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Rajesh Talwar’s The Mantra and Meaning of Success Looks at Success From Multiple Perspectives

Over the last one week, I read Rajesh Talwar’s The Mantra and Meaning of Success. Currently working as Deputy Legal Adviser to the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan, the author’s resume is a thing of envy. He has penned 31 books and regularly writes for some of the most popular publications in India and outside, viz. The Economic Times, The Guardian (UK), The Pioneer, The Times of India, The Patriot, Manushi, The Sunday Mail, and The New Indian Express. The book in my hand falls in the Self-Help category and has been published by Bridging Borders publishing house.

There are several reasons to like the book. I love the fact that Mr. Talwar keeps no pretence about the target audience of this book. The author sets a clear context while doing the Introduction and explains the need of such a book for the Indian readers set against an Indian backdrop. The author believes that most of the acclaimed and widely read books in the genre have been written with a western lens and targeted at the western reader. That’s true to a good extent and reading a book that probes the Indian pop-culture and well-known stories from India to cite examples adds to the relatability of the book. It’s not that the book doesn’t have cases from outside India. In fact, the book is heavily reliant on global icons like Bill Gates, Bob Dylan, Mario Puzo and others in order to explain success, failure and related themes. Even if you are a reader from outside India, it shouldn’t be very difficult to connect.

The book is also a far cry from other books in the genre that promise to give you a magic pill of success. More than telling how to become successful, this book tackles the question ‘What is Success?’. The author tries to look at success from multiple perspectives. Success can have diverse colours and so the book begins with those three things people generally relate success with – Fame, Money, and Power.

On a different note, the strength of this book also ends up becoming its disadvantage after a point. Too many simplistic conclusions are drawn from stories that seem to present multiple layers for inspection and rumination. The way these conclusions are drawn may leave readers looking for nuance a bit disappointed. A sense of rush to pack as many tales as possible in one book is palpable throughout and this creates a few problems. Firstly, many of these stories are in public domain and provided that the author doesn’t have an inside view of individuals mentioned in these stories, it’s hard to ascertain the accuracy or correctness of the inferences made. Secondly, page time for author’s own views and thoughts is considerably reduced. Even though we are reading a book about a concept that should draw a lot more from the respected author’s own life and struggles, by the end of the book, we don’t really get to know the author or his ideas well enough. I would have liked the book better if it had more focus and had dug deeper into the subject. Additionally, even though art is subjective, the book cover borders on bland and has scope for improvement to grab more eyeballs.

An individual like Mr. Rajesh Talwar surely knows what success looks like and it is only natural that the book is filled with anecdotes from Mr. Talwar’s surroundings. The book stresses on the importance of balancing between fame, money, power and suggests ways to do it, and narrates several examples to underline the correlation. If you are looking for a quick, crisp read with stories of success and failure that inspire without bothering to get into details, this is definitely a one-time read.

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Dan Olsen’s The Lean Product Playbook Answers the ‘How?’ and ‘When?’ of Lean

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – R.M. Rilke

I was reminded of these lines excerpted above when I reached the second chapter of my latest read. German poet R.M. Rilke wrote thus in one of his letters to a young aspiring poet who was looking for writing advice from Rilke. While the lines definitely apply if you are looking to compose poetry but I’m sure they also apply for anyone chasing any creative pursuit. Product Management is as much an art as it is a science. As such, Rilke’s advice also applies to folks who want to compose products — products that are beautiful as well as highly functional, products that are wanted and are used when they are launched, products that can develop a new market if one doesn’t exist, products that keep improving with time and usage, and products that don’t meekly surrender in death but achieve martyrdom in the battlefield aka marketplace when they exit. The second chapter of The Lean Product Playbook by Dan Olsen talks about Problem Space versus Solution Space and underlines the importance of separating the two. With that separation, also comes the criticality of spending enough time in the problem space before getting into the solution space.

Book as a Product

Dan Olsen puts his book through the same rigorous processes and tests that he would like any product to go through. The book is treated as a product itself and at the outset, he pins its objective as neatly as possible. The title happens to be ‘The Lean Product Playbook’ and if you are a little confused about what to expect from the book, the subtitle makes it easier to calibrate your expectations — “How to Innovate with Minimum Viable Product and Rapid Customer Feedback.” At this point, you get to know that this book gives a lot of page-time to MVPs and the process of getting usable customer feedback. The book has been published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey and I read it on Kindle.

Perils of not heeding to Rilke’s advice (https://leanproductplaybook.com/resources/)

From Lean Startup to Lean Playbook

In many ways, this book is a worthy successor of another popular book amongst product people — The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. While ‘The Lean Startup’ explained the foundations of the Lean concept, this book goes deeper into the execution phase and spends more time helping you figure out How-To-Do-Lean. In short, The Lean Startup answers the ‘What? and Why?’, and Dan Olsen’s book answers the ‘How? and When?’. The point is, if you have not read Eric’s book, it’s a good idea to do so before coming to Dan Olsen’s work. In his own words, “I wrote The Lean Product Playbook to fill the knowledge gaps faced by many people who want to create a product using Lean Startup principles.”

The book is divided into 3 parts–

1. Core concepts to understand the concept of Product-Market Fit

Product-Market Fit Pyramid (https://leanproductplaybook.com/book/)

2. Following the Lean Product Process (six steps) to achieve Product-Market Fit.

3. Building/Optimizing your product after establishing Product-Market Fit.

You need Oprah as well as Spock on your product journey (https://leanproductplaybook.com/resources/)

The author describes all these six steps in point 2 in detail with real world examples from his experience at Intuit where he worked on Quicken as well as from his time helping other companies of the world apply Lean principles.

More Observations

There are several scenarios which can be directly lifted from the book and plugged into any product development team’s workstyle with minor modifications to drive better outcomes for their products. For the number of examples, and step-by-step processes this book comes with, it definitely fills a vacuum between the concepts of Lean product development and the execution part of it. Target Market Segmentation, Technology Adoption Life Cycle, Personas, Underserved Customer Needs, Customer Discovery Interviews, Customer Benefit Ladders, Satisfaction Framework, Customer Value, MVP Feature Set Specification, Prototyping, MVP tests, UX Design — the book covers all these and many more arms of Lean product development in detail with practical examples to learn from.

Over the last decade, Lean has become the ‘Meditation’ of the product world. Most people keep talking about its benefits, few practise it, and fewer still practise it right. You truly understand the benefits of Lean only when you practise it effectively. At the same time, you get to understand its use cases better when you keep at it iteratively for a longer duration of time. Keeping that in mind, I’m sure that this book is going to help product folks get better at developing solutions to real problems instead of fishing for problems their self-attested product solves. A lot of startups today are trapped in the loop of solving the same problem over and over. If it’s not by choice to ride the wave for making quick money, this book may help such companies break that loop as well.

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Harry Potter Reunion

‘Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts’ Is the Nostalgia Ride All Potterheads Deserved

“Mysterious thing, Time”– Albus Dumbledore. It really is! And that’s what you realize when you are invited to revisit the wondrous wizarding world you had left behind 10 years ago. That’s how “Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts” begins and if there’s one word that could describe the whole 1 hour and 42 minutes retrospective special (streaming on HBO Max and Amazon Prime), it would definitely be “Nostalgia”! It is true that some of the books from J.K. Rowling’s debut novel series had released much earlier than the movies, but it was not till 2001 that most of us, who had been living in different parts of the world, got a chance to experience the amazing and unbelievable Wizarding World of The Boy Who Lived. The movies made the novel popular; they allowed the story to reach out to children even in the remotest corners of the world. And thus, started a journey for every Potterhead out there, which would change their lives forever!

