Chug Chug Gadi…

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CHUG CHUG GADI…The magic of Trains.

Most of what we see today in modern India is the legacy of what the British left us: English language, game of cricket, the bureaucracy, the parliamentary system and the largest network – viz. THE “Indian Railways”.

The iconic “chuk chuk gadi” that knits India together – up close  is truly a multi-sensory experience. From the time when one enters the platform, till the time one reaches a destination, there are a gamut of unforgettable sights, interesting people we meet and stories we become a part of.

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Life is just like a journey on a train:  with stations, stops, changing routes, delays and accidents. This ride is full of hellos, joys, surprises, sorrows, expectations and goodbyes! We don’t know at which station who will get off, and who will get on, making it all the more unpredictable and much more exciting!! We are all on this ride together. Like one big extended family!

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Train journey’s were much awaited and yes, the excitement was palpable; this was “family adventure” extraordinaire! A time for bonding, fun and frolic. Of course a lot of planning went into it- from debating which place to go, booking tickets  in advance and finally packing. Small and large, wooden & metal suitcases were brought out. Finally,  a rolled bedding, also called a “holdall”  with towels, pillows, sheets, would be  ensconced on one’s head on the day of travel.

I nostalgically recall the scene on the platform where people from diverse cultures and different social backgrounds gathered: some frantically running to fill the trademark big water jug, others desperately searching their names on the chart and many more bidding tearful goodbyes to their near and dear ones….

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Once inside the train, how can one forget quarreling for that precious window seat with one’s sibling?  the sheer excitement of climbing onto the uppermost berth?  the piercing whistles and the rhythmic chugging of the wheels? All a reminder of the joys of childhood and the thrill of an enchanting journey ahead…..

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See how R. L Stevenson sings in the poem “From a railway carriage” :

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,

Bridges and houses; hedges and ditches.

And charging along like troops in a battle

All through the meadows like horses and cables.

All of the sights of the hill and the plain

Fly as thick as driving rain;

And ever again in the wink of an eye,

Painted stations whistle by.

Just like the poem resonates, the fast chugging train with my face peering through the window (and black soot covering my face) left me breathless, with sights to behold! From the quintessential lush fields of Punjab, scarecrows scaring little kids more than the sparrows,  sparsely populated villages of Madras, mighty mountains in the Western Ghats, gushing waterfalls in the monsoon, the thrill of tunnels right up to the Konkan coast- It was as if a painting was being sketched every minute! And I got to see the real India: rustic and earthy through an ever changing landscape.

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It was common to spend days and nights in the compartment. If you were unlucky enough to have your seat near the bathroom, strong odours would fill the air and your nose, even if one had a severe cold!  It all came as a package!!

Meal time was special.  In case you hadn’t bought food, there would be many smilingly willing to offer their dabbas. And Voila! You could choose from a variety of cuisines across India: idlis, thepla with pickle, pulao, fish, cutlets, jam sandwiches and more….To top it all, the vendors shouting, prancing around and offering “hot” delicacies like vada pav, cutlets, bhajjias and peanuts. And then…the eagerly awaited cha and kapi; magical potions that tasted different, each time, in every state!

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The long days whizzed past, as there was so much of entertainment on board! We all can relate to playing cards, antakshari and word games; not only with cousins and siblings but even fellow passengers. Cacophony was everywhere, making the ride even bumpier! You want to shout? Laugh or fart? Go right ahead…

There was entertainment from passengers as well. From the grumpy old uncle who was disturbed by a motley crew of rowdies, the shrieking cries of a new born infant, the newly married couple jostling to sit close to each other (shying away from peering eyes), or the wise man who was ever ready to advise anyone sitting next to him, to the saffron clad priest engrossed counting his beads; all the characters were alive as if from a rich novel or a teleserial.

And one wonders: Isn’t this what living in diversity is all about??? Isn’t this the very essence of life? Aren’t these memories and moments that shape us?

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A large part of my learnings have come from meeting these very fellow passengers: sharing food and water, lending a helping hand, picking up waste, gifting a smile, exchanging a seat, witnessing or solving a fight; and the list can go on and on….

I may have switched from the effervescent second class travel to the comfortable chair car or the more sophisticated first class coupe, but trains still fascinate me and I continue to enjoy the ride. It’s sad that the present generation (many of whom prefer air travel) are missing out on one of life’s mesmerizing moments,  replete with pure adventure!

It’s a place where one can find oneself as easily as one can lose oneself!

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I’m reminded of a song by Kishore Kumar which aptly sums up my feelings:

Gaadi bula rahi hai

Siti bajaa rahi hai

Chalna hi zindagi hai,

Chalati hi ja rahi hai…

Aate hai log, jaate hai log

Paani ke jaise rele ;

Jaane ke baad, aate hai yaad,

Guzare hue vo mele;

Yaaden mitaa rahi hai, yaaden banaa rahi hai…

Sab hain savar, dushman ke yaar

Jeena sikha rahi hai,

Marna sikha rahi hai…..

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Keep chug-chuging…. Keep exploring….vikas

 

This i believe…

Unfortunately for me, I was born without a faith bone in my body!!! If fact be told, most Shirodkars are agnostics and prefer to leave the godly path well alone. This is true more of the men folk in my family: the daughters of Shirodkars still retain a modicum of faith and are “god fearing” and religious, though not fanatically so!! (Thank God!!!)

This men-women difference in the family, itself is an interesting twist of faith! Apparently 4 generations ago, my great-grandfather chose to go on a Kashi yatra (obviously he believed in God) and never returned. People accompanying him on the Yatra came back after 6/8 months, and told my great-grandmother that her husband had succumbed to sickness and passed away enroute. My great-grandmother, shaken up by this twist and turn of life, gazed at the 4 children she was now left to bring up, alone!

Her reaction was to go inside the house (they were land-owners and money lenders)  straight to the Pooja room where all idols of gods were kept; pick up all the idols there, bring them out into the courtyard of the house, and…she threw all the idols into the open well!!! Reportedly, she told the shocked onlookers that if god could not protect her husband, who had gone to pay obeisance to him, she would not worship such a god: and neither would any member of her family!!! Village folks thought this was an immediate emotional outburst and the lady would come around, in due course. But the idols remained immersed in the well and the lady remained firm on her thoughts. Thus ended the faith and “pooja-archana” in the Shirodkar clan.

