Thursday, May 24, 2018

Jottings - slice of life - 209 ( The wedding Royale - Saga continues..)

Jottings - slice of life - 209 ( The wedding Royale - Saga continues..)
One of my distinct childhood memories is that of Princess Diana's wedding. I must have been in 5th or 6th grade, when teachers announced that all of us will assemble in the school auditorium the next day to watch the live ( or recorded, i dont recall correctly) telecast of this royal event. They wrote a short message to this effect in our study notebooks for our parents to read and acknowledge. Few months before this wedding, I remember a lot of buzz going around, lot of adult talk about an impending wedding of grand proportions. I vaguely remember seeing glimpses of Diana’s young and smiling face in the Hindu, one of our national Newspapers, proclaiming her as the bride of the century. I was too young to notice if she was beautiful or not, but the image I distinctly have at this distance in time is - she did look very pleasing to the eye. A kind of disarming and open smile with a touch of melancholy which gave one a queer feeling of comfort and homeliness. However, I didn’t understand what the hype was all about. Not that I am supposed to, at that age. But still, with others talking so much about it, it was expected that all of us look forward to it. The only thing I understood about weddings in general was: it is a grand affair, people get to wear good clothes, eat sumptuous food, lots of fun, and more importantly, one gets few days off from school work. I didn’t quite realize, nor did anyone make the effort of making me realize, the difference between the gravity and scale of this wedding and many others I had witnessed or heard about in our family. To my limited childish brain, princess Diana’s wedding was nothing but a three hour break for fun. At least, thats what I was prepared for, when I went to school the next day.
Frankly, midway, I remember getting terribly bored. The interminable formalities, the loud and incomprehensible choir that seemed to go on and on, the solemn look on all faces, the utter slowness of the procession began to irritate me. I longed to get up and walk out the stuffy hall I was in; but couldn’t. The next best thing was to secretly pray for this event to come to an end. That didn’t seem a possibility either. I remember looking around to see my teachers glued to the television screen with awe, especially the ladies. They was passing endearing comments on Diana’s dress, her earrings, her necklace, and how chiseled and calm her face looked, what a great pair they made, and more. Every now and then, teachers would look at us expecting we to reciprocate their joy. It was clear they wished this wedding to go on forever. I was however visibly fidgeting, and my fellow classmates were no better.
But after all these years, If there is one thing that distinctly sticks out in my memory of the Royal wedding, it is the sheer glitter, extravagance and grandeur which enveloped the event. There was also a solemnity to the occasion, that my young immature mind couldn’t comprehend then; but, at this distance of time, I now understand it. The tremendous power and sway of monarchy, the sheer gravity of the responsibility of royalty, and the need for scrupulously exhibiting it on occasions such as that, can take quite a toll on oneself. Whether we like of not, we love our kings and queens and hold them to a standard. We want them perfect in all respects. For thousands of years, the human psyche was trained to look up to their monarchs as Gods. Two hundred years of democracy cannot change that attitude. It will take much more time. The reason why the wedding of Charles and Diana was hailed as the most romantic one of the twentieth century was not because there were the most handsome couple, but it was for the fact that monarchy had chosen someone so beautiful and fragile as Diana into their fold and reinforced the fact that for Royalty nothing but the best would do. Such an occasion demanded total allegiance, acquiescence and awe from its people.; hence the extravagant ceremony and pomp. For Diana, it was a vindication of the fairy tale story of finding a rich and powerful prince. The exuberant, care free girl had been transformed into role model with specific code of conduct, decorum and etiquette. What I remember distinctly from the day of the wedding was the hint of raw sadness in her deep blue eyes, periodically masked by spontaneous, mercurial smile on her face. A curious piece of memory to stick on after few decades. When Diana was killed in a car accident in 1996, strangely the first thought that flirted through my head was this young face with all the conflicting emotions writ large.
Well, one more Royal wedding just happened . Megan Markle , the American actress, now become the Duchess of Sussex. Once again, millions sat glued to the television sets watching the couple walk down the aisle in St George chapel. Once again, a young lady gets sucked into the halls of monarchy, and once again, every act, every move, every gesture, every word she utters will be weighed, criticized and analyzed by a stringent hand. It is a life which may seem glamorous and privileged for those viewing it from outside; but for the players themselves it is an serious act of adjustment, almost complete transformation of who they are and what they want to be. It is not easy. To some, it comes easily, to others, like Diana, for instance, the change was difficult, and in her case it never completely happened. We will now have to see how the American bred Megan adjusts to the stuffy demands of Royalty. Times have changed though. Prince harry lives in modern times with newer modes of thoughts and living. Perhaps for him ,Monarchy may not hold the same rigor as it did for his father; and perhaps because of that, the demands on his wife may be more respectful accommodative and less fettered. The aged queen still hold supreme. As long as she is alive, the penumbra of royalty will cast its traditional shadow upon the family. Not in any wrong sense , but in the fact that she will expect certain standards of propriety and behavior maintained as part of Royal household. But after her, it remains to be seen how the family adapts itself.
This time around, I didn’t bother to watch Harry’s wedding, though virtually all broadcasting stations beamed it. Thankfully, there were no school teachers forcing me to sit through it. However, I had no choice but to watch snippets of it on the news. It looked like Megan Markle is all set to live the live of a duchess. The self evident smile of satisfaction was lit large on her face. Prince Harry was subdued, obviously relishing his accomplishment of dating a beautiful lady for year and half, and marrying her without too much fuss within the Royal household. That is sure sign of changing times.
Lets wish the couple a wonderful Royal life. Not many get that privilege.
God bless..
yours in mortality,
Bala


