Questions of Paradox

“You are strong because you are imperfect

You are wise because you have doubts”

– so said Winston Churchill’s wife to him, at the beginning of WW II

And so this begs a few questions ….

Are we strong because we can’t be defeated, or because we know how to taste failure ?

Does our wisdom come from what we know, or from what we know we don’t know?

Is our knowledge derived from knowing the answers or in asking the questions ?

Is leadership built on being in front or in people being behind ?

Is there courage in not being afraid or in living with your fear?

Do we achieve victory by defeating the enemy or by the enemy losing ?

Do we find God in our prayers or God finds us in our deeds ?

Do we value life in living or in death ?

In each of these questions, I am pursuing a seeming paradox. And in that paradox I believe we can find the true meaning of life.

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Relationships … idle musings …

Some relationships are easy to give a name to …. husband, wife, son, daughter, mother-in-law, etc. Even though a relationship is more than a title, we always find the simplest route and define these relationships by titles. In these familial titles, we ignore the true meaning of the relationship. We simply take the most convenient route, probably the most publicly acceptable route. As someone was telling me, in a marwari family, the daughter-in-law has to call even her 5 yr old sister-in-law “didi”. When we are not bound by the dogmas of society, titles to a relationship can be more difficult to give. When does an acquaintance become a friend ? When does a friend who is a girl become a girlfriend ? When does a friend become a “best friend” ? The adjective ‘best’  suggests in the english language a comparison and only one person. But do we have only one ‘best’ friend ?

This confusion in my head on how to give my friendships a title began with a simple can of coke. Earlier, deep thoughts of mine were stirred not shaken over a martini but 2018 is different,  the no alcohol promise has changed me. Anyway, I have been asked who is my “bff” ? Letters honestly I didn’t even know the full form of till probably a year ago ! I know my wife has one, or two, or a few ….. not sure. She has found it possible to give this title. Why do I struggle ? Is it because I am more reserved in what I share with my friends? Have I created slots for my friends, and thus there isn’t one person who fits into all encompassing category as “bff” ? Are my relationships not as deep ? …..

Friendships are tough to build, and I find it even tougher. I have lots of friends, but few that I have found deep meaning with. I know I will lend a hand to a friend in need, and not expect one back. I will engage in small talk and share a drink, but is this true friendship ? I know I have friends I have not met for years, I may not even have spoken to for a year but I can still count on them for anything I need. Are these my bff’s ? Is friendship defined by being there when I need help ? Or is a bff one with whom i can share my joys, my pains, my insecurities ?

I am probably afraid to share, afraid to talk about my inner feelings. Afraid that opening up will make me weaker. Afraid to drop the mask of invincibility. When I overcome my fear, I will find my bff !

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Musings on Leadership

I was sitting and chatting with one of my unit leaders today, and I was trying to understand what leadership really meant. She is focused, high on achievement orientation, knows what has to be done and  puts in a lot of effort. The centre has begun to improve in performance after she took over 8 months ago. But then why was I discussing leadership with her?

I am picking up feedback from the ground that her team is scared of her, the doctors feel she tries to do everything herself. I found out that her new Ops manager has only been given part of her role responsibility even after 2 months.  And hence my conversation on leadership with her.

Some questions I posed to her:
– is leadership about achievement alone?
– is leadership about being perfect?
– is leadership about getting the work down, even at the cost of doing it oneself?
– is leadership about making sure your team never fails ?

As we explored these questions, some interesting ideas emerged. Leadership is about letting your team make mistakes, but being there to ensure they don’t make the same mistake repeatedly. Leadership is about being the safety net when your team fails. Leadership is about trusting your team, and giving them the space to perform and grow, even the space to make mistakes. Leadership is about ensuring your team achieves, not that you achieve alone.

The other interesting aspect that emerged was that she was surprised by the feedback I was picking up. Do we as leaders have our ears to the ground? Do we listen to our employees as much as we listen to our customers ? I picked up signals when I interacted with her team that people would look at her before answering a question posed at them. Why did she not notice? Are leaders using all their senses to pick up signals ?

The last interesting concept  that emerged was her own desire to be infallible. She was afraid to reach out and ask for help when in doubt. She was afraid to show that she did not know what to do. Like she did not want her team to fail, she was scared of failing herself. Is leadership about being vulnerable? Is leadership about being human?

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The Call

Many years ago, living in Africa, when there were no phones at home and one had to book a trunk call to speak to family at home, we would wait eagerly, looking forward to the phone ring at the tcom office. Speaking to relatives in India was a major event, which happened perhaps once or twice a year. These were days when The Call was eagerly awaited. As time flew past, and the mtnl phone, with its crackling sound and rotary dials, become more common, The Call was still eagerly awaited. After all, it could be that girl in school who had a crush on me, and would call me at home but not acknowledge me in school.