Her 3 sons and 1 daughter (my paternal grand-father being one of them)  maybe due to their love for their mother, or maybe since they were stricken by the injustice of loosing their father so early, stopped being faithful and religious. They became rationalists and lived their life bereft of faith, away from rituals and temples. This is what they taught and professed to their children. Most accepted this approach, though even in our family there were exceptions; especially the married into the family daughters-in-law. But the approach was tolerant: we will not stop you if you believe, but we will not join you either. This in turn gets passed on generations to generations. Even today I look at my daughter who tends to paraphrase Robert Browning Pippa’s Song “God’s in his heaven/ All’s right with the world” to mean “let God be up there and stay away from me; and I am down here and will live my own life without troubling him”.

Is this right? Is it wrong?? I don’t know. It is hard to believe in coincidence, but it is even harder to believe in anything else.

I totally believe George Carlin ( famous comedian of yore)  “Tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority will believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure.”                                            So what is faith and belief?

I grew up as a rabid atheist, keen to debate and tell people of faith how wrong and irrational they were. My credo was ” belief is the death of intelligence” a la Robert Wilson. But through the growing years (and with debatable increased maturity ?) I understood that I know precious little!! So it’s foolish to conclude definitively on such matters. Resultantly, I became quiet and kept my opinions and lack of faith to myself. Atheism ripened into agnosticism. I did not believe;  but I could appreciate others’ faith and belief.  I understood that views and opinions are so divergent that it is foolish to “convince” others. So let everybody believe what they want and practice as they will. A la Mao, “let thousand flowers bloom”. The world is much better off with toleration and mutual respect of each others’ faith !! Or lack of it!!!

Bengalis have a saying ” if you are not a communist when you are young: you do not have a heart; and if you are a communist when you are old: you do not have a head”. Faith, Belief, Trust, Religion : to me, are similar concepts. Head and Heart both pull you in different directions at different points of life, & at different stages of your growth.  And the best part of this conundrum is that : it is a sliding scale!!! Or it could even be compared to a see-saw that swings either way!!! what is left to you, is just enjoy the ride!!!!

Sometimes (Often?) I admire my wife and others who have a core of faith. They intuitively follow Emerson’s dictum “All I have seen teaches me, to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.” Believers are lucky, as they have something to believe…to hold on to. During the Annual Pandharpur Yatra ( or Amarnath Yatra or Vaisnodevi Yatra, for that matter)  I see hundreds of thousands of followers who are content to chant the name of their gods and saints. They experience a bliss which eludes me. They have a solid rock to stand on;  while I am perpetually buffeted by the sea of doubt and lack of faith. Belief gives a stability & structure & direction to their lives which I do not experience. Like the proverbial blind men, I need to slowly feel my way forward, perpetually in doubt, whether I  am on the “right” track. But would I exchange this darkness with the light of certainty? No! I would rather like to muddle through, step by step!!

I take solace in the words of Yaan Martel who puts it so well in the Life of Pi  “If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”

Still searching for an answer to that one: vikas

Advait Superstar

Just returned from seeing Secret Superstar starring Zaira Wasim, Meher Vij and the inimitable Aamir Khan.

A simple, straight forward tale, told with  emotional purity that leaves you spell bound. And when you do not know what to compliment more: the brilliant story about pursuing your dreams regardless; the professional acting; the unusual casting; the hum-able tunes; the heart touching lyrics you realize this a Director’s movie whole and soul. And then when you remember that this is debutante director’s first film you realize the real Secret Superstar of this Bollywood outing is none other than Advait Chandan. Way to go, Advait!!!!

When Aamir is associated with a film you obviously know this is going to be something different. And Aamir does not let you down. Here he is producing the film anchored by his personal assistant. But he also plays a major role in the movie. He enacts the quirky music director Shakti Kummarr with such ease and aplomb that you are once again left marveling at the loads of talent this person brings to the screen. He is loud, brash, obnoxious, flirty and difficult. He plays the character so well that whenever Shakti Kummarr is on : the screen is full and out-flowing with Aamir’s presence. And yet, at the same time when little Inshu (little schoolgirl with loads of talent) is on screen you can actually see the greatness of Aamir the actor when he underplays Shakti so much that Inshu can play herself well and steal the scenes!!!! The caricaturist music director and losing popularity singer is played brilliantly by Aamir, as only he can pull off.

The story is simple and straight lined: Inshu is a school girl who is a talented singer. Her mother ( played by Vij to perfection) keeps encouraging her despite facing a very difficult and abusive husband. Inshu is a typical self centered schoolgirl: one knows how to receive affection and love: but not give it back whether it is to her mother, her brother, or to her school friend Chintan. Inshu dreams big: and wants to be a singing superstar. Hidden from her abusive father she posts videos secretly and gets a huge following online. This huge popularity gets her upto the “Glamour Awards” nomination. She does not win the trophy but in losing, she wins the hearts and minds of all and reaffirms her love and connect with her mother.

Director Advait makes a big pitch of the importance of dreams in stitching our lives together and going after the dreams to set a new direction to our future. Inshu dreams about her mother getting out of the abusive relationship and a marriage scarred by domestic violence. She even finds a divorce lawyer who is willing to help. And all this is displayed with humor bubbling over once in awhile. The movie never becomes melodramatic or melancholy. While Inshu and her mother are suffering, there are enough interludes to keep your interest high.  And keep you guessing how it would turn out at the end. The last scene of Inshu’s mother (Vij) reconciling that she cannot compromise the future of he daughter  and son and her walking out on her husband while at the Airport counter to check in, is realistically handled. Again another sign of the Director’s tight script control and story telling finesse.

Even the small side characters leave a deep impression on you. Inshu’s brother Guddu trying to “repair” a broken laptop with brown tape and gum. The Dadi who is still questioning why she was born a girl and why she has been a silent spectator to all the wife beating and abusive behavior. At the end the same Dadi accepts her daughter in law’s right to walk out of the life of her abusive son. The producer of Aamir’s new film: the archetypal Producer who is only interested in bimbos and selfies. The school friend Chintan, who loves Inshu and is ready to encourage and help her do what is right for Inshu’s future: even when the cost involved is letting Inshu fly out of his life. All the side characters play their roles very realistically and you are so drawn into the narrative that you carry these people in your heart and out of the movie frame.

