Saturday 7 December 2013

Capturing happiness

I love writing. I feel as though I go into a different world when I write. The world becomes tiny, contains just me, my laptop, and my fingers that move on their own accord converting my thoughts into text on screen. With increasing responsibilities of running a startup, my writing has become rare. My friend commented that I seem to be writing only when I lose someone I love. When I looked at my last few blogs, I realized that she was right. I wrote when I lost my aunt, or my adopted dad, or when something made me really sad. That got me thinking about where the inspiration comes from. I realized that I have been writing only when the pain has been so great that there was no other escape except through words. I feel that I need to find the same inspiration from happiness as well. Else, there is a danger of mistaking pain as an essential ingredient for inspiration. 

There is this unspoken understanding that true creativity comes from pain, bad relationships, occasional drugs, and definitely a painful childhood. Does this mean that those who have regular lives, who had an uneventful, happy childhood cannot be creative? NOT TRUE. So, here is what we regulars, who want to belong to the “creative” class, need to do. We need to learn to derive as much inspiration from happiness as we do from sadness. The issue with happiness is that we take it so for-granted that we don’t let it overflow. I think that we need to record every moment of happiness and let it stick. When I look back at what I record, I don’t want to have memories of only what gave me sadness. I want to record those happy small moments that go unnoticed in the same way I record my moments of sadness. So, here is one such moment for me...

I was driving my car and noticed that the tire signs were lit, which means that something is wrong with the tires. The first thing that I wanted to check was the air in the tires. I have a confession to make. I have been driving for almost 30 years but I do not know how to even check the air in the tires. I pulled over at a gas station and asked a young man, who was working in the garage to help me. He asked me to pull over at the Full service station, checked the tire pressure and pumped in some air and made sure that I was okay. He went out of his way to help and did not make a big deal of it. As I was digging into my purse to bring out some money to tip him, he gave me a wonderful smile and walked away to his work. It’s not that he did not want to wait but it did not even occur to him to ask for a tip. In that moment, I felt really grateful for finding someone who was so gracious. It is such a small moment that it would have totally been lost in another day or two. But, by publicly recording it, I have given it a permanent place to boost up my happiness quotient.

Aging gracefully

There are supposedly four stages of life – childhood, young age, working age, and retirement age. Many books teach us what we are supposed to DO in each of these stages. I think that the most important thing to learn is what we need to BE in each of these stages. As a child, we are expected to be naive, inexperienced; as youth, we need to seek knowledge, learn the ways of the world; in our adult working years, we need to maintain the enthusiasm of a child, and at the same time be responsible for the world that we create around us. It is in the final stage of our life, when we are expected to retire, we are supposed to be severing our ties with the material world. In the old days, one would be expected to disappear into the woods or the Himalayas. In today’s world, we need to stay home and in a place like India, most of the older people stay with their families. My father always used to say that you need to learn how to give up the control of the house and let someone else make the decisions. This is the hardest transition for most of us.

In this stage, each of us could be the child that we once were. My father became a knowledge hungry student. He read every newspaper, book as though he was preparing for an exam. He would analyze, interpret, and write his own articles and books. He stayed mostly with my sister and brother-in-law in India, but visited me. He let me drive him around, introduce him to my friends, and integrate him into my life as a mother would integrate her son. He asked for books he wanted, made me take him shopping for his favorite kind of shoes (off-white shoes with Velcro instead of shoe laces), books, and different colored pens – simple stuff that a kid would want. He did not interfere with my day to day life but was always there when I wanted to cuddle or discuss something that troubled me.

And my aunt became a child who wanted everyone around her. She would call each of her kids and grand kids on a daily basis wanting to know their routine, she would play along with her grand daughters, and laugh heartily reminiscing old times. She lost her eyesight for the last few years of her life, and yet did not lose her sense of humor. She would let her grand kids dress her up and take photos. She went along being their favorite baby. Her granddaughter Syama would dress her up as a dacoit, or a little girl, or any type of a character, and she always played along.

In her life, she experienced many injustices but was always strong. She was passed over for a promotion to be Head Mistress just because she was a woman. She did not get mad and walk away but stayed and showed the management that they could not ignore her. She ran it with authority, grace and integrity. As an aunt, she was affectionate as well as strict. I remember her hearty laughter, but the person that I saw with her grand daughter was a person I did not know. I loved the way she developed even a greater sense of humor and enjoyed her time as a kid who would be happy to let others dress her and have fun. Even when she could not see, she let others see her in the best form.

