of storytelling. That which is a key element of the rites of passage. That which provides children with a cultural and personal map which highlights critical bends, stop signs and detours. That which teaches that the future can be lit through the teachings of the past.

As poet David Antin says “Stories are different every time you tell them – they allow so many narratives.” Retelling is also a reminder to ourselves…not to forget that which should not be forgotten. The connection that there is mystery in this universe, that thread that binds us, helps our children appreciate community in a world that increasingly emphasizes individuality. The hero’s journey is never without allies. Cantadora, Jungian poet and writer, Clarissa Pinkola Estes notes "The craft of questions, the craft of stories, the craft of the hands - all these are the making of something, and that something is soul. Anytime we feed soul, it guarantees increase."

Dig deep enough and each family has a treasure trove of triumph, heartache, joy and love. There are black sheep, everyday heroes, love stories and adventures. “How uncle got kicked out of school for cheating on his exam” is as relevant as “How your grandfather migrated to America with $25 in his pocket”. Narration and interaction also helps them understand the principle of cause and effect.

Similarly, the myths that we have grown up hearing are still relevant in the digital age. When we were in India last year, I saw a statue of Lord Ganesh with a laptop instead of the traditional book. We had a good laugh but it also brought home the fact there is nothing wrong in updating our myths. As the visionary Joseph Campbell underlines “We need myths that will identify the individual not with his local group but with the planet”.
As we delve deeper into the stories, personal and multi cultural, we can truly understand that which binds us together is far stronger than that which isolates.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Power Play...Who Wins

Let’s just be candid here. Most of us are engaged in power plays. At home, at work, on the playground, where ever, what ever. As old as the holy book, as long as man has existed, the battle has not been about money. It has been about power. Who has it, who will lose it... Like Abe Lincoln said “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power”.

As children we quickly learn that being popular has certain pre requisites. It is a parallel universe where what you learn outside the classroom is more interesting than within. Of course, you are now part of the in crowd and the internal struggle begins to retain the crown. From attire, to accessories, to your girlfriends and boyfriends, choices are made. Here is your first test. Power or naught.

As we grow, we watch our parents, observe other role models, peers, government/business leaders and as we are socialized, we will start responding to our issues with power. At home, power struggles between partners will either result in an outright victory, an acceptable compromise or an uneasy truce. Aggressive or passive aggressive, the power principle is addictive.

I remember my days as an intern at an advertising agency. I was out of college where we loved playing the rebel without a cause and jumped straight into the jaws of the mad ad world. It was tough to go from “Me World” to the lowest rung on the ladder. Running errands for the account executives, waiting for lofty creative directors, listening to whiny clients and pandering to the art director’s tantrums sucked the energy right out. So you promise yourself that you will climb that ladder and regain what you lost. Enter Ambition. Now Ambition commonly can take three routes to the top.

Elevator Approach
You just can’t wait to get to the top. You had a headstart. Your family pulled some strings. You were born devastatingly beautiful. You live in the penthouse. You crawled into the elevator and went straight up.

Escalator Approach
You had a game plan. You studied the field and figured how you could reach the top with as little effort as possible. You did learn some along the way but you worked on being singled out and started a rapid ascent.

Stairs Approach
You have no problems with hard work. You started as an intern or as someone’s assistant and rose to the top. You know more about the company than anyone else. You, my friend are patient and the most determined. You understand how the farmer tills the land, plants the seed, waters, protects, sprays for pests and reaps the harvest.

Ambition has helped you gain power. Now Power is a double edged sword. As we all know, if not wielded well, it burns the house down. Like the Ring that Frodo bears which corrupts him even as he limps to the Mount of Doom trying to evade the Eye of Mordor. Gandalf didn’t want it, Boromir dies for it and Gollum erodes from man to slimy beast.

So if you are caught in a power play at work or anywhere else, distance yourself. Power only feeds on willing victims. As Jung aptly puts it “Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.”


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Bend without Breaking...lessons from children

When I allow myself to relax and watch my girls, I walk away with some wonderful insights.

Take the whole concept of change. It is everywhere, it is constant. Who moved the cheese? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. If you don’t change, you will not evolve. Right, we get it. And this December, with the global financial meltdown, even Joe the Plumber gets it. The avalanche has started and it will leave no person unaffected.

We listen to all these mantras and continue to resist change in all ways possible. Why? Because change is a hard six letter word. True change is to re fashion, re mould, renovate. This is hard because we program ourselves to resist. Another ‘re’ word. Darn, I do not want to give up my cozy armchair of old habits and use that new wooden chair with no cushion. Like Goldilocks, it’s too hard, it’s too soft, and I want it just right.

Children, however, are faced with change constantly. Every year, they have new teachers, new classrooms, new schedules, new friends, new enemies and new challenges. My daughter who went to a new middle school this fall went from familiar to unfamiliar with a manic schedule, new faces, a new bus route, more homework and new projects. She will experience change again in January when the first semester ends and another one starts with new electives. I am in awe of her resilience and her ability to weather change.

Adapting to change is not easy, like the inverse bell curve, you will bottom out but when you climb out of it, your reality shifts. As we grow older, we tend to relegate discovery to the basement. Change becomes a hard wired, rigid process. Fear replaces wonder and we lose our agility along the way.

Accept the change. Voluntary or involuntary, the more you fight the change, the harder it gets. Like the Chinese finger puzzle, you sink deeper and deeper into the stronghold. Downsized, laid off, new job, new home, new city, new spouse… It is done. You look at the cards you have and figure out how to work the deck. Kids walk into a new class every year. Yes, they do complain about their teachers but they know that this is a fact of life.