Since the protagonist is singer, there is great scope for music and lyrics to play an important part in driving the narrative forward. And Amit Trivedi’s music as well as Kausar Munir do not disappoint. “Mai kaun hun” is the song which appeals to us all as that  is a search of defining ourselves that we all are onto constantly. “Meri pyari Ammi” can be the anthem for the Secret Superstar movie in toto. It has remarkable lyrics. And is rendered very well. “Nachdi Phira” treads very familiar grounds and even the tune and rendition are pedestrian at best. But another song that sparkles and stands out is ” Sapne re” which sets the tone for the story what weave our lives and aspirations together. Finally we are what our dreams are and if we take the risks and efforts we can make our dreams come true is the positive message propagated by Secret Superstar.

I return again to the real superstar in the movie: Advait Chandan. He has even written the script for this film and the story would touch your heart even if it was not embellished by Aamir Khan or the superb performances of Vij as the mother and Wasim Zaira as Inshu. Advait has brought us a film which proves that the art of clean and simple story telling is still alive and kicking. And as Indians we will always root for good music and want to be reminded of a mother’s love. I will eagerly await the second film of this talented Director.

I left the movie theater feeling bad my mother is no more. Otherwise i would have surely told her once again after watching this film how much I love her.

See the movie to be reminded what a mother’s love feels like: vikas

 

Saif’s Chef

Once in 2014 there was a Jon Favreau Hollywood film called Chef. Come 2017, our desi director Raja Krishna Menon has attempted what he calls a “not so faithful remake” of the film starring Saif Ali Khan as the Chef. And since it is not so faithful to the original movie, our Bollywood version works quite well.

Many things work well in the film. The chief one being Saif himself. Last few movies of the Nawab have been poor outings to the box office. But Chef is something where you glimpse the old charm of Saif. His boyish charm of Dil Chahata Hai, his regal elan of Parineeta, the arrogance of Kya Kehna, the innocence of KHNH and his youthful exuberance of Salaam Namaste : all the varied avatars are in display, in bits and pieces in Chef. Saif carries the entire movie on his shoulders. And you want the movie to succeed, as you want to continue to see this multi-faceted actor, in his many more roles.

Another reason this movie works is as Indians we are always focused on and fascinated with food. Chef panders to that hubris. Whether it is Chandni Chowk’s Chhole Bhature or the Iddiappams of Kerala or the newly innovated Rotazza (Roti Pizza) :- food plays as important a role in the movie, as it does in every Indian’s life! The angst of a 3 Michelin star Chef when a customer dares to say the food is not as good as it used to be is as genuine as is the love with which Saif cooks and serves pasta for his friend in NY or his wife in Kerala. Our traditional love of food showcased so centrally, resonates well with the viewer, even as it drives the story forward.

Besides food, for us Indians, what matters is family and friends. And the family values and importance of relationships in our lives are subtly emphasized throughout the movie. The father and son relationship of 2 generations of Kalras: Saif with his father and Saif with his son are emotionally brought out. {Is it by chance that the rapprochements between both the generations of Kalras also happen due to food: when Armaan eats the Rotazza invented by his father Roshan after they have had a bitter argument;  and, the life long anger of the senior Kalra dissolves when he eats the Rotazza in Delhi and finally smiles and accepts the journey traveled by Roshan.} The beauty of relationships is also lovingly brought out by Ramkumar Chacha who teaches Roshan to cook or his Bangladeshi assistant who follows him from NY to Kerala. Other examples abound: Roshan’s lady colleague in the hotel in NY and her support of Roshan in his difficult times; Milind Soman’s support of Roshan’s ex wife, Radha; Radha’s own unrequited affection for Roshan being rekindled when he returns to India: all these sub plots underline the importance of relationships in the movie and lovingly reflect the importance of relationships in our Indian ethos.

Chef begins in NY and takes us to Kochi. From Kochi via the food truck we are taken into the lush green and watery backfields of Kerala.  After a brief sojourn in Goa we go right upto Delhi. The story unfolds on the lovely backdrop of changing scenery. The snow of Manhattan, the fishing nets of Kochi, the backwaters of Kerala, the winding roads of Goa, the Golden Temple : all leave a loving mark in your memory. The journey of Rohan Kalra is thus not only mental but a physically remarkable journey: pleasing to the eye as is pleasing to the heart.

Full kudos to the writers Ritesh Shah and Suresh Nair. Their script and characterization is totally real and believable. There is no melodrama. There is no pontification. Situations happen and are shown on an “as it happens” basis. The Kerala unions objecting to the domestic servants cleaning the bus;  entire Milind Soman’s character as the friend of Padmapriya the ex-wife; the drinking and brash driver of the food truck who leaves no opportunity to challenge  and question Saif; the Kerala food sampler who questions why he should accept/eat free food but then loves what he gets; the colleague in NY’s Galli restaurant who frankly tells Roshan she is sad for Roshan losing his job but happy that she got a chance to to take over or even the way Radha the ex-wife role is written: all totally matter of fact and practical: memorable but not over the top – all add to the charm of the movie.

Though the blurbs and publicity call Chef a “comedy” this is not your typical rib tickling fare. There are enough sparkling dialogues which make you chuckle. Yet the movie works because it is a series of normal day-to-day believable situations enacted out by simple and truthful characters. The movie works because the entire story hangs together well and entertains you without being preachy, at any time. The first half is a trifle slow. But you exit the movie hall with a smile: 2 and quarter hours well spent and enjoyed :  watching this delightful caper.

Safe to watch Saif playing Chef : you will not regret your decision : vikas

New tune Newton

Newton is refreshing, stark, hard hitting, pure, timely, subtle, honest, humorous, thought provoking, wistful, pithy, absorbing, engaging, meaningful, interesting and sharp. In fact, I run out of adjectives to describe this powerhouse of a movie. Blessed with some superb casting and an even more amazingly tight script {just 108 mins} , this is an absolute MUST SEE movie that challenges the typical escapist fare that Bollywood doles out to us week and week. And due to Rajkumar Rao’s stellar performance and Amit Masurkar’s (Director and Script writer) contribution it will leave you spell bound.