As John Williams’ “Harry’s Wondrous World” plays in the background and the Hogwarts Castle comes into view once again from across the Black Lake, with all its lighted turrets and windows, and Emma Watson opens the doors to the Great Hall, we are ushered into that world once again, which happens to be our “healthy form of escapism” even now, as so rightly quoted by Matthew Lewis aka Neville Longbottom.  I feel the best part of being a 90s kid and a Potterhead simultaneously, is that you sort of grew up with the actors. Seeing them who had brought the young characters alive onscreen, who had given colors to our imaginations, like Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Evanna Lynch, James and Oliver Phelps, Tom Felton, Bonnie Wright and so many others, all grown up and in their late 20s or early 30s now, getting married or having kids just like our friends are, all around us, made me realize how much time has passed. Even then, it feels like yesterday that we were watching the films with utmost awe and wonder in the movie theaters.  

As I delve deeper into the reunion special episode, which has been divided into 4 chapters, each representing two movies at a time, showing glimpses of the shots and the sets and also the actors’ experiences while shooting for each of them, I can’t help but wonder at how beautifully they have recreated the aura of the wizarding world throughout the entire duration of the episode. Starting from the actors receiving their Hogwarts’ letters, addressed to them in their specific locations at the time, like “The Coffee Shop, Chelsea” or “The Black Cab” reminds us of Harry’s shocking expression, when he receives his first Hogwarts Letter with the specific address “The Cupboard Under the Stairs”. It also reminds us strangely of how as children, when we had turned 11 years old, we actually prayed to God for sending us that letter, so that we could journey from our ridiculously boring Muggle world into the amazing world of Harry Potter. It reminds us of the innocence we once had, and how we seem to have lost that along the way.

Each of the four chapters begins with the narrator reading out a line from J.K Rowling’s books and as we move into the first one, The Boy Who Lived, we are reminded of some of the amazing actors who had contributed as much to the series, as the child actors. The twinkling eyes of Richard Harris could not have been more apt for the long-bearded, white-haired Albus Dumbledore, drawn at the back of the first ever book cover of the Harry Potter series. Maggie Smith’s Professor McGonagall, Robbie Coltrane’s Rubeus Hagrid, Alan Rickman’s Professor Snape and Richard Griffiths’ Uncle Vernon, seemed to have jumped out of the pages of J.K. Rowling’s book. Stuart Craig, who was the Production Designer for the entire Harry Potter movie franchise, had created the impossible world of the wizards with utmost ease and grandeur. Thousands of lighted candles were hung from the end of fishing lines to recreate the floating candles adorning the ceiling of the Great Hall, as mentioned in the books. The scenes where we witness the Burrow for the first time and see how a wizarding family washes their dishes or knits their sweaters, the comparison between good and bad wizarding families so drastically portrayed with the entry of Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy, brings the first chapter to an end.

The second chapter, Coming of Age, portrays the third and fourth movies of the series and was indeed the time when we too were in limbo between our childhood and adulthood, just like Harry, Ron and Hermione. These books or movies ushered in the era of crushes, infatuations and the pangs of teenage love along with the introduction of deep and dark concepts of dementors sucking out your joy and happiness, of overcoming your deepest fears and darkness, of standing at the threshold of adulthood. New actors like Gary Oldman, David Thewlis and Timothy Spall were introduced into the series. At the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the entire universe shifts suddenly and the series which was popular as a childrens’ book, soon became something more sinister with the introduction of Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort. The death of Cedric Diggory marks that moment when Harry has his first reality check and so does the audience, as we are prepared to face the perils of adulthood. 

In The Light and Dark Within, Mathew Lewis as Neville and Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood, bring forth the world of “misfits” and “oddbots”, where children who are shy or introvert or different from those around them, children who have been bullied in schools or in playgrounds, relate themselves to popular and famous characters for the first time, and find that they can belong in the society too. The two-dimensional, complex character of Draco Malfoy, torn between what is right and what is not, reflects so many of us who had once made all the wrong choices in the wrong company and had later learnt from our regrets and mistakes. Helena Bonham Carter, who had played the role of the psychopathic, evil, and most devoted Death-Eater, Bellatrix Lestrange, talks about the impact the series has had on generations of children who failed to get good marks in exams, or who weren’t the best when it came to sports. The world of Harry Potter showed with immense humanity, depth, and vulnerability that being different makes us special as we fall in love with the characters of Luna and Neville.

Before they move onto the last and final chapter though, they remind us of the fact that these were the movies in which Harry encounters grief for the first time in his life as he loses Sirius and Dumbledore, the two adults who had been closest to what the orphaned boy could claim as “parents”. As the reunion special takes us inside the pensieve, into the memories of some of the great actors who have passed away in the 10 years since the last movie of the franchise released, we raise our wands along with so many other witches and wizards, all watching the reunion from the comforts of their homes, to remember and honor all those amazing actors like Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Helena McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), Richard Harris(Albus Dumbledore in first two movies), John Hurt (Ollivander the wandmaker), Richard Griffiths (Uncle Vernon) and Robert Hardy(Cornelius Fudge).

In the final chapter, Something Worth Fighting For, scenes from the last two movies are reminisced by the actors, as the trio leaves the comfort of their school for the first time and faces the struggles of the real world, as we all do, when we leave school or college. Mathew Lewis talks about the last speech of Neville in front of Lord Voldemort, the speech which sealed Neville’s character forever as one of the bravest Gryffindors we knew and as the true son of his brave Auror parents, and how that speech had impacted him both as a human being and as an actor. For fans like us, who had read all the books by then and already knew how the series would end, held onto these two movies as our last thread of connection to the world we had loved and craved to belong to, the last thread of connection to our childhood which was slowly slipping away. Potterheads would often claim this series to be more than just a children’s book, because the magical world which J.K Rowling wove around Harry Potter had lots of stories within stories, had individual character curves, had concepts so philosophical and deep that it often had a transformative effect on people’s lives!

As the last day of the shoot is shown and the actors are seen crying and hugging each other, we realize that even though they might not live on, the characters they portrayed will do and the legacy of Harry Potter and the masterpiece which J.K.Rowling has created, will continue to inspire generations to come. Emma Watson echoes the very thoughts of my heart and soul when she says, “There’s something about Harry Potter that makes life richer. Like, when things get really dark and times are really hard, stories give us places we can go, where we can rest and feel held”. The wizarding world of Harry Potter has been that story and that place for me, my source of happiness and inspiration in times of grief, loss and desperation. As I therefore, see the last scene of the special episode unfold before my eyes, and Dumbledore looks at Snape’s patronus, uttering one of the most epic dialogues of the series, I realize that every time someone would judge or question my devotion towards Harry Potter and the Wizarding World and ask, “After all this time?”, I would probably utter the same words Snape did – “ALWAYS!”

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Photos of JJ Goodwin and Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda’s Most Faithful Friend Who Rests at India’s Ooty

Swami Vivekananda said of J.J. Goodwin, “Those who think they have been helped by any thought of mine, ought to know that almost every word of it was published through the untiring and most unselfish exertions of Mr. Goodwin…a disciple of never-failing devotion, a worker who knew not what tiring was….”

In life as well as in death, some people stay young. These people take up one thing and pour the last drop of blood coursing through their veins over it. Their life becomes a relentless pursuit of that one object. Nothing can distract them. No force can deter them from their chosen path. They keep at it until one day life stops and death gives them their much deserved rest. Irrespective of their age, at work and in rest, they stay young.

I got introduced to Josiah John Goodwin as a child when I was introduced to Ramakrishna-Vivekananda literature. If not for this man, most of Swami Vivekananda’s talks and lectures might have become the food of oblivion. I have known that this man of only 23 was noting down some of the most vital messages ever passed on to humanity. I have known that he refused to take payments in just about a week’s time at work with Swami Vivekananda. I have known all along that Mr. J.J. Goodwin came to India with Swami Vivekananda as the most faithful devotee and friend. He recorded in shorthand, Swamiji’s lectures from Colombo to Almora which became the bedrock of Indian nationalism, socialism, humanism, and most importantly a reinvigorated ignition switch for the Indian freedom struggle. I have known that he was only 28 when he died due to fever in the year 1898 in Ootacamund (Ooty). I have known that his death was perhaps the dearest of losses for Swami Vivekananda. I knew that he rests somewhere in Ooty listening to the poem his Master dedicated to him on learning of his demise.

