Strength of Prayer, of wanting nothing

When I was sixteen years old, I traveled on my own on a train for 2 days to see my relatives in another city. Even though I grew up in a very protective environment, my parents did give me the independence to discover myself from time to time. And although my parents called every day during that particular trip and came to take me home after two weeks of what was originally planned to be a full month of ‘independent’ vacation; at the end, I did get to stay with all my cousins for a good enough time and had a great summer that year.

On that train journey when I was greatly enjoying being on my own, I chatted up with some of my co passengers. It was the age of bewilderment and innocence. Not even for a moment did I feel nervous about talking with total strangers. I remember some of them bought me snacks and tea and I accepted gratefully. If it was today, I would have thought multiple times about accepting things from strangers. I have also killed the innocent urge to strike up conversations with people I don’t know.

On this trip for at least a part of the journey; one of my co passenger was a young yogi who would probably be in his early twenties. He had a pointed beard and knotted his hair on top of his head in a bun. He wore orange garments, sat straight and had ear phones in both ears. He would open his eyes from time to time and look outside the window, not to gaze at anything particularly but probably to add meaning to whatever he was listening. At some point, we had started talking. He was on his way to North India to help people devastated by a recent flood. He worked with Bharat Sevashram and seemed very happy with his life.

We were talking about God and divine presence and he had asked me if I prayed. I have never been overtly religious. My parents are practicing Hindus, actually quite orthodox, but have never forced me to abide by or follow any practice. As a result, my faith has been an evolution, metamorphosing over the years with my own life’s experiences, changing with my perceptions of the divine. At sixteen, I had laughed and told the Yogi that I prayed before exam results came out. He had asked me not to request for anything the next time I prayed.

I had been amused, how could one not ask for anything while praying. Wasn’t this the sole purpose of believing in a greater presence, of having an assurance that the most powerful can fulfill every need?

I did not understand him then, but now, over time, I have realized how powerful it is to pray and not ask, but thank. I find a deep peace in my daily prayers and praying for others. It has allowed me to overcome the biggest obstacle in my own life; my own self. One does not have to follow any religion to pray. You could think of the universe, the strength of the cosmos as being the most powerful and pray keeping that strength in mind. It is wonderfully satisfying to think of oneself as the tiniest dot amongst the vastness and that one doesn’t have control over everything.

Like many conundrums in my life, I am a partial atheist. An unusual believer. I did study science, but have never felt a need to give up my faith in both the divine and in science. Cant they co exist? I understand how Darwin would have felt, while learning to be a clergyman and discovering that evolution was the key to life forms. However, he may have been an unusual believer himself.

Like my parents, I do not expect my daughter to practice any particular faith, however, I do not think I could bear the thought of her traveling on her own, away from home, not at sixteen and perhaps not even at twenty!

One health- isn’t it a bit late for that?

While discussing a school assignment on different birds with my second grader, we watched videos of humming bird drawing out honey from flowers and weaver birds weaving artful nests. I also told her about the first time I had seen green pigeons. A pair of these green birds had made a nest close to my window and I had watched over them for a couple of months, till two young little birds were added on their family and then the four had flown away together… on their onward journey. There is something satisfying in bird watching and the way they conduct themselves. Unlike any other member of the animal kingdom, birds are perhaps the most sober and dignified and sometimes great entertainment!

The assignment also had a question regarding which birds had her parents seen when they were young and were rarely seen nowadays. When I was growing up in my grandmother’s house, we were often surrounded by sparrows and sometimes a couple of cawing crows. I don’t see sparrows anymore, especially in the cities I have lived as an adult. I tried finding some data on sparrows, unfortunately there is not a lot of research done on them. Their numbers are low and the ones who made it have migrated to greener, less polluted suburbs and villages. Two things caught my eye in the past week. The term ‘one health’ which really means to have everyone who deals with human, animal and environment health on one platform. Since 60% of diseases in man have some sort of origin in animals and since in turn, man has contributed to effectively denude the environment off more than 60% of its resources, now man has decided that we should all work together if we are to save ourselves from animals and the depleting environment. This is the big health jargon of 2017 that will be used over and over on all research applications, debates and talks this year and perhaps till we move on to something more ‘in’.

