Sunday, June 19, 2022

Whats the Good Word?


There used to be a game show hosted on DoorDarshan Mumbai in early 80s called 'What’s the Good Word?' hosted by top etiquette trainer and Actor Sabira Merchant.  I think many of us still carry nostalgia about this show. I still remember how I used to eagerly await this weekly episode that used to telecast late at 10:30 midweek. Just to remind the format, let me explain it. Three teams of two players each competed over guessing the key word with a list of related clues. Play began with an introductory clue. For example, a set might begin with "This can either be a friend to man or an enemy." Clues would then be read while the timer clicked down. Clues for this sample set might be: Wild, Red, Flash, Gun, Ants, Side, Truck, Hydrant, and finally Fighter (a maximum of ten clues would be revealed). The good word, of course, is FIRE. When a team rang in to answer, they would write their response down. If they were correct, they earned one point for every clue that was revealed. If they were incorrect, the team scored 11 points. Team with least score won.  Similarly in life, we always continuously play a    game of choosing correct words to express ourselves. But many of the times we end up choosing wrong word and complicate our lives. Right words can heal while wrong words can destroy. 

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: “Words. So innocent as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” We are surrounded by people who have destroyed us at some point of time by choice of the words which are apparently innocuous but actually mean something unpleasant in unrelated context.  They penetrate guards we build around us through careful indictors to avoid discussion on sensitive topics. Sometimes people do intentionally but problem is that most of the time it’s done unconsciously based on insensitivity of the speaker. There is another quote that “The magic of words is that they have the power to do more than convey meaning; not only do they have the power to make things clear they make things happen.” The implicit meanings and varying contexts add to potency of the words and their usage. A careful and sensitive speaker should take cognizance of all the meanings and contexts before using them. 

For those creatively inclined towards humor, use of wrong words has created hilarious situations. The term malapropism refers to the incorrect use of a word in place of a similar-sounding word, typically with a humorous result.  President George W. Bush was called out for several malapropisms, perhaps the funniest being “We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile or hold our allies hostile.” Close, but we’re pretty sure he meant “hostage,” not “hostile”! A ‘spoonerism’ is when a speaker accidentally mixes up the initial sounds or letters of two words in a phrase. The result is usually humorous. Example: ‘shake a tower’ (instead of ‘take a shower’) 

Carefully chosen words have avoided wars in past while created controversies as we have seen in many instances. Once incident stands out as an example. To quote verbatim: In October 1962, the world came very close to a devastating nuclear war between two superpowers; the USA led by President John. F. Kennedy and the USSR were led by Nikita Khrushchev. The whole drama started when the CIA discovered that medium to long-range Soviet ballistic nuclear missiles were being built on the Island of Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. The fate of millions of people around the world depended on how these two men would communicate with each other. Instead of sending his army to invade Cuba, he decided to parley with Khrushchev via exchange of letters in order to see if they could find a way to resolve this conflict without having to annihilate each other in the process. On 22 October 1962, John F. Kennedy addressed the nation via live television broadcast. His message was intended for the domestic audience but also for the international public at large. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev chose their words carefully, those words had so much power that they suffice to put an end to this conflict and save the world from jumping into the M.A.D world of Mutual Assured Destruction. During our work and in personal life we have to be a statesman. L H Lidell has said: “Keep strong if possible. In any case, keep cool. Have unlimited patience. Never corner an opponent and always assist him to save face. Put yourself in his shoes, so as to see through his eyes. Avoid self-righteousness like the devil, nothing is so self-blinding.” 

Sometimes words can kill; they can easily arouse feelings of fear and anxiety. History is full of events where the smallest of occurrences had the most momentous consequences. Words uttered to the wrong ears can create offenses that can result in the fall of empires and wipe away complete nations. There are serious incidences in history where a replacement of simple alphabet has created entire chapter in History. The entire espionage game during cold war has created very intriguing case studies of communications and code words built as a protocol. World wars changed the course of history through misleading information and carefully planted messages.  

Obviously, there are certain circumstances in life that understandably leave us speechless, and yes, in such instances, maybe it's warranted to say something along the lines of "words cannot express how I'm feeling right now." Somehow, I feel there is nothing in this world that cannot be expressed by words. We can always find words that can describe our experiences. Our languages are capable to handle every emotion. But there are some occasions where silence will serve better than a careful selection of words. And every individual should have that sensitivity to use silence as a language when situation warrants.  