Saturday, May 19, 2018

Jottings - Slice of life - 2017 ( The woman who put the man on the Moon - Margaret Hamilton)

Jottings - Slice of life - 2017 ( The woman who put the man on the Moon - Margaret Hamilton)
On 20th of July 1969, Apollo II landed successfully on the Moon, and two male astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, stepped out their spaceship and placed their first tentative step on its hallowed surface. It was a momentous event in Human adventure. That we could physically propel ourselves out of earth, soar into unexplored areas in space, and land with precision on a targeted satellite outside of earth’s orbit - was a grand dream come true from the time of the copernican revolution. From that moment onwards, we were no more tied to earth. Our destinies could now be linked to vistas beyond this planet. But little do many know that Apollo II nearly aborted before it landed, and even fewer know that if not for the robust and pioneering effort of Margaret Hamilton - the young software programmer in NASA who conceived, developed and deployed the complex multitasking code required to fly and land the spaceship - the mission would have failed, and history would have had to wait for another day to fulfill its destiny.
In 2016, President Obama conferred the highest civilian honor of the Presidential medal of Freedom for Margaret’s work in software engineering, and for the seminal role she played in landing Apollo on the moon. NASA had already felicitated her for exceptional contribution to Space travel. Along with Lieutenant Grace Hopper, another great female software programmer, they established the rudiments of what today is considered the discipline of Software engineering. In fact, the term “engineering” was applied to software for the first time by Margaret. Until then, software was considered esoteric hobby, a diversion, an unchartered territory. But after her committed effort in bringing together Hardware and software in the labs of MIT to create the in-flight software to run Apollo, the elusive study of software metamorphosed into a disciplined study, occupying a spot alongside other established branches of engineering.
As a child Margaret was interested in mathematics, the foundation of all sciences, and later, during her tenure at MIT, she had the privilege of working under Dr Edward D Lorenz, the man who introduced theory of Chaos and the term “butterfly effect” to indicate cascading effects from a single inconsequential cause. Computers excited Margaret. When NASA offered MIT the project to build software for Apollo space mission, she applied and got the job with couple of interviews with project managers, who had to toss a coin to decide whose group she would join. Luckily, it was the group that developed software. Gender didn’t matter, and did not play a part. That is commendable in an age when computers were mostly the prerogative of Male fraternity. Margaret had enough and more sparkle and intelligence which shone through instantly to be chosen into community of developers. And once chosen, She worked with computers as big as a warehouse, and learnt to write software programs in hexadecimal and binary instructions. Under Dr Lorenz’s scrutinizing eyes, she developed what would later come to known as Operating systems - piece of software that prioritizes and executes tasks on a computing machine.
Interestingly, what attracted Margaret's attention, which later would prove to be an invaluable asset for Command control systems in Apollo, was the need for reliability of software applications. In any mission critical system, one should know when things go bad, and more importantly, the program should recover from it as quickly as possible. This principle is universal in software, and it true till this day and time. Resilience and preempting errors is synonymous to quality software. In her interview, she describes how when her programs ran well without deviations, the sound emanating from those huge computing machines would resemble the gentle lapping of waves on the sea shore. When something went wrong, the sound was quite different. It jarred on the ears. Thats how engineers knew software need to be debugged. Quite extraordinary!! How tactile and sensory errors were, in those good old days? The quality of sound indicated the state of software. Because of this auditory quality, Margaret’s software programs were called “seashore programs”.
It was these abnormal sounds which commanders picked up, when Apollo was minutes away from landing on the Moon. The computer chips on-board were running far too many processes than required. Consequently, they heated up, began making strange noises, and the registers on command deck began to blink ominously. These were distress signals. But fortunately, Margaret had intelligently factored this event in her software, and the commanders in control of the spaceship were sufficiently trained to act when such deviations happened. During their practice runs on ground, they had practiced hard on what switches to toggle when things go wrong to stop processes allowing the software to prioritize its tasks and execute optimally - the ultimate triumph of multitasking, its power and control in software engineering. The first step on the moon was possible because a young lady had worked out possibilities of things that could go wrong.
The picture you see attached along with this essay is historically significant. The frail, petite, short and smiling Margaret standing alongside reams of paper, stacked one upon the other, are the coding abstracts of what went into Apollo II. At this distance, most of it would be undecipherable to many us. They were written in what we call assembly level code, and Margaret wrote most of it. She didn’t know much when she was recruited to code for Apollo, but she learnt to do all this with great curiosity and enthusiasm. And she wasn’t afraid of approaching a daunting problem. In a wonderful comment, she made in an interview some years back, which could be the mantra for every potential professional, she said:
“..I would add that what seems to work best for me when I want to learn about anything new or to do anything new is not to let fear get in the way…
One should not be afraid to say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t understand,’ or to ask ‘dumb’ questions, since no question is a dumb question. To continue even when things appear to be impossible, even when the so called experts say it is impossible; to stand alone or to be different; and not to be afraid to be wrong or to make and admit mistakes, for only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly....”
The phrase to pay attention to is “ not to fear”, and desire to ask the right questions no matter how uncomfortable they are. These are the keys to creativity and success. Learners must not be afraid to look at new problems with fresh eyes. Sometimes, we must discard whatever we know to find something new. It is difficult. Though all of us love to remain in our comfort zones and find answers within its boundaries, but sometimes, answers may not be available. We have to look above and beyond.
Our gratitude to Margaret Hamilton's of this world for raising the bar, and forging new pathways. Without them software as a discipline would not have emerged the way it did. During the sixties, software was predominantly male dominated, but women like Margaret and Grace found their footing with confidence and courage. We salute them for their achievement and constant inspiration.
God bless..
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Jottings - Slice of life - 207 ( Prakash Menon - a tribute to a gracious Man, and a leader par excellence)