The CDC page on One Health, mentions “One health recognizes that the health of people is connected to the health of animals and the environment (www.cdc.gov/onehealth/)”. Isn’t it funny that it took us till 2017 to recognize that our health is connected to other beings around us? The real reason is perhaps that as researchers, we have all built our silos of working with our own folks with our own perceptions, like a medical professional may not be seen as a talented basic researcher, a  PhD is seen to be focused only on their bench work and not understand diseases, and veterinarians, well they have been completely dismissed from participating in any ‘serious research’ related platforms. As researchers, we have let our insecurities and sometimes dire selfishness keep us from sharing our results, collaborating and even talking openly about our interesting findings. When we cannot build bridges across our own fraternity, how will we come together on an unified ‘one health’ platform and work together to better our environment?

And why veterinarians alone? We should also partner with anthropologists who learn from living with communities who are closer to nature. The indigenous tribesmen of any country have been practicing living in harmony with nature for as long as the human civilization. We should perhaps seek our ‘one health’ answers from them.

The other item that I found interesting was that telomeres seem to grow longer in space. Isn’t it interesting that telomere which dictate ageing in an individual, grow longer in space? Was the incident a one off, or was it due to space being untouched by pollution, untouched by man as yet? Anyways, since we haven’t been able to find another earth to call our home yet, we should like our own spiritual growth, ‘look inwards’.

Would one health change our perceptions about working with each other for a better world?….only time will tell. Till then, I hope someone somewhere works on sparrows and  brings them back to my neighborhood!

 

 

Its Autumn!

Autumn is my favorite season. Not only does the temperature get to an optimum level, but people are more outdoorsy, enjoying the cooler evenings and breathing a crisp air and there is still time, till things get cold and grey and the air is heavy with particulates.

Nature goes through a transformation, more evident if you live in the hills in the tropics or in the Northern hemisphere. I read somewhere that fall shows us letting go is a part of life and nature makes it a colorful farewell while making space to usher in new happiness of the spring. I think winter is a period of contemplation, between the old and the new, necessary to absorb your learnings from the past while planning the next course of action. maple-leaf

Autumn is also the time for Durga Puja, when once a year, the Goddess Durga arrives at the mortal world, to be pampered by her worldly children. Bengalis all over the world celebrate this festival with great joy and fervor.

I have very fond memories of the Puja from childhood. Growing up in the southern part of India and studying in a school for children of predominantly defense personnel, I had a mix of friends from all across the country, from Jammu and Kashmir in the North, to Assam in the East, to children belonging to Rajasthan in the West and everyone from the South. Although my school was a mini India, my home was in a locality mainly inhabited by the Bengali community. This enabled me to absorb a little of my Bengali heritage, although, I can never compete with brethrens raised in Bengal, on any topic relating to Bengali culture, nor on Tagore and certainly never on politics and its repercussions on postcolonial Bengal.

durga-puja-photo-gallery-at-belur-math-on-saptami-2012-108During my school days, for the five main days of Puja, children performed cultural programmes every evening. SB, our community mentor would recruit us early, during the school summer vacation itself and start coaching us for these programmes in October. I am yet to come across someone as versatile as SB, having a day job as a Statistician in a National Research Center, SB was immensely talented in playing the flute and equally gifted in writing scripts for plays and musicals. After coming home from school, we used to rush to SBs house for the rehearsals. He helped us build camaraderie and made my childhood so much fun. For one hour of practice, SB gave us each a lemon candy, entirely from his own funds.

