Be your own Moses

This is the text of my P10 speech at Toastmasters. With this, I am eligible to get my Competent Communicator certificate from Toastmasters International.


Toastmaster of the day, fellow toastmasters and guests, a good evening to you all. When we talk about great achievers, women achievers, we take names of Indra Nooyi, Aishwarya Rai, or Kalpana Chawla. Today I am going to tell you the real life story of a great achiever you have never heard of – Uma Bhushan.   As a prelude to that, let me tell you the story of the journey of the Hebrews to the Promised Land.

The Hebrews or Jews were slaves in Egypt and Moses is said to have lead them across the desert to the Land promised to them by God. It is said that Moses lost his way and was going round and round in the desert. For 40 years. Do you know that the real distance was only 20 kms. Then why did it take them took them 40 years?  Friends, I believe that it was not a physical journey of 40 years, but a psychological journey to shed slavery in our attitudes and thinking patterns takes a lifetime to shed.  A lifetime of 40 years.

My own 40 years of journey is something like that. I was born to slavery – psychological and emotional slavery to age old patriarchial Tamil Hindu Brahmin thought processes. About genders and families. My father is a dyed in the wool patriarch. To this day, for him, a son is essential. And daughter is incidental. He used to keep repeating a Tamil saying – onnum illadhadhukku oru ponnu”. I was born as a first child, a daughter to such a man. My gender closed several doors for me at birth.

I was to do a BA in English and since teaching is a profession conducive for family, I could become a school teacher by taking an BEd. Whatever money he could spare for me was to be spent on the wedding.  As per calculations of those days, that would have meant he could buy for me an AG’s office clerk as husband. I wanted to learn to sing and dance; knit and draw. He would say, why does a housewife need to know all these things?  Just learn what you need – cooking and house keeping. I have never worn a salwar suit or a skirt or a frock as long as I was with him.

I was so ashamed of my regressive life that I never made close friends. In every single thing that I disagreed with him, he used to say, “I am the one feeding you. As long as you eat off me, you have to be and do what I say”.

My mother came from a woman-friendly family. Her parents were supportive of her aspirations.  She held a government job 50 years ago.   Marriage to my father was so tormenting for her that she had attempted suicide thrice – when I was 2 years, 10 years and 25 years old. She needed help which she never got. She was maniac depressive. My father used to get physically violent with my mother and I was scared that he would turn on me too if I crossed him too far. Medically, depressive tendencies are hereditary. My sister and I have our bouts of depression all the time.

In such a hopeless situation, I managed to do two things because they were free – cycling and public speaking. During one of our three day visits to my mama’s place in Erode, I asked him to help me learn cycling. The renting charge was Rs 3 per hour. Don’t laugh. I learned to cycle in 2 days which gave me mobility. I have gone from cycle to scooter to car. I learned to drive a car at 42 years.

I competed in all sorts of speaking competitions during my college because I could do only that. I lost in most. There was no Toastmasters 25 years ago and even if there was, I couldn’t have afforded it. My Principal made be Debating Secretary of our College Student Council not because I won many but for  my spirit to compete.

25 years ago, I am a teacher, like my father said.  Not in the neighbourhood school but in a Business School in Mumbai. I don’t teach English grammar but managerial principles and communication strategies to the brightest engineers in this country. I have achieved this without any professional qualification.   I completed my PhD in record time of 3 years after my first child. The highest qualification in my family to this date, including all the men put together. From next week onwards, I am going to teach a class of students from 25 different nationalities at Singapore. I was selected by three deans – Britishers and Australians with the best of education from places like Oxford and Cambridge.

In marriage too, I have married a government servant, like my father said. But not a file pushing clerk in the Accountant General’s office. I married a scientist who works on India’s nuclear programme. He married me for myself, for who I am. Not as my father’s daughter. I found for myself a man who respects me and gives me my space.

I have come back to public speaking with Toastmasters. This is the last project of Competent Manual. But just the beginning of my public speaking journey.

All I want to say is that The Jews made 20 kms in 40 years. The distance is not important as what that distance signifies. I have travelled far from where I started or where I was destined for. We can overcome any odds in our lives if we really want to. Success is to be measured in comparison to where you started from.

I had to be my own Moses. You can cross your desert, whatever it is. Only if you can be your own Moses.

Over to you Toastmaster.


Now Here or Nowhere?