The theme is absolutely unique: a rookie government clerk foisted into an election tour of duty, which no one wants :  as the scene is set in Maoist infested jungles of Chattisgarh. The story revolves around how this seemingly unlikely hero stands up for the election process and fights the establishment (security forces, media, local apathy, and the police) to allow the tribal voters to exercise their franchise. In this effort, he is assisted by a motley gang of four who themselves are hardly convinced about what they are doing. But Newton stands firm and challenges all around him to allow the “dance of democracy” to roll unfettered under his watch!!

The movie makes you laugh. And the movie makes you think. The small vignettes played out by the characters will leave a lasting memory. Dialogues sparkle!! Some of my memorable moments were :

  • the name Newton is coined by Rajkumar himself:as he explains: Nutankumar me se nu ko hamne “new” banaya aur tan ko “Ton” so ho gaya Newton
  • when one of the Election Duty team confesses he is here only because he saw an opportunity to ride a helicopter, which he had never done before
  • The old and tottering village Patel offering to intervene in the standoff between Election Duty Officer and the Security Incharge (beautifully enacted by Pankaj Mishra)  even as he cannot even stand upright as he  intervenes in the argument
  • The world weary Raghubir Yadav calmly combing his hair when madness is all around and his  Presiding Officer is tense
  • the Security detail forcing the tribals to cook “desi” chicken curry and requisitioning the local hooch for their afternoon repast
  • the tribal school teacher Malko’s reply when she is asked whether she is a “nirashavadi” : she says she is just “an adivasi “
  • Atma Singh ( Pankaj Mishra) explaining to the people to use the Electronic Voting Machine :- ” uspe cycle hai, paani hai, motorcycle hai, diya hai, jo kuch chahiye uske samne ka button press karo”
  • Or the same Atma Singh counseling Rajkumar Rao : “Newton ho, Einstein ban ne ki koshish mat karo”

As a movie, what is most heartening is that there is no pretense, no sham. Everything is true to life: so close to reality that it hurts; and yet at another level: it tickles. The top gun in Police is only interested in impressing the foreign journalist;  maybe all the more, as she is a lady. He has no interest except ensuring normal semblance: “izzat ka sawaal hai”. Or the way he brushes aside Rajkumar Rao’s apprehensions, when he tries to complain. His response: ” Koi booth capturing hua hai? False voting hua hai? Violence hua hai?” If all this has not happened, he cannot understand or take cognizance of the basic travesty of justice or the total rape of the electoral process. Rather he consoles the Presiding Officer and walks away.

The magic of the director came across to me in two scenes most strongly:

  • in one memorable shot, Rajkumar as the Presiding Election Officer on duty has spent the entire morning half waiting for voters to arrive. He sits at a table in an empty class room and the camera pans long shot to the blank, stark blackboard just behind his chair. The camera continues to go behind and show the dark yellowing wall behind the blackboard: equally blank: equally harsh: equally stark as the situation the protagonist finds himself in . Salutations Directorji for the thoughtful composition of that shot.
  • When Malko is leaving, Loknath laughs at Newton sir’s card where he has drawn a five of spades. The school teacher Malko’s response will remain with me for long. She points out to Loknath that the 5 can represent the 5 fingers of a hand. When they come together, it forms a fist: substantially increasing it’s power. And further she points one finger at the head signifying the fist can be directed/led by the head/intelligence to achieve much, using the proverbial “sixth sense”. Reminded me of the Zen masters’ teaching. It has the same simplicity of thought and yet is so profound in it’s import.

To end I quote the famous Director Hansal Mehta’s tweet : Making films is not a race with a finish line but just a never ending search for your ‘self’. Thank you  for reminding me of this.

I owe you Newton for making me think, and taking me deep within myself: vikas

Zero tolerance

Indian society has always been considered tolerant, compared to most others; and we tend to give credit to our multi-faceted lineage and our upbringing where we have been taught Vasudeva Kutumbakkam  “the entire world is my family”. I am forever intrigued by the  variability in tolerance different people and organizations show. And so exploring this here. Look forward to others’ views as we all have different perspectives and experiences on this important topic.  Tolerance is defined as the capacity or practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs/practices of others.  And we all know that differences abound!! In fact differences make life so enjoyable – colorful and rich!! And yet some differences get so deep rooted, and seemingly irreconcilable, that tolerance goes out of the window. When and why does that happen? is a worthwhile inquiry.

Etymologically “tolerance” word was first used in the 15th century. Derived from endurance and fortitude, the word was first used to to describe “having permission from the authorities”. Of course well before the 15th century enough examples of tolerance were seen  and expounded. Cyrus the Great released the Jews from captivity and allowed them to return to their homeland. The Roman empire was known to allow the conquered people to continue to worship their own Gods.  In the Old Testament Book of Exodus 22:21 says: “Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him”. Tolerance personified?

Hindu philosophy was always about inclusion and respecting diversity. Vishnu Purana and the various avatars of Vishnu show that we readily accepted Fishes and Tortoises and Boars (Matsya, Koorma, Varaha) as God. This transitioned into a half man half animal Narasimha avatar; before moving to a human representation of Vishnu as Vamana then Parshurama,  Rama and so on. The challenge to the Hindu philosophy epitomized by the Buddha and his philosophy was dealt with by subsuming even Buddha as one of the avatars of Vishnu in some Hinduism texts! In this context and background the intolerance that we see today in the name of religion is oftentimes  saddening. In pursuit of the most laudable and lofty objective of going closer to God, how can we get divided so deeply into sects and castes and be at loggerheads with one who does not follow my discipline, my reality, my God?

This same approach we see in our housing societies and clubs. Deep chasms develop quickly and we tend to see differences as unbridgeable gaps. “If you are not with us then you are against us” is the prevalent philosophy. Rather than understand and reconcile differences, people start taking joy in accentuating differences and holding forth the differences as opposing flags and rallying cries to deepen the intervening valleys further!!  We seem to have forgotten the edict from the Holy Koran: “There are a thousand ways to reach the Allah”. No one path is right: all roads lead to the same end. So tolerance and mutual understanding should be our guiding star.

