Wednesday, July 27, 2016

What it feels like to be a Dumb Child

“He’s the most talkative boy in class, but also really smart, and my favorite.”

It’s difficult being one of the top scorers in class, and lucky. Definitely lucky. To begin with, there’s a high chance that you have parents who really care for your brilliance in academic pursuits, while also stuffing a buffet plate of extra-curricular activities down your throat. And then, there’s the diligence with which you prepare for class tests or exams – mostly out of the fear of not making the parental Shiva open his third eye. For a top scorer, life begins with a fear of meeting expectations, first of the Mata-Pita who believe their child is an incarnation of Vishnu; and then, a few years later, expectations of everyone around, which the protagonist will disguise in the words “expectations from self”.

While this may sound supremely immodest, I have lived my share of being an “intelligent boy” over the years, mostly by accident. All my cousins were asked to be as smart as I was, when the only basis of evaluating smartness was a figure assigned to you by the Board of Secondary Education at a time when you were already bored of secondary education. The sibling would be given a hard time with multiple applications requesting emulation of the elder brother’s behavior of a susheel, adarshvaadi and ten on ten scoring individual. Teachers in school found it easy to nominate students for council positions just like people in the neighborhood found it easy to nominate me as a friend for their children’s social circles. The perks were there, of course, as was a belief in the golden rule that hard work paid off.

The hard work gradually translated to guilt when I grew up and realized that I was doing better at exams by studying on the last day, while a few of my friends put in much more effort, studying for days and still wouldn’t manage to touch a rank worthy of a discussion. The guilt would make me work a little harder, in an attempt to justify to self that I probably deserved the kind of academic “success” I had so far seemed to accidentally achieve. People would come up to me for advice and inspiration, and I would silently thank my parents for having pushed me enough through the years to help develop those mental faculties, while I doled out life advice like it was a batch of fresh, puffy bhature from the local sweet shop on a Sunday morning.

However, the academic fa├žade aside, I would feel like an absolute fool for not having any interest in political happenings around the world, being so non-opinionated about things that seemed to matter in this age and time, sucking monkey balls at Math, and generally, being an over-emotional goofball who was far away from achieving the more important goals in life, like being “street smart”. But I would hold the blanket of academic scores closer, hoping the shroud wouldn’t fall off in a gust of wind and make everyone realize how stupid I really am, and so undeserving of all the things that so happened. The impostor syndrome, clearly, is not a gender specific disorder.

Circa 2016 brought with itself an opportunity to spend a year with some of the country’s best brains at one of India’s top B-schools, also known as a parallel universe so confined in these few self-sustaining acres that the world has literally been crushed to a patch of land that I temporarily call home. With the rigorous curriculum, I feel literally cut off from life outside of this campus, while ironically gaining wider perspective about global business in such confinement.

As one accidental entry among a group of deserving peers, I now find myself scrounging for an opportunity to excel, while the others sprint through academic rigor and performance with such elan. The shroud finally slips and in all honesty, I feel more than judged on a number of occasions.

I constantly seem to live in the anxiety of people judging me on my academic grades, and disregarding all value that any other skill could bring. Even though I know people have better channels to invest their leisure thoughts in, it makes me wonder if this anxiety is what every child goes through who feels he is unable to meet their parents’ expectations of academic outperformance.

I try really hard to grasp concepts requiring high quantitative abilities with as much swiftness as my peers from engineering backgrounds do. I acknowledge how their training in quantitative subjects over the years gives them an edge in this regard, and I should not beat myself about it. But it makes me wonder how much a person’s experiences and learnings over the years contribute to their intellectual placement in the social hierarchy. It clearly does, and it’s sad when I realize that outside of this campus, the world is brutal enough to quickly pass judgment and call someone stupid while completely disregarding the various tangibles and intangibles one may have been blessed with as a matter of pure luck, which may have led to that academic advantage.