It was July in 2011 and my younger sister was conducting the sacred thread ceremony of her second son in Bengaluru. It’s a big deal in Tamil Iyer families. Being a working woman and running a nuclear family with young children, I hardly ever visited my family and relatives. Like real good Tamil Iyers, most of us are in the US and the rest in Chennai. I am the one rare person in the entire west of India.

This was one occasion where I could meet every one of my cousin. I decided to make a dash for the ceremony by reaching there one day before and leaving the next day soon after the ceremony. I was so busy catching up with everyone that I hardly got a few minutes with my mother. I can catch her later. She is my mother.

My parents married young and my sibling and I were born early to them. My mom was hardly 60 then and my dad 62.

In 2012, June, my mother suffered a major heart attack while at my brother’s house in Bengaluru. My brother told me to not hurry as our mother was out of danger and that I could always visit her when she is healthier and everyone was more relaxed.

Sounded logical. The suggestion was easy on me. I had too many things to plan for if I had to get away even for 3 days.

In February 2013, it was my turn to conduct my son’s thread ceremony in my husband’s native town Trichy and I had invited every single relative and cousin. My mother was overjoyed that we would finally meet after three years. She hadn’t yet visited the flat I had bought there and almost everyday we spoke on the phone about what we would buy together for the ceremony and how we would conduct the ceremony.
For the ceremony on Feb 15, my husband, children and I were travelling by train so as to reach Trichy on the 9th morning around 8 a.m. My mother had already reached there a few days earlier. I was going to meet her around 11 a.m. for our first round of shopping.

Around 4 a.m in the morning I receive a call on my cellphone while I was fast asleep. My brother tells me, Uma, amma poittadi”. My mom was dead. At 62. Heart attack. She had died within 20 mins of complaining of chest pain.

I was never going to meet my mother again. I had thought I had lot of time.
To this day, whenever I am alone, I regret that I did not do what I should have done.
I was too busy with other things. I always thought I could visit my parents some other time when I will be more free.

Friends, life is now and here or it is nowhere.
I am not alone. 20 years after their mother’s death, the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William and Prince Harry have spoken of their enduring regret over their last conversation with their mother, disclosing they had been desperate to rush off the telephone and get back to playing instead.

The Duke and Prince, who were 15 and 12 when Diana, Princess of Wales, died in a car crash, said they had been busy at Balmoral when she called them, and had no notion that the short phone call would be their last.The conversation, the Duke said, still weighs on his mind “quite, quite heavily”, while Prince Harry admitted he would regret it for the rest of his life.

Osho says, yesterday is a memory, tomorrow is an imagination. The present moment is alone the truth. Our various spiritual texts have long called the games our mind plays with time as maya. Western scientists have come to the same conclusion. They posit that time – as a construct, along with its finite nature – is an illusion. Whether it’s an illusion or not, everyone agree that life is just a series of events, or moments, that we experience.

Our life is limited – at least in the number of years spent on Earth. We cannot add or subtract years from our life. We can only live for the moment and try to make the best out of it.
So why not focus on the only thing we can truly experience right now…the present moment? Spend time with your loved ones, for tomorrow may never come. It never came for me or Prince William and Prince Harry. It might never come for you too.

I’m sorry if this sounds too blunt or direct, but that’s how life is – you never know what’s going to happen next, so every moment is precious.

I know you all have busy lives and sometimes it’s tough to take out time for your loved ones, even if you want to. However, what worth are the comforts and achievements if you aren’t going to be there to enjoy them with your family? You spend those precious years earning money, and miss out on being with your loved ones.

Time together is the biggest gift you can give your parents and loved ones. Go out and connect with your loved ones. They need you as much as you need them. Spend these precious moments that never return – with them. You’ll only be happy that you did. It is now and here or nowhere.

Pulled over by the police

Last week, I was stopped by a traffic policeman for jumping the signal near my Institute in Vidyavihar, Mumbai. The policeman politely informed me of my crime. “You drove across when the orange light was on”, he said in a soft voice, adding, “you have to pay a small fine of Rs. 100”, and handed a receipt.  As if, the amount being less is enough reason for me not to contest the allegation. I wasn’t going to pay up and go. I argued with him that I have always seen others driving through the orange light.  No one was “caught” and fined.

In my 20 years as a driver of a two wheeler and a car, I was taught a new interpretation of the traffic signal lights. The policeman insisted that drivers were supposed to stop as soon as the orange flashed. It was a warning to stop.