Don’t hide your feelings When you hit the trough of disillusionment (I just love the Gartner Hype Cycle), reach out to your family and close friends. We have no trouble with the happy face but would rather suffer alone than admit that the curve ball that life just threw at you is more than you can handle. That cold, clammy whisper that tells you that you cannot cope is very real and the sooner you talk about it, the easier it becomes. Little ones come home and rattle off their woes. “Hey mama, I hate Maddie. She made fun off me in class.” Or “I don’t want to go to school anymore.” The issue is still there but sharing it is great therapy. Everybody hurts, everybody cries.

Don’t look back Or like that Greek myth, you turn into stone. Which is what happens when we stay in the past, we cannot move forward. The past is always sepia colored and despite the flaws in the pictures, we knew the past so it was safe. If you have moved to a new place, embrace it whole heartedly. Don’t hanker for your old home. We cannot live in two worlds at the same time unless you know a lot about time travel and the string theory. Children rarely stay in the past or worry about the future. They might miss it but they are too busy being in the present. And they just don’t have the bandwidth to fear the future.

Experiment with change My 5 year old is always “pushing our buttons.” She is ready to go anywhere with little or no notice. She runs after a butterfly, grabs the neighbor’s dog by its tail, says hello to everyone in the supermarket and lives completely in the moment. Instead of fearing change, we can practice flexibility by starting with small practices like taking a different route to work, ordering the bento box instead of the usual sandwich or learning a new language or skill.

In the words of the greatest change management guru, Darwin, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change”

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Taking the Monkey out of Multi Tasking

I was reviewing a job description and after the write up covered all the work under the sun, it ended with “looking for a multi tasker and a self starter”. LOL! You are kidding me, right. That sounds like the latest touch tone SMART microwave oven. Yes, just add water and I will intuit how to cook this entire meal.
Unfortunately, multi tasking has become a primo underlined verb that everyone includes in their vocabulary. But peel back the layers of multi tasking, like that proverbial onion that Shrek loves, and you will find one distracted individual. And I am guilty. I multi task all the time. If I am driving, I am wondering what else can I do. Should I call the doctor and set up that appointment? Or I decide to take the conference call and contribute or keep it on mute so the background noise does not interfere with the call. Or another scenario here, I am at work and in another endless meeting and hoping to download all that information that folks are sharing. I see an instant message pop up wanting input on another task. So while I am participating in one meeting, I am also managing another request. Or I am eating lunch at my desk while working on a presentation and participating in a virtual meeting. I am ricocheting all over the place.
At home, if I am watching a movie with the girls, I either fold the clothes or try and find another task so I can save time. There you go…save time. And you wonder…are you saving time or just immersed in your own busyness to pay attention. I am busy ergo I am important. I matter.I have heard enough about focus. I have heard enough about paying attention. But that word “multi tasking” has crawled into my brain and now dictates the “efficient” use of my time. Like a persistent nudge, it whispers “hey just divide your attention. You can drive and talk. No big” and so on.But we don’t save time by multi tasking. Time cannot be saved. It is diluted. It is wasted when we don’t slow down. We lose time when we don’t focus on the task at hand. When you are on a call and engaged in one conversation, picking up the second call is unnecessary. When you are interacting with your children, responding to that email on your blackberry is losing precious face time. When you create long “to do” lists or “honey do’s” that create an impression of organization but increase the stress of things undone.
Research done by Rubinstein, Meyers and Evans shows that while multi tasking may seem more efficient, it might actually take more time. "Rule activation takes significant amounts of time, several tenths of a second -- which can add up when people switch back and forth repeatedly between tasks.” Meyers points out “a mere half second of time lost to task switching can mean the difference between life and death for a driver using a cell phone.” Researchers continue to find that multitasking decreases productivity, increases stress, and may cause physical discomforts such as stomachaches or headaches. I was at my daughter’s violin recital on Wednesday night and watched her single mindedly focus on her music.
Every child did the same. The result was a symphony that was inspiring. It is time to slow down. To focus. To pay attention. To listen. To be present. The mind is a monkey, swinging from scattered thoughts, driving priorities, paranoid, incessant and never still. It’s going to take some effort but I am going to let that phone ring and enjoy the scenery when I drive back home today.
Maybe I will sing instead!
“When walking, walk. When eating, eat.” -Zen proverb

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"How to" Happiness

I was grocery shopping for the week on a Sunday evening, my cart crammed with more stuff not on the shopping list and waiting to check out (pun intended!). I looked at all those magazines shouting out their wares. Almost every mag out there is a "how to".

How to look slimmer. How to get those wrinkles out. How to enhance what you have. How to satisfy your partner in 103 ways. How to shop. How to eat. How to vacation. How to be a parent. As I am glancing at those covers, I am wondering "Hey what about "how to be happy just as you are?" No wonder, we are a nation popping pills for anxiety, depression and stress. Wouldn't you worry if the only message you got was one of inadequacy?

My mom called me last night and let me tell you I adore her. Best mom in the whole world, right. But she has been bitten by the "How to" bug as well. She tells me very seriously, "Shaku, I was reading an article on "how to feed your children..."I had to cut her short and say "Mom, you don't need to read a 101 article on that. You didn't have a guide to healthy living when we were growing up and you did just fine. You gave us good balanced homecooked meals (with the yogurt on the side), plenty of outdoor activity topped with some serious study time."

Ok, let's not get the wrong impression here. I am not against "how to". I am sure Cosmo's 92nd issue on pleasing your partner is valid…I am just pro "contentment".