Thursday, May 27, 2010

Making lists

Such comfort one can take from striking items off a long list of to-dos. It gives you a keen sense of satisfaction, the feeling that you have been productive, that things have been accomplished, that you can get on with life having set it in some sort of order....

So on my refrigerator is a magnet-backed notepad and on my desk is a colorful post-it pad, and next to my telephone is a set of one-side used paper caught into a pad with a giant butterfly clip. And the assortment of pens to go along with these bits of stationery must be seen to be believed. Pencils ranging in length from an inch to 8, ballpoint pens in varying degrees of dryness, gel pens with their refills missing and caps thrown away, markers that don't mark, crayons waxed over with disuse, fountain pens that have stopped flowing many moons you get the picture!

But let's set the tools aside for a moment and focus on the lists themselves. Long lists and short lists, today's must-dos and weekly goals, and better still, year-long resolutions that hopefully will be forgotten and trashed by the time the next one comes along. What makes us make lists? What makes it easy for us to so easily strike some items off, count them as accomplished, and others as un-accomplishable?

My friend Sarika swears by her lists. And I take much comfort from them, being as I am so scatterbrained and likely to continuously re-prioritize and therefore forget. She starts each workday morning with a glance down her current list and then looks up at the whiteboard in our office to see what lists she has made for our graphics team. What's going to be finished today? And what has to be started? With determined swipes of her marker, she removes items deemed to be completed before adding others (unlike me, who keeps adding and sadly enough finds little to strike off). It's a good ten minutes before she deigns to look up at the rest of us and pronounce her verdict on the upcoming hours. Are we going to be caught in a tizzy of finishing up so she can strike things off the list? Or are we going to settle into a thinking mode as we begin some new tasks? The mood of the office often depends on Sarika's sense of how well she has progressed down her list!

So I then quietly sidle into my cabin, daunted by my inability to strike things off. But it puzzles me. I seem to be busy, working, handing over papers that have been handed to me, sending off emails in response to others sent to me (with attachments duly tracked and renamed). So why is it that my lists never grow any shorter? Or make that impressive array of red checks against the numbered items? Am I like the basketball player who runs all over the court, sweating and shouting, but never scores?

I'm pretty sure I am not that unproductive. Maybe I do run in different directions and am often out of breath without having gotten very far, but I must get some things done!

So I've come to the conclusion that it's not about making lists, really, but making realistic lists, lists that are full of things one can get done. My problem, I've discovered, is that my lists end up being more like wish lists. Large, long term projects that depend on at least two other people and a flow of information that is often interrupted before it rounds the first bend. Sarika, on the other hand, operates on the wisdom of the pragmatist. She puts down small, doable items that are important to achieve in the way to achieving larger goals. So each day, she can look forward to going home with a list made considerably shorter.

My lists are full of large goals, and I am overwhelmed the moment I look at the list each morning. Two weeks later, a month later, I find I have been busy doing things that are not on the list but the items on there have received no attention. They are too big even to begin thinking about. I seem to have not paid enough attention in the classes on goal setting and planning. Yes, I do know all about SMART goals but when it comes to organizing my day, I seem to forget that bit of the lecture. I can’t seem to draw back from the big picture to focus on the details, and it’s the details, I have learned from my friends, that make the list move.

Now I find that the Web is full of handy tips on list making, with several sites devoted to “the art” of making lists. Diaries and calendars offer spaces to create one’s hourly schedules and prioritize them., for instance, tells you how to do “just about anything” with sage advice to “spend a little time each day in planning”, while the “Ta Da List” ( claims to be simpler than writing on paper. And of course, rememberthemilk, iGoogle’s task manager, and umpteen others. There are tools for grocery lists and time-bound lists, with scheduled prompts built in.

I wonder, though, if these tools will accommodate the grand nature of my own day-to-day plans, each item designed to change the world of my workplace. What I need is a tool that will take these individual grand plans and break them down into small, baby steps that I can just maybe begin ticking off.

