Evening at Zambezi River, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, May 2015
and so does everything around... the situation, the people, the perspective, the needs.... and we too change.... the wise and courageous seek change.. because only change is constant!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

84. Good Around

I am at the office of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited. It is 1.45 in the afternoon. I have a dial up internet connection at home and for months I have wanted to get Broad Band Connection. I access BSNL site and the online application facility seems to be dysfunctional. So, I have no alternative but to physically visit their office. So, I am in the BSNL office.

“It is lunch time”, the moment I park my two wheeler, the security person declares. “Oh! I thought the lunch time is from 1.00 to 1.30”, I say. It is of no use saying ‘I think’ in such moments, but by habit I say so and feel sheepish the next moment. The security man smiles understandingly and does not comment.

“What do you want madam?” another man appears at the entrance. I tell him that I want an application form for Broad Band Connection. “Go to the ground floor right hand door,” he orders me. “But it is lunch time?” I try not to show any hope. The man says, “They are still to start their lunch. Tell them I asked you to go there if someone asks,” he adds. I do not know who this man is and whether the people inside would take this argument – many people might be using it everyday. “That much we need to do for customers”, the man is telling to the security person as I walk in.

There is certainly a door at the right side of the ground floor. It is closed. I open it partially and see three women and one man working inside. The room is full of huge machinery – about which I do not understand anything at all. “Sorry, I know it is lunch time. But I was told to meet you, can I come inside?” I ask politely.

To my surprise everyone is smiling. This is a welcome change – otherwise at government offices they constantly make you feel guilty without cause.

“Madam, please have this,” the only man in the room offers me a glass of sugarcane juice. I am surprised. This is totally unexpected offer. I was expecting a bark, a shout and instead I am getting an offer of chilled sugarcane juice. I try to refuse it politely. “Oh! No! Thanks, I just had an ice-cream,” I share information which is absolutely not necessary. I tend to share unnecessary information (when I am not writing blog ) when I am caught off guard. Then I see that everyone has a sugarcane juice glass. It is 42 degree Celsius outside; naturally everyone wants some cool fresh drink.

I smile and ask whether they are celebrating something. Now it is their turn to smile. One of the staff members has offered the juice to all his team, for no apparent cause. So, everybody is in a good mood. Then we discuss trivialities till I wait to finish them their juice.

I ask for Broad Band Application form. It is available upstairs. I go there and find the window and the room empty. This group must be taking lunch. The official lunch time is from 1.30 to 2.00. That means I will have to wait for another ten to fifteen minutes. I decide to come again as I have to catch up with some other work.

The woman from the ground floor has come to the first floor. I tell her that I plan to come again next week. She says, “Don’t go. I realized that this group has gone for lunch. Wait a second and I will give you the required form.” She gives me the form and with me she climbs down for her lunch.

For me this was one more amazing experience. If people who know me behave well with me, there is no surprise, because there is always a prior experience and expectation. It is sort of give and take – if someone helps me, I am supposed to help when my turn comes. If I don’t help, the other person would not help me next time.

But I am always amazed when strangers help. Yes, to provide forms to customers is the duty of the BSNL staff. But during lunch hour? But when that is not one’s duty and somebody else’s? And to take extra efforts for that? And to not shout but offer sugarcane juice when someone intrudes during lunch hour? Oh! Times Change and BSNL too is changing!!

I still smile when I remember that episode.

Sometimes I meet egoistic, power hungry, immature, non-cooperative people. I have my share of ugliness in life. However I can take that smilingly, because I have such BSNL type of experiences too.

After all it is my choice to allow certain experiences to shape my life and my attitude. I feel lucky that I meet so many good people everyday around that even if I want, I can’t be bitter about life. Along with cruelty, wickedness, selfishness, there is lot of good around. What is needed is to see it, enjoy it and reciprocate it!