Even commercial organizations which should be driven together by common goals and objectives see the same intolerance of alternate and different opinions. That is why you hear of bosses who say ” My way or the highway”.  Recently I came across a cartoon where a Boss is addressing his team and tells them  “I like people who in their own individual manner find a way of saying ‘Boss you are right’ “. Many of us will recollect the group think that emerges when such bosses are around. People don’t give their opinions as they feel it will serve no purpose whatsoever. Rather it will isolate and identify me in the eyes of the dictatorial boss and expose me to more pain. So the intelligent and creative subordinate becomes quiet and withdrawn, tolerant of the mayhem around him, biding the time when he can move on to a more open culture, a more accepting team, a more tolerant boss.

I was fortunate to work in an organization with had multiple lines of business. And at one time saw two totally contradictory styles of management. One Boss was loud and unforgiving. He loved the sound of his own voice. He held “durbars” and not meetings. His meetings had a start time but never any defined end time. People were summoned and tortured. Laughed at if their opinion differed from that of the boss. The other SBU Head however encouraged dissent. He made it clear his was one opinion but the final decision would be taken jointly. All functions were involved in every cross functional matter. Understanding and blending different perspectives was the preferred way forward. He truly believed and practiced tolerance and mutual respect. No prizes for guessing which SBU head did well and which SBU head soon found himself out of a job, out of a team, out of the company.

Today corporate reality or even social and familial reality for that matter has become so complex and involved that no one can claim full expertise or knowledge. In this context,  ability to hear differing opinions and blending sometimes contradictory approaches, to fashion a creatively new solution, is the only way to survive. There is only one verb tolerate and one adjective tolerant but the two nouns Tolerance and Toleration have both come to acquire different meanings. As parents we must understand that the highest result of education is tolerance. Our parenting must be full of examples when we can tell our children ( and our corporate teams) “I do not like X but I am ok if you do it” OR  “I like Y  but I am ok if you do not do it”. The day we do this with equanimity we have understood tolerance.

A la Voltaire let us remember, we are all formed of frailty and error: let us pardon reciprocally, each other’s folly!!!!

 

May acceptance, tolerance and forgiveness alter your life: vikas

Shit happens

One of the inspiring stories I had heard was about this donkey who had become very old (like me). The Farmer had been served well by the donkey;  but now,  he could neither see very clearly nor serve as a beast of burden.  The Farmer was a kind soul,  and so allowed him to just carry on. One day,  due to his poor eyesight,  the donkey did not see the old dry well: and fell right in!!! It was a 14/15 feet fall and so obviously the donkey could not climb out of the dry well. Nor could the Farmer put down ropes and physically pull the donkey out. And pull out for what? thought the farmer. The donkey is of no use anyway (again like yours truly),  can’t pull his weight around the farm,  do any productive work,  etc etc. Yet considering the donkey’s prior committed service,  the Farmer thought he deserved a decent burial. In the  same dry well!!. So the farmer began shoveling some dirt and mud into the well: with an idea to cover up the donkey and let him die in peace!!

What did the donkey do? (again like me??)  With every shovel full of mud and muck thrown on him: he shook it off and stepped up. Shake it off and Step up. And as the mud kept raining down on him,  lo and behold,   there came a time when the donkey was near the mouth of the dry well : and could just walk out to life and liberty!!!

In every adversity: you have a choice. Do I feel miserable for the inequities rained on me? Do I curse the powers that be? Do I rive and rail at the uncertainties of life? Do I wallow in self pity and curse my stars or my past? Or do I emulate the donkey? Learn from him and say : “Shake it off and step up”  As soon as I learn this magic formula of Shake it off and Step up I soon find myself out of the woods and into a space of freedom and joy.

Unfortunately most of us are so upset with the closing of one door: that we continue to berate our fate and stare at the closed door : little realizing that so many other doors are opening up, and we can Move On!.  But we still get stuck and beat out head against the closed doors in our life: thereby not paying attention to the other opportunities that are open,  other doors which take us to a new realm.

Every area of human endeavor is replete with examples we can learn from! Take Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw. She did not rise to the list of Forbes’ Most influential Women Leaders by any wave of the proverbial magic wand. She chose to study  in Australia specializing in malting and brewing and topped her class. Despite this specialist  knowledge, she was told she could not be a Master Brewer as that was a “man’s job”. This closing of the door, encouraged her move abroad where she met Leslie Auchincloss,  founder of Biocon Ireland who happened to be looking for a partner to expand into India!! Rest is corporate history!! But few know that Kiran had negotiated with Leslie that she would get a Master Brewer position equivalent,  in case Biocon India did not work out. I think Leslie is still waiting near the open door: waiting for Kiran; while she has moved on.

Do we move on? Do we Let Go? Or we become a Narayan Murthy who speaks of Letting Go but at the first possible turn: wants to hold on and not Let Go!! If only Shri Murthy had stayed as the “chief Mentor” or a la Nandan Nilekani,  moved on to other pastures. Nandan moved from an entrepreneur to a corporate role; thence to a role as a bureaucrat and politician. His stint as the Chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India was full of glorious achievements and putting India well on the road to digitization.   And yet again the skin is shed and he is now in the hot saddle vacated by Sikka, and vitiated by NRN. His wholesome smile and ease is open for all to see. We see a true karma yogi here.

Truly we see the live exemplification of :

वासांसि जीर्णानि यथा विहाय नवानि गृह्णाति नरोऽपराणि।

तथा शरीराणि विहाय जीर्णान्यन्यानि संयाति नवानि देही।। Bhagwat Geeta Verse 22 Chap 2

जैसे जगत् में मनुष्य पुराने जीर्ण वस्त्रोंको त्याग कर अन्य नवीन वस्त्रोंको ग्रहण करते हैं, वैसे हीजीवात्मा पुराने शरीरोंको छोड़कर अन्यान्य नवीन शरीरोंको प्राप्त करता है. अभिप्राय यह कि जीवात्मा सदा  ही निर्विकार रहता है.

How we all, who were worshipers of NRN in his earlier avatar, fondly wish Mr Murthy had shown this निर्विकार attitude. Or for that matter, wish so had Mr Ratan Tata. Or even Mr Cyrus Mistry. By their belligerent actions and public displays all these icons have shown their feet of clay. Shown that Letting Go was difficult for them. Carrying on seemed easier for them. and they were ready to cause enormous losses and harm to the organizations they lived for, the values they publicly espoused just because they were unable to Shake it off and Step up.