I already have a set of markers, in three different colours, to code that list. And a pad of nice yellow sticky notes that is waiting on my desk.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Black dogs and other imagined realities

I’ve just finished my second Ian McEwan book in a row, and my fifth overall. I’m sure this happens with many of us, that we find ourselves caught up with a writer we enjoy and whose work engages us in a deep, intimate way, and we are loath to leave. We immerse ourselves in book after book and just do not want to part company. The book I just finished is “Black Dogs” and the one just before was “Enduring Love”. For anyone who has read Ian McEwan, you would sense a certain comforting sameness across his writing—not a boring, tedious sameness, but a common thread of deeply felt humanity (and perhaps many writers have this) that is at once despairing and hopeful. There’s a recognition of a core of evil and ugliness that runs through all individuals, and it is in overcoming this or confronting it with the goodness that also runs through us that a story emerges. It’s also the specificity with which large-scale events affect each one of us, and changes our lives, forever.

Take, for instance, this extract:

“As they drank from their water bottles he was struck by the recently concluded war not as a historical, geopolitical fact but as a multiplicity, a near-infinity of private sorrows, as a boundless grief minutely subdivided without diminishment among individuals who covered the continent like dust, like spores, whose separate identities would remain unknown, and whose totality showed more sadness than anyone could ever begin to comprehend; a weight borne in silence by hundreds of thousands, millions…each grief a particular, intricate, keening love story that might have been otherwise…. For the first time he sensed the scale of the catastrophe in terms of feeling; all those unique and solitary deaths,… which had no place in conferences, headlines, history, and which had quietly retired to houses, kitchens, unshared beds, and anguished memories….. what possible good could come of a Europe covered in this dust, these spores, when forgetting would be inhuman and dangerous, and remembering a constant torture?”

(Black Dogs, Vintage, 1998, p.165)

All novelists capture our minds and hearts with something that is universal, yet particular, in a way that we are able to become part of the story, a fly on the wall, feeling everything that every character is feeling:

If one ever wanted proof of Darwin’s contention that the many expressions of emotion in humans are universal, genetically inscribed, then a few minutes by the arrivals gate in Heathrow’s Terminal Four should suffice. I saw the same joy, the same uncontrollable smile, in the faces of a Nigerian earth mama, a thin-lipped Scottish grany and a pale, correct Japanese businessman as they wheeled their trolleys in and recognized a figure in the expectant crowd…. I kept hearing the same signing sound on a downward note, often breathed through a name as two people pressed forward to go into their embrace.

(Enduring Love, Vintage, 2004, p. 4)

That one reminded me of my own private drama at an airport, one of those unforgettable cinematic scenes that one goes back to time and again. 1993, October 20. Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport. Three days before my younger daughter turned two and my older one, four. I had been in the US for a little under two months, and my husband and children were arriving from India to join me. I had not seen my little girls for almost two months. We arrived at the airport, my friend Ganesh and I, a little early as may be expected, for anxious parents who have not seen their children for a while! Finally, after what seems to be an interminable wait, the glass doors slide open and people, tired, travel worn, unsure, expectant, begin walking through into the arrivals area. It is a good five minutes before we spot them, an adult pushing a trolley with one hand and holding a sleepy but wide-eyed toddler on the other arm, and a little blue-frocked pony-tailed girl, my four-year-old Achala hanging on to his tee shirt by the side. Then she sees me, and in an instant, catapults through the doorway, straight into my arms, the stuffed animal she had been clutching forgotten and on the floor. Six weeks or more melted away and we were together again.

It took a little longer for two-year-old Ananya…she refused to recognize me, perhaps punishing me for having left without her, so there was no “arrival” for her, only a transition from one comfortable, familiar space, to another that took some time to become home.

But back to McEwan and his writing. Atonement showed us how, one person’s mistaken perception and subsequent action could tear apart lives, while Saturday takes us on a minutely experienced 24 hours culminating in a dramatic event that again, breaks down the ordinariness of our everydays, and Chesil Beach places under the microscope one evening in two lifetimes, one which changes their directions forever.

These are the book’s I’ve read. And I’m looking forward to the others….

Saturday, May 08, 2010

One house at a time

Thursday evening, 6 p.m. The work day is over for many of us, at least those for whom it who began in the morning. The bell rings. A slightly built man is at the door, two thick plastic folders under his arm and a cloth bag over his shoulder. "Census madam," he says, a bit hesitantly (because, I discover later, he expects to be chewed over by the irate inhabitants of this colony, as he has been warned). I invite him inside and ask if he wants a glass of water, seeing as it is really really hot, 42 degrees and no rain. "Later, madam. First, I need to ask some questions." He sits down on a chair in the fan-less verandah, refusing to come inside where there is a bit more air and the whiff of breeze from a cooler. A. Ramesh, the forty-ish schoolteacher who has come to do "census duty" asks me diligently about my antecedents, qualifications, and occupation, and then moves on to the head of the household and others. His hesitant manner slips a bit as he tells me about the work he has been "conscripted" into. He has been walking through colonies like mine for the past two weeks and will do the same for the next two. The data for Hyderabad's 8 million or so inhabitants is to be collected by June 10. This is the first phase of the Census, also known as the Housing and Houselisting Survey. Some people answer with a smile, making his job in the heat of the summer just a bit easier. Others turn him away saying they do not have the time to answer, telling him to come later. He will return once or twice, or as many times as it takes him to get the information, but before the deadline. Fortunately Ramesh does not have to deal with a classroom just now, as summer holidays have begun. So while his students take a break from his science lessons, he beats the streets with this two plastic folders, a stock of pencils and an eraser (I noticed because he was able to amend the form after I had given him a couple of unnecessary answers that he had to delete!). Those who do remain inaccessible will be covered in the next sweep, after which the data are consolidated.

After the glass of cold water that follows his data entry and my counter questions, Ramesh finally leans back and allows himself to relax just a little bit, before he moves on to the next house. He leaves me with a scrap of paper, a receipt which is to be produced after my face and fingerprints are captured so that a e Unique Identification Number can be assigned. This will be another mammoth task, and both together will give the Government of India its single biggest planning tool, to be then combined with formulae for resource use and generation, social services and their distribution, and projections of all kinds.

Ramesh is one of 2,500,000 individuals who have been called upon to help bring in this data. School teachers like him are the foot soldiers of these initiatives, and while they do earn a small additional allowance for their participation, it is certainly not voluntary--for those in government schools and government aided schools, such tasks often take up so much time that they cannot do justice to their primary occupation, teaching. In this case, the enumeration has been scheduled so that teaching schedules are minimally affected.

The exercise is huge, the largest of its kind, barring perhaps a Census that might be done in China. The Indian Census for the first time will also record details such as each household's connectivity and access to water, sanitation and power. The sheer logistics of the operation, along with the possibilities that come from good use of the data, are amazing (a word I do not like, but find useful here).

So, I guess, it's time for us all to stand up and be counted...and to let those who count into our homes with a glass of water at least, to give them a bit of respite from the blazing summer sun!

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Streetside love stories

On the old Bombay Highway, the road that snakes through Mehdipatnam and Rethi Bowli and whizzees past the shiny new DLF complex to lead to the University of Hyderabad after crossing a beautiful bougainvillea lined stretch, is a tiny cafe called "Time to Time", Held up in a traffic jam I find myself watching lives unfold outside its colourful signboard. A couple walks by, slowly, the girl with a college bag slung over one shoulder and the boy carrying a backpack, dawdling their way to college, perhaps, carrying excuses in their pockets. Another woman stands at the adjoining bus shelter carrying a shopping bag, next to her is an older man, greying and a tiredness visible in his sloping shoulders. He turns to her and takes the bag from her in an almost proprietary manner. She looks at him and smiles.

The most poignant love stories are not the ones that are enacted on desert sands silhouetted against burning skies, or amidst warring families and blood feuds. They happen in prosaic everyday moments, to people in everyday clothes, with humdrum needs and wants, families, homes, meals-to-be-cooked and shopping-to-be-done, involving lives entwined, enmeshed in ordinary circumstances, in spaces that fall between bills-to-be-paid and livings-to-be-earned. They are built of feelings that are felt during those mundane responsibilities and realities, their romance woven into the threads of existence that cannot be separated from the routine

Do such love stories lose their cinematic, other-worldly appeal simply because they happen to people with wrinkled hands, slouched shoulders, dark-circles-under-the-eyes or splotchy skin and greying hair? There is no make up person to touch up the oily spots or darken those pale lips and un-lustrous eyes. There's only emotion, felt keenly, strongly, truly, an emotion that totally occupies the spaces that contain the quotidian, the spaces that fill the pauses between everyday moments.

And where do these love stories find a telling? Or a viewing? Are they too precious to be given on loan to the realm of words and images, to be corrupted by the sight-smell-touch and ultimately, the mis-interpretation by minds unprepared, or too, too prepared, for the extra-ordinary?

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Good works

As we turned the corner off a little lane off another lane off a road everyone knows as "the East Maredpally Main Road", my friend Havovi remarked, "We think we know the city but we probably know less than five percent of it!" Most likely, much less, given the fact that is is growing both inward and outward every day.

We arrived a few minutes later at the "Dalith Women's Home", an old age shelter for destitute women, run by Kamalamma, who retired from the Indian Railways and put her superannuation benefits into this project. The Home offers a space for women who find themselves without caregivers or support, some single and destitute, some abandoned by their families, and others who simply have no place to go. There are around 30 people living in this rather ramshackle semi-detached building which is itself on the edges of an area that has been forgotten by city developers. An old railway track runs just by it, providing a huge source of entertainment to the children in the area, who run to watch the occasional goods train or engine on its way to the Lallaguda yard, less than half a kilometer away. Across from the Home is a small open space where the children play, The children are mostly from the surrounding basti; some are the children of the young women who, like their older home-mates, have nowhere else to go. One arrived at Kamalamma's doorstep heavy with child, her older son barely two years old. There are others like her, who have now become part of this support system, lending their youth and their agility to keeping the place going from day to day.

Kamalamma keeps the place going with whatever help comes her way. A few charitable groups have pledged short term or incidental support, a wet grinder here, a water pump there, a few cots and blankets now and then, and the occasional visitors like us who, bemused by the extent of need, give a little and leave feeling inadequate and helpless, promising to come back with more. "What do you need?" we ask her. (The question seems a bit superfluous, when Need, with a capital N, is everything they feel.) "We don;t refuse anything," she responds. "Everything that is given can be made use of in some way." So we put our minds to work, thinking of all the excess in our own lives that we can slough off, and make our hearts and minds a bit lighter in the process.

Notebooks for the children to use, sheets and blankets for the old women, money for a pucca roof, vessels and containers for food, clothes, ...and then all the other things that do not bear listing because we know it will be an aeon before they are given...better sanitation (the 35-odd people have use of three toilets located just outside the facility, their metal doors almost falling off the hinges), a more organized layout..the list of needs is endless. Havovi, who has asked about the toilets, remarks, "I read the other day that India has more cell phones than toilets!"

We talk to her and some of the other women for a few more minutes and make our way back to the car, which now looks indecently large in this small space that goes for a road, next to the railway line. And as we prepare to leave we hear the sound of a train approaching. One little girl runs toward the track, in anticipation of the view she will soon have, a promise of the means to escape the known, and everything it represents. Other children run toward the track, too, and soon one of the young mothers comes out, shouting at them to keep a safe distance. One of the little girls has never seen a train before, and the others begin to describe it to her. The engine comes lumbering up the track. That's all it is, an engine, moving tiredly on a track that few people, in the railways and elsewhere, remember.

We leave the little girl, dressed in a bright red salwar kameez that's a bit too big for her, her eyes wide and hopeful, as she stares at the receding engine. And we leave the little island of support that Kamalamma has created for the women, feeling a bit sad at how much more needs to be done. It's easy to feel overwhelmed and turn away, cloaking ourselves in the idea that we cannot really do much. It's much harder to stay and do the little one can. It might just mean that a little girl in a red salwar kameez is able to look at other things in wonder, and in hope.