Saturday, February 11, 2017

My First Lesson in Assertiveness

Having been an introvert, a shy and self-effacing person (I use 'having been,' hoping that I have now come out of the shells that were holding me!), I could seldom have been assertive, except when I had played tantrums with my parents in my childhood days! Life gave me a chance to learn a lesson in assertiveness, when i was 16.

When I joined an Engineering college, I, like all the freshmen, was subjected to ragging. Since our college was residential, all of us faced ragging in the hostel. However, the ragging in our college was mild and it didn't go beyond teasing us and subjecting us to verbal insults.The ragging got over in about a month and the seniors who had ragged us began to adopt a friendly attitude towards us.

It was at that time that I faced an unexpected encounter from a senior occupying the room next to mine. Our college, being a national institution, had students from all over the world. My neighbour, a second year student, was a North Indian and didn't understand Tamil. I will refer to him Ajay but it is not his name!

Ajay moved with a small circle of friends and did not even notice me or my roommates for long. One late evening, he summoned me and my roommate to his room. He and a friend of him subjected us to verbal insults by asking us some stupid questions and ridiculing our responses to them.

I was amused when he repeatedly asked us to fold our dhoti up to our knees. He  didn't know that folding a dhoti is a sign of stubbornness, hostility, confrontation and disrespect. He probably thought that he was humiliating us by asking us to fold our dhotis! I and my roommate were only too glad to do this. (In retrospect, I feel that physical posture might have contributed to a mental strength to resist him during the later part of the session!)

Ajay then asked me to go to our mess and get him some sweets. We had sweets that evening in our mess. Ajay was attached to another mess that would serve north Indian dishes, popularly called 'chappaaththi mess!' Perhaps, he heard that sweets were served in our mess. Some rich students had the habit of tipping some servers in the mess and getting some favors from them. But I didn't know about this at that time.

Ajay told me, "You go to your mess and tell server Swaminathan* that Ajay asked for sweets." It was past 9 p.m. The lights in the mess were off and the servers might have gone to bed, since they had to start their day early in the morning. I was reluctant to do what Ajay had asked me to do. I was afraid that if I approached Swaminathan and asked him to give sweets for Ajay, he would ridicule me. I couldn't even imagine bearing that kind of humiliation. But I had no courage to defy my senior either.

I walked up to the mess. The mess was visible from the hostel corridor and I knew that Ajay would be watching me. But I felt that since it was dark near the mess, Ajay couldn't see beyond the mess. I lingered for a few minutes outside the mess and then, without entering the mess, returned to the hostel. I told Ajay "Swaminathan says the sweets were exhausted."

Ajay was furious. He shouted at me saying "I know you didn't go to the mess. You are lying." He went on with his verbal insults. At one stage, he asked me what my father's salary was and then said "My pocket money is more than your father's salary." I decided to assert myself and said, "I will report this (ragging incident) to the principal."

He said "How dare you say this! Let me see how you will complain to the principal" and continued to talk in a menacing way. After sometime, he let us go.

The next morning, I was leaving for the morning class. We had morning classes from 7 am. Ajay was one of those people who had a habit of waking up late.  These people would skip most of the morning classes, unless the classes were handled by senior professors who were strict about attendance. As I was leaving my room, Ajay came out of his room. His face showed that he had just woken up from sleep.

He came to me and said,"Hey! Don't go to the principal" and went back to his room, probably to resume his sleep. I can never completely describe my feelings at that time. I felt extremely happy and more importantly immensely powerful. I discovered that I had the power to stand up to people and assert myself.

Of course, my threat was only a feeble attempt to extricate myself from Ajay's onslaught and I had no intention of going to the principal and reporting it. But this bravado from me generated unexpected results. This one incident has empowered me and boosted my self confidence so much so that whenever I feel weak or inadequate, I will remind myself of this incident to recharge myself.

* Name changed

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

My First Employer

I have had the good fortune of being showered with kindness and affection by a large number of people. Among them was my first employer. I would refer to him as Vishnu both by way of showing my respect to him by referring to him by the name of the God I worship and by way of exercising some discretion while writing about my past. While I intend to be candid and truthful about the events that happened in my life, I feel that in the interest of confidentiality of and consideration for other people, I will have to change some names. After all, the identity and confidentiality of other people may have to be protected in some cases at least.

After completing my Engineering degree, I was searching for a job. Getting a job was not easy for most of the people who graduated along with me at that time. My father passed away just after the results of my final year examination came out. So there was a pressing need for me to take up a job. One of my relatives used his contact to get me a job in a small firm in Chennai. Though the job was not what I would have liked to have got, I accepted it hoping to move to a better job after sometime.

Sri Vishnu was one of the directors of the company (though it was a small company, for some reason, it was registered as a public limited company. Perhaps the promoters had bigger plans for the company's development).The company was managed by Sri Vishnu's cousin. The company was a part of a group of firms belonging to a joint family with the prominent members of the family managing different firms.

