Monday, August 24, 2009


In my fairly long but strangely unchequered career, I've been lucky to have had mostly mentors rather than bosses. But even in a line of giants, Joe stands out.

Recently, I stood up in front of about 70 people and made a presentation. It's not the first one I've made, so it was not a big deal, and that was exactly what was special about it. It's a long distance from the person I was at Joe's first appraisal of me seven years ago. He looked calmly at a defensive writer and said "I agree you don't really need it when you're a writer. But if you want to grow into something more, you have to be able to talk." Then he told me the crucial thing I needed to know: "Making a presentation is not about showmanship. It's just about telling a group of people what you know or believe in." And changed my view of my job, what I could do and how far I could go. He introduced me to ambition.

He grew up in Africa, went to graduate school in San Francisco and is Lebanese at heart. He had a parrot in his office that adored him like a dog and brought a happy German Shepherd named Pablo to work occasionally. His opinion is brutally frank and his compassion, disarming. He's eccentric and moody, but his scrupulous sense of fairness is only matched by his self awareness. I have co-worker friends who for some reason were not considered "my people", so I know that life with Joe was not all joy. But I was very squarely under the mantle and so felt no growing pains for six years, though I was making gigantic leaps as a person.

His annual appraisal of me consistently included the emphatic words "too nice", which graduated to "stupidly nice". My essential nature and first responses have not changed. I still find it hard to correct someone I like but because of Joe I do it anyway. I still shy away from confrontation but I will speak up against injustice. I still want people to like me but when I have to I will nevertheless go ahead and do things that will get me disliked. I was taught well.

Most of all, Joe gave me a role model, a template and manual that I refer to a million times in my working day. He only asked that we did the best we could and enjoyed ourselves doing it. He inspired absolute trust, which for a creative team, translates into having the confidence to take risks. He knew that his team's loyalty was the index of his success, their triumphs, his own.

That seems clear and logical, but when you're in the fray and surrounded by the loud and the hasty, it is easy to forget. Away from Joe's guidance, work is a particularly nerve-wracking episode of Survivor, but I brought with me four magic words that work without fail in any situation: "What would Joe do?"

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The best thing I've read this week

Approach people w/
happy curiosity, it will
disarm them.

This was written on two Post-it notes left inside a book. On "Forgotten Bookmarks".

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Favourite random things of the week

Favourite Quote
“The more colourful you are, more the possibility of you being respected as a living animal on Kerala roads,” says a cyclist friend who did a trip in full cycling regalia from Kochi to Athirapally Falls (approx 165 km) along Kerala’s homicidal highways.

Favourite Eavesdropping Situation
The table next to me seems to be engaged in either a chemistry-free date or chemistry-ridden interview. It’s been 30 minutes and it’s still unclear. Aha, it’s neither – it’s a “proposal” meeting and he may have just blown it by not responding to a joke she made, and then paraphrasing it back to her as his own. Then again, you never know: maybe she finds it endearing.

Favourite Bit of News
A call-centre taxi driver was returning home on his motorbike after work – and got run over by a call-centre taxi.

Favourite Find on the Net
“With the Backing of the USDA, One Lady Seeks to Remove One Man's Elephant that he's Loved and Owned for Over 25 Years.” Read all about it.

Favourite Bit of Unease
Listening to Obama’s election night speech again today, the lustre seemed to have dimmed a little. At the time it seemed a sincere speech – well-written, yes, but not too much so for a good orator – and more importantly, it seemed humble and understated, two traits alien to US politics. But listening to it now, it seems too crafted, too much a product of the ultra-evolved communications industry for comfort. Words are powerful in the hands of someone who knows how to use them. Godmen and other confidence tricksters have known this since the first caveman managed to get a group of other cavemen to hunt his mammoth for him.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

It’s the illusions I recall

I heard a rumour that my old school is soon to be shut down. That’s my only school – I entered it for kindergarten at two and a half and left it with high honours at 15, class monitor, house captain, school prefect, prizewinner, teachers’ pet but nevertheless a very popular know-it-all, who did not yet know that that would be the last time she would enjoy certainty of victory.

It was a rural school, many students were the first ones in their families to be literate. There was a strong teaching ethic that had nothing to do with the syllabus, and a deep influence on the small community that Whitefield was at the time.

Around the time I entered high-school, the small private concern had entered a disproportionate stretch of glory. We became a centre where other schools came to write their school-leaving exams. We shone in state-level sports and cultural meets. Our name was heard in high places and our school band went to greet visiting government luminaries. Our chief guests grew more distinguished every year. Our teachers were volunteered as polling officers and advisors on textbook committees. We were the preferred guinea pigs for Education Board types, so new perspectives entered our classrooms now and then, usually in the English classes (or these are the only ones I remember). In later years, I studied with some formidable teachers of English literature but it was those visiting academics who really shaped the way I read and write, opening windows where none had existed.

Other shutters were removed too, quietly and forever. There was (still is) a school for the blind across the road and some students from there were sent to study in ours, a lesson in self-sufficiency long before it was fashionable to think of the disabled as differently abled. My mother was one of the group of teachers in my school that crossed the road and learnt Braille to make this happen. Most alumni my age will remember at least one blind child in class. One of these children is now a very senior official in a bank, another is a translator in the UN. It still bothers me when someone hurries to assist a blind person with what they believe is compassion but is really presumption, and am gleeful when the helper is shaken off impatiently. Then there was “moral science”, which was a secular teaching of principles of the “honesty is the best policy” variety. Religion only entered intellectually in the language text books through poems or stories from the major religious groups.

But I went to last year’s School Day celebration and found a mere facsimile of the place I remember. “Moral” overwhelmingly means Hindu now. Eid is a day off. Christmas is a foreigner. The Guru Granth Sahib is a mystery. Even the Buddha gets no air time. The strange parochialism that is being celebrated across the country has permeated into the staff room where teachers have long been required to wear saris, leaving no room for diversity in the form of a skirt-wearing kindergarten teacher named Lillian or a music mistress called Miss Dunn swathed in awe-inspiring frocks. No blind children play football with the sighted ones. Professors do not take poetry classes for 14-year-olds on teach-the-teacher visits.

It seems the school I knew is long gone anyway, I’m just glad it existed for a while. I have to admit though that the tartan band uniforms are much better than ours used to be, as is the band itself.

The rumour turned out to have got it wrong - it wasn't the school that was ending but the tenure of the head mistress. She used to be my maths teacher, one of the strong influences of my school days, and with her goes the last of the old guard. I guess I have no more reason to visit the school, for school days or anything else.

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