Being a professor I usually had my last say in everything. In other professional interactions, no one really told me I was wrong. We had a healthy discussion, expression of dissent and disagreement and a consensus was decided upon. I never won. Others didn’t too. I prided in my being a professor of communication. With my well-honed skills of articulation and argumentation, I generally got off most sticky situations.  My husband, a well-respected scientist almost always agrees with my views. The real reason is he couldn’t care less. Nevertheless, what is important here is that I always win.

No lowly traffic policeman was going to tell me I was wrong and make me pay for it too.

“Sir (calling a lowly government official with respect puts him in a position of power), I am a college professor. (this works most times. Most people place teachers and professors on a higher pedestal).  I won’t wilfully break any rule. I drove across because I was given to believe you could do so when the orange light is on”.

“Madam, others with you on the signal didn’t drive. You were the only one to come across. You did jump the signal”, he insisted.    “They stopped because they saw you. If you weren’t there, each one of them would have gone faster than me. You are being unfair to the person who was consistent”. (this was too much of an ethical hair splitting to engage a traffic policeman on duty. I knew it. But I have to give it my best)

He was clearly under pressure to catch his monthly or quarterly target for catching offenders. “The fine is not huge – just 100 rupees and I am giving you a receipt. Please pay”.  (Implying he is not taking it as a bribe and the amount being so small, I shouldn’t protest so much).

This exact argument actually worked at another signal a few months ago.  Not here. That one was a policewoman. Women are more ethical and capable of better understanding, I thought bitterly to myself.

I paid and drove away.

Not before loudly protesting that he was discriminating against a law abiding college professor for being consistent in following rules, policeman or not.

I don’t think even I believed it was a valid argument.




If I were invisible for a day

At a Toastmasters Meeting last week,  I picked out a topic for impromptu speaking for the table topics section, “If you were invisible for a day, what would you do?”. As it goes, I am not very impactful in such speaking and just about managed to speak for minutes and 30 seconds.  I did not win the best table topics speaker award, obviously.

But the topic itself has been with me since then. What would I do if were invisible for a day? Well, what would I not do if I could be invisible for a day?  If we go by popular depiction of invisibility in popular media, invisibility is associated with the dark variety of power -starting with The Invisible Man by H G   Wells to the Hollywood movie of the same name starring Kevin Bacon in the titular role. I used to like him as an actor till I watched that movie. Even in the Harry Potter series, the Invisibility Cloak is one of the possessions that would make a wizard invincible.

I would like to think that I will steal huge bars of gold or chunks of cash from a bank. But then, only I am invisible, not the stolen goods. I will be caught before I knew it.

The problem is the same if I wanted to steal apparel or any other item that I may want for personal use.  I couldn’t eat anything because I would freak everyone out around me.

I could sneak into a movie show, but I can’t laugh at jokes, or exhort the good guys to kick the bad guys harder lest people suspected a ghost amidst them.

What is it that I can do with invisibility?  I couldn’t even take a nap at home because my children or husband wouldn’t even know I was there so they will keep the noise levels down.

I would rather not have invisibility.

What’s wrong with the crab mentality?

Human ingenuity at storytelling is such that we make villains and heroes out of other living creatures by simply attributing human characteristics to them. The lion was made `king of the jungle’ when in reality, it succeeds only 40% of the times it attempts to make a kill. And most of its young are killed by other predators like hyenas and leopards. The fox is another animal much maligned for being `cunning’. There is hardly anything cunning about the fox with makes a hard living out of catching rabbits and eating the leftovers of other bigger predators.
Our storytelling skills don’t spare even the smallest of living beings. The ants were “hard working” that everyone is told to emulate. If we really think about it, one shouldn’t aspire to be like the ants – they are slave workers with no brains. They accept inequality bestowed by birth without question.

One another much maligned creature is the crab. If you are accused of crab mentality, it implies that you don’t allow others to succeed. The oft repeated parable for this is if you placed a few crabs in a bucket, not even one would manage to come out after because when one tries to climb out, the other pulls it down. The crab is always presented in the light of teams as a bad team player.

Logically speaking, lack of team work or jealousy is not the reason at all. Crabs are eight-legged and short of sight. And each other is single minded in climbing out of a pit. So when every crab tries to climb out and that many multiplied by eights legs run into each other, it looks to the uninformed eye that they are pulling each other down. The truth is, each crab is just persevering, without respite, to seek freedom.
The sun-sign cancer and Hindu kataka rashi have the crab as symbol. I even suspect they named a disease cancer because it has the negative qualities attributed to the crab. Cancer is a persevering disease. Once it takes root in a living organism, it tries to take over the organism. Even if you eradicate the disease, it always holds the potential to regrow with greater vigour.