The person who helped me to get a job was a lower level employee in a firm managed by Sri Vishnu. (I always remember this person with gratefulness.) Using his good rapport with Sri Vishnu, he mentioned my candidature to him. Sri Vishnu talked to his cousin and found out that there was a requirement of a person of my qualifications in one of the group concerns. Sri Vishnu recommended me to his cousin without even seeing me or knowing me personally.

I was asked to appear for an interview. In my interview with Sri Vishnu's cousin, who was the Managing Director, I was offered the job and I accepted it Though Sri Vishnu was not directly involved in the affairs of my company, I had the opportunity to meet him quite often whenever I went to the head office to submit some report or on other official work. He would always smile at me, acknowledge my greetings and talk to me at least a few words enquiring about my work.

After about six months, the company I worked for had its plans changed. Its expansion plans fell through due to some problems. I was told that my services won't be required any more. At that time, Sri Vishnu called me to his office and offered me a job in one of his other firms. I was reluctant to accept the offer since the activity of the firm did not have much scope for applying my field of education. However, I accepted the offer for financial reasons.

When I was offered the original job, the Managing Director had told me what the pay scale would be but he didn't give me anything in writing. As per the terms spelt out by him, my salary would jump after 6 months, My uncle who was a government official felt that compared to the government pay scales, the scale offered to me appeared attractive. (He didn't consider the frequent increases in dearness allowance the government employees would get!)

When I asked Sri Vishnu whether I wold get the same pay scale that I was offered in the previous company, he said that he couldn't offer me a higher pay at that time since the other employees might feel aggrieved that I was getting a better deal than them but he promised to give me a hike after six months. However, to compensate me for the "loss," he offered to pay me the difference from his private funds. And he kept paying me as per his promise. Some months he would forget to pay me in time and after a few days he would apologize to me and  pay. He managed to pay me in the office without anyone noticing it!

Once I asked him for a loan to perform my father's annual ceremony. He said he couldn't sanction a loan from the firm since it was not the practice to give loans to employees. But he asked me to come to his house and get the loan from him. When I went to his house, he treated me like a guest  and offered me a cup of coffee. After that, I would go to his house every month, to repay the loan in instalments (since I was given a hike by that time, his personal contribution to my salary had come to an end) and every time he treated me the same way. On my every visit to his house, he would offer me coffee which I politely declined most of the time. Once, he even asked me to join him for lunch.

My respect and sense of obligation to him was so much that when I was called for an interview from a public sector organization in Bihar, I chose to not attend the interview lest Sri Vishnu should get offended by my plans to leave his firm for better prospects. Only a few weeks back, a colleague of mine had attended an interview in the Tata group after seeking the permission of Sri Vishnu and Sri Vishnu was very much upset about my colleague's plan. (It is another matter that my colleague didn't get the job and was continuing in the firm!) In retrospect, I feel that if I had asked Sri Vishnu, he would have permitted me to attend the interview and wished me success in my efforts. But I have the satisfaction of showing my consideration for the feelings of a person who had been so good to me, by foregoing a promising opportunity.

However, since my long term prospects in that firm were not good, I had, after some time, begun to look for a job in my field of study. After sometime, I received a job offer that I found satisfactory. I went to Sri Vishnu's house and reluctantly told him about my intention to resign from the firm and take up the job offer I had received. He was visibly shocked. Perhaps, he expected that I would stick with his firm for my entire career! However, he wished me well and told me that he would relieve me whenever I wanted to be relieved. I felt bad about leaving his firm. It almost seemed like a betrayal. But I knew that I had to do what was good for my future.

Eleven years after leaving his firm, I went to Sri Vishnu's house to invite him for my marriage. He remembered me and greeted me with the same geniality and warmth he had always shown. He said he won't be able to attend my marriage since he would be out of station on the day of my marriage. He said he would ask his son to attend. He called his son, introduced me to him and asked him to attend my marriage. I took leave of him. That was the last time I saw him.

I had lost touch with some of my colleagues in that firm so I didn't hear any news about Sri Swami. But I have always been remembering him. A few months back I happened to pass through his house. I wondered whether he would be there in the house. But I din't venture to enter the house and ask for him. Nearly 30 years had passed since I had last met him. I was reluctant to present myself, introduce myself to whoever was in the house and ask for Sri Vishnu.

It has turned out that I missed a chance to have met him. Today's paper carried his obituary.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

A Special Birthday Gift

When I am sharing my reminiscences, logically I could (not should) start from my birth. But I don't remember anything about my birth (as everyone else doesn't!). Still, there are a few things relating to my birth which I have heard from my mother and others. I will prefer to write about them later.

