Thursday, August 27, 2009

Of rivers, boats and some childhood memories

picture courtesy -

Imagine a place where there are no cars or buses or even roads. Only water everywhere you see - rivers, lakes, canals, ponds, wells. Yes, I am talking about Venice- not of the west, the very humble eastern sister - Alleppey. Now a picture comes to mind - backwaters, houseboats and lakeside resorts. That is one place which has remained almost the same even after twenty years

Most of my childhood memories are entwined with water and boats of all kinds - motor, country, large, medium, small, tiny. Both my parents hail from Kuttanad*, the Holland of India (see how exotic we are - actually, the similarity begins and ends with the fact that both Holland and Kuttanad are below sea level). Those days, instead of the customary boundary wall, most of the houses there would be separated by a waterbody - a small canal like waterway. Can you believe this small canals used to be our 'car sheds'. Instead of cars and jeeps, we used to have boats of our own - most had country boats and the more affluent had motor boats. The house boats as you see it today were not really unseen then, but instead of air conditioned bed rooms with modren furniture, they used to be filled with goods being transported from one place to another.
The main livelihood of the people was farming. As everywhere, there was the landed class and the mass who used to work for them. You might have seen fields being watered for cultivation, but have you ever seen fields being drained of water for cultivation? Well, that is what we are, a set of quite contrary people.
One day at the beginning of the last century, one particularly enterprising 'janmi'* was travelling in his country boat through the vast expanse of water that was Kuttanad then. Oh, I forgot to tell you, we had our own version of drivers too. The person who used to drive the boat. Steering a country boat is an art in itself. When you are watching it from the banks, it looks very simple. Try directing a ,medium size boat, slightly larger than that in the above picture, with a long bamboo pole. Climbing Mount Everest might seem easier. Well, let me not digress here. The driver of this particular 'janmi' saw some mud sticking to the bottom of his bamboo pole and noticing something special, tasted it. Then he gave a little bit of that mud to his 'muthalaali'* to taste. To cut a long story short, thus was born the below sea level farming in Kuttanad. This smart fellow created bunds from sand and mud around thousands of acres of water and then pumped the water out, planted paddy and created an agricultural revolution of his own. That is how you find velvet green fields wherever you look at. The plight of the original paddy fields is story for another post altogether.

Realtors in cities put a premium on waterfront apartments these days. For ordinary folks like us, water in front of our houses was taken for granted. How can I forget all those summer holidays when some 10-15 of us used to rollick in that small canal in front of our mother's house for hours. We used to kick up so much mud that finally we had to have a proper bath in the bathroom to make ourselves presentable. Our parents never used to bother what we were doing. Come to think of it, the parents were never there. It was the grandparents and the unmarried aunts and uncles who used to be our care takers. Then there was my great grand mother whom all of us were petrified of. The last resort for my aunt if any of us refused to get out of the water was one call, "valyammachiii..."*

Every morning my grandmother used to go to church in the mini version of today's house boats. It was called a 'valavarayan vallam'. Medium sized, with a roof over half its length, high enough for a grown up to sit and a toddler to stand, this and the vallakkaaran - the driver - was a symbol of affluence those days. The vallakkaaran was the Man Friday to the master and mistress of the house.

I don't think I had got into a country boat in the past few years. Somehow, as you grow old, all the charm disappears or we turn a blind eye to it. It takes a child to make you see again. That is just what my son and nieces did last December. They were after my brother to take them on a boat ride and I am still not sure who enjoyed it more, the kids or their mothers. While writing this, so many childhood memories come rushing in to mind. I think I'll have to dedicate a post on each one of those.

kuttanad - an area between Alleppey and Kottayam districts in Kerala, mainly known for its beautiful backwaters, paddy fields and houseboats
janmi - land owner
muthalaali - master
valyammachi - grand mother

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What the...?!!!

Have you had one of those moments where you didn't know whether to laugh, shout or curse yourself? Well, it happened to me yesterday.

I am one of those who have to keep time with our brethren (or sistern) on the other side of the globe and work when all you lucky guys would be sleeping. So normally when I get back home, rest of the souls at home would have entered their second or third phases of sleep. It so happened that I was not feeling too well yesterday and decided to go home early.

There was absolute silence when I creeped in and that meant two things - kids have gone to sleep and hubby is working late. I peeped into the kids room to check whether they were asleep and saw a light under my son's blanket. On a closer look, I could make out it was my mobile which I had left home. As usual, he must be playing some games on it and I called out sternly, "What are you doing in there with my phone?"

"5 minutes, amma, I am watching a movie"

What the....?!!!

The little brat had recorded his favourite cartoon from the TV onto the phone and was watching it under his blanket!!

I started with my usual sermon
"But amma, you said you will never shout at me if I tell you the truth"

What the ..... again?!!!

Friday, August 21, 2009

What is this new word?

Off late, I have been hearing this word "humongous" quite often in conversations and whatever I read, but had no clue what it meant. Guess my vocabulary must be seriously outdated.