Monday, April 12, 2010

83. Bheema Nee Ghantee

“Madam, come this way if you want to see Bheema nee Ghantee ”.
I am in Gujarat. As part of our official work the team is visiting two villages today to document process of two development initiatives in tribal areas. Everything is arranged in advance. A day before the team asks ‘whether we can visit Jambughoda, few kilometers away from our work area, during this field visit". “What is there to see?” I ask casually. “Oh! A huge idol of Hanuman!” explains one of my colleagues. Then he hastily adds, “The forest around is cool and you would definitely enjoy the place. It is actually a sanctuary.” When the whole team wants to visit the place, there is no point in saying ‘no’ especially when it is not going to affect our work.
We are in Panchamahal district, about 70 kilometers from Vadodara. On the way, we cross Pavagadh. It is a hill fortress and capital of a 16th century princely state. We do not visit it, but the place seems to be a good site to visit. The advertisement boards on the road inform us that there is even 'rope way' facility to visit the fort.
We visit Zand Hanuman. What is the meaning of Zand, I am not able to understand, may be it means HUGE. Lots of Mahua trees on the way, their fragrance is maddening. We watch tribal people collecting Mahua flowers. They earn a little income by selling those flowers. Now the forest is not green naturally, but the air is cool. I can imagine what the scenario must be in the post monsoon period. But even in the month of March – April – May, forest has its own beauty.
The 21 feet Hanuman idol is beautiful. Photography is strictly prohibited here, so I do not open my digicam. The driver of our car, a local person tells me that during the 13th year of agnyaatavaasa (‘incognito’ stay), the Pandavas stayed here. He also narrates a story that Arjun with his bow and arrow created a flowing water stream to quench their thirst. The stream has completely gone dry now, but during monsoon it is powerful flow. How Hanuman (from Ramayana) comes and fits into the ‘Pandava’ place is my curiosity, the driver and other colleagues laugh at this question. When one cannot answer, one laughs – that is the strategy almost each one of us uses.
Next is ‘Bheema nee Ghantee’! Though I understand Gujrati well enough, somehow I am thinking about a ‘huge bell’ which may be only Bheema could use. So when I come across Bheema nee Ghantee I am disappointed for a moment. But then I realize my mistake of mixing Hindi, Gujrati and Marathi and smile. Because what I see is a huge grinding stone. Looking at its size it appeares to be Bheema's grinding stone!
During the 13th year of ‘agnyaatavaasa’, Bheema worked as a chef – ballavacharya. May be, this Ghantee then was used by him. So, is this ancient Keechaka kingdom? I do not know. The best option seems to be ‘internet search’. It is funny that now- a days I get more information about my country through internet!

I find so many stones around. “What is this?” I ask. My team is slowly getting used to my questions and they try their best to satisfy me. “Here, one builds imaginary house with the help of stones lying around. If this house remains stable, you get a similar house in your real life. Your wish of having your own house is fulfilled.” My colleagues ‘build’ – two storied, three storied, five storied houses in a childlike enthusiasm!
Many religious places have such stories built around them. I look at my colleagues and see a dream, a hope in their eyes. Suddenly, I realize that all this is not just a superstition; it is a kind of motivation for those who are homeless, who have to live in rented house all their life. I look at the ‘houses’ in the area and realize that so many of us need some hope, some encouragement that life in future would be much better. I am deeply touched by this phenomenon. Though I do not build a home there, I do not laugh at others. I wish that all those people and everyone else should have a home to live happily.
We return. On the way we have seen a number of police personnel. I smile at couple of them and ask “Is any VIP visiting today?” One officer smiles but does not answer. I add, “I understand if you do not give me information. Just curious because I have seen so many of your colleagues on the way.” The second officer decides to share the information. “The Chief Justice (of Gujrat) is visiting. Good you came early here. Now the Chief Justice would be here any minute. If you were late, you would have to wait for half an hour.”
We are happy that we came before the VIP visit. The police are not harassing anyone, but they are taking extra precaution, which is well understood and appreciated. As we start, we see a convoy of vehicles approaching the temple. I count those. One, two .. there are twenty one vehicles. The whole district machinery is geared up for this visit. It is easy to separate pilot vehicle from the vehicle of the VIP. We are informed that the Chief Justice is in Jambughoda for inauguration of court building. I do not take photograph, obviously as I am not a press photographer!
So, like us, the Chief Justice is combining pleasure and work. But I cannot help thinking about ‘who bears the cost of such pleasure trips?’ The answer is known and we have accepted that.
I do not know whether the VIP guests also went to Bheem nee Ghantee and built their dream house there! May be, they did not because like me they too are privileged with a home! May be we are not innocent enough like all those people to believe in our own dreams.. we are too rational for such a joy of life! Does it mean that I can afford to be rational only when I am happy? Don't really know!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

82. FOOL

“So, this is the plan and everybody should perfectly play their role. Any questions?” Ashish asked, in apparently mild tone. It was a typical tone a person with unlimited authority generally uses when speaking to his/her subordinates.

Everybody spontaneously looked at Ranjita. Generally she was the person to raise questions, to critically look at the process and to proactively think about various options. Others always put their gun on her shoulder, which was always safe for them. Anticipating other’s reaction; Ranjita kept the eye contact but did not say anything. By experience she knew that this was just a necessary ritual. If she said something, Ashish was not going to take it sportingly and would become aggressive. And others would always be on the fence, and would join the wining side. They were cowards. It was the game Ranjita was tired of playing any more.