Jottings - Slice of life - 207 ( Prakash Menon - a tribute to a gracious Man, and a leader par excellence)
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in Prakash’s hotel room in Gurgaon. It was a long day for both us; more so for Prakash. The launch of our new products for the retail market was extracting every ounce of energy and time out of him. He was tired, but his mind was bubbling with ideas. He put his leather bag on the table, settled down with his drink and instantly began talking about NIIT, its future and what ideas he had in mind. Few minutes into our conversation, his phone rang. He picked up his mobile and before answering, turned around and said:
“Bala, I have to take this call. I am sorry”.
“Absolutely, Prakash!!”
For next ten minutes, he was speaking to a lady. That much I could understand from his tone and conversation. He was enquiring about her Husband’s health, sharing positive advice, and commended her for showing good presence of mind and courage. What stuck me as he talked was he never hurried to complete the conversation. He allowed the person on the other side to finish saying what she had to say, and once done, gently hung the phone with the words “ Pls dont hesitate to call me anytime, if anything changes”. He turned around and said:
“A colleague of mine fell down unconscious in the bathroom yesterday. Luckily, his wife made all the right moves, and called me. I organized our team to immediately go to the Hospital and help out. I have never spoken to her before this event. Thank God everything is alright now. It was she on the line. She was thanking me for right and positive medical advice I gave, and all the help she got..."
“You know Bala, I am half doctor myself. My family is full of doctors. When you live in an environment like that, you pick up medical symptoms at the right time”
I looked at Prakash pensively, as he sipped his single malt and said
“ You could do with some medical advice yourself and eat something as you drink”
He chuckled in his characteristic fashion. “Of course , I am eating peanuts. Thats dinner for me. Now lets talk business. what do you think should be the tag line for our IT Product…..” The conversation drifted into familiar territory, of work and business.
It is ironical that two weeks later after this meeting Prakash menon is no more. It is hard to believe he is no more. It is hard to believe he didn’t read his own bodily symptoms well enough to reverse his fate. But that is life. We dont know what awaits us the next moment, no matter how wise or knowledgeable we may be. I am sure Prakash would have had the last laugh as death knocked at his door. He would have chuckled at the irony of it all. That was the kind of man he was. An institution by himself, a charismatic leader, a sympathetic and compassionate human being, a visionary in the field of education, and above all - an inspiring personality in whose presence one felt elevated and transformed. I cannot claim to have known him for long time. There are others who have known Prakash for decades, much more intimately. But Chronological time is nothing. In the little time I have known Prakash at close quarters, he has left an indelible mark on how I think and act. Through his actions and words, he has bequeathed a vision, a mandate and a charter for all of us to follow. And that charter is very simple . To bring together “ Ambition, passion and integrity” in shaping NIIT to be the best in the business, and in the process grow personally and professionally. His own life was a continuous journey and striving towards fulfilling that charter.
Starting off in early 80’s when NIIT was startup, Prakash grew with the company as it firmly established itself in IT education. He was a techie, who found sales more interesting than coding. And once he stepped into sales, there was no looking back. He very quickly emerged ahead of the curve. When the landscape of IT education changed, Prakash kept abreast of it, and till the very end believed in constant innovation and change as the only means to stay ahead in an increasingly volatile world of IT education and skills training. The new wave of learning products he incubated over last several months is now ready to break out of its shell. His vision is written all over it. Its only fitting that those products will carry his remarkable stamp and character.
In his email to employees, Sapnesh, writes about Prakash’s sense of generosity. So very true. There was a palpable feeling of Humaneness around Prakash. He was always spontaneous in his help and sympathies. Even when he disagreed, or was irritated with someone or something, one could sense genuine warmth and care permeating his actions . He loved young techies. During our bootcamp last month, he walked into the conference room twice, talking for more than two hours to all young employees, giving them direction and inspiration. He opened up a glorious and uplifting vision for them to follow with no bars or barriers. The key message he gave them ( his strong, deep voice still reverberates in me as i write this) was to remain “curious”. He himself remained an extremely curious man, spending whatever evenings were available to him watching TED talks or youtube videos of inspirational stories and technical breakthroughs. He wanted his India team to stay on top of technology, enjoy work and learn endlessly. That was his wish and advice to them.
We will miss his familiar figure outside the office holding fort with his core team smoking a cigarette and chatting; we will miss his immaculate, well groomed dress sense and regal bearing; we will miss his wit and deep insights, we will miss his warmth and unconditional support where it is needed, and more than anything else, we will miss an icon, a man who was synonymous with NIIT and what it stands for.
As I conclude this tribute, the very last words I spoke to him at his office, before I left for the airport on 20th April comes rushing into my head. Prakash was conversing with a colleague, when I stepped into his office to say good bye. He stood up energetically, shook my hands and said “ Thanks Bala. Will see you soon. I am in China in the first week of May. Text me if you need anything. Otherwise, we can discuss after I come back”
His " coming back" will now remain an unfulfilled promise forever.
Rest in eternity Prakash. Your spirit will remain intact in us
God bless..
Yours in mortality,
Bala



