She told me she cared not if I was the brightest in the world but if I could not help a less endowed friend with his studies I was a complete waste in her eyes.
I crossed 50 two years ago and I let that milestone slip by without reflection or introspection; just another handful of sand slipping through my fingers. But this morning as I tick away another birthday, I am struck by a desire to look back and pick five incidents which have had profound impact on the way I live my life.
It has been an ordinary life with its share of innocence, wickedness, caprice, tragedies (though I think that is too strong and melodramatic a word), and sheer joy too. So in an ordinary life from the 1950s and into the turbulent times of today, which five would I pick? I cast my mind back...
I was eight years old. I had accompanied my father to the ration shop. It was the mid 1960s and everything had to be bought by jostling in the queue. While my father stood for the sugar and the rice, I was in the line for kerosene. The two lines were just a yard apart and as I reached the kerosene chap, my father had also reached the very large, hugely moustached man at the provision counter. In front of me was a youth of about 18 and, as he got his quota of kerosene, he looked across at the moustached vendor to ask “Did a woman come here and collect the wheat?” It was apparent that the youth was known to the vendor and was enquiring about his mother.
I saw, for the first time in my life, true anger in the eyes of a person when the vendor blazed, “What kind of a son are you that you refer to your mother impersonally as woman? Even I address your mother as Mataji. Get out of here for, if I get up I will thrash you”. Since then, I have always called elderly ladies and the women who come home to help, as Amma, something that I learned for life in dusty north India.
I was 16 and preparing for my Board exams; those days one wrote the std. XI exam preparatory to joining college. I had been consistently top of the class since childhood much to the joy of my father. But in the years preceding class XI, my mother became indifferent to my scholastic achievement. I never gave this much thought. With four months to go for my Board exams, she could hold back no longer and in her low voice told me to look in the mirror to see what an insufferable chap I was. She told me she cared not if I was the brightest in the world but if I could not help a less endowed friend with his studies I was a complete waste in her eyes. I realised that she was pointing to Murali, my class mate, motherless, living with six siblings in a one room tenement, and in dire danger of flunking his board exams. My mother always had a hot meal for Murali whenever he came home but what she wanted me to do was to help him pass Class XI.
Over the next four months I did “combined studies” with Murali and when the results came out, he had passed in all the subjects with decent grades. I think it was from that day that my mother liked me as much as she loved me.
Fast forward into the early 1980s? As a recently minted MBA, I joined the marketing team of an engineering consumables company whose office and factory is in North Chennai. I join a car pool and we take turns to drive the 26 miles to the factory.
The road to North Chennai is not pretty, right down the coast you see fishermen’s hovels, drunken brawls, everybody on edge and ready for a scrap all the time. But not far from where we started for office, in the heart of town, every morning one would see sleeping on the very narrow road dividers full families of construction labourers — men, women, toddlers, infants — while trucks, buses and cars zipped past just a few inches away on either side. I must have seen this for a few weeks before something tore inside me.
When I reached office one morning I sat down at my desk and cried my heart out at the injustice of it all: how can one human live in such conditions while another goes through life as though born on a different planet. A colleague, wiser and older than me, saw me with tears in my eyes and said, “Tears shed because you feel another human’s pain is your strength and not your weakness.”
A few years later, I am about to get married. My family and my fiancée’s family are known to each other. A few weeks before my wedding, my elder sister Manjula gives me precious advice in her forthright manner: “Please address your parents-in-law as Amma and Appa. There is no greater love and respect you can give your wife than this.”
Times are difficult now with the economic downturn. People are losing jobs; the future looks uncertain. But it has happened earlier to better men and women than you and me. In the mid-1990s, I made a lasting friendship with a Frenchman who was the Sales Director of an international firm whom my company represented in India. When he introduced himself to a dozen strangers in a stuffy conference room, it was amazing to see him narrate without a trace of diffidence that at least a couple of career moves had been forced upon him because he was fired by his previous employer.
What he conveyed was this: I am a competent professional but there are circumstances in an organisation when a person has to leave and that is no reflection on that person’s abilities.
Years later, when my own career was stagnating while other friends forged ahead, I was able to hug this precious lesson from Jean Gabriel. With my self-confidence perfectly intact, I was able to keep career disappointments in perspective; I never let them even remotely corrode my outlook. I saw the wonderful relationship I have with my wife, daughter, sisters, mother, friends and relatives; I saw the fulfilment that my work gives me.
It reinforced in me the belief that while achievement and recognition is no doubt a source of happiness it is but a small part of the richest, most colourful and largest kaleidoscope called life.
The author is Head, Programmes and Advocacy, Azim Premji Foundation.