In the book, The Life of Swami Vivekananda by His Eastern and Western Disciples, a passage on Mr. Goodwin explains, “Mr. Goodwin would take down a lengthy address in the evening, work through the night in typewriting off his stenographic reports, and then hasten towards midnight to the newspaper offices, the conductors of which were anxious to print the Swami’s lectures, and this continued day after day, The Guru loved his disciple with infinite tenderness and initiated him into the practices and ideals of the Vedanta philosophy, so that he became an expert in grasping its contents and faithfully reporting them. It is needless to say that the Swami was grateful beyond words to his disciple. He could not speak too highly of him ; he saw in him a great Karma Yogin, one who could unselfishly perform work for the sake of work and who could live the life of ideals. Mr. Goodwin,  of course, refused any remuneration as soon as he understood the Swami and had been with him for a fortnight. Though he came from the ordinary classes of society and his education was not of a scholarly type, he exhibited remarkable intellectual adaptabilities with reference to the Swami’s work. His youth and his enthusiasm proved valuable stimuli. The Swami often spoke of him, saying, “He is chosen for my work. What would I do without him ! If I have a mission, he is indeed a part of it.””

Goodwin was born on 20 September 1870 at Batheaston, England. His father Josiah Goodwin was a stenographer and an editor of the Birmingham Advertiser, the Wilts Country Mirror and the Exeter Gazette. Goodwin worked as a journalist from the age of fourteen, and had an unsuccessful journalistic venture in Bath in 1893. He left Bath and travelled to Australia, and later on, to America.

As I stood before his memorial in the cemetery of CSI St. Church in Ooty on 3rd March, 2021, I was overwhelmed with emotions not much of surprise or disbelief but of the familiarity of the moment. It was as if I was there to see someone specially dear to me. I felt I was standing before a man whose absence I had been mourning ever since I read about his death at a tender 28. Whether you know it or not, J.J. Goodwin is the guide who is always by your side when you are reading Swami Vivekananda’s words. His words are here for us to read because there was a young British stenographer who was skilled enough to take down those extempore outpourings of the great teacher verbatim when others failed as well as dedicated enough to work tirelessly to produce printable copies night after night and lecture after lecture.

I sat there looking at the tombstone and all the things written on it and I felt that my mourning was complete. It was as if I was preordained to be there to pay my respects to him. I sat there as I would sit for the dearest of my kin and friends. As he rested in a corner in the cemetery, I kept wondering if he died so young only because it was time for him to rest. I don’t know many people who deserve to rest more than he did. I hope that when I and you rest, our rest too will be equally well deserved.

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Partition Horrors Remembrance Day – 75 Years Too Late?

The government has notified 14th August as ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’. Citizens have expressed their views about the declaration. While many have thanked the government for the decision, there are a few who do not like the idea. We will go to the most commonly cited reasons for the apparent dislike in a while. I have a few other things to mention at the outset.

For most of us in our 40s, 30s, and 20s, partition has been a non-event. Thanks to the ideologically sold-out historians in charge of our textbooks, the partition seemed like a clerical routine, a formality to be completed before we could get our freedom. If you didn’t look for it, you wouldn’t find it. Why was it so? Was it to let our wounds heal or to shut our eyes on them while they festered across our body for the want of good nursing? These can be difficult questions but they have answers, no matter how inconvenient!

Long ago, I met with an accident while riding my bike. My foot was badly hurt with deep cuts which couldn’t be stitched in the hospital. The only way out was regular disinfection of the wounds, application of ointments, and a bandage dressing that needed to be changed every day. I hated the routine but there was no other way. This went on for about two weeks. After two weeks, the nurse noticed some dry tissues on top of the wound. I thought the wound was healing. Before I could feel any comfort at the development, in a blink of an eye, the nurse tore off the tissue. The insides had very little improvement and he went back to cleaning and dressing the wounds. This was the longest I had nursed a wound. I was not allowed much movement for about a month. Now, if this wound were to be wrapped in a bandage, never to be opened again without any sterilization, cleansing, or nursing, the inevitable consequences would have been either amputation or death! 

Separate land for the Muslim population was demanded. Mohammad Ali Jinnah launched the Direct Action Day to insist on a ‘divided India or a destroyed India’. Jinnah’s supporters and all the people who wanted a separate country for Muslims came on the streets. Riots between Muslims and Hindus broke out. More than 4000 people lost their lives and 100,000 were left homeless in just 72 hours in Kolkata. In the months of October-November of the same year, in the Noakhali district (now in Bangladesh), the Hindu population was massacred in an organized attack by the Muslim rioters. More than 5000 people were killed, thousands looted, raped, and forcefully converted to Islam. Around 50,000 to 70,000 refugees were sheltered in the refugee camps at different places. This was not during the partition and happened in 1946. The cycle of bloodbath kept running without rest. There were no gods on earth or in the heavens. This land was drenched in the blood of her people. I am not even going into what happened to the minorities in Pakistan (both eastern and western) after the partition. 

The wound had been festering since Syed Ahmed Khan’s insistence that Hindus and Muslims were two different nations in a nation of many nations. There were a few good doctors who tried to limit the damage, contain the infection but most of them looked the other way. The idea was brought to fruition in the form of a tragic amputation of the Indian land and its people. So, next time you hear your well-meaning friend telling you that India is a nation of many nations, prod a little more for his rhyme and reason. Scratch the surface and you will find a secessionist or separatist hidden beneath.

A lot has been written about the number of people affected. I will not go there as the most modest numbers pale the most inhuman tragedies in other parts of the world. I will be concerned with the makings of the partition and their fading memories. Why has partition been allowed to become a mere blip in our history books or popular retellings of our country’s history? When millions of people were looted, raped, and killed, why did the partition become an event sanitized off its blood-stink of sectarian fanaticism and identity politics so quickly and so easily? Our doctors who were trusted with the healing process wrapped a piece of rag on it and left the nation to keep the amputation operation alive, to inflict on us a slow and painful death from our festered wounds, to forget that once upon a time Pakistan was India, to legitimize the demand for an independent Kashmir, to uproot the Indian people from their fertile and well-cultivated land physically, mentally, as well as spiritually so that one day, a so-called history buff from the Bollywood would nonchalantly tell us that India was born in 1947!

The court historians of the congress party were tasked with two jobs: 

1. Establish that India won her freedom without spilling a drop of blood. 

2. Establish that there were only two people chiefly responsible for India’s freedom. 

3. Erase all such instances of violence from the minds and hearts of the Indian public where the perpetrators identified themselves as Muslims. 

They did their job well but paper boats don’t sail too far. 

Some of the opposers of the move have said that a lot has already been written over the partition. This essentially means that they want the partition to be their pet project so that they can keep collecting grants and funds from the world in the name of governmental apathy.

The neo-Marxists want to forget the partition. This is the group that is hypocrisy redefined and underlined. They want to remember the upper caste atrocities through books, movies, and every literature festival and subway graffiti of the world. Personal becomes political and political becomes personal. They want to keep reminding you of your savarna privilege at the most innocuous of your expressions. However, ‘reminiscing the partition’ becomes the Van de Graaff generator leaving their hair strands all shocked and alarmed!

A few intellectual roleplayers wrote while defending Holocaust Memorial as well as International Holocaust Remembrance Day and protesting Partition Horrors Remembrance Day that in the holocaust, there was just horror and that there were no positive stories. However, the partition also had positive stories of help and support. They also added that the holocaust had one clear villain but during the partition, both the communities suffered equally. This is the most juvenile and the most insecure argument put forth. The suggestion that both the communities suffered is true but clearly, there was only one villain – the group which wanted to see a ‘divided India or a destroyed India’. There are no two ways about it. Holocaust too had stories of hope and help, but these folks have spent too much of their time using government vouchers in 7-star hotels and holiday vacations outside India to find time to read anything on that. 