Politics also gives us so many examples. The Gandhi family since Indira have never felt like Letting Go and we have the 3rd generation of Gandhis being foisted on an unsuspecting Indian populace. Admittedly, Rahul baba takes the joke on the Indian voters to a really new abysmal level. Look at Lallu and Rabdi. If you wonder what was Rabdi Devi’s legitimacy: you might as well question even what was Lallu’s claim to fame??!!  Nitish in Bihar, Jayalalitha in TN: how many names we need to recount to conclude that the people in power never want to let go: they believe and act as though India  is their jagir which they can pass on like the cattle, hearth and chattel much like the British Lords and gentry.

Looking at all this evidence I conclude: Letting Go is important if you need to grow and move ahead. It is only in shedding the past will you learn and master the future.  Others who give you dollops of sympathy: are not your real friends!! You only need to focus on your own actions. Move on in life. There is miles to go. Let go: rather than carry the past as a burden which will slow you down forever.  Learn from the donkey: Shake it off and Step up. You will soon see a new robust future.

That is why possibly Swami Vivekanand says: “Men, Men.  Men- these are wanted. Everything else will come.” { For my emancipated lady friends: here “men” includes women and vice versa. Remember Swami Vivekananda most illustrious disciple was Sister Nivedita}. Imagine the world if Rudolf Diesel was not able to Let Go of the conventional wisdom of the time and develop an engine that could be ignited without a spark, but just by pressure!. Imagine if Bill Gates was not able to Let Go and move forward as he incorporated so many path breaking ideas in nascent computer operating systems.  Imagine Steve Jobs not being able to move on when he was sacked from Apple, a company he founded, by a Board he incorporated , and a CEO he had chosen. Letting Go, Moving On, and Shaking it off, he set up Pixar and that was his calling card to reenter Apple for his second glorious stint. Can our NRN and Ratan Tatas and Cyrus Mistrys and Yogi Deveshwars and Amol Naiks learn from Steve Jobs to Let go and Move On? Or will Nagavara Murthys and Rahul Gandhis and Roshni Nadars and Isha Ambanis continue in our public life as evidence that Shit Happens!!

 

Remember, Life is a four letter word.: Love it and Make it: despite it all: vikas

 

Accessible, Affable, Amiable, & Available

A favorite nursery rhyme goes:

Higgledy Piggledy my black hen; She lays eggs for gentlemen;

Sometimes nine and sometimes ten; Higgledy Piggledy my black hen.

I am about to “clack” and “cluck” and lay one Golden Egg (not 9 or 10) for you: the formula for success, silver bullet that overcomes all, sure fire recipe for triumph!! Ladies and Gentlemen, what you need to do is simply be Accessible, Affable, Amiable and Available. And your life is made!!! Permit me to explain.

In the early school days who was your best friend? whom were you most attracted to? It was a super friendly Ajit or a Daduly (elder brother to all in school); you went towards them because they were affable, amiable, friendly. You could easily tell them what was bothering you.  Not that they had an immediate solution to your problem. But the fact that you could easily approach them and tell your woes was enough to unburden you. They were your “heroes” in school.

Take even the teachers. Whom do you remember most fondly even now? and why? It was a Somalingam (Somu, to the entire school, behind his back of course!) or Miss Nagpal or Mrs Chatterjee. Remember them? They all, without exception, were accessible and available. You could easily tell them when the boy sitting next to you forcibly took away your new color pencils or the boy seated behind enjoyed kicking you whenever teacher was not looking. Approachable and friendly have ensured their place in your memory, for life time.

Why school alone? think of your family. We have all had a Aba Mama or a Sudha Atya or a Aju dada who was, is and will ever be special. Other relatives also pampered you, yet these people had a special secret sauce which went straight for your jugular. They were always there for you. They were super affectionate. And you never hesitated telling them what you wanted. Whether it was watching Royal Circus from the first row or getting more than your share of cashewnuts and mangoes, they always made it happen. It was as though you were special in their lives, and not the other way around.

Comes the landmark of college.  Whether you were in a nerdy college like Parle or Ruparel, who made it as the President of the Students’ Union? It was Mr Charm. The guy who could be in 20 groups at one time (much before Facebook and WhatsApp) and all groups thought of him as their special friend. Affability was their middle name  and they were accessible 24*7 whenever anyone had a crisis. I talk of course of the times before the Students’ Bodies got politicized and money began talking loudly in these fora. Otherwise it was always Mr Amiable & Accessible who ruled the roost. Even in professional colleges like IIMs/XLRI/TISS, Mr Popular managed and ran all the events and the skunk-dos. And we “intellectuals” were more than happy to accept them as leaders.

Next stage: job and corporate India. In my 37 years of studying  corporate leaders, if there is one formula I have seen ALL successful leaders follow it is this simple truth : they are accessible, affable, amiable and available. I had the privilege to work under someone who was the epitome of these characteristics. I talk of course of Arun Bhende. Though from a premier institute like TISS,  intelligence was not his claim to fame. But his accessibilty and good nature ensured that when he joined Siemens, union leaders from all his previous companies still considered him as their chief adviser. He was always available to them and gave his time freely. His affable demeanor was such that besides unions, managements were also seeking his advice. And his contacts in the Government machinery meant that the third party to any industrial dispute: the Labour Commissionarate also sought him out for suggestions and guidance! (I often wondered how he kept chalk and cheese & oil and water apart!)

Professional things apart, anyone from Arun’s friend circle or acquaintances never thought twice before calling him for any problem, whatsoever!! I have seen Arun arrange buses for a union to take members on a morcha to Sachivalaya. And then telling the transport contractor not to charge as they are a union: “think of it as social service”. During the time of cooking gas shortages (none had 2 cylinders or piped gas then) I myself have been one of the many beneficiaries of getting out of turn allotment through his kind offices. Amul Butter shortage: call Arun. Party at home and you require Scotch: Arun. Hospital or school admissions were just too simple. Son needs a job: Arun. Daughter in law needs a transfer in a nationalized bank: Arun will find some contact. The day I thought he was not Arun Bhende but GOD himself was when someone called as a cat was stuck on a tree opposite his house at 4th floor level. He actually called Arun and asked what should be done. And imagine my sheer horror when Arun replies: ” Don’t worry, I know the Fire Brigade InCharge of that locality. I will ask him to send a snorkel to bring the cat down.” And all this done with a smile!! Affability, amiability, availability and accessibility personified was Arun.