Sunday, April 29, 2018

Jottings - slice of life - 206 ( Churchill’s finest hour)

Jottings - slice of life - 206 ( Churchill’s finest hour)
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
The core episodes of history, more often than not, are electrifying narratives of right leaders showing up at right moments to transform or change the course of a nation’s history, and consequently affect the fortunes of world at large. Who could deny that If not for Alexander’s daring expedition to the east with no more than a few thousand men to battle, the geographical boundaries of the modern world would have been different; If not for Julius Caesar’s flamboyance, courage and consummate tact in unifying Rome and establishing the first true republic encompassing most parts of Europe, the western civilization, as we know it wouldn’t have evolved; or Charlemagne’s unifying rule; or Ashoka’s spiritual influence , or the sagacity and ruthlessness of Peter the great - such names can roll on. It is nature’s law that from the crucible of society’s predicament and turmoil, there will arise leaders whose vision overwhelms the vacillating and weak chatter of lesser mortals. Their energy, fanatical convictions and overpowering stature - Physical, intellectual and emotional - will wipe away feebleness from their path and empower a nation with renewed strength and vitality. In retrospect, history may judge many of these leaders as dictators, megalomaniacs or power mongers. It may criticize and cast aspersions on their conduct and integrity; but at the time they acted, there were no doubts or misgivings in their minds on what course to take. They did what they had do with unwavering resolution, and all seemed right.
Over the last few decades, the role of Sir Winston Churchill as the Prime Minister who led England into second world war, amidst political and ideological divisions, has led to lot of speculation in literature and movies. He is often referred to as the “war time leader”. His round face, rotund body with a perpetual cigar in his mouth, his proud bearing and arrogance of belonging to a imperial race, his slivery tongue which could lash out at moments notice to disparage or elevate his opponent, his unequivocal belief in imperialism and Britains omnipotent role in world politics, his hunger for war and preparedness for it, his didactic and wide erudition forged with brilliant eloquence when needed - have all become iconic and recognizable across the globe. In 1940, when second world war was precipitating, Churchill’s brave decision to confront Hitler’s germany head-on with minimum preparation on land, air or sea, puzzled the nation and its leaders. King George VI was alarmed, and so were many of his senior cabinet ministers. But they had no choice. With the peril of Germany advancing each day, Chamberlain - the previous incumbent, was reluctant, old and bodily sick to commit England to war. They were waiting for an arbiter to negotiate an improbable peace. However at home, English soldiers were dying each day on the borders of England, and the rise of Hitler and the banality of his policies were beginning to frighten this proud nation. People wanted their leaders to act with authority and not cuddle with a ruthless dictator. Public pressure mounted and chamberlain had to be replaced. The only choice to assuage the expectations of the public was to appoint a man who can stand up-to Hitler, a man who had been warning the country about the looming menace of Hitler, and a man who wouldn’t shy away from acting decisively, if needed. In a long political career spanning more than 40 years, Churchill’s education and professional positions had helped prepare him for this moment. His time in the war departments during 1920 and 30’s, both on land and sea, gave him good understanding on state of armaments, and where Britain stood in terms of fighting power. The tug of destiny was pulling Winston inexorably to meet the needs of this crucial moment. So, when the king offered him the prime ministership after Chamberlain resigned, Churchill accepted the appointment, no doubt, with slight trepidation on the enormity of the task ahead, but didn’t miss the opportunity to remind the King that he would accept this position except on his own terms. King George didn’t like Winston very much, but had no choice and had to accede. With Churchill at the helm, the course of second world war irrevocably changed, war became a certainty, reaching its climax in 1945 with the surrender of Germany to allied forces.
As I wrote in the beginning of this essay: The moment brings out the right man. At that crucial juncture in British history, none but Churchill could have swayed the tide towards fighting a full fledged war with Hitler. Though he was by nature arrogant, irritable and had no connect with public, held racist views, got it completely wrong about Britains imperial ambitions, humiliated at Gallipoli in the first world war - he had however correctly sensed the rise of Hitler much before anyone else on the world stage. The massive rearmament of Germany in the 1930’s, the chilling calm before the storm in German hinterland during that time signaled to Winston an imminent world crisis precipitating at rapid pace. He read the mind of Hitler better than anyone else; and unlike many British leaders, loved a righteous fight. By nature, he wasn't built to shy away from one. And like all great leaders, Winston was a superb orator and writer. His private life was artistic. He was a sketch artist, a writer of English history and magnificent biographies, he loved travelling and jotting down travel adventures. Along with these Winston had a knack of articulating his thoughts in precise, forceful and succinct manner; just as his books and paintings did.
Churchill’s masterstroke was his realization of what his people wanted at the right time. Shedding his royal demeanor when it was needed, he polled the pulse of the nation and smelt the simmering stench of hopelessness in his people. He knew that English people wanted Hitler repelled, no matter what price they had to pay. They simply didn’t like Hitler. Once he understood that, his speeches in the house of commons grew more audacious and touched the raw nerve of honor and pride, which Britain always held in high esteem. He sprinkled his speeches with phrases that resonated at the deepest level. As a gifted orator for whom words were never far away, he wrenched confidence from the guts of his listeners through passages such as - “We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender..” Such simple words uttered with tremendous confidence and clarity roused the nation to new sense of identity and purpose. As is always the case, once raw courage is awakened, grace and luck inevitably follows. The unbelievable tale at Dunkirk, when from sure annihilation, thousands of British soldiers escaped unscathed, to Hitler altering his war plans to accommodate the tactical maneuvers of Churchill; Britain met with success after success until USA joined the war to put finally end Germany’s plans.
Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill won the academy award this year for the film “The darkest hour”. A magnificent portrayal of Sir Winston Churchill during his first few months as Prime minister. In it, one gets a glimpse of the man torn by opposing passions. Unruly, unkempt and irritable; at the same time capable of highest levels of intellectual deliberation and action, Churchill stands before us as a leader chiseled for his time. A man like him was needed to strike fear into Hitlers heart. In one beautiful scene in the movie, King George meets Winston alone at his home and promises his unconditional support. Winston is surprised because the King didn’t particularly like him. When pressed to explain this sudden change of heart, George says “ If Hitler is frightened, then there must be something about you as Prime minister”. Both chuckle, and little tear wells up in their eyes. The pact is sealed. Britain is now irrevocably committed to war.
The quote at the beginning of this essay is attributed to Winston Churchill. But we dont know if he really said that. Nevertheless, its message is very clearly Winston’s. As a avid student of history, he knew that in every age successes and failures must be redefined afresh, and there is no finality about both. It is the courageous journey which matters. It is debatable, and it still debated, if Churchill turned the tides of war. There may not be a consensus anytime soon. But one thing is clear: if not for him, the gathering of world powers to meet the challenge of tyrannical regime wouldn't have found momentum. His words galvanized the nation into action. Hitler realized he was dealing with a man who wouldn't accept defeat. Hitler's entire campaign was conceived in light of the fact that Britain will not interfere in his plans, or that they were too weak to do so. But with Churchill entering the fray, equations changed, which in turn provoked changes in Germany's thinking. To that extent, at least, we owe the outcome to Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill.
God bless..
yours in mortality,
Bala