One year, when I was not serious about the practice and was constantly giggling over a particularly funny script, SB not only gave me an earful, but also told one of my friends to start laughing every time I had to speak my lines, so that I ‘get a feel of the real audience’. I was so annoyed after that, not only at SB, but more at my friend for taking it all so seriously and laughing like a hyena, every time I began my lines!

In later years, SB was upset with me for not choosing performing arts as a professional career and giving in to societal pressure or the ‘fad’ prevalent those days to choose subjects that promised a more secure future. Even though I may not have lived upto SBs hopes for me, I am truly grateful for him being a part of my childhood. He had not only opened his heart to all of us, but his home as well, with a wonderfully well stocked library and his own children too, who are good friends even today.

Pujas always bring back happy memories for me, and the realization that community mentors are so important for children. I wish every child has a SB in their life, to cheer them up and help them enjoy their childhood…..serious things can wait….for now, just live and laugh.

Acknowledgements:

Pic 1: Fallfoliagerentals

Pic 2: Ramakrishna Mission Belur Math Durga Puja

Mentorship- why should we care?

“In order to be a mentor, and an effective one, one must care.  You must care.  You don’t have to know how many square miles are in Idaho, you don’t need to know what is the chemical makeup of chemistry, or of blood or water. Know what you know and care about the person, care about what you know and care about the person you’re sharing with- Maya Angelou”

A bit of history-

It was in Homer’s Odyssey that the word Mentor first came up. Odyssey describes the ten year journey that the protagonist, Odysseus takes to reach home after the Trojan War. Before leaving home, Odysseus had requested Mentor, an older and wiser man to be in charge of his young son Telemachus. Additionally, the mentorship relationship is depicted once more in Odyssey, when understanding that Telemachus had begun to trust Mentor as a guide and trusted adviser, the goddess of wisdom and inspiration, Athena, disguises herself as Mentor and advises Telemachus to keep his focus on finding his father, instead of confusing himself with day to day trivialities of life.

Since mentorship is defined by the involvement of the mentor in the overall growth of the mentee, the word ‘Mentor’ was adopted by the English language from Odyssey at a later time, to signify the more accomplished and wiser, provider of advise in this unique but important relationship.

Why is it important?

  • Mentoring propels the mentor towards becoming a leader of their pack. No matter what a person leaves behind through their tangible accomplishments, people will always remember those who added value to their lives. A person with strong leadership qualities is oftentimes a good mentor.
  • It builds self worth and confidence in mentees and keeps them focused and aware of their strengths and weaknesses. Success of academic institutions, public or private organizations and all professional agencies depends on a mentally strong and driven workforce which can be achieved in one part, with mentorship.
  • Mentorship allows mentees to make informed choices in their personal and professional lives. They in turn make good mentors and inspire others.
  • Mentoring is especially relevant in our times, where the youth is emerging as a strong and powerful form, with a potential to change the course of our civilization, for the better or the worse.

What makes a balanced mentor-mentee relationship?