“This is it then. Let us proceed. Keep me informed on the overall progress, I am sure we will do well this time too as we always do.” Ashish was trying to hide his relief that Ranjita was silent and wanted to wind the meeting immediately.

March is the hardest month in the life of those who work in Non Government Organizations –NGOs. Though called non-government, most of the NGOs in India are culturally close to government; at least Manthan, where Ranjita worked, was! They have the hierarchy, the authority, the ‘red tape’ism, the over-emphasis on rules and systems and general apathy towards efficiency. However March brings lot of change in working culture. March is the time to show as much impact as one can show, to utilize as much money as one can before 31st March, to document as many success stories as one can, to impress the Boss as much as one can because it is the time of annual appraisal, opportunity to get increment and promotion.

Ashish was the team leader of one of the important projects – in NGO sector Foreign Funded Projects have a special place. Ranjita, Mahesh, Devendra, Rayabhan and Pawan were the team members. Actually Ashish was not much experienced, but he came from the ‘Institute’, that was qualification enough according to the senior management. If it was only inexperience, others could take it, because each one of them was inexperienced at some point of time. But Ashish’s arrogance, the ‘know all’ approach was irritating and frustrating. The team wished the Institute had given Ashish some elementary lessons in humility! What irritated the team more was when seniors were present, Ashish was totally different person. How a person can be ‘two’ constantly, Ranjita wondered.

Manthan, though had a perfect ideology when it was established was slowly converted into a body with ‘ideology of convenience’. No matter what the ground reality was, the donors were kept pleased. No one had the courage to say ‘No’ to donors, because it was more a question of good will than the development of rural people. Everyone talked a lot of jargon – sustainability, participation, empowerment, capability building, linkages etcetera, but the words had long lost the meaning.

Now this proposal put forth by the donor agency, was not at all practical. They wanted certain processes to be completed in a very short time – forgetting that no community is homogeneous, each community has power structures, not every member of the community can participate and not all people want the poorest of the poor to benefit. But Manthan management with its ideology of convenience had accepted all those terms and conditions.

Now everybody in Manthan knew that the project intervention had faced so many hurdles that it actually was not initiated, forget about the impact. It was difficult for the grassroot workers to motivate purdah clad women, sensitize their men. Addressing issues raised by the last communal riots was beyond the control of Manthan. Then there were issues related to basic infrastructure, issues related to social inequality, issues related to politicization and issues related to human dignity. Still Ashish was talking about grand success.

The team respected Ranjita. According to them Ranjita was not competitive in nature, she believed in coexistence and cooperation. She believed that people have different strengths and one should work with others’ strengths and never focus on anyone’s weaknesses. Ashish had exactly opposite philosophy. He was ruthless, ambitious, and selfish. The team had to salute Ashish because of his designation, but for them Ranjita was their friend, philosopher and guide. Working with Ranjita was motivating and highly creative.

However Ranjita was tired of acting like a fool. She had the capacity to lead, but she had to play second fiddle just because she did not come from a renowned Institute. She was constantly neglected when it mattered most. She was tired of being ‘used’ by the management conveniently. It is time, Ranjita decided, to teach them a lesson; it is time to act and to act intelligently.

Ranjita thought about it over a cup of coffee, over routine emails and telephone conversations, she thought about it over signing number of vouchers, she thought about it again and again. She did not have much time to act, just a week left. The time was an important factor, if she mistimed it, then it would backfire. Ranjita remembered all those talks in the early days of Manthan, and felt that she had become a cheater. It was not only moral dilemma to her; it was a question of professional honesty too. But sometime life has larger stakes. ‘When there are other worlds, why care for this world?’ - Ranjita told herself.

Back home, Ranjita opened her laptop at one in the morning. “Dear Sir”, she wrote to Mr. Sarkar, the President of Manthan. She summarized the situation. She questioned the rightness of whatever happened. She appealed the President to intervene and guide the team properly so that the integrity of the team remained intact. She re-read those ten polite but potentially trouble making lines once again. With a sigh she pressed the ‘send’ button.

Ranjita knew her action was like placing a bomb. Either the President did not know it or it was under his instructions Ashish was working. If the President did not know, there were hopes. But if it was the other case, Ranjita was committing suicide. Or were there still other hopes? She wondered. She was sure she had nothing to lose in either case.

As expected Ranjita’s cell phone rang at 7.00 in the morning, Mr. Sarkar was on the line.

“Are you sure about the truth of the story you wrote me today morning, young lady?” Mr. Sarkar was known for his no-nonsense approach.
“Yes Sir, I am. I do not want this to happen sir, it will spoil the image of Manthan”, Ranjita pleaded.
“Don’t worry about the image” snapped Mr. Sarkar back. “Do you have any proof?” he asked casually.
“Yes Sir, I have back up of all those transactions”, she confidently told.
“Mail me those now and meet me at 10.15 sharp” he ordered and without any formalities cut off the line.