Sunday, June 12, 2022

Keep Faith and Be Happy


I typed a query in Google: What should we do that is both effective and feasible for increasing our happiness, starting today?  After studying the top results, I found that the following are the top 10 things you should do.  Invest in family and friends: to improve our closest relationships by sharing experiences and freeing up time to spend together. Join a Club: to join a group and have a sense of belonging and protect against loneliness and isolation. Be active both mentally and physically: walk and read for an hour.  Get physical exercise regular exercise of all different types enhances mood and social functioning.  Act Nicely: Be Agreeable to everybody. Be Generous: Behaving altruistically toward others rewards the brain with happiness-enhancing boosts. Check your health: things that create the greatest unhappiness are typically chronic pain and anxiety. Experience Nature: walking in a woodland setting more dramatically lowers stress, increases positive mood, and enhances working memory. Socialize with colleagues outside your work:  work friendships increase employee engagement, which is associated with both happiness and productivity for workers. The final point which surprised me was to practice your religion.  Religious people tend to be happier than those who are not.


This is a big paradox. Throughout the ages, humanity has conflicted over religion. They have resorted to violence, wars, terrorism, tyranny, persecution in the name of religious expansionism and compliance. Invaders have plundered the continents in the name of expanding the religion. Others have been lured by money and incentives to expand their religion. That way I am proud to be part of Indian culture and belief system which accept multiple sources of divinity and believed in coexistence. In fact we have millions of Gods within our culture. We have never expanded or killed others for their belief system.  But worldwide we have seen mass destruction and misery in the name of religion. On the other hand at an individual or personal level it’s the belief system or religion which results in inner peace with the events happening in your life. There is a certain logic attached to actions. It gives humanity a conviction to endure the grief and seek happiness.  In the search of happiness, you need to have a traditional faith or you need to practice it traditionally. However, for the purposes of happiness, religion can be understood more broadly, as a spiritual or philosophical path in life. It is a search for transcendent truths beyond your narrow day-to-day life. 

Let me start with my own journey towards religion. I have seen my own transformation from being atheist to agnostic and now a conformist. When you are young, you have some false sense of romanticism, incorrect sense of know it all arrogance, some immature ideas and false self-belief. No one teaches you about the life as good as the life itself. Life has been a roller coaster ride and I assume it’s the same for all only the gradients of the climb and troughs along the routes vary. Having seen highs and lows, one gets a very serene outlook to take it all phlegmatically. There were some very strange incidences in life where I was saved by nothing short of divine intervention when I was lost in the jungle during a trek gone wrong. There were business situations where some strange hitches helped taking some strange decisions which proved good in the longer run. Then there were near death experiences which turned out fine at the end.  Of course to every upside there is downside. But even during the hardships, there were occasions when only stubborn sense of survival based on strength given by the religious beliefs prevailed and helped me carry through.  More or less all of us have been through peaks and valleys of life and have our sense of belief system to rely upon. But having that belief system is part of our process to seek happiness. One thing to note here is the difference in religion and faith. Faith is individual belief system. It can be any form of worship as against religion which prescribes to one or many way to worship. But let’s not complicate the matter. Having faith system is very crucial to individual or collective happiness 

Just like me, People who are believers or have belief system have a certain mind-set; the power of prayer, the belief in an afterlife, the sense that someone is looking after you, that there is a higher power that things happen for a reason. This mind-set helps people make sense of tragedy, struggles and loss. Another positive thing about religion is socialization. Being a part of society or a community which share same beliefs celebrate festivals and so on really helps Individual add happiness.   Being accepted as a contributing member of community sharing same belief system is rewarding.  

There are many myths and false notions for seeking happiness. Many people believe in   “If it feels good, do it” philosophy. Unfortunately this can lure us toward bad habits and away from deep purpose. There is also “Let your anger out” belief which research clearly shows leads to more anger, not relief.  All the advice to let yourself be managed by your emotions and desires is not that great. 

If you really want to get happier, you need a fully integrated strategy rather than a disconnected tactics. A happiness strategy should have three parts to it. First, you need to commit yourself to understanding happiness. That can mean many things, whether it’s learning about the science of happiness, studying philosophy, or immersing you in a faith practice. Second, you need to practice good happiness hygiene.  Finally, share your knowledge and progress with others. Beyond being an ethical thing to do, teaching will cement your philosophy and habits into your consciousness. The most important thing to remember is this: You don’t have to leave your happiness up to chance. No matter where you live or what you do, you can manage your own joy and share it with others. 