Sunday, April 22, 2018

Jottings - Slice of life - 205 ( Ten intense days of tech and fun with my team )

Jottings - Slice of life - 205 ( Ten intense days of tech and fun with my team )
When I enrolled into NIIT as an ignorant and young student in the eighties, little did it cross my mind; nor in my wildest dreams has it ever occurred to me that one day I will be responsible for mentoring, channelizing and technically inspiring a group of energetic and enthusiastic teachers to lead the new wave of software education in NIIT nearly three decades later. My career as a technical evangelist has come a full circle. When I entered the meeting room today, a fairly senior mentor called me aside and asked “ Bala, How can I become like you? “. I was little taken aback by the question, but recovered quickly to answer “ you really dont have to be me; but more importantly you must be yourself and commit to mastering technology with zeal and passion. Thats all is needed”.
Over the last two weeks, at our headquarters in Delhi, we elevated the discourse on software fundamentals to new levels of understanding. Twenty odd mentors from different parts of the country were subjected to intense soul searching and intellectual cogitation. Concepts traditionally taken for granted were severely questioned, debated and freshly understood. Non-trivial problems, created during my time in flights over last two months, found it unwavering mark. It helped push our collective intellects to forge new pathways, sometimes tiring the participants to the point of frustration and indecision. Yet, each time, with undaunted persistence mentors were able to dig deep into themselves, create their own interpretation, and find an answer within its boundaries. It was joy to see flowers of wisdom blossom. What was originally slated as training program to teach a course, transformed itself into retraining oneself on how to think, how to question, how to learn and how to digest knowledge in an increasingly complex world of software development. It wasn’t an easy task given the fact that none of them have been challenged at this scale for a very long time. The good news is they responded to the challenge with great spirit and commitment. And that what matters!!
Along with large doses of tech talk, we built strong personal relationships. The very congenial atmosphere in NIIT naturally fosters such bonding. As an organization, we believe in working together towards a common goal, without sacrificing our individuality or madness. I also met with many senior leaders, our CEO - and all of them had enough time to talk, guide and advice on how we at NIIT should shape the future of IT education in India and elsewhere. It always amazes me on how much talent, experience and industry wisdom we possess in our leadership, when compared to many others in the industry. Each leader distills decades of experience into their work, and being close to them, it invariably rubs off on us too.
I attach some pics taken with my team. These are formal pics, but the spirit and warmth that pervades these pics is far beyond formality.
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala








Saturday, March 31, 2018

Jottings - Slice of life - 202 ( When Breath becomes air - a Memoir Dr Paul kalanithi)