I maintain that the announcement has come 75 years too late. My celebration of Independence Day has been a chequered experience since the time I learnt about partition and its horrors. I think it will remain so for the general people of our country. You can’t unsee, un-remember, unlive partition – or the horrors of it. It will be remembered no matter how inconvenient it may be for some people who are too thin-skinned for truth and have their sense of entitlement under threat with the announcement. For any healing to commence, it must not be a product of lies and cover-ups. A truth and reconciliation commission on the lines of the South African initiative will be a positive second step in this direction.

References: Halfway to freedom: a report on the new India in the words and photographs of Margaret Bourke-White
Photograph: Margaret Bourke-White

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Syed Mujtaba Ali’s Afghanistan – The Land Next Door

Afghanistan first entered my immediate realm of awareness on Christmas day 1999. “Switch on the news, an Indian Airlines flight has been hijacked,” someone had informed over the phone. For almost a week, the drama unfolded on the news. At the time, the size of Afghanistan for me was a strip of a runway, and when news cameras panned out, brown mountains in the backdrop. Political negotiations were carried out. Prisoners were exchanged for hostages. And Afghanistan retreated to the 1/2-inch border it had shared with India on the map in my school syllabus.

About a year and nine months later, I was in the computer cluster at University. My fingers tapped away at the keyboard as I cleaned up my dissertation to get it ready for submission — the final step in my MA degree. Autumn was around the corner, and there was a nip in the air, but the computer-lab was warm. Body heat from overcrowding combined with heat from printers running non-stop had given the room its own ecosphere.

I don’t remember how the news came in. But, within seconds, all the 50-odd computer screens were tuned in to the same video – a plane crashing into one of the NY twin towers. My first thought was, “This is some elaborate prank.” That illusion shattered as a second plane crashed into the other tower. It came crumbling down on live television. Those images replayed many times over the next few days, and the 9/11 attack was the centre of all conversation. Amidst all that, I submitted my dissertation and returned home. My image of Afghanistan was now the size of a computer screen, but it had moved. It sat atop the rubble of what had been two iconic buildings in New York.

For the next few years, it peeked out from newspapers. Dusty brown streets and countryside. American soldiers in army fatigues. Afghans in kurtas and paghdis. Children with dried streaks of snot and tears across their faces. Kidnapped journalists. Hostage videos of masked men toting guns. I relegated the montage to the ‘Irrelevant – Ignore’ cubbyhole of my conscience.

The year was 2015.

“I am reading In A Land far From Home,” my friend Yash told me. “It is hilarious. You should check it out.” I Googled it and found an excerpt. Meh! But then the whole title caught my eye, ‘In A Land Far From Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan’. Some catchphrases in the blurb had me hitting buy on Kindle tab: An intrepid traveller and a true cosmopolitan, the legendary Bengali writer Syed Mujtaba Ali …spent a year and a half teaching in Kabul from 1927 to 1929…he chronicles with a keen eye and a wicked sense of humour…first-hand insight into events at a critical point in Afghanistan’s history.

Set in 1927-1929, the story is a memoir of Bengali writer Syed Mujtaba Ali. Armed with a BA degree, Mujtaba Ali takes up a job in the education department of Kabul. Afghanistan is an unknown territory at the time, and it appeals to the young graduate’s appetite for adventure. The first third of the story describes the author-protagonist’s journey to Kabul. Travel delays, breakdowns, red tape in procuring documentation and crossing the ‘biggest test in the world – the Khyber pass’ as per his Kabuli bus driver threaten to throw him off track. But, he perseveres. He distracts himself with observations of his fellow travellers who amuse him and confound him in turns. After weeks of travel, he reaches Kabul and settles down in a rented house.

The second third of the book details Mujtaba Ali’s first year in Kabul. A year without incident. When he is not teaching classes at the university, he spends days picnicking in Gulbagh amidst apple and pear trees and nargis plants. Abdur Rahman, his Harlan-Moula, aka man Friday, plays mother hen. He fussed over him, treats his palate to local delicacies and his mind to folklore and homegrown customs. As the story progresses, the lush Tulbagh and the snowy peaks of Paghman visible from Mujtaba Ali’s window fill my head. The aromatics from Abdur’s feasts tantalize my tastebuds. The sights, the food, and the people invoke my travel-lust. Pangs of FOMO strike as realization hits. A trip to Afghanistan in this lifetime? Unlikely.

The last third of the story forebodes why.

The year 1929 sets in — Mujtaba Ali’s second year in Kabul. Signs of trouble have been brewing, yet, when it strikes, it appears out of nowhere. Ali’s description of shops pulling down shutters, people running in panic and screams of ‘Bacha-e-Saqao is coming’ filling creates images from the dacoit movies from 70’s Bollywood. But neither the 70s nor Bollywood had arrived then. This is real. The king abdicates, and Kabul falls. It is under the reign of Bacha-e-Saqao, who had already captured vast parts of the country. Over the next few months, thievery and rioting are rampant in the streets. Diplomats, ambassadors and ex-pats are evacuated by the embassies as the situation spirals. But, it is not that simple for our protagonist. India is under British rule, and a poor Bengali teacher is at the bottom of the priority evacuee list. Money and food are in short supply, and Mujtaba Ali is driven to the brink of death by starvation. He survives on the kindness of local friends and the loyal Abdur. Finally, it is his turn to leave. He describes his last view of Kabul as the airplane takes off:

I saw white snow covering the horizon. Standing in the middle of the airfield was a figure who could only have been Abdur Rahman, bidding goodbye to me by waving the tail of his turban.

His turban was dirty, as we did not have any soap for such a long time. But I felt Abdur Rahman’s turban was whiter than the snow, and whitest of all was Abdur Rahman’s heart.

The time when I read the book, I was surprised by the end. It seemed abrupt like the author had run out of ink, and not the proverbial kind. But, when I read it today, it appears apt. Perhaps, it is that picture of Afghanistan he wanted to carry home?

In 2021, it is challenging to ignore images. They follow you. They pop up in your palm unsolicited. They get lodged in caches and cookies and other things with innocuous names. The videos of people running through streets. Shouting at family members to hurry along. Clambering over the airport fence. Running alongside taxiing aircrafts. Clinging to the sides of planes. With every second, these images multiply.

I sort through the cubby-holes in my head, looking for one in the farthest corner. But, it is in vain. The exploding montage refuses to budge and settles in a pile marked – I am here. Deal with it. 

Image Courtesy: US MARINE CORPS/REUTERS

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Loving and Learning in the City: Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar Is a Bittersweet Ode to Survival

Empowerment is a capricious temptress. When served in the desired amount, it is a reasonably enjoyable experience for all. However, when one develops a fondness for it, it may mutate into a disruptive force. Mahanagar (The Big City), set in the Dickensian Calcutta of the 1960s, is an ode to the untold tales of survival bubbling in the veins of middle-class families as they struggle to find their place in the larger picture. Such families aren’t impoverished. But, as Subrata (Anil Chatterjee) tells his loving wife Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee), People become millionaires making cigarettes, yet a common BA-pass bank clerk struggles to make ends meet. His remark is in jest. Yet, there is a tinge of sadness in his voice; anguish at the endless list of requirements a man must fulfil to sustain his family in the metropolis.

Akin to several of Ray’s masterpieces whose core is the complicated relationship Calcuttans have with Calcutta, Mahanagar is about the quest for respectable existence. The film is based on two short stories by Narendra Mitra. It follows the journey of Arati and Subrata. Theirs is an endearing marriage, complete with a little boy and a sweet family that may suffer from want but never falls prey to the wanton bitterness born from scarcity. Considering the exponentially mounting expenses of living a fulfilled life, Arati decides to join the workforce to help her overburdened husband and contribute to the family’s financial well-being. Of course, it doesn’t please her father-in-law, Priyogopal (Haren Chatterjee). He is a conservative schoolteacher and loathes the idea of his daughter-in-law stepping out of the house. So deep runs his unyielding machismo that later in the film, Priyogopal begs for free assistance from his successful students by foul-mouthing his son but refuses to accept glasses made from Arati’s salary. Eventually, his way of thinking causes immense strains in the family. 