I have seen this formula repeat ad infinitum. Think of your best boss : was he available to you anytime, everytime? Or was he grumpy and moody?  You will still recollect the smile which always played on this supercool boss’s face as he took things in his stride and made friends and followers, even as he solved problems.

Enough stories abound on the internet about Abdul Kalam as a boss in ISRO & DRDO. His people gave their best for him and the organization because their boss was always there for them. Think of other legendary corporate biggies: Rusi Mody, Sumant Moolgaonkar, Mr Gaitonde of Century Enka to name a few in the earlier generation. M/s Anand Mahindra, Nandan Nilekani,  Azim Premji ,  KV Kamath,  Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw,  Arundhati Bhattacharya,  Kishore Bayani. Need more names? Do you think any one of them would have been successful if they were not accessible to everyone in their team, approachable to draw out the best thoughts and plans their teams could come up with, and lead the teams with amiability and affability? A great leader is made finally by a team who give their individual best for the collective good. And that cake can be baked only by a leader who knows the secret recipe of these personal characteristics.

So you: Don’t try to be the smartest guy around. Be accessible to the people around you. And when they come to you with ideas or problems, be available to help them think it though and then run interference on their behalf. Be amiable and affable so that they love to work with you and give their best. Be affable and available so that your peers &  colleagues help keep your plans and ideas afloat. If you are able to do this, success will follow. This is the formula, the Golden egg which will give rich dividends in your personal and professional lives.

Don’t thank me, thank  Higgledy Piggledy, my black hen : vikas

PS: I owe the title words to KJo. He says he is a successful producer/director as he is affable, amiable, accessible and available. I rest my case.

 

Bolava Vithal, Karava Vithal…jeeva bhave

Somehow I was born with no “faith bone” in my body. I never go to a temples. No angst like Amitabh Bacchan. But I believe that I am well off without constantly remembering god. My feeling is the poor guy has lots and lots of issues to sort out anyway. So why bother him by adding our petty matters to his burden? Remember the song from Sagina Mahato ” Upar wala dukhiyon ki nahi sunta re
Soota hai….Bahut jaaga hai na?”

Unlike Amitabh, I have no active fight with Him. If he is there he has been more than fair to me. I have absolutely nothing to complain. A nice small family of a wife and cute daughter who loves us both. Am the only son in the Sharatchandra ( my father} wing of the family. And as an only son amongst 3 sisters, I got extra love not only from my parents but also from my 3 sisters. The Powers that Be got me into some great MNC corporations. I have good money and savings. And really LG: Life’s Good! So in a way I have lots and lots to thank for. And I am grateful. But G. O. D.? Who or What is that? and why should I bow before him? I have always revered my parents, respected all elders, been a good friend to all, loved my family : and all this has repaid me with an amazingly nice life.

So where does GOD come in all these confabulations? Is Faith important? Should we believe Him? and be in gratitude for all that we get?

Robert Browning sang in the Pippa Song way back in 1800s:
Morning ‘s at seven;
The hill-side ‘s dew-pearl’d;
The lark ‘s on the wing; 5
The snail ‘s on the thorn;
God ‘s in His heaven—
All ‘s right with the world!

Since childhood I have interpreted this as “God is in his heaven (too far to interfere with us and meddle in our lives and so) all is right with the world, (including my life)”. So my effort has always been to keep my head low, not draw too much attention to me and my life, let God be in his own circuit. I will not trouble Him. And hopefully he will leave me alone!!

But the other famous poet ( how well the classical poets understand our human condition) Robert Burns sang in “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough, November, 1785” exactly what happened in my life:
“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!”
Here I was all of 50 years old, minding my own business, leading my own life, staying under the radar, never attending mandirs and pooja archanas so that God will not be able to see me from his high perch in the Heaven. And then the best laid plans of this timid mouse “go all askew”(Gang aft agley). Some inopportune (?) moment 10+ years ago I went and attended the Abhangwani program of Pancham Nishad. And as Robert Burns had predicted in 1785, that experience scarred me for life. it left me with “nought but grief an’ pain” instead of the “promis’d joy”. I was infected with the Bhakti Rasa bug. And it went deep into my heart.

Maharashtra has long history of Marathi saints of Varakari religious movement which includes saints like Dnyaneshwar, Namdev, Chokhamela, Eknath, Muktabai, Janabai and Tukaram and many many others which forms one of the base of Marathi culture. The Abhangawani consists of compositions of all these saints in praise of Vitthal, who resides at Pandharpur. There is a 800 years’ old tradition of Warkaris (the bhaktas who come from agricultural background and do the Wari) annually assembling at Dehu (the residence and karma bhumi of Sant Tukaram) and Alandi (residence and karmabhumi of Sant Dyaneshwar) and then walking in “dindis” singing praises of Vithal/Vithoba. They walk every day for 21 days to reach Pandharpur, their destination. The wari culminates in Pandharpur on Ashadi Ekadashi, which will be on 4th July Tues this year. For a person like me who has no faith, it is unbelievable to see people walk the distance of 250 kms, spread over 21 days. And there are women, men , children, even old people who can barely walk : all of them do the Wari, year after year. Last year there wereover 700,000 people in the wari. Viva la Faith!!!

To keep up their spirits, they sing Abhanga which are devotional poems. Considering the people who sing these devotional songs of praise, all the saints have written these songs in simple marathi. Many good classical singers like Bhimsen Joshi, Jitendra Abhisheki, Vasantrao Deshpande, Kumar Gandharva, Hirabai Badodekar & Kishori Amonkar began the tradition of rendering these songs in a Hindustani classical style. That is carried forward by Rahul Despande, Anand Bhate, Jayteertha Mehundi, amongst others. Once I heard the dulcet singing of the bhakti sangeet, understood the simple marathi words I was beside me. Sold , hooked, gone line and sinker. I lived the truth of Sant Tukaram’s abhang “Pandhari che bhoot mothe
Alya gelya dhari wate”
Translation: The “ghost” of Pandharpur (Vithoba) is BIG : he catches anyone who travels on that road.