Jottings - Slice of life - 202 ( When Breath becomes air - a Memoir Dr Paul kalanithi)
Rinku Kundu mentioned Paul Kalanithi’s book “ When breath becomes air” in her comment on my essay on Dr Sherwin Nuland couple of weeks ago. Since then, my pen has been throbbing to write about Paul and his book written in the last few months of his life, tragically taken away couple of years ago by lung cancer. What a wonderful title to a book, and to a life, which was as incandescent and light and seamless as air, yet so full of energy, intensity and meaning. Between the covers of 200 short pages, sandwiched between a luminous and thought provoking prologue by novelist Dr Abraham Verghese, and an epilogue written by Paul’s beautiful and compassionate wife Lucy, the book “When breath becomes air” is very much like the book of meditations by Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, who wrote his aphorisms on life and death on a battlefield strewn with bloody corpses. Only in Paul’s case the battlefield was his own body, the degeneration was his cellular structure, and the enemy was his own mortality. This book was his attempt to make sense of himself and what happened to him. What it feels to have been a doctor once, and a patient now, and what remains after stripping away every vestige of personality, desires and possessions, and the stark fact of death looming in front of him as the only tangible truth, nothing else.
At 37 years, Paul kalanithi was at the cusp of life and a brilliant career awaiting him in neuroscience. He was happily married, and living the American dream, when death decided to surreptitiously enter his life in the form of lung cancer and turn him into a sage, a contemplative , a lyricist, a writer, a thinker, and above all a father who realized his only chance of redemption would be to father a child and hold her in his arms for few more months, not many more. In the last eight months of life, Paul strove to live completely in the present, however fleeting or illusory it may be. For anyone who has ever dreamt of prosperous and successful future, the act of forcibly living only in the present with no future at all, must be excruciatingly painful, but not for Paul; he conquered his own mortality by consciously deciding to be completely mortal. In that instant of realization and acceptance, death loses it sting. Pauls’s book recounts those precious moments of transformation.
For a second generation American, he had all the freedom America had to offer, and he flowered into a man for whom nothing seemed impossible. As a youngster, he juggled between literature and medicine; as an adult, he chose neuroscience for its cutting edge work on that thin but important intersection of consciousness and neurology ; as a surgeon he was entrusted with human brains and nerve endings to correct. As a student , he scaled levels of excellence in his chosen field in quick time, and, in parallel, grappled with insecurity, complacency and even disregard - that a morally demanding profession of medicine can sometimes bring. Paul realized early in his career that in every other scientific field technical excellence can be divorced from Moral responsibility, but not in medicine. Here, a Man’s life and well being is at stake. And good surgeon should know when to push and when to stop pushing. The meaning of doctor patient relationship, the meaning of life and death, the role of a doctor not as a man who promises immortality, but as guide who supports gentle transition from one state of being to another began to synthesize in Paul’s attitude and demeanor. He was maturing fast. At 35, Paul could afford to think far ahead. He had long term plans, the best universities and hospitals were seeking him, luring him in fact, before Cancer changed the rules of the game forever.
There are moments, when I read “When breath becomes air”, unconscious tears formed in my eyes. Here was a man, who saw death coming full speed towards him; yet found time and focus to pen some of the most beautiful and lyrical passages on life, relationships and illness. Paul confesses in his book his love of literature as a medium to understand human suffering and pain. Widely read from Wittgenstein to Tolstoy to TS Eliot to Hemmingway to Beckett, he writes with supine grace and sensitivity. If only life had given him more time, he would have written more. There is a sense of hurriedness in the book. He flits from one episode to the other with feverish speed of a man who is racing against chronological time. His wife, Lucy, recounts in her epilogue, how he would carry his silver laptop wherever he went during those last few months. he would hammer away at the keyboard sitting, lying down, waiting at hospitals, during chemotherapy and at all possible times. Even when his fingers were calloused after month of toxic medication, weak and wouldn’t respond, he would attempt to type. He had this overpowering need to translate what he had felt, known and understood about life, death and living to a broader audience; more importantly , to his little daughter, who would grow up one day to ask of her father’s legacy. The most beautiful parts of his narrative are when he describes his fears about his mortality, yet willing to accept and face death as the only way of living well. This paradox, this janus faced reality of life and death bursts with vivid clarity from his well chiseled sentences. In several passages, in different contexts, he writes how as a doctor, his words of consolation has healed many and stalled imminent death; but as a terminal patient himself, those very words now seems empty and void of any concrete meaning. It seems pure luck that others survived, and he will not. Human agency counts for nothing in the overall scheme of things, yet that is the only way to measure up to life.
It is strange psychological fact that prisoners with confirmed death sentences become more focussed and relaxed. Even the most hardened criminals seem to settle down internally, once they know that death is not an existential uncertainty anymore. They know its coming and there is end to this drama, and that brings tremendous sense of relaxation and compassion. It is the intellectual process of thinking about death that is painful to most of us. The uncertainty kills us. In Aldous Huxley brilliant book “ the Brave new world”, humans are born programmed to live for certain length of time depending upon which class of society they belong to. They know it, hence there is no regret. Paul kalanithi emphasizes this throughout his book. We plan a future because we dont know the end; but when the end is known, future becomes irrelevant, inconsequential and every passing flower, every whispering wind, every crimson twilight, every human face will be seen for what it is - what the mystics have always called “The eternal now”. A zen master was once asked what is enlightenment. His enigmatic response was “ before enlighmentment, I saw mountain and trees; after enlightenment I see mountain and trees”. In other words, nothing changes except the intensity of subjective realization which cannot be explained. In similar terms Paul in one unforgettable passages in this book writes and I have to it quote in full:
“ I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one….. there is no other way to live”
Paul left his book unfinished and unpublished when he died in March 2015. His last words to his wife was a request to get it published, which she did with a moving epilogue and tribute to her husband. This is a kind of book which everyone must read, when they are young and vibrant. Contrary to public opinion, such books dont make one sad and pessimistic; quite the opposite. It gives one energy to live the present day with zest and gratitude. After all, this is the only moment we truly possess.
Thanks Rinku for inspiring this essay.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Jottings - Slice of life - 201 ( Sree Bhagwan Rajneesh A.K.A Osho - an ingenious experiment in the history of Spirituality)