Ranjita was excited. The President had called her for discussion meant he had taken her seriously. She needed to prepare for the meeting, because the President was famous for asking apparently irrelevant questions, but Ranjita knew that his mind worked fast to connect and infer. Her earlier experience of him was encouraging, that is the reason she had chosen to approach him. The first step brought the expected result, thought Ranjita and beamed.

At 10.15 Ranjita entered President’s room and was disappointed to see Ashish and Mr. Gogia, the Vice President sitting there. All the three men welcomed Ranjita with a broad smile. “You have done a great service, young lady”, Mr. Sarkar was in a very friendly mood. “Yes sir, Ranjita is a very capable colleague; her critical analysis and proactive way of working is always valuable. Her insights have saved us from many troubling moments”, Ashish added enthusiastically. Ranjita was speechless. Why was Ashish praising her in front of seniors? What was his plan? Was he too in the game?

Now it was Mr. Gogia’s turn. “Yes, she is an asset to Manthan, Sir. She is a hard worker and a selfless person. Sometimes I feel guilty that we have not really understood Ranjita’s worth.” He added. “Sir, I have an idea.”

“Please, go ahead”, ordered Mr. Sarkar.

“Sir, I suggest that taking into consideration Ranjita’s experience, commitment, professional excellence, I suppose she is the only eligible person to take on this Seattle opportunity. She would represent Manthan most appropriately and truthfully.”

“That is a great idea. Ashish, what is your opinion?” asked Mr. Sarkar.

Ashish was confused for a moment. He was sharp enough to fall in line when needed. Those two men had planned specific action, and it was clear that they were not hurting him. They were trying to throw Ranjita away in a civilized manner. If that meant a loss of US trip, Ashish was ready for that. He knew if he followed the bosses now, many more opportunities would come. And he needed to save his neck too.

“But Sir,” Ranjita tried to appeal to the President. She sounded desperate.

“Don’t worry. I will take care of everything. Now hurry up. You have only three days to prepare. Yes, I know you have a valid US multiple entry Visa. It is a six months stay in USA, fully sponsored by Manthan. It is a lifetime opportunity. Congratulations, Ranjita, you really deserved it. Gogiajee, I leave the whole affair to you. Ranjita should have no trouble. Budget is no constraint, her comfort is important. Now what are you thinking about young lady? Run, you need to prepare for the travel. ” Mr. Sarkar smiled.

Ranjita had no option but to leave the room. She could feel that the three men were completely relaxed now. They had successfully fooled Ranjita. Had they?

Outside, Rayabhan and Mahesh were waiting anxiously. Ranjita tried to smile; but could not.

“We know, don’t speak”, said Mahesh.

“They have fooled you again”, Rayabhan said disgustingly. “Why are you such a fool? Couldn’t you resist the US offer? If you did not want to take a stand, why at all you started it? Were you frightened of losing the job? Why did you compromise?” He bombarded Ranjita with questions.

“Mate, Ranjita is not a fool.” Devendra was looking at her sternly. “We are fools to believe that she is acting for certain principles and we are fooled by all that rotten moral talk of hers. Don’t be stupid to be shocked. Ranjita is clever; she has gained what she wanted. She caught the management in bloody corner and blackmailed them. All this was done so sophisticatedly that even the President was fooled. Not that he is innocent; he is the biggest monster I have come across. But it takes brains to fool that President of ours. Am I right Ranjita? Kudos to you!” Devendra as usual was sarcastic at his best.

Ranjita had nothing to complain about the win-win deal. The seniors had their way and she had hers. She allowed them the satisfaction of fooling her, but in reality she had fooled them. It will take months for them to understand what she had provided. By the time they understand the futility of her accusations, she will be safely employed in US. She wanted to laugh, but controlled her feelings. She always believed that when you win, you should be most humble. In this situation she could afford to take on distrust of her colleagues. They did not matter any more to her. Now she had no time for arguments, defenses, discussions and convincing anyone. She did not need it now.

May be, she would discuss when she returns from USA. If at all she returns!

Just three days to leave for US! With infinite dreams in her eyes, Ranjita walked away without looking back.

Suddenly Ranjita stopped dead remembering Rayabhan’s distraught face. She realized that in the name of ambition and in the name of victory over others, she had lost something precious. A moment of temptation had destroyed her commitment and honesty forever. She realized that now onwards she has to live with this guilt.

In the process of fooling others, Ranjita had ultimately fooled herself!!