My aunt as a pirate

Monday 23 September 2013

A Grand Daughter's Memory

I sometimes wish that we have our eulogies when we are alive, so that we can hear what others have to say about us. If success could be measured by the number of heartfelt memories we leave behind, my aunt was a super success. Just this letter from her grand daughter Syama, says it all.

"To my loving Grandma

How do I start?? What Can I Say?? Why she had to go?? You (Granny) made my life lighten up with your amazing smiles and talks. The bed time stories and tales told by you would take me into that world in dreams, the Epics of Rama, Mahabharata and the story of notorious Krishna. I miss the explanation of the words heard by you... you would describe how that and this happened, now no one is with me to describe.

It's still hard and painful to believe that you're gone. You always cared about my Health, nutty acts, and was the support bone when I got scolded by mom, saying “not a word on my granddaughter”. Now where has everything gone?? Who will Support me the way you did??  I am unable to bear the vacuum created by you. Even in the last days you used to call me "Syama! Syama!". I can still feel your voice.  I rush to your room now wishing that you were waiting to take my hand for a kiss as you do always. Now to whom I will say “I LOVE YOU AMAMMA” and who will I decorate with different Ornaments??

Grandma! the greatest reward in my life is knowing you. Nothing in the world could ever replace you, even for one second .I was lucky enough to spend more time with you more than anyone. I can never forget spending the nights cuddling you, putting my legs on you, sleeping with you, watching you prepare Yellow rice (Pulihora -all kinds of flavors) to all your Grandchildren with so much love and affection, making us compulsorily eat and made all those delicious dishes with your hands... The best treat was the mixed essence of PICKLES so peppery and seasoned with zesty taste which made our mouths water seeing them.

I can see you still hanging cloths in the front portion of our old home, because it was impossible to get them to dry in the rainy season... Those made me come into a playful mood. I know how much you enjoyed them. Can I get back those moments?? Can I have a Time Machine?? I loved just to sit and talk with you about anything and everything, no matter how trivial. You never thought about yourself but you always cared about others and their problems. You always listened to their stories, you have helped so many people. They were and will go on cherish your deeds.

All your staff and friends are missing you - Padmavathi Garu is missing her daily routine fights with you, Lalitha as usually gets up and checks the clock to tell you the time as you used to ask her daily and waiting with the Phonebook in her hand to dial the numbers ordered by you, Premraj is waiting to take you on a walk in the balcony.   Who will call Himaja in America  to ask her Day to Day and Hour to Hour updates?  On whose lap will I keep my legs so authoritatively and sit in front of the Television? Who will I butter for the things I want to buy, You were the one who used to convince Himaja to buy those thing. Come back once again to give me all these cherished moments my dear Granny. You always had time for me, you were never too busy and you never pushed me away. You held me and hugged me saying, "always be a good Girl my Bangaru Thalli". You laughed with me when I was happy and hugged me so warmly when I was sad. You always told me, "Everything will be alright".

God had a special plan for you I guess, Grandma. I think He knew that Heaven with Grandpa couldn't ever really be Heaven without you. Amomma (Grandma), please watch over all of us, but if I can ask for one more thing, it's that you please watch over Mom. She's the best Mom anyone could ask for. She gave up everything to care for you in your last days, and she needs you now more than ever. Everyone has gathered today to say our goodbyes and honor you in the best way we can. You are incredibly special to everyone who ever met you. You are one-of-a-kind and we all miss you terribly. Know that you are happy now where you are. I can only imagine how joyous the reunion was with all the family members you've lost over the years. Please enjoy them and don't be sad for us. You gave everything you had and more to make us all as happy as possible, and now it is finally your turn. Your sacrifices did not go unnoticed. Your love is forever appreciated and valued more than you may ever know.

Please stay in mummy’s heart and give her some of the strength you had. Thank you for always thinking of everyone else long before you ever thought of yourself. Thank you for making our lives far more special than they ever could have been without you. Come back for me Amamma! in any form – may be as Himaja's daughter or son! I am waiting for you. I love you more than anything else in this world and I'll see you again someday.

Love, Syama"

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Best travel companion

I love road trips and traveling of any sort.  I love the idea of going to a new place and walk around aimlessly till the streets and the buildings become your friends.  It is as though the inanimate aspects of the place come alive and become your friends even in just a few days.