In contrast to his father, Subrata is a kind and witty husband. He is happy with the idea of his wife pitching in and understands the urgent need to overlook his father’s traditionalism. One of the sweetest scenes in the film is when Arati expresses her apprehension about her clothes not being fancy enough for the job. A door-to-door salesperson must look good. So Subrata takes an advance from his office for his wife to purchase befitting attire. It is a sensitively written moment, and Anil Chatterjee’s innocence with Madhabi Mukherjee’s expressive eyes makes it unforgettable. This is the starting point; Arati landing a job as a saleswoman. What follows is a discourse on unemployment, gender dynamics, class, and ingrained attitudes stretched thin between an archaic past and uncertain future.

Mahanagar is about a lower-middle-class family’s experience in Calcutta. But the lens of the film solely belongs to Arati. Through her eyes, we see the confusing times. We witness how rampant want and the changing ideas of domestic responsibility impact familial bonds. We understand the aspirations and inhibitions of working women and the growing fluidity in their movement between the private and public spheres. Using the larger canvas of Arati’s life, Ray explores how differences in religious and economic backgrounds temper the female reality. For this, we have the character of Edith Simmons. Edith is a feisty Anglo-Indian girl who has been conceptualized to represent the moral antithesis to Arati’s old-fashioned ideals. The two women, disparate in the way they dress, speak and live, become close friends. She gifts Arati a red lipstick saying that if Hindu women wear vermillion in their parting and a red bindi on the forehead, there is no harm in red lips.

Edith is honest, hardworking and efficient. Exactly like Ararti. The only difference is in the realisation of self-worth. Edith is aware of how much she deserves as an employee. Therefore, she protests when the executive plans to reduce commissions and successfully negotiates a 5% share for her colleagues. To the management, this attitude is belligerent. Not only because she is a female worker demanding to be compensated according to an industry standard but more so because of her ethnic background. Edith is scathingly referred to as the “firingee.” Their supervisor at the firm is appreciative of Arati’s work and supports her growth. Yet, he looks down upon Edith. In the end, Edith is fired. A prolonged illness prevents her from working. Upon return, she is humiliated, and her character is deemed questionable. She is accused of lying, and the manager claims that Edith was partying instead.

Edith’s narrative reflects how diverse life is for women living in the same city and working in the same office. When Arati is on the field, she is invited into plush living rooms belonging to wealthy homemakers dressed in modern saris and sleeveless blouses. The vast houses with guards at the front gate are in stark contrast to her cramped quarters, which cost Ray and his art director only Rs 2000 to build. In such a scenario, Arati is the disadvantaged one. However, when pitted against Edith, the “modern” woman dressed in skirts, wearing lipstick and belonging to an Anglicized background, Arati is privileged. At the workplace, she is taken seriously because irrespective of her employment in a corporate office, she resembles the conscientious Bengali housewife dressed in modest saris and hair tied in a simple bun. Aarti earns more respect and opportunities not only because she is efficient, but her larger identity is Mrs. Mukherjee. Edith is just Edith Simmons. Not married. Not Hindu. Not modest.

Arati’s relationship with her husband is the second important pillar of Mahanagar. We become a part of a very tender relationship, both blemished and eventually reunited by circumstances. Initially, Subrata is quick to ease into his role as the husband of a working woman. However, when Arati begins to discover her pride and self-worth as an earning member of the household, things falter. Arati’s professional rise and her increasing interactions with more powerful male authorities cause tension and insecurity. Subrata is never cruel. He has a sweet disposition and cares deeply for his wife and family. However, he is only a man, caught between moving on with new ideas and maintaining peace with the conservative past. He needs Arati’s support. Simultaneously, he is distraught with the situation at home. His father has not spoken to him in months. When the latter collapses in an ex-student’s clinic (while on another round of seeking free treatment), the student embarrasses Subrata by insinuating he doesn’t care for his father. It is an interesting commentary on aggressive masculinity and its power to make emotionally vulnerable men absorb its toxic juices. Things collapse further when a bank crash costs Subrata his job. Arati is the man of the house. He feels like a burden, distanced from his affectionate partner. 

Narendra Mitra’s stories ended pessimistically. However, the optimist in Ray didn’t want Mahanagar to conclude on such a note. He wished to grant Arati and Subrata a new lease of life, hoping for a perfect balance of sweet and realistic. In the end, Arati quits her job to protest against the harsh treatment meted to Edith. She apologizes to Subrata, scared that her impulsive decision has jeopardized their future but she is pleasantly surprised when Subrata admires her courage. Now a more evolved man, Subrata consoles her by saying that they will soon find work and together run the family. They walk out of the building as equals, holding hands and blending into the crowd of nameless thousands hoping to find employment.For me, Mahanagar is like a coming-of-age story. Yes, the characters are not teenagers. Yet, it is a remarkable story of a woman, her husband, and Calcutta –  all coming to terms with the fact that life is changing. Ray’s writing is sentimental, haunting, and full of passion and moments of happiness. It is a poetic film that relies on simplicity, subtlety, and observation to make a mark. It does not let you stay sad for long. But, neither is it stuffing the audience with false hope. Mahanagar tells us that life is tough. The city is tough. However, human relationships are tougher. One hundred years of Ray, and it still feels like Mahanagar could be our story.

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MAHE & MANO- An Extraordinary Tale of Hope, Courage, and Love

The first time I heard of Manohar Devadoss was at the Bangalore Literature Festival in 2017. I listened to him speak about his adventure with books in his life. His childlike candour and wit made him an instant hit with his audience. I was looking forward to interacting personally with him later that day. However, that didn’t materialize and that’s a regret I continue to carry. I was thrilled when he was awarded the Padma Shri in 2020 for his contribution to art. However, Manohar did more than just art. He is also a scientist and an author. His achievements in various fields are not merely his own but they are also his wife Mahema’s. Mahema is omnipresent not just in Manohar’s life but also in his art, his books, and all his conversations. So, when I picked his latest book – ‘Mahe and Mano’, published by Aleph Book company, I was excited at the idea of getting to know more about the duo.

A simple search on the internet titled ‘Manohar Devadoss’ will tell you about Mahema’s quadriplegia and Manohar’s retinitis pigmentosa. However, it is almost impossible to comprehend how challenging every day can be to live with these adversities. In the book, Manohar talks about their extraordinary journey together and how they won over these extreme inconveniences that came bundled together with their physical conditions.

A young foreign return Manohar was smitten by the bold, beautiful, and jubilant Mahema in their first meeting. Their courtship, marriage, and romance is quite dreamy and makes me envy them. It is also heartbreaking to read about how life turned upside down for this couple in only a matter of a few minutes. Manohar talks about the moments before the accident, their days in JIPMER and CMC, the kindness of doctors, friends, family, and strangers and the desperation he felt during those ten months in hospital. The efforts that Manohar took to entertain his wife who was clamped to the bed, his slide shows for other patients in the hospital, his outburst at the insensitivity of a doctor welled my eyes up. However, that was just the beginning of an arduous uphill journey for them.

Few years after Mahe returned home in a wheelchair and became completely dependent on Mano and the helpers for everything, Mano started losing his eyesight due to degenerative retinal disorder. Even with all the help from renowned ophthalmologists, this only kept getting worse. It was now Mahema’s turn to be Mano’s knight and keep him going. It was Mahema who pushed Manohar to write a book and find a way to continue with his paintings. They carried each other’s dreams, in their own hearts. And this they did for more than three decades.