At some point in time, not sure exactly when, the mtnl phone was replaced by a Motorola mobile phone. I always treated my Motorola phone as a weapon of defense, it was the heaviest thing in my bag after the laptop. Suddenly The Calls become less welcome. The voice on the other end was typically my boss expressing disappointment with me ; missed my targets again ! Fortunately, at Rs 16 a minute, he restricted his words to 4 letter ones….they took less time and had greater impact.

Over the years, cellphones became cheaper, airtime practically free and the ringer never stopped. The Call became a pain. I began to keep my phone on silent for 10 hours a day….and wondered why did I carry a phone, for others? or for myself?

The Call got new meaning a little over a year ago, when the call on a Friday morning changed my life. And till today, when I get a call from a friend who needs help with the hospital or Dr, it makes me shiver. I would now go out of the way to try and do something, personally keep track even while in important meetings. I don’t know whether I do this out of a sense of duty (work in healthcare afterall), or because I care for the friend, or because of The Call which changed my life.

The Call has become the preferred means to communicate, but do we really communicate on it ? Aren’t we simply sharing news? Indulging in small talk? Do we really share now on the phone? Do we really speak our heart out ? Or have our lives been so taken over by the 160 character text that communication happens in monosyllables ?

I speak for myself, but I still find the written word a more powerful means of communication. I still remember those letters I used to write to my parents and friends when I was in sales, dotted with small sketches of what I had seen or done in the day. That was when feelings were truly shared. Nothing was said, but everything was communicated.

In The Call, I miss that emotion, that touch. Perhaps, when we learn to read each others’ mind, we will go back to using the phone only once or twice a year.

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The Tata of the East

I spent the last 2 days in Kolkata, the land of the fiery Mamata, the land of Kali and Durga maa. It is perhaps the only city where one can still see the good ole Hindustan Motors Amby on the road. But I am not writing due to nostalgia for the city that I lived in, 20 years ago.

I met a woman yesterday that blew me away. I was meeting entrepreneurs who had applied to become Apollo Clinic franchisees, and I was scheduled to meet Mrs Mukherjee, from a small district HQ that is 3 hrs from Kol. I had been briefed that she runs her own business in the town and is a single mother, but that did not prepare me for what was to happen next.

A middle aged woman walks in, wearing jeans and a shirt. She has already caught my attention. She begins her story. She left her husband in Mumbai and returned to her hometown, Birbum, a small town not too far away from Kolkata. She began by setting up an artisan workshop to supply handicrafts to Government emporiums. Wanting to grow, 5 years ago, she took a motorcycle dealership. She is the sole dealer of the district now, does revenue of 25 crs and has grown the company’s business from 50 motorcycles per month in the district to 750 ! A few years later she setup a hotel. And now she wants to setup a clinic, with an investment of 3-4 crs.

Handicrafts, auto dealership, hotel and now healthcare,……I asked her why she was diversifying so much ? She said: “Arent the Tatas a diversified company, so why not me?”. She added, “I need to put managers in each of my businesses, which I do, but I have to keep growing”.

We talked about the investment and the profitability of the Clinics model. I explained to her that it could take 2 years to break even. She said she will do it in 3 months ! And she added, “I don’t do business to make a loss. I am very clear that I will make it profitable in 3, max 6 months”. Her tone was not boastful. And she wasn’t speaking out of ignorance either. I quizzed her enough on the model and economics to figure out she knew what she was talking about.

Here was a woman, who could speak passable Hindi, practically no English but had the self confidence that is rarely seen. She was not intimidated by who I was. She gave me a firm handshake, spoke without hesitation and was not fidgety when I probed her. She was the Indira India needs more of.

Three things stood out – empowerment, self-confidence and economic independence. I don’t know which sequence they came in, and hence, what is the cause or the effect. Circumstance clearly played a role.

She is the empowered Hindustani woman we need in this country. Can’t we do something, in our own small locus of control, to be the trigger that creates more such empowered women? Can we create the circumstance that enables women to empower themselves ? How do we give women the self confidence that they can do what they dream and aspire to ? How do we give them the courage to dream, without forcing circumstance to make them do it ? I am still seeking answers to these questions.

Till then, Mrs Mukherjee, you are the Tata of the East for me !

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The Scarcity Gene

India is home to 60 mn diabetics. South India has amongst the largest incidence of diabetes in the country. People often blame it on the rice eating habit in the South. Maybe that’s why the Chinese also have such a high incidence of diabetes. But diabetes incidence is no less in the western part of India , where rice is not as common. It is not unusual to find young, thin adults have diabetes in India. What makes us so prone ? There has been research around the Scarcity Gene or famine gene to explain the Indian diabetes explosion. Years of food shortage made the Indian body type develop a mechanism to store glucose in the body system, which in an environment of food surplus works against us. Maybe this is true, maybe it is not.