My love for road trips started with my father. We would go to Praturu, to visit our home. or we would go to Guntur or Eluru, to visit our relatives. We would take off in the early hours, often 6 of us in our FIAT. Around 7 am, stop for breakfast and then continue on our day journey. Usually, holidays meant visiting relatives. I played with my cousins and neighbors, read incessantly often finishing 2 books a day, watched movies, played cards and sat around for hours telling jokes and stories. These trips were always about people and not about places. I loved staying with our friends and family. Maybe, that’s why, even today, I love staying with people more than staying at hotels. The thought of going to a place where I did not know anyone, primarily to enjoy the beauty of that place was a foreign concept to me.

It was my aunt, Kasturi attayya, who changed all that for me. She loved to travel and she used to organize school trips over long holidays.  We were all from middle class, ordinary families and could not even think of traveling by flights let alone staying in hotels. She would organize about 50 of us in each bus and typically, a 3 bus caravan would go on a 10-15 days roadtrip. We would take a cook and his assistants with us. At meal times, we would pull over close to a large open area next to the freeway.  The cook and his assistants would pull out the stoves and make a simple meal of rice, sambar etc., The kids would all play in the open area while the spicy fragrance of the food being prepared would make us even more hungry.  When the meal was ready, we would all eat in disposable plates made from banana leaves or other leaves.  We would even get special snacks in the evening at another stop by the roadside. At night, we would sleep in the buses or in choultries (dorms made for travelers), where 40-50 of us would occupy a room, once even on a train platform. 

These road trips changed my life for ever.  We went to Goa, Nasik, Aurangabad, Chandigarh and many more places. To this day, I can clearly hear the guide telling us the story of the Daulatabad fort, of how this was one of the most intelligently constructed forts. It was impossible to conquer as there were so many obstacles and traps.  I was mesmerized by the beauty of the world – the brilliance of the fort, the expanse of beaches in Goa, the organized construction of Chandigarh, scenes of the countryside. We did not care where we slept or what we ate, we were excited by the smallest purchases (probably we each had only 200 rupees or so for the whole trip to buy anything). It was as though the secrets of the world opened up to me with each step I took in a strange city -- telling me stories of the feet that walked past and lives that went by.

Today, we have Google maps, GPS, cell phones, roadside fast food places and so many other aspects that make travel easy.  I think of the times gone by when none of these things were there, when my aunt and the teachers had to plan the route, places to stay, everything that we needed for meals like rice, dal, flour, snacks, banana leaves and most importantly, the safety of 150 or so young girls who went on the trip.  We were paired with each other, with teachers watching over us.  We felt carefree and totally safe.  Even when we all slept on a train platform one night because a train was late, we did not worry at all.  In fact, we all felt as though that was one the best adventures of our lives. 

It was in these trips that bonds were formed among teachers and they became a family in more ways than one. It’s no wonder that in my 12 years of being at that school, I did not know of a single teacher who left to take a job at another place. If there was any loss, it was because the teacher’s husband got transferred to a different place or because the teacher passed away. 

I also realize that for all the women of the school, my aunt provided a vacation that was more than seeing the world.  All these women, who were expected to behave a certain way and please everyone, who spent their days juggling their time among children, in-laws, spouses, student demands and school administration - she offered an escape to see the world in a way that was unimaginable for them.  They were free from duties of being a daughter-in-law or a wife or a mother for those few days and they got to experience freedom in a whole new way. She gave everyone the opportunity to discover the world beyond their daily existence, a world where they could discover the child within themselves. That’s why, to the day she took her last breath, she was a mother to every teacher and student who stepped foot in her school. 

Today, I have traveled across every continent except Antarctica, and I still have vivid memories of the night on that train platform under the stars where the mosquitoes did not bother me, where I lay excited to see the next town, the next wonder. In some ways, I never changed. That world that my aunt introduced me to, still beckons me and I have been sharing it with my 10 year old ever since he has been born. 

Wednesday 11 September 2013

Management principles from a great school principal

Mrs. Kasturi Prasad, my aunt
As a farewell to my aunt, Mrs. Kasturi Prasad, the Principal of Madapati Hanumantha Rao School for 25 years, I thought of composing the ABCs of life that she taught me by what she DID and not by what she SAID. This is more significant than any management book could have taught me: 


When she walked into the room, people gave her the stage. No one refuted her final decision. She managed up with the authorities to maintain the freedom of the teachers and students who were under her care. 


She found great teachers and gave them the freedom to teach the way they chose. She did not intrude but she was always there if she was needed.

Beyond call of duty

She was available for teachers and students much after they even graduated and it did not stop there. She helped with the admissions of the kids into higher education, getting scholarships, and even getting them married.