  • Mentor adopts the mentee– a mentor may have to give up their pride and acknowledge that their mentees are smarter than them. History as evidence, when GH Hardy, a mathematics stalwart, recognized the capability of a young self taught Ramanujan, instead of shunning him for fear of being overshadowed, took him under his wing and introduced him to the world. Geographical barriers, differences in upbringing, culture, and nationalities did not come in between the mentor and mentee. Hardy was himself an accomplished scientist but projected Ramanujan for the brilliance he deserved.
  • Mentor may not be from same field as the mentee but shares a common goal– A mentor and a mentee may not share the same threads of a common background and may not even agree on similar ideologies. For instance Gopal Krishna Gokhale, a revered Indian political leader who was trained to be analytical in his political views, took to mentoring and educating a young Sarojini Naidu in national politics. Naidu’s hopeful and poetic views of India’s future were farther from Gokhale’s astute thought process and vision. However, they still bonded because, although their means were different, they were united in their goal of bringing about major social reforms in India.
  • Mentee can and should seek out a mentor– Oftentimes; life may not bring your mentor in close proximity to your surroundings. It is then, important to seek out your mentor. In this case, common interests do help to bond. For instance, SN Bose, whose name is immortalized with the Boson particles, proactively approached Einstein and sent him his manuscript to review and publish. Good mentors always find time to provide advice. Einstein not only reviewed the manuscript and acknowledged its uniqueness; he took time to translate it into German and helped publish Bose’s seminal paper in a renowned German scientific journal. In quantum mechanics, particles that follow the Bose-Einstein statistics are known as Bosons.
  • Mentor helps to build a mentee’s professional focus and career– The mentor understands how to focus the mentee by firstly advising them on career goals after mutual discussions and then helping them build a road map to reach that goal. Sometimes, the mentor goes beyond and provides the mentee opportunities that can hasten the journey process towards achieving the career goal. CV Raman, a Physics Nobel Prize winner has had mentored an illustrious fleet of bright mentees who have gone on to contribute greatly in their fields. I would like to mention GN Ramachandran here, not only because he was one amongst the most promising of Raman’s mentees, but also since Raman recommended Ramachandran for possible career opportunities that could enable him to shine professionally in a very short time. No doubt Ramachandran was brilliant on his own, those in structural biology know about GNRs triple helix model for collagen and equally important Ramachandran Plot that helps understand peptide structure, but Raman’s mentorship helped him stay on the path leading to major contributions. Ramachandran was equally famous for his fluctuating temperament, however, a mentor has a responsibility to keep their mentees focused on their passion and perhaps Raman did just that. Ramachandran established the Molecular Biophysics Unit at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, one of the best biophysics division in India, today.
  • There is and should be no gender bias in selecting a mentor (any form of bias actually!)– Though it has been tough to find women mentors or mentees from India over internet (Sigh!), a mentee should approach anyone from whom they can learn about bettering their lives, irrespective of gender and any classifications that humans have created to divide each other. One example that was prominent was of Manoranjan Byapari and his delightful life story. Born in a poor household, Byapari did not have opportunities that many of us take for granted, example, a school education. However, he was driven to make a difference to his circumstances. While in prison, he taught himself to read, and having ‘discovered’ stories highlighting the plight of the poor from Bengal and topics dear to his heart like social reforms, written by an accomplished Bengali author Mahasweta Devi, suddenly developed an insatiable appetite for reading. Byapari got himself a job as a rickshaw puller and continued to read as much as he could. One day while driving a lady, he asked her the meaning of a word from a book he was struggling to understand. She explained him the meaning and he thanked her by showing her the book he was reading. It was Agnigarbha, a short story collection by Mahasweta Devi. While paying him for the ride, the woman asked Byapari if he would write something for her journal. Byapari agreed and asked her to give her contact details. The lady scribbled her name on a piece of paper ‘Mahasweta Devi’. Byapari’s life changed for the better after coming in contact with the seasoned author. Byapari has written 10 books and 100 essays till now and has been honored for his contribution to Bengali literature especially in depicting the struggles of Dalits in Bengal.

 Agencies building mentorship programs in India, outside of educational institutions and entrepreneurial start ups:

  1. http://mentormeindia.org/
  2. http://www.magicbus.org/about-us
  3. http://www.thepromisefoundation.org/
  4. http://asha-india.org/what-we-do/education/mentorship/
  5. http://swfn.org/program-kasthuri/snapshot/

Acknowledgements:

  1. http://www.vigyanprasar.gov.in/scientists/Subodh_Mahanti.asp
  2. Wikipedia
  3. http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/manoranjan-byapari-from-fetters-to-letters/article5606992.ece
  4. http://www.news18.com/news/india/india-lacks-culture-of-good-mentorship-for-researchers-1226854.html
  5. http://www.firstpost.com/business/corporate-business/do-accomplished-indian-women-really-need-mentorship-and-men-dont-to-be-on-companys-board-2816730.html