Manohar’s father was a doctor. So, he was aware that the life of a quadriplegic is short-lived and tumultuous. However, he promised himself that he would never ever let his wife get a bedsore. It is unbelievable that not only did Mahema thrive for 35 years but also never had a bedsore despite being bound to a wheelchair. That speaks of the kind of devotion that Mano had for Mahe. Mano and Mahe were brave, strong, kind, and resilient as individuals. They were both warm, bright, intelligent, charming, and creative. These individual traits and their timeless devotion towards each other turned them into an extraordinary couple. Together, they were a force to reckon with and touched many lives in unbelievable ways.

Most of their best creations happened during their three decades of endless battles against these adversities. Even today, Manohar remains extremely busy and keeps up with another promise he made to his wife. While their courage as individuals is inspiring enough, I must agree with Nagalakshmi Kumaraswamy that  Mahe and Mano will serve as inspiration for any couple and will provide a fascinating story for marriage counsellors to tell.

The book does hold a couple of their pictures and one illustration of Mano, I would have loved to see more of them. The poems, the love letters, the scribblings, the songs, the books, the flowers, the butterflies, and their love makes this book a light and engaging read. Every page of this story is inspiring and that is reason enough to pick this book.

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If You Love Literature, Travel, and History Alike, Read Juliet’s Answer

We desire love. A love that seeps through our bones and lights up our very being.Some of us get lucky and find it right outside our doors. But for the rest of us, it is an achingly longer journey. It makes us wander across oceans and do crazier things before we find our true home. Glenn Dixon too went down the same road except Shakespeare kept him company guiding him all the way to “Fair” Verona, in Italy. His book, ‘Juliet’s Answer’ is a memoir of that journey towards love.

Glenn was a teacher for more than twenty years before he became a full time writer. During his time as a teacher, he taught Romeo and Juliet to high schoolers. So, when his love story turned tragic, he held on to this epic tale for comfort. His heartache and longing for answers brought him to the doors of Juliet’s house in Verona. Once in Verona, he volunteered to be one of the “secretaries of Juliet”, answering thousands of letters that are addressed to Juliet.

Love is a madness beyond measure. It can make you do unbelievably irrational things. So, it is not surprising that Juliet serves as a symbol of love for some of these heartbroken souls . However, the sheer volume of letters written to Juliet year after year and in so many languages, can take your breath away. As if that is not enough, someone thought that these letters needed to be replied to. What an amazing and equally outrageous idea! But such wild ideas keep the world going and bring comfort to many that are lost.

The book talks about the author’s life as a teacher, the events that led to his arrival in Verona and his experiences being Juliet’s secretary. So, one moment you are in Glenn’s classroom waiting for your turn to play a Shakespearean character and next, you are sitting in an office full of letters waiting to be replied to. While Glenn’s own story is heartbreaking enough, the excerpts from the letters he replied to makes you sob silently.

One might think that the subject of the book is quite the cliche. A heartbreak, followed by a trip to a foreign land sounds like a day in the life of a millennial but Glenn’s writing makes all the difference. The narration is so intimate and sincere that it becomes impossible to deny the instant connection. His interesting findings from his research on love keeps you hooked for more. However, what enthused me more as a reader was his passionate pursuit for everything that’s Shakespeare.

I was as overwhelmed as Glenn was when he eventually got to touch and feel the very old manuscript (printed in 1599) of Romeo and Juliet, in the British Library, London. I jumped in joy every time Glenn discovered something in Verona that indicated that Juliet and Romeo were probably real people. It reminded me of my days in Europe walking from churches to graveyards to museums to bookstores, because those places were once walked upon by some people who inspired me greatly. Although I regret missing Verona during my visit to Italy, I am grateful for the insights this book has given me.If you are looking for a heart-warming story to keep you hopeful during these stressful times, I recommend Glenn Dixon’s Juliet’s Answer. The book also serves as a guide to the city of Verona. So, if you love literature, travel, and history alike, pick this up. You might even end up adding Verona to your travel bucket list.

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Our Education System: From Mean Girl to Something More

Life is stranger than fiction, which is why a fluffy teen comedy about American high school
students became a cultural milestone, spreading its influence down to fashion, cooking, music, philanthropy, and politics. When Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei compared Israel to a malignant growth, the Twitter handle of the Israeli Embassy responded with a Mean Girls GIF saying, “Why are you so obsessed with me?”

Mean Girls was a watershed moment in depicting high school cliques. The film was akin to watching reality television about your day-to-day school life. Of course, American high schools have a different social fabric from Indian institutions. However, I believe that in any school, such groups remain; the popular kids, the bullied kids whose vulnerability is the foundation of the former’s popularity, the ignored misfits, and the controversial ones who primarily functioned as school gossip. Any school you go to, you will find them. Any school you go to has the same fight for being in the best circle.

Without an iota of doubt, I was a prejudiced popular kid. In an English-medium school in West Bengal, you are a popular kid if you exhibit some or all of the following “qualities”: 

  1. Possessed excellent academic records.
  2. Demonstrated a skill that teachers can cash upon.
  3. Participated in inter-school competitions and returned with certificates.
  4. Looked down upon “weak” students.
  5. Had equally illusioned “friends” who thought this was power.

I wish I didn’t have to admit it, but this was me in school. Illusioned and enjoying a brittle power that now seems downright silly. However, as I was pushed into the real world, I began to see how myopic Indian schools can be and the long-lasting impact of their short-sightedness on students. I was fortunate to have broken through that mould. It took precisely one semester in Miranda House to show me how blind I had been and the real world that lies behind a shining mark sheet. As I spent more time in that world, I realised how unfair we are to those who cannot seize power in school. Because that is what school is, right? A long-drawn battle where teachers and a group of star students run behind the newspaper front page showcasing board toppers while the “rest” gasp for identity and attention.

An optimist would like to believe that with India’s exciting New Education Policy (2020) and the powerful global conversation on mental health, mainstream educational institutions are waking up to the non-negotiable importance of fostering talent rather than mindlessly pushing for higher grades. However, as a realist and the elder sibling of a Class 11 student, the truth is far from progressive. While schools are still armed with butterfly nets that restrain independent thinking, a more dangerous problem threatens quality education. That problem is the absence of empathy. I do not wish to paint a grim picture but only express the emotional pressures that terrorize children who have a comparatively more challenging time making it to the top 10 or 15 students in a class of 60. If you are reading this as an adult, ask yourself. How significant are such achievements? How important was 98 out of 100 in chemistry as you attempted to file tax returns? If, as adults, we can see through these fragile ideals, why do we force them on students?

I have a brilliant 16-year-old sister. She is a fantastic cook, a wizard with kids of all ages, and a compassionate human with exceptional emotional intelligence. On the contrary, I am an under-confident and mediocre 24-year-old whose finest skill was rote learning. Trust me; I know very little beyond that. Unfortunately, rote learning is the one thing my sister could not master. Thus began my family’s fight with the system. A battle with outdated curriculum, poor learning practices, a lack of counselling facilities, and the rampant encouragement of an environment where test scores are directly proportional to the resources and care received from the teaching staff.

In this journey, my family has interacted with several others who suffer in silence because schools cannot accommodate realities like attention deficiency disorders, anxiety, situational or long-term depression, dyscalculia, bullying, and adjustment issues. Institutions continue to brush them under the carpet rather than try to create an inclusive environment. This sort of attitude to learning is stressful. The children feel demotivated and belittled. The parents, unable to receive support, are forced into situations where they pressure kids to adhere to a uniform and unrealistic standard. It is a mess that needs rigorous training and awareness. The fear that remains is if schools need so much time and resources to change, what happens to the children caught in the flux? If a massive reformation needs another decade, what happens to the morale of those fighting today? Do we call such students and families collateral damage?