Anyone who seeks success needs such tenacity – To take over the domain where one wants to excel and to outlive life-threatening challenges.
Most animals have two or at the most four limbs. What of the crab with eight legs? It has 360 degree mobility making it all capable of surmounting any impediment. As humans, we may have only two physical legs, we have six other faculties – five senses, intelligence – making a total of eight legs to help us deal with the vagaries of life and come out successful.
Isn’t it great to have the crab mentality actually?

Being in the other’s shoes

The best way to develop empathy is to be in the other person’s shoes. That’s what they say. That’s exactly what I did with myself this summer when I attended a B-school for five weeks,  a good 22 years after I was last a student in 2005.

It is not to say I haven’t been a student before or that other educated people haven’t been students in their lives. The key difference here is that not many who are professors themselves or after they become professors, choose to be students again.

The twine never meets.

It is one thing to be a criminal and be imprisoned. You could even commit several crimes and be jailed several times. Once you become a jailor, you don’t want to be a prisoner again.

Five weeks as a student?!  Vow, I was plotting and planning for many months in advance on what I would do with my freedom – from work, from family, from regular daily life.

First two weeks went in the honey moon phase where I tried to be the ideal student. I decided to make full use of my 24 hours. I joined swimming class every morning 7 to 8. On return, we rushed for a breakfast and ran to the classroom almost a mile away in sweltering heat. At lunch time, we had to rush back a mile and go back, all within the hour. Lunch was more about beating others to the line, gorging yourself with whatever you could pile your plate with.  In the evening when the classes got over, we simply wanted to breathe easy. Catch some gossip or read a newspaper. Or take a leisurely walk. With that it was time for dinner.

About the classes, I realized that it was all about the teacher. If the teacher was effective, we liked to learn, or else, we just switched off. Many of us, me included, sat in the back rows and downloaded stuff or worked on our own documents. If the faculty objected, we simply signed the attendance sheet and sneaked out when he/she wasn’t looking.

I learned only what I could. The teachers could and would do only upto a point. If I wanted to learn something new, I had to work on my own time with other classmates. I couldn’t achieve much with the total freedom I got.

The one notable learning was that I saw the classroom and myself as a faculty from the point of view of students. There is indeed no better way to develop empathy than to be in the shoes of the other person.

24 funny things about myself

Psychologists consider a keen sense of humour as a sign of great intelligence. Only on that basis, I must be among the most intelligent on this planet. I laugh heartily at jokes and humour across cultures. I am my best when I pull my own legs! Self-deprecation requires enormous self-confidence and the best part of it is, when you say funny sayings about yourself, no-one would feel insulted. Here are some funny things about myself.
1. I’m not sarcastic only when I sleep.
2. Yes, I say things too bluntly, but I do it well.
3. I never thought I had such an exciting life, before I heard what people talk about me.
4. Everyone who knows me can be divided into two groups: those who like me and those who still don’t know me.
5. I am like Shanidev. No one escapes my scathing judgment.
6. When you stop worrying about what people will say, then you start being yourself.
7. You are not supposed to like me, because I’m not a Facebook status.
8. I must be the only PhD in public relations with the worst PR skills in the world.
9. The reason why people don’t want to hear the truth about them is because they are afraid that their illusions about themselves might be destroyed.
10. If you so much as to dare to be my friend, be ready to take the heat of my brutal honesty.
11. I love myself more than I love you.
12. I came to be on the same side with my inner demons when I stopped fighting them.
13. You know that you’re doing something wrong when no one hates you.
14. An ego is never an amigo.
15. I please only one person a day and today is not your day. Just as tomorrow won’t be your day either.
16. If you think I have changed, it means you never knew me at all.
17. The only thing that I do best during class is count how much time has left until the end.
18. Dear God, I have a huge problem. And it’s me.
19. My mom has the most awesome daughter in the world!
20. I feel sorry for people who don‘t know me.
21. My character is very normal, it’s you nerves that are weak…
22. Oh shit, I forgot to go to the gym today…. And that is already 8 years in a row this happens to me.
23. Everyone has weaknesses, but I’m not everyone.
24. I won’t change – I was ‘being grown’ and not ‘being adjusted to the opinion of the others”.