Balancing professional and personal life

She woke up at 5am, made all the meals, packed 6 tiffin carriers (three kids, husband, herself and me), left for school on time at 8am, was one of the most accomplished principal for over 25 years. Everything started on time, the school won medals in debating, essay writing, painting and any other activity that it entered. Many of the students went into medicine, engineering, which were the most desirable professions of the day. 


At age 82, she lost her eyesight and sometimes had to depend on help to move her from place to place. Still, she would sit like a queen in the middle of the room, making calls, keeping in touch with what was happening with family, teachers and past students of the school. The moment someone entered the room, she would recognize them by their voice. She would remember what each guest would like and make sure that either coffee, tea, sweet or savory was served based on her memory of the individual’s preference. 


She was curious about the world, wanted to travel as much as she could. Every summer, she would arrange for a three to four week road-trip. We went in regular buses with the most uncomfortable seats; we slept on train platforms, slept on the long seats, on the floors of buses parked in petrol bunks, often 50 of us staying in just two large rooms packing up the floor space, and we never thought that it was uncomfortable. The worlds opening up in front of us was so magical that it masked any amount of dis-comfort of travel. She let her curiosity conquer any financial obstacles that came her way. 


When I last saw her on August 14th, she was in the hospital. She held my hand and said “, We are so proud of you. None of us ever supported all the stuff you did. You fought alone and accomplished everything. It is so easy for us to be proud of you now, but I feel bad that we did not support you then.” I was stunned and blown away by her ability to be such an unbiased critique of her own actions, especially in that physical condition. There were times I felt alone when I was young, when I was apart from the pack, but I never held her responsible for it. I always felt grateful for the schooling I had, for my teachers who taught me what matters most. I always felt that the tough experiences that I had actually gave me the strength to move forward. I told her that she gave me the greatest gift of all – an atmosphere of true learning where I was allowed to push the limits of my own capabilities. What she did or did not do at an individual level did not matter at all compared to what she did for the school and thereby for many individuals like me. 

As I grow older and think of my own legacy, I think of my aunt, my father and their siblings. More than any individual accomplishment, their greatest gift was the way they were there for each other, unconditionally. Most Sundays, our car would go to pick up my two aunts and a few uncles, and gather to have a meal together, chat, laugh and just hangout. They never made great plans or promises, and none of them ever said “, I love you,” perhaps ever in their life.  But, at times when I am alone and wondering about my life choices, it’s their unsaid love and unspoken actions that give me all the strength to keep moving forward. 

Monday 9 September 2013

Death Matters

Mrs Kasturi Prasad, my aunt
When grief envelops you, it is silent yet all pervasive. It is as though your body and mind have been taken over by a stranger and you are a mere observer of the world surrounding you. As I bid farewell to one of the last members of my father’s generation, grief got a grip of me. The first sense I got was that of thankfulness. I was so glad that my sister insisted that I come to Hyderabad immediately and that I went without giving some excuse, that I got to my aunt and in that unbearable witnessing of her belabored breath, I got the chance to whisper in her ears that she had the permission to go IF she wanted to go.

After seeing her, I went to our school where she was the Principal and her daughter Padma and I were students, along with my friend Neeru, from US. As all three of us stood in the school ground, I felt as though I was paying homage to her along with representatives of two parts of my life. In that split second, it was as though life went on a fast rewind. Memories of the school ground full of kids having lunch with smells of roti, dal, subji, rasam, curd and pickles assaulting the senses; of rushing back to classes when the bell rings, falling in love with Telugu as we were being prepared for debates by Satyavathi teacher, being mesmerized by math by the ever serious Augustine teacher, learning lyrical lines for English plays being directed by Thomas teacher, of being taken to painting competitions by Farida teacher, the laughter of Murali teacher; of being made to stand on a bench or being called into the Principal’s office because of some mischief or the other, totally hating having to wear that awful pink and red half saree as a uniform, secretly longing to wear the blue and white uniform of the convent school and speak in fluent English; going to book binding classes after school, spending many nights at my aunt’s house as I would inevitably miss the school bus home, Padma and I making up games and playing in their front yard, moving many homes of aunts and uncles without any distinction, scenes of my dad and aunts laughing together sipping cups of coffee on a Sunday afternoon – so many mundane moments made magical in memory. 

A few hours later, when I got the news that my aunt was no more, I went to the hospital and Padma and I brought her body back home in an ambulance. I sat next to the body that was kept in an icebox for a long time marveling at the beauty of complete stillness. The difference between her belabored breathing in the morning versus the complete quiet of her body placed in front of me now taught more philosophy of life than any book could ever have. 

