The old man and the garden

The institute where I work, has a beautiful garden. On cold wintry lunch hours, when the courtyard is filled with faculty and students out to soak the mid morning fleeting sunshine, one cannot not notice the vibrant colours of Asters, Marigold, Dahlias, Cosmos and red and yellow leaves of ornamentals. Every morning when I arrive for work, I see the gardener, an elderly gentleman, tugging along, alone in the garden. He works early mornings and late evenings. He usually hums an earthy tune, sometimes breaks into a rasping cough, sometimes looks around his pots and foliages, in the most paternal way possible. One day when he was pruning a Neem tree, I had gone forward and asked him for some leaves. I like the bitter taste of Neem and Bittergourd, especially if they are cooked with Tomatoes and Brinjals.

The gardener had given away the youngest, tender, rusty leaves of pruned branches to me and advised that these were the best to taste and easiest to cook. I had asked him how long he had been with our organization. He had always been with us. And he had always been a gardener ever since he could remember. He seemed so happy and proud as he looked around his canvas. I felt so content just knowing that a simple life is enough for people even in this year of 2017. A life of nurturing and caring and putting in love into whatever one is doing. He also tends to his plants in a most unhurried way. It seems like he has reached a place where time doesn’t matter.

As I debate over faculty development programmes, attending International meetings and conferences, bagging large funded projects, with my other faculty colleagues, my thoughts go over to the old man and the garden. Did he never need to build his skills or go on an exchange programme to enrich himself? How did he teach himself of scientific ways of manuring, pollinating, asexual plant breeding? How does he know that certain plant need only certain angle of sunlight and some need more water than the others? Is experience enough to teach one everything there is to know about ones professional needs? Or is it necessary to reach a stage where lines between professional life aspirations and personal life satisfaction blur and become one?

Like Earnest Hemingway’s book, sometimes one doesn’t need tangibles, certificates, physical acquisitions to assure oneself of one’s worth. Sometimes feelings suffice, small joys and a knowing in what you have and what you had are enough to keep one going. It doesn’t matter if there are storms in your way, what you will build with love will keep you coming back and you wouldn’t even realize the storms you have weathered to reach your happiness.

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RIP Ms Fisher

Our childhood is often hinged on special fictional characters that have an impact on our imagination as we grow up. Sherlock Holmes, Feluda, Jo from Louisa Alcott’s Little Women, Jupiter Jones are some familiar with mine. However, of all, Princess Leia by far had the strongest impression and even today there are moments when the Start Wars characters help me smile. My first Star Wars movie was the Return of the Jedi, which I watched in the late 80s with a group of neighborhood friends in our homely defence camp movie theater, aptly named ‘Manoranjan’ (Hindi for entertainment). For the cheapest movie tickets in town and the no frills, no balcony, close to home experience, it was a real treat to sit back relax in a familiar audience setting and lose ourselves to the world of imagination. Although it would be the last movie hall on this planet to show any particular film, sometimes after 3-4 years of its release, we still loved to watch movies in Manoranjan.

Since the 80s, I have watched the Return of the Jedi at different time points in my life and like a good book, it has been a new experience, a new understanding, each time. This particular movie was no less than any Bollywood high grosser. It had action, emotion, a great plot and lots of comedy (also a great background score). What’s not to like in a strong woman, a nation’s decision maker, fighting for her nation? Add to it a personal dimension of a lost and found brother, a controversial father and George Lucas’s exemplary project execution and of course Han Solo’s crooked charm!

Princess Leia had great leadership qualities and was skilled at rational persuasion. She was liked by all forms of creatures in the movie and her empathy bonded her people together. I also liked that Lucas had not made her out a superwoman with super powers; rather he stuck with her as a more human self, with normal physical limits, albeit with an active, thinking mind and expert in handling arms. I almost named my daughter Leia and I do hope mine outgrows her fascination with everything Barbie and takes notice of fictional characters that have strong individualism who do not rely on certain ways of physical appearance or a wardrobe filled with pink or fuchsia colored apparel, to lead a healthy, happy life.

As another year flies past, I hope 2017 will be a year for great books, great science, great movies and great examples of world peace. As every country moves towards a more nationalistic way of thinking, they don’t exit from international collaboration. Would I ever be able to watch Star Wars, sitting in a small movie theater in an Indian city without some form of international collaboration? And wouldn’t it be a form of foolishness not to invest in a global market, for any type of business?

But coming back to the Return of the Jedi, and although I am saddened at Ms Fisher’s untimely and sad demise, her portrayal of Princess Leia will live on till the end of time and hopefully, continue to inspire many more to come.

Sribble, Srabble….

Journey Home….