Sunday, June 5, 2022

The Independence Day


I am sure we all still have nightmares of exams. I remember those late nights as well alarm bells ringing at any odd hour of the day. Exam time used to be stressful. It was around this time of the year. But then there was one day we used to wait for the whole year.   This day was the date of the last exam of the academic year.  Everything was planned around this date. Beyond that there was deliverance. That day gave us Independence to do anything we liked or do nothing at all in the actual sense. Doing nothing was not a crime during those days as it is these days.   


In Indian culture, life is divided into four stages. The first of that is education. The next stage is married or family life along with professional life.  Let’s leave aside the last two stages of retirement or forest-dwelling and renunciation for my very own lack of experience in those.  Let’s divide the education stage into two stages: school and college. The meaning of this Independence Day was different in each stage.     


School days were great. Beyond Independence Day, there was a summer vacation from mid-April till mid-June. Swimming, riding rented cycles, eating mangoes, staying at a relative’s place, reading books, watching children's theatre, films, visiting public parks, and sleeping on terraces were the highlights of those simple days. Pre-monsoon rains and the arrival of monsoon dates were fixed. Nature had not lost its balance then. The study was also not that stressful. Yes, career options were limited and yes there was stress around board exams and the main two entrance exams.  We only had one channel on TV and there were no cell phones, social media, or gaming to complicate our lives.  We also were not forced to attend any summer camps or hobby classes. Final Exams in school were the time to really catch up with studies. The whole year we used to spend playing cricket, watching TV, playing with friends, completing homework for sake of it. There were exceptions among us. Things changed during board years when we attended classes and tuitions. The study was regularized and exams were taken as a practice. I still remember the stress and drama of board exams. Merit list existed then and being featured in that was over a top experience for me.    


We went to the college which in my case it was IIT Kharagpur where we experienced hostel life cut off from the rest of the world.  Independence Day then meant a date on which the last subject of the end-semester exam was scheduled. Once that ended, we used to travel 36 hours to reach our homes on the trains. Imagine doing that in the heat and dust of the Indian subcontinent in the sleeper class without reservations. There were labs, quizzes, and tests throughout the semester.  We also had mid-semester exams. But the end semesters had maximum weightage in the grades. CGPA was the most dreaded four-letter combination which really scared us. Higher CGPA was needed for scholarships at the universities for post-graduation or to get a high-paying job with a reputed company. Exams were stressful as we did not have any preparatory leaves as such. The syllabus was taught till the day before the end semester. The collaboration we had during exam study was exemplary and prepared us for important challenges later in life. There were superstitions as well. A senior resident used to play on his huge music system a ‘bhajan’ which was very important for the whole hostel without which people felt their preparation was incomplete.  There was a night canteen where people ate during odd hours, especially during exams. Being cut off in a rural area did wonder to our extracurricular life and the bonding we carried in later life. Time management skills are very much imbibed throughout.  The end of exams meant separation from friends for three months. There was no social media and internet in the mid-nineties. Vacations also did not mean internships except for the last year. Vacations were meant for vocabulary building for future exams and interaction with the opposite sex for very few.  We still remember our last exam in the fourth year which separated us to meet our destiny spread across the globe.  Also, there was a sense of aspiration to lead our lives as we dream.    


The feelings at the end-of-year exams especially the landmark exams are mixed.  The first feeling is self-congratulation. You did it and it wasn’t that difficult.  There is a feeling of self-doubt if you miss out on a question. There is a relief that you won’t have to appear for that exam again ever.  You feel a sense of being part of a team with your batch mates. There is a panic wondering what if you fail the exam. You will have to do it again. There is acceptance of fate. It’s sealed and you cannot do anything about it. There is a sense of Nostalgia about the year spent with your buddies. There is dread. Will you cope with the next challenge? There is a sadness that all that you have worked for a whole year; this part of life including the stress part is over. Finally, there is a sense of maturity as exams are over and you are in control of your destiny now; not stressed and bound by restrictions. With all these feelings surrounding the exam, you go out of your exam room to meet the next challenge of your life.   


Life has moved on to the next stage. It has taken me to various places and rendered me different experiences. You can say that every day is a challenge and a test in professional life. But still, at this stage, I miss the feeling of that Independence Day.  I haven’t experienced that feeling after the end of my education. The feeling gets you so nostalgic to an extent that may get you back to the school.    