So, if I am not going to start with my birth, I can start with my birthday. Don't worry. I am not going to  describe how grandly my birthday was celebrated. I have never celebrated my birthday. In fact, till I got married, neither me nor my parents even remembered my birthday. I think this was the experience for many people of  my age group.

After my marriage, my wife began the practice of greeting me on my birthday (and I reciprocated her gesture - had to! I also  had to ensure that I won't forget her birthday - not an easy task in the pre-facebook days!)). After a few years, my children also began to greet me. After my children grew up and began to earn, they bought me gifts and took me and my wife out for dinner. However, after a couple of years, in deference to my preference of not celebrating my birthday, they have gone back to the practice of just greeting me.

Yet, two of my birthdays were celebrated and celebrated grandly - my first birthday and my sixtieth birthday. My first birthday should have been celebrated grandly in the traditional way with the performance of 'Ayush Homam' (a fire ritual performed invoking the blessings of he gods for a long life to the child), in keeping with the custom those days. Obviously, I don't remember my first year birthday celebrations. I don't remember my parents telling me about it either. But knowing my parents, I am sure they would have celebrated  my first birth day by following the traditional practice. (It is too late to get this confirmed by either of my parents!)

My sixtieth birthday was celebrated by my son and my daughter following the traditional practice of performing the 'Shashti abta poorthy'. I did receive valuable gifts on that occasion from my relatives and friends who had graced the function by their presence but I am not talking about any of those gifts here.

I received an unusual gift for my last birthday that occurred in 2016. It was unusual, different and highly valuable, albeit being intangible.

On the morning of my last birthday, when I checked my mail, I was surprised to see a mail from my son who was in another city at that time. After wishing me 'a happy birthday,' he listed out 10 admirable qualities he found in me. I found myself in cloud 9 after reading the mail. The pleasure one gets when one's good traits are praised or even mentioned by another person is something extraordinary. (Praise, even if it comes from people close to you, makes you feel proud!) More importantly, I was surprised that my son had observed many things about me right from his childhood days, saved his impressions in his mind and reproduced them on an appropriate occasion.

I wrote to him saying that this was the best birthday gift I had received. And this came from my heart. The Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar says that the best gift a son could give to his father is to make the father so proud as to wonder what he had done to deserve such a wonderful son. This feeling comes from what a son does in the outside world. But my pride came from what he did to me.

I dedicate this post to all the sons who make their parents proud.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Autobiography of an Unknown Indian!

'Autobiography of an Unknown Indian' is a book by Nirad C. Choudhry, a well known author. When I was wondering how to begin this post, the above title flashed in my mind. I have not read this book but I have read another book by this author 'To be or not to be.,' which is a critical review of the way Indians think and act. You may be shocked to know the title of another of his books 'Why I hate Indians.'

Well, I love Indians. In fact, I love humanity. I love all living things and even inanimate things. I am not going to talk of Nirad C. Choudhry or his books except to say that I found his book 'To be or not to be' highly enjoyable and thought provoking.

'If you are not going to write about Nirad C. Choudhry, why invoke the title of one of his books?' you may ask. It was because I felt that if I were to write an autobiography, this title would fit that book very well. Since I said 'if I were to,' you know that  I have no plans to plunge into this (misad)venture (at least for now!)  and that this post is not an introduction to my autobiography. You can feel relieved that you have not inadvertently landed a page that would test your patience by narrating the exploits of an obscure person.

When I started this blog, I only wanted to record my impressions about my mother that are embedded in the depths of my mind. Subsequent to my writing about my mother, I also developed an intention to share some of my interesting experiences. However, a couple of years have passed without my adding another post to my blog. Did you smell danger when you read the previous sentence? If you did, then you were right!

I intend to share some of the interesting experiences I had in my life. It won't be in the chronological order, so it won't read like a biography. I propose to write about the various experiences I had in the order they come to my mind. Well, read and enjoy my posts, if you find them interesting. Chances are that you may be able to identify yourself with some of these experiences.

Monday, August 22, 2011

My Mother, (the late) Vijayavalli Parthasarathy

 Written for a contest under the theme 'Mother's wisdom.'
When was the first time I realized that my mother was not just a mother but a wise, pragmatic, ambitious, determined and indefatigable angel as well? It was when my father had a sudden paralytic attack in 1964, when I, the eldest son of my parents, was just 13, with three siblings younger to me. Living in a village with limited means, very little medical facilities and virtually no help from anyone, my mother single-handedly lived through the crisis for a couple of years, till my father regained near normal health. With just a basic education (like most of the girls those days, she was not allowed to continue her studies after the fifth grade), she managed all areas of the family from cooking and housekeeping and, taking care of my father and us children to managing the finances which included arranging the funds needed for running the family and for my father’s medical treatment, by selling some properties. This phase of her life alone will provide an exciting study in crisis management. Observing her, I had also unconsciously assumed some areas of responsibility in our family matters.