Tiny feet, tiny toes, delicate fingers, dot for a nose

Curly locs, cutest smile, brownest eyes with specks of starlight

While you sleep on my lap, sighing sometimes, without a care,

I wonder if you will find my home, to your liking, worth your share

Would you accept me as your mother, my darling little pixie glow?

For I have always known you are the one, from where I came and where I go

We have woven our dreams together in the past, with threads of hope, with desires to last

And even though I haven’t nourished you with my blood and with my health

I will raise you, as mine, with all my soul and all my strength.

But while you sleep on my lap, sighing sometimes, without a care,

I wonder if you will find my home, to your liking, worth your share….

-M

……………………………………………………………………………………………….

You are seven

This year you are seven and soon you will touch eleven,

and then a fine woman you will be, with truth in your step and courage in your hair

through all this though, I wish you joy, for a life that matters, a life that cares

and through it all, I wish you love, a love fulfilling, a love with dreams, with hopes to share

and most of all I wish for you, a life without a hint of pain

For all the pain should end with me, all hardships I am ready to gain

May the sadness in my eyes, never touch your sacred space

For you my darling pixie glow, may only laughter and tenderness remain!

-M

 

 

Intergenerational transmission of poverty and escaping the poverty trap

Image result for intergenerational poverty india

Last weekend I watched a delightful movie on something quite close to my heart. ‘Nil Battey Sannata’ depicted a mother and daughter’s journey through life. There were several moments which I could totally identify with. It was superb acting by a very able cast and although the subject was very down to earth, of a mother’s trials to provide a good future for her daughter, the cinema did do justice to balance all emotions very well. The teenage daughter had already resigned to the fact that her mother wouldn’t be able to put her through an expensive higher education, and had gone ahead and explored options of choosing a career as a nanny, something within her realms and ability.

A few days ago I was involved in a project dealing with intergenerational transmission of poverty and some of the dialogues in the movie brought back thoughts from work. The mother depicted in the movie was a daily wage earner, working in the informal sector. In India and many other lower and middle income countries, there is a huge section of population working in the informal sector and most survive on day to day earnings. Some don’t have enough to meet their daily needs and most do not have anything to save for the future. And this brings in another worry of a huge population of elderly people resulting from the same informal sector, without any sort of retirement savings.

I strongly feel that every human has a right to dream a rosy future and somewhere when one is consumed with thoughts solely of how they/their family can survive the next day, life is not completely justified. There is some information from research and mostly from the field of economics that intergenerational poverty is transmitted from parent to children especially in those living below the poverty line (BPL). Somewhere, there is a little mismatch, since the huge middle class strata of India, which extends from those just above the poverty line to those doing very well, often times demonstrate examples of children capable of attaining their dreams through hard work and education loans and scholarships and being able to climb from one strata to that higher. This is somehow extremely difficult for the poorest of the poor (BPL), even though many of the schools have very similar opportunities for growth. Additional aspects such as health and nutrition have been implied to add to lower school attendance in children and the reasons for being unable to escape the poverty trap become complex with multiple compounding factors.

What has been seen to work to some extent is conditional cash transfers (CCT). And more evidence from research is needed in this area. Pilot projects where cash transfers were made to the BPL families, tagged with compulsory school attendance, or availing government immunization/health programmes were seen to effect family nutrition and quality of life in a positive manner. School attendance also improved due to better nutrition and health. This would probably be a mechanism to escape the poverty trap. However, much more needs to be done in a proper structured manner. Also the process for CCT needs to be efficient without involving too many intermediaries that can raise avenues for corruption or bureaucracy or both (one stop mobile money transfer has worked well in Kenya). Community cooperatives also work to some extent, however, a strong community engagement, community participatory action methods are needed to be explored.

I am often frustrated that researchers do not come together to build sustainable projects. Grants are mostly driven with motivation for a few publications, or a PhD degree or obtaining a faculty position. Sustainable projects can be made possible only by a multidisciplinary team and until researchers stop working in silos where an economist only works with another economist and a qualitative researcher only with their own folks, it will be very difficult to achieve anything meaningful on the ground. One can generate multiple models of why things are not working, but ground level realities require tangible practical solutions and most importantly, ones which are sustainable in minimum resource settings.

Picture acknowledgement- Asian Development Bank

Serendipity- life’s little secret!

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Last month I met a friend after 23 years. And surprisingly, we picked ourselves up from where we had left, so many eons ago. We were in touch infrequently though, through these years, maybe once a year wishing ourselves a Happy New Year, and sometimes once in 3 years congratulating over a new job or a new turn in life. It was great to finally meet, and although we did not remember as many details of our past lives together, nor had a lot to discuss about what had happened in between, I felt at peace, from an inner knowing that someone’s there, and will always care. We were happy to be in the present, content both while talking, and the silence in between.