With all humility, I must confess now Vithal is no longer in Heaven. He lives in my heart. I get shaken and stirred whenever I hear any of the abhangs. I try to follow each and every word and nuance of the Abhang. And I have no hesitation to say openly that every time I hear and understand the words I am sobbing and crying openly. Tears just flow from my heart and my eyes. I am just overwhelmed by Bhakti and the lyricism of the Abhangwani. Bhakti can never be explained in words but I again take recourse to another lovely abhang of the Mahar saint Chokamela (very like the outcast I was)
” Johar Maibaap Johar
Tumchaya maharcha me mahar

Bahu bhukela zhalo
Tumchya ushtya sathi aalo
Chokha mhane paati aanli
tumchya ushtya sathi aanli”

Transliteration :
Oh My Lord/Master & my Father/Mother
I am the low caste servant (Mahar) of your servant (Mahar)
I am now very hungry
and I have come to receive your left overs
Choka (the saint) says I have brought a begging bowl
to receive the crumbs and left overs from your plate

There I go go crying again. Now you understand the last 2 lines of the quote from Robert Burns
“lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!” I cry. And I cry with my heart over blown.

Ashadi Ekadashi is on Tues 4th and Abhang wani of Bolava Vithal will be sung at Shanmukhananda hall.
Do come to cry with me : vikas

Yes, I know that…

We have all met people who are ever eager to interrupt you, not let you say what you want, and rather pompously proclaim: “Yes, I know that”. I am sure you must have felt the same frustration that I feel when I hear these words. If you know it all: what is there for me to speak? is my opinion of no consequence? what am i doing in this interaction? does discussion have no value?

As a college student, many, many years ago I had read a short story of Somerset Maugham entitled : Mr Know-All. The setting is on a ship. There is person who everyone soon comes to dread as he is always holding forth, having the last word, and generally showing off his knowledge and expertise on every subject imaginable!! Of course he is well read and knowledgeable. But the stance is that I am smarter and I know more than you, him , and all others…combined !!! Obviously he wears his welcome super thin, and no one wants him at their dining table: as they know only Mr Know_All will speak, and others have to only listen.

No one likes such a person: but if we think back do we not have such people in our own social circles? Full of themselves, pompous to the core, these people rough shod over all others in their groups. They obviously looooove the sound of their voice and hold forth ad infinitum. God help you, if you happen to inherit a boss who is like this. Gone are the days when a Boss is expected to now all answers and “tell” his team. Today’s successful bosses are facilitators who will ask the right questions and let the answers and ideas flow from the team. This empowers and energizes the team and enables them to give their best. But the Know-All Boss is never in the “ask” mode. Or worst, if due to some guidance from his own Mentor, the Boss asks the question: Lo and Behold! he quickly goes forward to answer his own questions. Even if some doggedly determined subordinate tries to get an idea or suggestion in, the Know All boss will hasten to interrupt and takeover the point and make it his own or show the flaws and difficulties with the idea which finally ends in shutting up the poor subordinate. Tell me truly: how many times have we found ourselves in this situation, unable to get in a word edge-ways as our Boss knows it all!!!???

On a lighter note, had read a joke: My wife is just like Google, she never lets me complete a sentence. A la Google, she has multiple suggestions ready already!!! Wives, Mothers, Fathers, Bosses, Teachers all use their “pre-eminence” and superiority to stop your thought process as they always think they know what you want to say. And your story,your version, your truth often remains untold.

In Siemens we had a very smart Factory Manager. Super intelligent and capable, technical whiz. Always thought 3 steps ahead of the rest of us. And so he was perpetually guilty of using the famous three words “I know that” ; but, unlike their more famous cousin-three-words (I Love You), these words made enemies for him. People always thought he did not care for others and did not carry his team with him and resultantly, despite his super intelligence, he never grew in the company hierarchy. Organizations have no jobs for Supermen today. In the interdependent world, we need team players. As soon as you say “I know that” new learning and creative thinking stops. In today’s VUCA world I have to learn new things every day. New ways to solve age old problems: creative ways to resolve emerging issues and innovative approaches to change frontiers of knowledge: all these require you to stay humble and never say “I know that”. I know that is static: while today’s problems ( and their solutions) are dynamic.

Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses begins by saying : “much have I seen and known” : an apt paraphrase for “I know that”. But Ulysses knows that this not enough: he goes on:-
“Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.”
Be hungry for new experiences and knowledge as tomorrow’s solutions lie in that gleaming, un-travelled world. Be open: you have not seen it all.

I began with Maugham’s Mr Know All story. So let me tell you how it ends. Our Mr Know All is at one dinner table one night: and holding forth as is his wont. And showing off to others, how he knows it all. He looks at a pearl necklace worn by a lady on the table and compliments her for the classic, natural pearls. He opines that their rarity and purity is such that the necklace must be very, very expensive. He advises her to be very careful of that piece of jewelery. The lady’s husband is not amused. He says his wife bought those pearls from a village fair and they have no value at all. Mr Know All is taken aback. He says all his knowledge and learning is at stake and he knows they are very, very valuable pearls: costing thousands of ponds sterling. The lady is flushing and uncomfortable. She says she has a bill somewhere which shows that the necklace cost her just a pound and a half at a village fair, and she can show the bill. All retire for the night: Mr Know All in a most perturbed state and the couple most flustered. In the dark night, the lady searches out Mr Know All to tell him that the pearls are indeed genuine and most expensive. But they were gifted to her by her paramour. And obviously she cannot let her husband know about her lover and her infidelity. Next morning at breakfast Mr Know All goes upto her table and accepts to her husband and her that he was wrong. The pearls are indeed worthless!! And apologizes for his “mistake” in judging them.

Mr Know Alls of today must temper their knowledge and experience with the heart and humility shown by Maugham’s protagonist. Even when you know the answer, practice saying: I don’t know how to solve this problem. Eat the humble pie and ask for others to help. Seek their opinions and inputs. Let others shine and take credit. Don’t ever, ever say “I know that”.

I am proud that I know nothing, can you help please: vikas