Anyway, it reminded me of another term that was quite a craze a few years back - "Paradigm Shift" . This was the favorite corporate jargon at that time and I wonder whether half of them actually knew what it meant. There was a hilarious reference to this by Anitha Nair in one of her articles in Sunday Express. Not exactly the same words, but the gist is here - "These days everyone is talking about this new thing called Paradigm. I have never been able to understand what it is, but one thing I know- it is always shifting"

(P.S. - If anyone is as ignorant as I am, humongous means "extremely large", "Huge ", "perhaps alteration of huge + monstrous" - courtesy Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

True Leaders

" A leader is best when people barely know he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, We did this ourselves! "

Lao-tzu might have said this in the 6th Century BC, but it is so applicable even now. Each of us irrespective of what we do are or should be leaders in our own right. But how many of us are ready to forego the credit for something which we have done? Especially if it is something that garners a lot of positive attention?

A few incidents over the past few months have been nagging me and forcing me to think who you would term as a leader and what are the traits a of a good leader. What is it that some have and the others don't that the world calls them great leaders?

They are genuinely interested in their team

"Leadership is not so much about technique and methods as it is about opening the heart. Leadership is about inspiration—of oneself and of others. Great leadership is about human experiences, not processes. Leadership is not a formula or a program, it is a human activity that comes from the heart and considers the hearts of others. It is an attitude, not a routine.More than anything else today, followers believe they are part of a system, a process that lacks heart. If there is one thing a leader can do to connect with followers at a human, or better still a spiritual level, it is to become engaged with them fully, to share experiences and emotions, and to set aside the processes of leadership we have learned by rote" - Lance Secretan

You might have the best processes in the world, your technology might be cutting edge, but getting what you need and more are dependent on the people you have. Many leaders forget that what they deal with day to day are real men and women with very human emotions, needs and aspirations. To understand this, you have to have a genuine interest in your team.
The best leaders know what makes their team members tick, what motivates them and what are their issues. For this level of empathy with the team, first and foremost, the leader should own his/her team, in every sense. You can easily make out teams whose leaders have this sense of ownership and pride about them. Their members have a feeling of belonging and the faith that things are and will be taken care of.

Being genuinely interested is also a lot of responsibility. You are no more responsible for yourself, you have to take care of an entire team's needs. This is not as difficult as it might seem. Once others feel that your interest in them is genuine, it builds the confidence in them to come and discuss things with you, which are positive as well as negative. You start getting different perspectives on the same situation.

They are absolutely Ethical

"In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don't have the first, the other two will kill you." - Warren Buffet

What lead to the mighty fall of many a buiness empire, be it Enron ealier or an AIG and Lehman Brothers recently? The discussed about causes might be numerous, but at the root, it boils down to just one thing - lack of ethics or integrity, the feeling that my returns today is more important than the lives of thousands tomorrow. Almost always, it starts with a small thing. When they get away with it, comes the next slightly bigger step. It keeps compounding and when the fall happens, many an innocent is crushed underneath.

It takes a person of a very high level of integrity to resist that first step. To know the real spirit of an organization, it is enough to know its leaders. As they are, so will be their followers be.

They have a clear vision and they share it

"Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion" - Jack Welch

Imagine a wonderful journey in an extremely comfortable vehicle with all amenities and your favourite food, but you have no clue where you are going. You will enjoy the journey in the beginning, get bored after sometime and then frustrated. That is what happens with teams where the leaders have no vision.

It is not only important that the leader has a clear vision, but also that he communicates it down to the team. A team that knows where it is going and why and how gets there really fast and in the shortest time.

They delegate and believe in freedom to work

"Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity" - General George S. Patton

The biggest mistake a leader can commit is not to delegate at the right time. If a leader has to spend time on strategies, he has to learn to entrust the practical mattters to others. The catch here is knowing when, how and who to delegate to. Going wrong in any of these could spell doom for the whole team.

Delegating does not mean that the leader is not involved in what is happening at the ground level. It has several sides to it. For one to grow in an organization, it is vital that a back up is created rightly. There are leaders who are control freaks who are scared of letting go, but they do not realize, they can grow only if their subordinates grow to take up the leader's current responsibilities. It is a win - win situation for everyone.

Another trait of the best leaders is that they don't intefere too much in their team member's work. You recruit a person after being convinced that he / she has the requisite knowledge and expertise for the requirement. To get the best out of people, good leaders tell them what is wanted and not how it is to be done.

They are quick to praise and slow to condemn

"I praise loudly, I blame softly" - Catherine the Great

If something goes wrong, I take the blame, if something goes right, it is the team - who wouldn't want to follow such a leader? The absolute faith and respect this attitude generates cannot be described. It is not that these great leaders do no take their team members to task. They know how and when to do it and without hurting the concerned person. Nothing is personal here. It is the conduct and not the person that is being judged.

A timely appreciation for a job well done, that too in front of others many a time maked an ordinary person great. And no one knows this better than a true leader.

They know and they are competent

"The leader must know, must know that he knows and must be able to make it abundantly clear to those around him that he knows" - Clarence Randall

You may love your team, give them absolute freedom to work, great motivators and so and so forth, but if you do not have the requisite knowledge of the job athand, you will still not be able to lead your team successfully. The passion to know, know more and to let the team also know is what makes the leader and the team he leads succeed.

"The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on" - Walter Lippman

And this is what I aspire to be - a leader who is not visible with a team which is visible, and finally leave behind a team of true leaders!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


some me time.....

a break from work and home.......

a steaming hot cup of coffee in bed every morning....

shoulder, back and foot rub every evening....

eight hours of my beauty sleep without any break in between, at least once a month.....

something to stimulate my rusted brains....

trek in the mountains, just me and wind and streams and trees and grass and flowers and birds and butterflies....

my mother....