I have met other friends after a long gap and unfortunately did not connect with them in this way. Perhaps, life had taken us too far away from each other. I am not sure if animals have similar social behaviours and raise an eyebrow and go ‘How you doin?’ when they meet each other after a long gap. I am sure dogs can recognize people, mine did, when I was in and out of home during my education and would visit back once a year. I remember one winter morning, when I was several continents away, receiving the dreaded phone call about Pluto being no more. I had been expecting it since he was sick and ailing for some time. But the finality did hurt. Strangely, that night when I was alone in the apartment, tired and asleep, I was awaken by a sensation of something wet over my feet, very similar to when Pluto used to lick my feet at home when he needed me to wake up and attend to him.

As the world shrinks, we keep meeting and re-meeting people. During my stay in New York, I used to often see a person every morning, on my way to work. He would take an opposite route and we would meet at cross roads and smile courteously. To my amazement, when I relocated to India, he was sitting in my new office, as my colleague and with whom I had a good time working for the next few years. I had never imagined we would be in a similar profession and be colleagues in the same office!  What are the odds of that! Serendipity! One of life’s beautiful aspects.

Little things in life bring big surprises. Like when your brain tells you that you have devoured all the chocolates you left in a jar, but never the less, your hopeful fingers contact one final little dark delectable, sticking in one corner, away from the limelight, just so you can pick it up and be happy all over again!

At this time of the year, I wish everyone the same happiness, it is Christmas time after all….of warm glowing lights and hot cup of whatever your favorite beverage is. And in this time of demonetization, I am sure Santa has a debit card from the Bank of the North Pole!

Warm wishes everyone!

The Man-the Legend

13amitabh-bachchan3   bachchandeewaar  feat

I was watching the movie ‘Pink’ the other evening, and yet again, was wowed by Mr Bachchan’s effortless performance (though I must thank all actors of this movie for doing justice to their roles, however small). Although, the movie itself was more predictable and stuck to its mainstream roots, I enjoyed watching it, especially because after years, I could finally watch a full length uninterrupted movie on the television. Usually, the only thing running on the box now days is something Barbie or Doremon or Frozen. Though I like animations and Ratatouille, How to train your dragon, Bugs life are highly watchable, it is quite empowering to claim the TV remote for one evening and be its master. It did take some bartering with the remote’s seven year old owner, a few princess stickers, a bowl of her favorite ramen noodles and a promise that this Diwali, it would be alright to wear an electric magenta nail colour (eesh….absolutely petrificious!) but finally, the remote was mine.

To many belonging to my generation in India, we have grown old with AB’s movies being a part of our lives. He’s been an omnipresent force at every step of our growth.

I remember when I was in middle school, my mother meeting me halfway on my way back home from school, and us going together for early evening shows of Mr Bachchan’s films. My mother did introduce me to his movies and in those days, she was this energetic, vivacious woman full of life, running around the house and neighborhood, raising me. For most of my adult life, however, my mother has been confined to the walls of home, fighting her rheumatoid arthritis and leading a life of quite seclusion. Hence, the time we spent together laughing at the movies, at the wonderful, sometime witty and sometimes downright crass dialogues of ABs movies are very dear to me. These were the times, when I watched with joy, the sense of freedom and control my mother possessed. I hope I bond with my own daughter, the same way, and am able to make happy memories with her.

Mr Bachchan’s life in itself is very inspiring. It is true that when the mighty fall, they fall hard and the climb back to the top is steeper, second time. But he shows us that it is possible to collect oneself and reach an even higher peak through hard work, diligence and sheer strategic thinking. I do not think there is any role that he cannot portray. I often compare him with Robbin Williams and Kevin Spacey, although AB has embodied far greater versatile roles than either of the others.  His ability at seamlessly moving around from one accent/dialect to the other and his command over both Hindi and English is excellent. Paired with it is his sense of humility. Though we may be different in our private and professional lives, AB comes across as someone, who is aware of how a common man leads his life in modern day India, as much as someone who is higher up and makes decisions for the country and respects both as is very evident from his shows and interviews.

What impresses me most about him is his ability to change with the times. He has not only fit into the years well, but has contributed to every era he has been around. He influences everyone he works with, most of his costars respect him and those much younger look upto him as an idol to emulate, both in the acting profession and as a dignified public figure. His leadership skills, his talent and his life is a lesson for everyone.

It is true that many with talent, do not obtain opportunities to shine, but only a few utilize life’s opportunities and are able to maintain their hold on being at the top for more or less their entire lives.

Happy festival season!

Picture Acknowledgements:

Youthconnect, filmconnect and Rediff

 

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