Through the course of the evening, I met many of my old teachers and fellow students who all came to pay their respects to her. The next day, we took her body to the crematorium and stood close by as they bathed her, arranged a new saree on her, carried her to the burning ghat, placed her on a funeral pyre, arranged the wood on her body and lit the fire. As the fire crackled and enveloped her body, a sense of finality descended upon me. 

It is somehow fitting that she died the day after Teachers’ Day. She taught us all that we do not build schools, but we create institutions that shape lives. And there are many members of Madapati Hanumantha Rao Girls High School spread all around the world whose lives were shaped by what she created. What more of a legacy would anyone want to leave behind?

Death always brings into sharp focus what really matters… to make time for those who matter to us, when they are alive as well as when they leave us. I used to feel that when someone dies, it does not matter whether we go to bid the final farewell or not, as it does not matter to them, which is true. But, what missed my attention was that the final farewell was for ME and not for them. Witnessing death always grounds me. It is so easy to get lost in this world of meetings, money and the mundane of routine and traffic jams. But, watching her body turn into ashes, made me think of all that she left behind with most clarity.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Making Ideas Happen: My feature in New Woman magazine

My interview with Archana Pai Kulkarni for the New Woman magazine. This appeared in the publication’s March Woman’s Day special edition. 

A correction - My son's name is Arnav, not Arnab. 

Thursday 28 February 2013

Billionaires of Moments: Keeping the memory alive to make way for positive change

After the heart breaking Delhi gang-rape incident in December and ahead of my TED2013 talk I felt that I must do something. 

Don't Forget Do Something
I launched Billionaires of Moments last week, and entries started pouring in from all over the world.
The whole idea of Billionaires of Moments is to recognize moments that need to be remembered. A reminder of incidents both great and gory. The current edition is to pay homage to the young rape victim from Delhi.

We want to capture the reactions this incident evoked around the world. While we find ways to personal safety, WE MUST NEVER FORGET this incident.

I am sure that if we not let this incident slip out of our conscience, then change will definitely happen. Here is a growing crowd-sourced collection of such moments. It is important that we express ourselves, may it be through our own words or words from someone else. Our effort is to magnify every moment -- your feelings, your reactions, your thoughts and actions.
Please take a moment to submit your thoughts and go through the submissions of others.
Warm regards,
Lakshmi Pratury

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Wednesday 2 January 2013

When is being funny not really funny?

Jacinda Saldhana
Jacinda Saldhana was a nurse from Mangalore working in a hospital in England. She was minding her own business when she received a call at 5:30 am. It was from Prince Charles and his wife checking up on their daughter-in-law’s health, as she was checked into the hospital. Jacinda put the call through to another nurse who gave them the update. Nothing unusual about the interaction except that the call was from a couple of prank RJs from Australia and the contents of the call were broadcast to the whole world to have a hearty laugh. A few days later, they found Jacinda dead. The reasons are unknown but it is presumed that she took her own life. Even though the Royal couple did not charge the hospital, I can imagine the pandemonium that broke when it was broadcast to the world the inefficiencies of the hospital with Jacinda being the butt of all the jokes. May be she could not take the pressure and took her own life? Could she not have simply shrugged it off as a prank and moved on?  Could she not simply get past this?  May be not. In this fast moving world where we are all connected in an instant, even follies are forwarded with lightning speed. A simple woman who was going about her own way must have felt humiliated beyond imagination to be an international target of a joke of such gigantic proportions.  

All this got me thinking of what has media become and what lengths we are willing to go to get a story / to get a laugh ..even if it is for a split second. The joke played by the RJs would be in public memory for a week or two but the hurt it caused Jacinda could have lived with her all her life EVEN IF she was alive. The RJs have been removed from their jobs, their twitter account suspended making it seem as though it was their fault. But, I think that the blame should rest on us.. each one of us who has gotten used to being a voyeur even at the cost of someone else’s feelings. As time went by, we all have become insensitive to the feelings that we hurt along the way. The horrible nicknames we give in college that stick for the rest of their lives, how we make fun of those who look a little different, kids taping their friends in compromising positions and webcasting them, the pranks that we play – all lead to a very unhealthy living. Do we need to hurt someone to have a laugh? If we pick on public figures, that is one thing but I feel strongly that we should not pick on simple citizens who are minding their own business. We have to invest new ways of entertaining ourselves that does not involve others.
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