What intrigues me more is the same scaricty mindset reflect in many behavioural patterns of us Indians. I still remember the days at the bus stand where I would throw a handkerchief through the window to block my seat. Before multiplexes came to our cities, a line at the cinemas was best described as a loose gathering of humans around one focal point, a bit like bees hovering around their hive. Even today, we value our petrol so much that if a farmer has to drive 200 metres to take a U-turn, he would rather drive down the wrong side of the highway. The same farmer would happily sit for hours on a charpoy and lament on why the cows are not giving enough milk. Time is not a constraint here. In many houses today, lunch will be served to each family member by the lady of the house with carefully measured proportions of veggies and dal in nice large steel thalis. These are not houses where food needs to be rationed.

It almost seems as if the Scarcity Gene has invaded our minds and consciousness. We have a compulsive fear of a shortage of resources, and our mind is constantly grappling with that fear.

Is there something wrong to behave this way?  A commonly maligned, but hugely successful community in India, the marwaris, in some ways most visibly reflect this mindset of scarcity. Some of the most successful businessmen from the community have boasted of how they made their fortunes by saving money, and not by spending it.

This is an interesting contrast to the Western societies like the U.S. where everything is believed to be in abundance. A throwback to the wild west perhaps ! In such a society, one doesn’t see a scramble to board, a rush at the gates or an attempt to save. Everyone spends more than one has. But is this sense and habit of abundance leading society to a point of future scarcity ? Is the U.S. living on borrowed time?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, like all the others I keep asking. What I wonder about even more is where our kids will land up? They definitely don’t have the sense of scarcity of the generations of Indians prior to them. But do they completely have the sense of abundance that the Americans lice with? If they are somewhere in between, is this a good place to be? Maybe this is the new balance? Is it ? Maybe it is “na ghar ka, na ghat ka” ?

I am running out of words now …. the scarcity gene has hit me too 😁

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India’s Indira

Indira, 29. Passionate. Poet. Change agent. Succeasful HR professional. Wife. Daughter. Daughter-in-law.

Many adjectives to describe one person. These are just a few hats that most Indian women juggle. In a speech on women’s lib in India, Indira makes for a good story.

Indira, 29.  “Why can’t you settle down?”. “What’s the need to work so hard?” “Why do you have to travel so much for work?” “You should be cooking a warm meal for Ram, my poor son, all alone at home”.  These are the barbs and comments that don’t make it to these conferences. But isn’t this the reality of many of the working women in India ?

India, a country which had the world’s first female Prime Minister, is still yet to come to terms with the evolving role of women in our society. It should be no longer be a woman’s responsibility alone to manage the household, or cook, or be the parent. We need to break away from the stereotypical image of the Indian woman.

Men have to recognise that their wives will not be like their mother’s, just as they are not like their father. It’s ok for me to go out and party with my friends, but not if my wife wants to do the same! Why these double standards? Is man’s ego that prevents him from accepting the changed reality? Or his insecurity ? Or have women not fought enough ? Or simply a bit of everything ?

Indira’s parents are from a typical middle class family. Hard working, god fearing, duty bound. But their duty to their daughter often seems misplaced. They got her married, and that was a big load off their chest. But then she should have a child, why delay it. It’s their duty to help her “settle” down. Why do Indian parents define their duty in these terms? Isn’t their daughter’s happiness, which may not be the result of family or mother hood, a larger duty ? Why is societies’ expectation more important than Indira’s desire ? Has thousands of years of “collectiveness” made us bounded by tradition ?

In-laws ! The villains of peace for many women in India. They take a girl, and her jewellery in a big fat wedding. Guests are entertained and everyone dances, so does the bride, often not knowing what lies ahead. The mother can’t let her son grow up; she ties him to her pallu, so that the new girl in the house doesn’t spoil him. Indira’s place is in the kitchen, just hers was, and has been for women for many generations. Why can’t she let go? Why can’t she accept Indira may have her own dreams? Is it ignorance? Is it fear of losing control? Is it years of conditioning? Has the “collective”society made her understand no better ?

In the midst of all this, Indira feels lonely, suffocated, in shackles, but yet does not fight back. Why ? Can she not fight ? Does she not have the confidence and sense of independence ? Or somewhere, her own Indian middle class upbringing makes her want to compromise ?

We are going through the pains of a society that has been the symbol in the world of “collectiveness” that now has found, western educated women who want to be at the forefront of “individualism”.

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