Monday, May 30, 2022

Aging with Objectivism


In a humorous story, Great Marathi Author P L Deshpande’ s imaginary middle-class protagonist D B Joshi, makes one statement that no one needs to do anything special to keep this world going. He wonders how his employer's company functions without anyone doing any significant work. This statement can be interpreted as totally sarcastic. The sarcasm of PL is inherited from his role model PG Wodehouse who was accused to be totally elitist while instead, he ridiculed the castles and lords of Victorian England.    But in reality, as we see, the world survives on the hard work of a few. No one in literature has described it as strongly as Ayn Rand and her objectivism philosophy. Ayn Rand has influenced many generations as they read her early in life and while as people age they realize the realities of life which contradict her binary world of romanticism. You discard many of the processes as immature. But as a verdict after aging, objectivism leaves a good residual impact and helps you ease out a few things in life situations.  


As happens with many, Ayn Rand entered my thought process as a teenager. That’s a great influence that has impacted many lives. Life never remains the same again. I have read a few responses from young adults who say that her writing has freed them and they taught them to rely on no one but themselves. Ayn Rand book sales still number in hundreds of thousands annually and incidentally tripled since the 2008 economic meltdown. The core of Rand’s philosophy is that unfettered self-interest is good.   This, she believed, is the ultimate expression of human existence, the basic principle by which one ought to live one’s life.   She claims that humans start their lives with a zero slate, and pro-social tendencies, particularly altruism, are restrictions imposed on us by society, deceitful lies that cause us to betray biological reality. The protagonist of her most popular novel, “Atlas Shrugged,” symbolizes this: John Galt is a ruthless captain of industry who struggles against stifling government regulations that stand in the way of commerce and profit. In a revolt, he and other captains of the industry each close down the production of their factories, bringing the world economy to its knees. “You need us more than we need you” is their message. In ‘Fountainhead’, the hero is Howard Roark who believes in only his own expression and excellence in architecture versus collective guidelines or customer expectations. All individuals should be motivated by the individual zeal to achieve their own satisfaction and professional excellence and be uncompromisingly adamant to accept anything driven by the interest of the common good.  


My own career was shaped based on this. But I realized later in my life that Ayn Rand’s Philosophy had many flaws. Same books sound immature if read at this stage of life. Humans have a tendency to cooperate and to look out for each other, as noted by many anthropologists who study hunter-gatherers. Those who believed totally in Objectivism never grew out of the usual "the world is persecuting me and doesn't see my true genius" phase as a teenager. As a paradox, some people claim to adore the free-market glorification of Ayn Rand," pretentiously imagine themselves as individualists like Howard Roark and John Galt, tell themselves that their greed is beneficial, and thus demonize government and taxation. They are more than happy to (among other things) drive on taxpayer-funded roads; to have their assets defended by government-funded police and firefighters; to have their property rights protected by a law enforcement collective known as the judiciary. These collective realities things are inevitable and unbridled individualism out of social context is nothing. It takes years of life experience to get you away from Rand’s romanticism. There are few real-world flaws of Objectivism which you realize as you grow. Laissez-Faire capitalism is a utopian fantasy. And like all utopias, it cannot actually exist. Reason has real-world limitations. Facts do not trump feelings, wishes, hopes, and fears. Every man does NOT exist for his own sake or own self-interest.   


My own Objectivism started diluting as I aged. I was driven by slightly unfashionable motivation and was slightly intangible in form of the nature of work that I liked in those years. And I had to pay price for that un-conventionalism sometimes. But ultimately objectivism is what mattered and triumphed in the end as per my own standards and not to be judged by anyone. That is the biggest learning I have got from books of objectivism. And it acts like strength during moments of doubt. 

Thus I firmly believe, contrary to the imaginary D B Joshi, that it takes a few good hardworking men to keep the system running. Imagine honest IAS/IPS officers taking on the system. Imagine well-meaning employees in corrupt governance systems. Imagine a few key Project Managers and techies managing the whole project amidst loads of good for nothing and pampered project teams. Every organization has those. These people are driven by a sense of ownership, excellence, and achievement and not by external drivers. Search around you in your workplace, you will find them whichever might be your domain.  But then do all get recognition, some do. Most of these ‘first handers’ as defined by Ayn Rand go unsung.  We have many examples of that. If anyone has seen movies like ‘The pirates of silicon valley’ or ‘social network’, or Infosys saga fact still gets underlined. Not that all these great people were not ‘first-handers’, but life lessons teach you that apart from professional excellence or objectivism, you need some special skill sets to get recognized and make it big as beautifully explained by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. And mostly world has a tendency to worship false heroes. But those driven by real-world objectivism don’t care and they march on. 

Sci-fis and thrillers are rendered irrelevant with time. Some books like Atlas Shrugged or Fountainhead render different experiences in different stages of life, unlike timeless classics.