I am not a changemaker. Neither do I exert influence in education and policymaking. However, as a sister and someone who has been both the proverbial excellent in school and the frowned-upon mediocre in college, I think substantial change is simpler than we think. It will take time before large-scale institutional modifications are executed. However, it should not take that long to make school a more enjoyable and accommodative place. So, I have put together four of the simplest ways to make a difference. All of them are things I have experienced and tolerated along the way. So have countless others, and I desperately wish someone listens.

A Vocabulary Change

Recently, the government cancelled CBSE board exams for class 10 students. While it was a massive relief for every family, there was a subsequent conversation wherein the move was being described as being especially beneficial for “weaker” students. Who is a weak student? According to our sensibilities, they are students who will not score above 90%. “Weak student,” “slow learner,” “takes time to catch up with the rest,” “not up to the class average” are some of the age-old phrases that are not going anytime soon. I am not asking teachers to give a false sense of achievement and progress but instead of focussing on the student’s area of improvement, we compare them to an ambiguous bar that has been set most arbitrarily. I understand why this happens. There is no place for holistic evaluation of strengths and weaknesses in a country notoriously famous for its terrible student-teacher ratio. If that cannot be fixed, start by not justifying a student’s lower grades by unabashedly calling them a slow learner in a forum like parent-teacher conferences. Not every kid can get a 95 in mathematics. Frankly, it is not required. By pitting them against their seemingly “superior” friends, you are doing more harm than good.

Take Counselling Seriously

I cannot explain enough the importance and role of compassionate and experienced counsellors in a school. Times are changing, and complexities are increasing. Students are at a greater risk of several roadblocks in areas such as mental health, learning, adaptability, so on and so forth. While it is encouraging to see parents seeking professional help to motivate their children and help them overcome emotional difficulties, it remains a half-baked journey because schools cannot internalise these developments. They do not have full-time counsellors. If they do, most counsellors fail to connect with the students or parents and end up taking substitution. There is no data I can give you for this fact but we know that this is the truth. Schools must wake up to two realisations. First, the world is not the same as it was when the school was founded. Second, students are not a uniform block of clay from which you mould toppers and discard the rest. It sounds harsh, but I have seen the impact of such an approach on bright minds whose greatest “sin” is their inability to reproduce every word written in textbooks. When schools have dedicated counsellors, it makes them aware of diversity. It establishes a better connection with parents and their children who may require additional help to cope with academics or social deliverables. One teacher cannot constantly inform another if a student has particular learning needs. An experienced counsellor can keep a tab of such requirements and ensure a safe milieu. They can successfully address bullying, unhealthy classroom environments, marginalisation of students or practically, any problems that arise.

Prioritise Extracurriculars

Schools in 2021 have marketing budgets. This means professional pamphlets and videos advertising all the exciting activities they have. However, does it necessarily translate into productive offerings? That remains a question. There are practical problems. Extra-curricular teachers never stay beyond a term. The syllabus for such activities is not structured or, in some cases, even existent. Most arrangements are ad-hoc. Especially during the pandemic, extra-curricular subjects were given odd time slots such as 3 PM. Most students don’t attend them. Instead of offering a vast range, schools should evaluate what resources are available. Depending on that, they can provide a range of activities and take each one seriously. It is an excellent opportunity to explore their areas of interest without parents having to look for expensive private classes. It opens avenues that kids can consider as career options but all of this is contingent on extra-curricular activities leaving the glossy pages of pamphlets and become structured pursuits with dedicated teachers, syllabus, and outcomes.

Stop Corporatizing Schools

Schools are not multinationals. Yes, both are organisations with employees with a critical set of deliverables, have families to feed and have human limitations. However, certain professions come with an added sense of responsibility. Teaching is one of them. Therefore, you have to think twice before inserting concepts such as KPIs in an academic environment. A long time back, my mother requested a teacher to pay extra attention to my sister. She denied doing so and cited her KPI as the reason. I understand that as a teacher, she has quantifiable goals to achieve by the end of the academic year. However, to hold them above student support is terrible. A few years ago, I met one of my old school teachers, and she lamented about the growing absence of personal touch. She told me about a new teacher anxious about the roll number allocation because it was too much for him to remember the student’s names. My journey from being a mean girl to someone with more perspective was comfortable. That is because I never faced the brunt of the system. I watched from the outside, making remarks, and philosophizing about a better time. However, I also know someone who is fighting the battle every day. I am proud of her tenacity, but I want to ask every educator, institution, educational board and school out there, “Is this mindless struggle necessary?”. I hope I am not misconstrued as someone opposed to challenges, academic achievements, or pursuit of excellence. I am against the idea that every child’s notion of excellence is identical. This is going to be a long fight. I hope that we all have the power to sustain it. Till then, all I can be is a proud sister.

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The Trials of an Ageing Amateur Aerialist

I’ve always had a love hate relationship with exercise, I know it’s good for me, I know I feel better afterwards, but despite many years and various gym classes for some reason it always feels like a chore. A few years back, in the latest attempt at trying to find something I would enjoy, yet not feel like I was expending too much energy, I found an aerial yoga hammock class at a local dance studio. Yoga, in a brightly coloured hammock that resembled something you might find on a beach, well this sounded like something I could get on board with!

During the first class, I looked on as the regulars easily inverted into a headstand, whilst I sat terrified of even the thought of going upside down. But there was no getting away from it, I was flipped over by the class instructor in a split-second and I spent the next few minutes trying to stop myself feeling sick as the blood rushed to my head. “Help”, I murmured, “How do I get back out?!” As the class continued and people did various death-defying drops into their hammock, I wondered what I had signed up for, but I had an immense sense of satisfaction as I performed some basic tricks. As the class ended, we were allowed to cocoon ourselves in the hammock and listen to music for the final few minutes. In a world where we are so often preoccupied with notifications, multi-tasking or thinking about the next thing, this glorious five minutes of being alone with my thoughts, in a darkened room swinging from a hammock, gave me the peace I craved and if I’m honest was the bit of the class I craved most in the coming weeks.

As the class finished, the instructors quickly transformed the room for the next class, hanging circus hoops from the ceiling. “Oooh what’s that I said,” “Aerial hoop, and its brutal,” the instructor replied. Well, how could I resist? I bought myself a pair of leggings (I don’t think I’d owned leggings since childhood) and signed myself up. Oh that first class! I could barely get into the hoop, let alone even hang in a basic pose and came away so deflated and bruised that I decided it wasn’t for me.

So what masochistic tendency compelled me to return several weeks later, I’ll never know. Let’s give this some context. I was mid 30s at the time, I had zero background in gymnastics, nor dance, I’m certainly not the strongest, nor coordinated, nor do I have any sense of balance. I was faced with a class of people, many of whom half my age and half my size, with backgrounds with the aforementioned skills. My classmates could jump into splits and hurl themselves at moves with that confidence that comes with youth but erodes with age and feelings of inadequacy were fierce. The instructors and fellow students are extremely supportive but as with most of our perceived limitations all of the barriers are in our own heads.

Flash forward three or four years and I now spend as many hours a week as I can at the studio trying to pull off tricks and routines. Most weeks, I’ll have a crisis of confidence, beat myself up about not being flexible enough, not being strong enough or generally “not getting it” as my uncoordinated and usually fried from work mind struggles to piece it all together. Looking at others in the class, all of those childhood anxieties about not being good enough at sport come back and I think to myself “Claire you’re nearly 40, who are you trying to kid?”

But when I’m kind to myself, I think about how far I’ve come since those days of not even being able to get into the hoop, I’m proud of the journey and what my body does allow me to do.

At my age, I’m often so injury prone that I’ll find myself clutching a bag of frozen peas to swell an injury pre-class. To then go to class and apologise that I’m not sure how much I’ll manage, to then seem to forget about my injuries whilst in the hoop, back flipping and throwing myself around with gusto,  only to walk always like Yoda limping with his walking stick post epic fight scene.