Jottings - Slice of life - 201 ( Sree Bhagwan Rajneesh A.K.A Osho - an ingenious experiment in the history of Spirituality)
At Pune, within the sprawling ashram and spiritual retreat of Osho, in the meditation hall, lies the ashes of the master with surprisingly no conspicuous paraphernalia surrounding it; he didn’t want people to create a monument of his death place. But on the small marble slab erected on top is engraved an epitaph personally dictated by him during his final days. It reads
OSHO - Never Born - Never Died - Only visited this planet Earth between December 11, 1931 and January 19, 1990
Never in the history of spiritual leaders anywhere in the world has anyone had the audacity and spiritual self-confidence ( many would call it spiritual vanity) to have an epitaph of this nature, but again, never in the history of recorded spirituality has a man so shook the traditional values and conservative outlook of people across thirty countries, that many refused to have his plane land even for few hours in their airports. Between 1970 and 1990, for two decades, the phenomenon of Sree Bhagwan Rajneesh, later rechristened OSHO - emblematic of the “oceanic experience” great psychologist William James wrote about - broke all taboos, conventions, and accepted interpretations of religion not merely in India, his home country, but rattled the conscientious facade of morality and liberty of conservative Christians in United states of America, a country where, ironically, religious freedom and mode of expression were considered paramount and an inalienable right - a right that propelled Pilgrim fathers 250 years ago to embark on a rocking boat to the shores of New England. The life of Rajneesh was unique and so was the movement he started. During the years of hippie cult in America, when many Indian gurus were selling their wares as authentic spirituality freshly distilled from the east; Osho presented a different variation of the same theme. His brand of spiritual liberation was as celebratory and one of gay abandonment as others flourishing in the west, but what made him and his message special was his wide intellectual range, profoundly original understanding of different religious scriptures ranging from the esoteric book of Pythagoras to the alarmingly brute methods of Gurdijieff; a following that consisted of people from various ethnicities, professions, status and creed; a magnetic frail presence with glowing eyes, flowing beard, richly embroidered robes, floating in immeasurable wealth and driving around in different Rolls royces each day; and to top it all, an ethereal oratorical voice which trembled and modulated with otherworldly emotion and unpretentious accent, originating from great depth and remained hanging in space long after words melted into enclosed lecture hall. It left audiences spellbound, mesmerized, in tears and transformed. Having been in his presence and heard him once, it is impossible not to go back again. His message and style touched something deep, something unfulfilled in most Men and women, that hundreds and thousands of people, especially westerners, responded to his call with ecstatic frenzy and fierce loyalty. So, what then is the origin and fascination of the west with the East all about?
Since the late eighteenth century, when German and English translations of Eastern scriptures and religious texts started becoming available in the west, there has been a steady and ever growing interest among westerners in Eastern mystical thought . Bought up on logical and epistemological dialectics of Western pantheon with mainstream western philosophers, except very few, preaching and writing about objective knowledge as means to happiness; the calm waters of Eastern thought which lapped their shores insisted on radically new dimension of subjective understanding of Man and study of the Self as more solid base to inner happiness. As material wealth increased, and daily life became more comfortable; it did not do anything to quench the yawning existential void inside. Two tragic world wars only proved the humanity was lacking in fundamental understanding of oneself. At the turn of 20th century, When Swami Vivekananda opened the gateway to Indian thought, and Dr T Suzuki and others that of Buddhism, Western society was ripe for such an influx of life energizing ideas. In the last hundred years, since then, techniques of meditation, aura, mantra, sanysas, orange robes, flowing beards, and all other exotic accompaniments of traditional eastern faith have swamped the west, which was more than eager and ready to embrace something more real, tangible and substantial than the dry bones of western philosophical thought thrown at them as consolation. In a way, Eastern spiritual thought became escape routes for newer generation of Western spiritual seekers.
Rajneesh was born into jain family, one of the most conservative and rule driven faiths in the world. Apart from being a precocious child, there was nothing unusual about him. His grandparents, with whom he grew, gave him playful freedom he couldn’t get else where. As he matured, he developed a taste for rebellion, and an argumentative brilliance which would force his teachers to keep him mostly out of class than in it. He claimed , in 1953, as a young boy of 21, he attained enlightenment like Gautama the buddha under a tree in a garden, and shortly after he studied philosophy in college both at graduate and Master levels. It was these formative years of grinding in theoretical philosophy that would give him fodder for his writings and talks which followed. Like Socrates among the sophists, he went around debunking traditional religions as dead and useless, and he extolled the virtues of capitalism during a time when Nehru was building Gandhi’s vision of mixed socialism. Wherever he went , he left a trail of doubt and provocation. During this time, he began calling himself Acharya Rajneesh, leading a parallel life to the one as professor of Philosophy in Jabalpur. The seminal moment of his transformation from a maverick philosopher with great oratorical skills, to a man who meant serious business of breaking taboos and conventions happened with the publication of his talks in 1968 in a slim volume titled “ from sex to superconsciousness”. It was a bomb shell, and well argued book. The book was banned and criticized publicly, but surreptitiously people bought and read it. Its pages articulated deep felt desires and urges, clothed as true mystical aspirations. The books quotes extensively from Tantra, from vedas ancient christian scriptures, from modern psychological findings, to support the view that nothing is profane, and everything is sacred and pure. Slowly a group of people began to circle around him, and the commune was born.