Having underperformed on one criterion that is of prime importance at this “school”, the blow to my confidence permeates to other areas of my life. I question my worth in this place. I question my ability to make a difference in anyone’s life. I wonder, and then I, at times, succumb to the more comfortable yet exceedingly difficult to perform activity of letting go. While I find my way through this place and attempt to make my own little space, I wonder how difficult it must be to go through the same outside of this confinement, when the population size is large and thankfully more heterogeneous.

As I feel gratitude for the plethora of opportunities this place provides, I feel more thankful for the learning I will take back in terms of valuing each individual for their strengths beyond parameters of academic performance, monetary growth, social popularity or other such criteria that tend to give us a sense of superiority over others.

As a “dumb child” that the society I currently see would seem to call me, I can assure you that I have tried and I will continue to do so. But I would need the world to encourage me enough so that I find my own criterion to outperform on during my time here on this planet. I would hope you will continue to do so regardless of the size of your planet.

"He's the most talkative guy in class, and also my favorite."

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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Serendipity (Guest Post)

My father met my mother at a bus stop.

He had been late that day. He’d gotten late because a pigeon had entered his apartment and he had had to shoo it out before he left. How fate works, he muses, every time he tells us the story. So after a terrible morning, he had left home cursing the Universe, a young adult travelling to get to his first job with sleep on his mind and a calculator in his hand.

At the bus stop he saw an entirely different set of people today, being there himself an hour later than usual. He saw a girl standing with her friend, in a long green skirt and with a flower in her hair. Not a gajra that would hang by a plait the way it did on most Indian women. No, her hair was open and flying all over the place and the flower was pivoted right above her ear. Hibiscus, he says. But mom swears it was a rose. Anyway, it didn’t serve any real purpose except to attract his attention.

“The bus reaches by 10 everyday, I don’t know why it’s so late today!” she whined, half-smiling. It was 10.10 then, dad says. And then, he says, she looked at him and smiled, oblivious to the light emanating from her soul and the little hipster city she single handedly created inside the ventricles of his rural geeky heart. I think he meant he fell in love but it seemed too abrupt a decision, so he decided to go with being poignant.

I’d seen pretty girls smile at me before; he says when we accuse him of being easy to please. He says this was different. How?  We ask.  Oh I don’t know. I just wanted to see her smile again. And again. Forever.

And as it happened, for weeks and weeks he’d leave home late and work late just to see my mother at the bus every day. He wouldn’t talk to her or even make eye-contact. He’d just wait for her to smile. And she did, his 50 year old cheeks still blush as he tells us, Every day she’d turn and smile and make my mornings beautiful.

Finally one morning it was raining and my mother’s friend was absent. She saw my father standing under an umbrella and asked if she could share it. It’s not like he offered it or anything, he was so shy, my mother usually likes to join in the story at this point, after a few minutes of blushing and ‘oh-you’ing. That’s when they spoke for the first time, and my father learned that mother would cut morning class every day, and so he asked her to attend it so he could go to work on time. Then onwards, she’d catch the 9 am bus with him every morning.

And he’d buy me a rose everyday for my hair, mum says as if to wrap up the story.

They narrate this so often, I begin to think they are trying to make a point. I finally ask them after one of their routine Sunday morning narrations of how they met, what is it they are trying to tell me?

Wait for someone who’ll put effort into you, says Dad.

Mom smiles and takes me to the kitchen. That’s true, she says, I didn’t even notice him much to begin with, but I’d see his eyes light up when I smiled at him, so I smiled at him. I knew he was getting late. Every day. But once I’d smiled his way he’d stop fidgeting with his pocket pen and checking the time and just sit up straight and beam at nothingness. But even though the effort bit is true, that’s not my intention of telling you the story.

Well what is it? I ask.

She smiles her miracle of a smile at me and says; Never touch anything with half your heart.

This post appeared originally on Ayeesha Khanna's blog here, and has been reproduced with permission. She is one of my favorite bloggers and there's some beautiful writing on her blog: Lazy and the Overthinker