They say comparison is the thief of joy, and it’s so true. We spend so long scrolling social media of these picture perfect images, forgetting the individual stories behind that one perfect image or video. We don’t see the years of hard work that person may have put in and the injuries they have endured, which is true of most sports. Comparisons are not healthy, yet we seem programmed to do this consistently in so many areas of life. This is also true of comparisons with our past selves, as well as our “future selves” who we hope to become.

So, it was with this in mind that I returned to my first class post lockdown after four months off. I knew my strength would have gone but I told myself “Don’t compare yourself to past you, go easy on yourself, appreciate the journey and the rewards will follow”. I strung together some basic moves and felt proud of my body’s muscle memory and surprised myself with what came back. They’ve added some new fun classes post lockdown, such as trapeze, so stay tuned for stories of someone who seems to have taken the idea of running away to join the circus a little too seriously!

Image Courtesy: Claire Hatcher/Marco Mendez

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An Uneven Song: Mistress of Melodies Has Its Moments and Flaws

Sometimes, we come across creations that make an impact primarily because of their subject’s natural allure. As a standalone piece, they falter because of loopholes in structure, presentation or language. For example, films like Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet or adaptations like Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. By themselves, they come with a fair share of faults and areas of improvement. However, they flourish because the foundation is so exciting that the audience cannot help but be drawn to the vision. Written by the legendary screenwriter and author Nabendu Ghosh and edited by his daughter, curator and film journalist Ratnottama Sengupta, Mistress of Melodies is a book I believe resides in this category. It has its structural and linguistic flaws but offers an enticing narrative about a subject that has always been of interest to people; the lives of women employed in one of the world’s oldest professions.

Nabendu Ghosh was a man whose talent and philosophy percolated several creative industries. From working extensively with Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee to writing evocative stories on almost every social upheaval, he donned many hats with a characteristic humanism. The legendary Soumitro Chatterjee has praised his inclination towards creating raw characters. The actor was a great admirer of Ghosh’s Daak Diye Jaai, a powerful piece of writing set against the Quit India Movement for which he lost his job with the IG Police. At that time, his 18-year-old wife Kanaklata encouraged him to pursue writing as a full-time profession. Compassion for those who struggle, who live their lives gasping for security and identity, is a fine thread connecting his multi-medium work. He is the screenwriter of masterpieces like Parineeta, Devdas, Lal Pathhaar, Sujata, and Abhimaan. They are celebrated films, remembered for their music, performances, and female characters internalising and fighting many forms of injustice. His keen eye for the varied manifestations of suffering and every person’s eternal struggle to overcome suppression finds its way into Mistress of Melodies, an anthology of courtesans and prostituted women in Calcutta.

The book begins with two notes; one by filmmaker Muzzaffar Ali and the other by Ratnottama Sengupta. Both speak of the enormous cultural influence asserted by courtesans and prostitutes and how their lives are a never-ending source of inspiration for writers, poets, dancers, musicians, photographers, and artists. Sengupta calls them “the custodians and conveyors of India’s classical arts” and thinks of the book as a salutation to their talents and ability to survive in a man’s world. However, she vehemently rejects the notion that such professions could be “innocuous or even wholesome work.” They result from desperation for stable livelihoods, deception of loved ones, and obliviousness to the inherent abuse.

Mistress of Melodies has six stories; Market Price, Dregs, Songs of a Sarangi, It Happened One Night, Anchor, and Mistress of Melodies. Five of them are translations; the load is shared among Ratnottama Sengupta, Padmaja Punde, and Mitali Chakravarty. Mistress of Melodies was a screenplay written by Nabendu Ghosh. He wrote all his scripts in English.

The stories revolve around women engaged in sex work or work as courtesans, spread across a protracted timeline. Some are prostitutes just before Independence, in the Calcutta of tram strikes. Others are famed courtesans flourishing in the aftermath of the Sepoy Mutiny. Each inhabits a fascinating world which is one of the best parts of the collection. The geographical spaces are beautifully set up and help gauge the visual quality of Ghosh’s writing. Whether it’s a widow’s rundown hut by the river or an elaborate two-storeyed makaan owned by Chitpore’s Hasina Baiji, each area has been intricately designed. From the sparsely decorated rooms of brothels with Ma Kali’s image on the wall to the wealthy rooms of courtesans adorned with photographs of Radha, Krishna, and the Kaba, one can feel the influence of cinema in Ghosh’s writings. He writes extravagant word pictures like an art director designs a set, detailing every corner. This is one of the most vital aspects of his storytelling and something you will genuinely enjoy.

Customs are crucial to Ghosh. In Songs of a Sarangi (my favourite story of the lot), he describes rituals like the Nath-utarna and a three-month nikah prevalent in the world of courtesans. The former is an elaborate celebration in which a young baiji is made to wear a beautiful Nath (nose ring) by her mother or madame. An auction is organised where her virginity is sold to the highest bidder. The man is treated like the affectionate jamai (son-in-law) of the courtesan’s household. He is permitted to deflower the girl and spend three months with her. This ritual marks her entry into the world of performing arts. Once her Nath has been removed, she is ready to entertain an audience and perform mujras (dance recitals). While it may sound vile to the evolved reader, Nath-utarna used to be a huge celebration where courtesans from across the city would participate in the festivities.

The pressures of the economic milieu on forcing women into the flesh trade have been brought out in quite a few stories. In Market Price, Dregs, and Anchor, we are shown different points in the historical timeline of urban and rural Bengal where realities like the Bengal famine, debt trap, loss of land, and exploitative landlords severely impacted the social standing of women. Poverty, maltreatment, and malnourishment took a severe toll on their health and stability, causing unwanted pregnancies, sexual abuse, and untimely deaths. Alongside such issues was the prevalence of con artists who tricked young windows and prostitutes into selling their jewellery, taking away whatever little money they possessed and then leaving them stranded. There are insights into security concerns faced by courtesans. Disgruntled clients disturbed courtesan households and sent lathiyals when their demands weren’t met. Baijis and their musicians kept a constant lookout for dangerous men. One such vengeful babu brings the downfall of Hasina Baiji’s business in Songs of a Sarangi.

One of the most appropriate things said about Nabendu Ghosh and his storytelling is illustrious filmmaker Mrinal Sen’s praise for the author. According to Sen, “As a writer and creative individual, Nabendu Ghosh has never believed that evil is a mans natural state. Along with his characters, he has been confronting it, as always, fighting and surviving on tension and hope.” Ghosh’s belief in a fresh chance at survival is evident in several instances. Characters like Tagar, Chhaya, Hasina Baiji, and Gauhar Jaan crave compassion and normalcy. Sometimes it works out; Tagar elopes with Shashi, her souteneur yet faithful beloved, while Hasina Baiji runs away with Uday, her sarangi player, at the very end of her career. Sometimes, this chance at a new life is unsuccessful, like for Chhaya and Basana. A fascinating story is Anchor, in which Ghosh follows the journey of a man who has lost his family to the famine. After years working on a ship, he jumps off the deck, desperate to swim towards a new start.

Unfortunately, Mistress of Melodies weakens on the translation front. In multiple places, the words are so literally expressed that the reader becomes excruciatingly aware that these stories were not written in English. It disrupts the flow of the paragraphs and makes many places awkward to read. The language does not possess the fluidity of translators like Arunava Sinha and Khalid Hasan. When you read the latter’s translation of Manto’s Kingdom’s End, you do not feel that you are reading something initially written in Urdu. However, this becomes an issue for Mistress of Melodies. The verbatim dialogues have a jarring quality to them that takes away from the emotional essence of the stories. So many times, I read the sentence in English, but I knew the authentic Bengali dialogue in my mind. Overall, I would say that Mistress of Melodies has an exciting canvas but stumbles on account of its uneven colours. However, I think it deserves our time because of its humbling intention; to remind us of the rich influence of these women who otherwise are shown in unidimensional and garish ways by commercial cinema and pop culture. The book humanises courtesans and prostitutes, presenting them as flesh-and-blood characters with hopes and journeys.

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