While upper class Indian gravitated to him; it was the western world that pounced on his radical thinking. Pune, where he set up ashram, saw hundreds and thousands of young and old, men and women congregate to see this man and be in his presence. Not many could understand his diction and language; but it didn’t matter. His voice reached troubled depths, and so did his message. Young NRI’s like Ma Anand sheela and others ingratiated themselves to him, and slowly, Rajneesh began to assume the mask of an enigmatic savior born for modern times, casting away his earlier role of agent provocateur of established ideas. The nature of spiritual activities and mediation practices, free sex, and nudity did not go well with Indian establishment. Indira Gandhi wouldn’t stand for this abomination of Indian values, and very soon, Rajneesh and his commune had to make the decision of either staying in India or moving operations abroad, to the US to be specific, where it was generally agreed people and laws will be more accepting and tolerant.
In 1981, the quiet town of Antelope in Oregon, USA was a small community of about 100 families with a school, post office and hospital. Acres and acres of midwestern ranches sprawled the country side. Land was cheap and sellers were many. Under the advice of his trusted deputies, Rajneeshis ( as they started calling themselves), bought nearly 70000 acres of land there. They tricked in at first, but once basic infrastructure was built, they started coming in waves. Very soon, red color was seen everywhere. It was the official color of Rajneesh Sanyasins. They came from all part of the US, and from all walks of life. Money poured in, and in no time, Rajneeshpuram - the office city was announced, much to the chagrin of local residents there. Rajneesh himself went into isolation, and was rarely seen, except during his daily drive in a rolls Royce giving darshan. His sanyasins were everywhere doing all sorts of things. Sex in the middle of the road, wild singing and dancing in the middle of night, huge bonfires that kept old townsfolk awake with light and noise, drinking and drugging - all in the name of celebration and divinity. Around Rajneesh, a strong and belligerent group of spiritual bureaucracy developed led by Maa Anand sheela, who took more control over day to operations. They fought town and county elections, elected their own mayor and started promulgating their own laws. The local residents weren’t happy at all.
At first, they avoided the Rajneeshis as someone different; but soon realized the difference is not just in spiritual beliefs, but these red robed people were eroding what was essentially “American” values, overturning every norm of decency and way of life. That a cult ( thats how they choose to call it) from the east could so completely take over their daily lives seemed unbearable and repugnant. And soon, the state of Oregon began to get involved in observing the actions of Rajneeshpuram. With each step taken on either side, tensions flared, and in no time, within four years, the fun loving Sanyasins were seen patrolling the streets of Wasco county with firearms, poisoning local restaurants and attempting to murder the Accountant general. Bhagwan Rajneesh was attracting Hollywood and industrialists towards him, and power centers with ashram were also radically shifting. In 1986, Sheila fled the country, and along with some of her trusted deputies. Rajneesh, by now a frail, sick and drugged guru, was arrested and legally harassed, until he voluntarily admitted the charges against him of corruption, immigration frauds, attempt to murder and money laundering. He was deported. He came back to Pune, and remained a recluse for next three years. In 1991, he died leaving behind an organization that was committed to live his teachings.
What do we make of this Rajneesh legacy? Why did America react to his commune the way they did? Why was Rajneesh and his vision so maligned by conservatives? In the end? Was it ethically and morally right to have deported him? These are questions which each one must answer for themselves. Netflix has now released a six part documentary on those tumultuous four years in Wasco county. It presents a balanced view of both sides. With Maa Anand sheela breaking her silence in exile, and others who for the first time speak openly on what happened there, it seems to me little sad on why each side couldn’t have shown little more restraint, consideration and empathy.
Personally, I have read and listened to Osho for decades during my formative years. At this distance, If I were to detach myself from all surrounding controversies and look at the man and his teaching, it is clear to me, he had something deep to say. Yes, he was iconoclastic, he was disrespectful, he was arrogant, narcissistic and materialistic to a point of nausea; yet scattered around his voluminous literature are moving passages, which trigger a sudden illumination within, causing one to involuntarily say “ Aaah!, how could I have missed this” . His talks were often punctuated with half represented ideas, mis-quotes and blatant untruth; yet despite all that, there is this luminous quality to what he meant to say. Communication to him was a tool to unravel an idea. He would talk on a subject like “Boredom” for two hours, without once repeating himself, and touching upon every philosophical sign posts on the way. One just listens to him like a child listening to a fairy tale, and come out dizzy and irrevocably changed. The problem is we tend to equate spirituality with poverty, asceticism and celibacy. We can excuse wealth; after all our religious heads are wealthy mean and women; but the other two -we cannot. But osho defied all three; hence we call him a charlatan, hypocrite and other such names. An undeniable truth, which history never fails to din into us, is the fact that any religion which is institutionalized is bound to deteriorate in quality, and dilute its original message. Osho may have become a victim of his own medicine. While he was fervently against organized religion he ended building one himself - a very rich and big one. That probably is the tragedy of his life and what it could have meant, if it were otherwise.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala