by akshay mahajan on 21:23
Kiss the World
I got this touching and thought provoking piece today. Thought I shouldshare it with you.
Address by Subroto Bagchi, Chief Operating Officer, MindTree Consulting tothe Class of 2006 at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore ondefining success. July 2nd 2004
I was the last child of a small-time government servant, in a family offivebrothers. My earliest memory of my father is as that of a DistrictEmployment Officer in Koraput, Orissa. It was and remains as back of beyondas you can imagine. There was no electricity; no primary school nearby andwater did not flow out of a tap. As a result, I did not go to school untilthe age of eight; I was home-schooled. My father used to get transferredevery year. The family belongings fit into the back of a jeep – so thefamily moved from place to place and, without any trouble, my Mother wouldset up an establishment and get us going. Raised by a widow who had come asa refugee from the then East Bengal, she was a matriculate when she marriedmy Father. My parents set the foundation of my life and the value systemwhich makes me what I am today and largely defines what success means to metoday.
As District Employment Officer, my father was given a jeep by thegovernment. There was no garage in the Office, so the jeep was parked inourhouse. My father refused to use it to commute to the office. He told usthatthe jeep is an expensive resource given by the government – he reiteratedtous that it was not 'his jeep' but the government's jeep. Insisting that hewould use it only to tour the interiors, he would walk to his office onnormal days. He also made sure that we never sat in the government jeep –wecould sit in it only when it was stationary. That was our early childhoodlesson in governance – a lesson that corporate managers learn the hard way,some never do.
The driver of the jeep was treated with respect due to any other member ofmy Father's office. As small children, we were taught not to call him byhisname. We had to use the suffix 'dada' whenever we were to refer to him inpublic or private. When I grew up to own a car and a driver by the name ofRaju was appointed – I repeated the lesson to my two small daughters. Theyhave, as a result, grown up to call Raju, 'Raju Uncle' – very differentfrommany of their friends who refer to their family drivers as 'my driver'.WhenI hear that term from a school- or college-going person, I cringe. To me,the lesson was significant – you treat small people with more respect thanhow you treat big people. It is more important to respect your subordinatesthan your superiors.
Our day used to start with the family huddling around my Mother's chulha –an earthen fire place she would build at each place of posting where shewould cook for the family. There was no gas, nor electrical stoves. Themorning routine started with tea. As the brew was served, Father would askus to read aloud the editorial page of The Statesman's 'muffosil' edition –delivered one day late. We did not understand much of what we were reading.But the ritual was meant for us to know that the world was larger thanKoraput district and the English I speak today, despite having studied inanOriya medium school, has to do with that routine. After reading thenewspaper aloud, we were told to fold it neatly. Father taught us a simplelesson. He used to say, "You should leave your newspaper and your toilet,the way you expect to find it". That lesson was about showing considerationto others. Business begins and ends with that simple precept.
Being small children, we were always enamored with advertisements in thenewspaper for transistor radios – we did not have one. We saw other peoplehaving radios in their homes and each time there was an advertisement ofPhilips, Murphy or Bush radios, we would ask Father when we could get one.Each time, my Father would reply that we did not need one because healreadyhad five radios – alluding to his five sons. We also did not have a houseofour own and would occasionally ask Father as to when, like others, we wouldlive in our own house. He would give a similar reply, "We do not need ahouse of our own. I already own five houses". His replies did not gladdenour hearts in that instant. Nonetheless, we learnt that it is important notto measure personal success and sense of well being through materialpossessions.
Government houses seldom came with fences. Mother and I collected twigs andbuilt a small fence. After lunch, my Mother would never sleep. She wouldtake her kitchen utensils and with those she and I would dig the rocky,white ant infested surrounding. We planted flowering bushes. The white antsdestroyed them. My mother brought ash from her chulha and mixed it in theearth and we planted the seedlings all over again. This time, they bloomed.At that time, my father's transfer order came. A few neighbors told mymother why she was taking so much pain to beautify a government house, whyshe was planting seeds that would only benefit the next occupant. My motherreplied that it did not matter to her that she would not see the flowers infull bloom. She said, "I have to create a bloom in a desert and whenever Iam given a new place, I must leave it more beautiful than what I hadinherited". That was my first lesson in success. It is not about what youcreate for yourself, it is what you leave behind that defines success.
My mother began developing a cataract in her eyes when I was very small. Atthat time, the eldest among my brothers got a teaching job at theUniversityin Bhubaneswar and had to prepare for the civil services examination. So,itwas decided that my Mother would move to cook for him and, as herappendage,I had to move too. For the first time in my life, I saw electricity inhomesand water coming out of a tap. It was around 1965 and the country was goingto war with Pakistan. My mother was having problems reading and in anycase,being Bengali, she did not know the Oriya script. So, in addition to mydaily chores, my job was to read her the local newspaper – end to end. Thatcreated in me a sense of connectedness with a larger world. I began takinginterest in many different things. While reading out news about the war, Ifelt that I was fighting the war myself. She and I discussed the daily newsand built a bond with the larger universe. In it, we became part of alargerreality. Till date, I measure my success in terms of that sense of largerconnectedness.
Meanwhile, the war raged and India was fighting on both fronts. Lal BahadurShastri, the then Prime Minster, coined the term "Jai Jawan, Jai Kishan"andgalvanized the nation in to patriotic fervor. Other than reading out thenewspaper to my mother, I had no clue about how I could be part of theaction. So, after reading her the newspaper, every day I would land up nearthe University's water tank, which served the community. I would spendhoursunder it, imagining that there could be spies who would come to poison thewater and I had to watch for them. I would daydream about catching one andhow the next day, I would be featured in the newspaper. Unfortunately forme, the spies at war ignored the sleepy town of Bhubaneswar and I never gota chance to catch one in action. Yet, that act unlocked my imagination.Imagination is everything. If we can imagine a future, we can create it, ifwe can create that future, others will live in it. That is the essence ofsuccess.
Over the next few years, my mother's eyesight dimmed but in me she createdalarger vision, a vision with which I continue to see the world and, Isense,through my eyes, she was seeing too. As the next few years unfolded, hervision deteriorated and she was operated for cataract. I remember, when shereturned after her operation and she saw my face clearly for the firsttime,she was astonished. She said, "Oh my God, I did not know you were so fair".I remain mighty pleased with that adulation even till date. Within weeks ofgetting her sight back, she developed a corneal ulcer and, overnight,becameblind in both eyes. That was 1969. She died in 2002. In all those 32 yearsof living with blindness, she never complained about her fate even once.Curious to know what she saw with blind eyes, I asked her once if she seesdarkness. She replied, "No, I do not see darkness. I only see light evenwith my eyes closed". Until she was eighty years of age, she did hermorningyoga everyday, swept her own room and washed her own clothes. To me,successis about the sense of independence; it is about not seeing the world butseeing the light.
Over the many intervening years, I grew up, studied, joined the industryandbegan to carve my life's own journey. I began my life as a clerk in agovernment office, went on to become a Management Trainee with the DCMgroupand eventually found my life's calling with the IT industry when fourthgeneration computers came to India in 1981. Life took me places – I workedwith outstanding people, challenging assignments and traveled all over theworld. In 1992, while I was posted in the US, I learnt that my father,living a retired life with my eldest brother, had suffered a third degreeburn injury and was admitted in the Safderjung Hospital in Delhi. I flewback to attend to him – he remained for a few days in critical stage,bandaged from neck to toe. The Safderjung Hospital is a cockroach infested,dirty, inhuman place. The overworked, under-resourced sisters in the burnward are both victims and perpetrators of dehumanized life at its worst.Onemorning, while attending to my Father, I realized that the blood bottle wasempty and fearing that air would go into his vein, I asked the attendingnurse to change it. She bluntly told me to do it myself. In that horribletheater of death, I was in pain and frustration and anger. Finally when sherelented and came, my Father opened his eyes and murmured to her, "Why haveyou not gone home yet?" Here was a man on his deathbed but more concernedabout the overworked nurse than his own state. I was stunned at his stoicself. There I learnt that there is no limit to how concerned you can be foranother human being and what is the limit of inclusion you can create. Myfather died the next day.
He was a man whose success was defined by his principles, his frugality,hisuniversalism and his sense of inclusion. Above all, he taught me thatsuccess is your ability to rise above your discomfort, whatever may be yourcurrent state. You can, if you want, raise your consciousness above yourimmediate surroundings. Success is not about building material comforts –the transistor that he never could buy or the house that he never owned.Hissuccess was about the legacy he left, the memetic continuity of his idealsthat grew beyond the smallness of a ill-paid, unrecognized governmentservant's world.
My father was a fervent believer in the British Raj. He sincerely doubtedthe capability of the post-independence Indian political parties to governthe country. To him, the lowering of the Union Jack was a sad event. MyMother was the exact opposite. When Subhash Bose quit the Indian NationalCongress and came to Dacca, my mother, then a schoolgirl, garlanded him.Shelearnt to spin khadi and joined an underground movement that trained her inusing daggers and swords. Consequently, our household saw diversity in thepolitical outlook of the two. On major issues concerning the world, the OldMan and the Old Lady had differing opinions. In them, we learnt the powerofdisagreements, of dialogue and the essence of living with diversity inthinking. Success is not about the ability to create a definitive dogmaticend state; it is about the unfolding of thought processes, of dialogue andcontinuum.
Two years back, at the age of eighty-two, Mother had a paralytic stroke andwas lying in a government hospital in Bhubaneswar. I flew down from the USwhere I was serving my second stint, to see her. I spent two weeks with herin the hospital as she remained in a paralytic state. She was neithergetting better nor moving on. Eventually I had to return to work. Whileleaving her behind, I kissed her face. In that paralytic state and agarbledvoice, she said, "Why are you kissing me, go kiss the world." Her river wasnearing its journey, at the confluence of life and death, this woman whocame to India as a refugee, raised by a widowed Mother, no more educatedthan high school, married to an anonymous government servant whose lastsalary was Rupees Three Hundred, robbed of her eyesight by fate and crownedby adversity – was telling me to go and kiss the world!
Success to me is about Vision. It is the ability to rise above theimmediacyof pain. It is about imagination. It is about sensitivity to small people.It is about building inclusion. It is about connectedness to a larger worldexistence. It is about personal tenacity. It is about giving back more tolife than you take out of it. It is about creating extra-ordinary successwith ordinary lives.
Thank you very much; I wish you good luck and Godspeed. Go, kiss the world.
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