She had an insatiable thirst for learning things. While she had a deep knowledge of Indian traditions, Hindu religion and mythology, imbibed from her father, she also had a flair for learning things modern. She knew a lot about contemporary world history, political systems and common sense economics. When I was a child, she would often wake me up from my sleep in the midnight, take me to the open yard of our village house, which was exposed to the sky and point to me certain stellar constellations. She would say a particular constellation which had a tail like shape would have its tail turned in a perpendicular direction after a few hours. She would again wake me up after a few hours to show the change. I would wonder when she slept because she would go to bed late, after all of us were in deep sleep and would get up very early to start her household chores. Even while going to bed, she would read for a while using a small kerosene lamp kept near her bed. She would not use the electric lamp more to save the electricity bill than to avoid disrupting our sleep.
My mother with my son (in Bharathiyar make up donned for the school fancy dress competition)

She wanted all of her children to come up well in life. She would often harp on the need to excel in our studies since that was the only route for success for lower middle class people like us (she would say). I have seen her quarreling with my father on money matters. She always wanted money to be saved. She did not approve of our father being indulgent towards us by spending money on buying us chocolates and other eatables, generally considered luxurious those days. She had never sought anything for her nor had she ever complained to my father about his not buying things like saris or jewellery for her. The only thing that she demanded of my father was that he be prudent and save money for the future of his children. She taught me the value of thrift and selflessness. Even now, when I am reasonably well off financially, I am conscious of limiting my needs even while catering to the needs and wishes of my family members. I feel proud that I am able to emulate her at least on this score.

I lost my father just after my completing my education and since then, my mother had been running my family. On learning of my father’s death, the physician who was taking care of my father during the period of his critical illness wrote to me condoling the death. He wrote, “During your father’s illness, your mother displayed extraordinary courage and determination. Her guidance will be very valuable to you now.” His assessment had proved meticulously accurate. My mother had taken care of all of us till we got married and settled in our lives. It was a saga of a benign leadership planning and doing things, with I and my siblings just following her guidance.

As I think of my mother, several incidents run through my mental screen. Her worldly wisdom, courage, convictions, never-say-die attitude, concern for others and a deep sense of morality are only the highlights, not the totality of her personality. When we were living in a village with a limited income, she would often say, “See how blessed we are. We have our own house to live. We have some lands from which we get enough rice to feed all of us throughout the year. We have a cow at home. Even if the worst happens and we become penniless, we can live on curd rice!” She did not include the vegetables she had been painstakingly growing in the garden behind our house!

She was never tired of teaching us values. She would cite certain lines in some film songs which extol the virtues of honesty, togetherness, love, courage and hard work and would urge us to follow the advice. Some times, I would tease her by citing certain lines of film songs that denounce some of the traditional beliefs held sacred by her. She would reply without hesitation, “You hear a lot of advice. It is your wisdom to choose what to accept and what to ignore.” A very practical perspective, indeed.  

She was helpful, yet pragmatic. She had a no nonsense attitude. Once a lady from our neighbourhood sent her little daughter to our house seeking a loan of two rupees. That lady was not exactly poor and was not regular in repaying such loans in the past. So my mother said that she didn’t have the money to lend. After the girl left, I asked my mother whether claiming that she didn’t have two rupees to spare would not sound incredulous. My mother replied, “She is asking for a loan of two rupees, because she doesn’t have that amount of money with her. If she doesn’t have two rupees, why can’t it be that we don’t have that amount of money either?” I was stunned by her logic and pragmatism.

My mother wanted us, her children, to be ambitious in setting goals. The Tamil newspaper Daily Thanthi was giving a cash prize of Rs.500 to the student who got the first rank in Tamilnadu state in the Secondary School Leaving Certificate examination. My mother wanted me to win this and had been planting this idea in my mind even from a couple of years before I could take the examination. I was not even a class topper but my mother’s wish was deeply embedded in my mind. Before the examination, when I went to meet our school headmaster to take his blessings, he surprised me by advising that I should aim to become the school topper. I was surprised because there were a couple of other students who could do better than me. When I reported this to my mother, her reaction was typical. She said, “He could have been more liberal in wishing that you become the State topper!” To the astonishment of several people including myself, I became the school topper, also breaking the school record for the highest total mark, over a long period. It is my conviction that it was my mother’s motivation that catapulted a dark horse like me to the top position. She was happy but was not very surprised. It was as if she was expecting this!

There have been occasions when I had to defy her wishes and go against her advice in the later part of my life. She was vehemently opposed to my decision to quit what was generally considered a lucrative position as a bank official and start my own business. She felt that I was risking the future of my children. I had to defy her because I was convinced of my decision. I think I have been doing fairly well in my business, despite occasional slidings but my mother is not alive today to tell me how I have been performing.