The Chronicler of Hoogly


We booked the sunset cruise on the Hoogly recently. With winter on its way, the sun was setting early leaving behind a long balmy evening. Good time to observe the river and the city as it transitioned from day into the night.

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Boarding the boat from the Millennium Park jetty, we soon chugged out in the company of other sight-seekers like us. The itinerary was to cruise up the Hoogly to Belur Math, the much revered global headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission founded by Swami Vivekananda. We were scheduled to reach in time for the evening Aarati before we returned. Travelling with us was a Study tour group from Germany.

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As I sat on the deck, I was engulfed by a kaleidoscope of sights………….

 Of the looming floating bridge of Howrah, still considered a cantilever feat of engineering seventy-five years after it was built. Of decrepit ghats and jetties. Of derelict and abandoned warehouses, shanties and slums. Of colonial architectures separated by grimy and slushy by lanes. Of how Man’s creativity and resolve has sunk under the grime of his daily struggle and existence………….

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Of temples and riverside religious rituals coexisting with stinking garbage and defecation grounds. Of the riverside walled up   along long stretches as if to hide its shame from the very people who have sullied it thus. Of how Spirituality jostles with poverty…….

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My thoughts and emotions get stopped by a flurry of activity on the deck. Probably sensing the approaching sunset, the service staff had got busy offering beverages and ‘muri and aloor chop’ snacks while the German tourists were busy with their telephoto lenses and cameras. I look at the setting sun, the morphing shades of the flowing waters and could not but marvel at how nature yet manages to shine its beauty on an environment gone increasingly awry…………

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With the falling dusk, I notice a lone figure sitting at the rear side of the deck. Somewhat taken aback for not having noticed this person earlier, I walk across and introduce myself. “You may call me the Chronicler”, he tells me. Intrigued I plonk into a deck chair beside him. “Would you like to hear a tale about all that we are witness to today?”, comes the soft voice. Even before I can respond, the voice continues.

“Great metropolises, they say, grow out of a river. London…. Paris….. Rome…… Moscow…….. Cairo….. Istanbul. In each of these cases, the mighty rivers that flowed, the Thames, the Siene, the Tiber, the Moskva, the Nile and the Bosphorus, provided sustenance and remain the heart and soul of the cities….”

“And so was the symbiotic relationship between Hoogly and what we know as Kolkata. While today we are wont to see the river as some kind of an appendage to the city, what if I told you that it is really the other way around? That Kolkata is really an offshoot of all that the Hoogly has been witness to over the centuries.”

“When we started our cruise, we saw Fairlie Place and its jetty to the right with the Strand running beside it. So what would you say are its important landmarks?”, the Chronicler asks.

“Well I suppose it is the Customs House and the Eastern Railway headquarters. Apart from a few more important office blocks”, I respond.

“But what if I told you that about three hundred years back most of that place including what we know as Dalhousie Square was a large water body called Lal Dighi ? This was the time when the British East India Company was busy consolidating its position and Fort William stood on the banks of Hoogly. That is when the attack happened”

“Attack!”, I exclaim, “By whom and why?”

“The then Nawab of Bengal Siraj-Ud-Daulah attacked, captured Fort William and incarcerated British prisoners in a dungeon which came to be known as the Black Hole of Calcutta. An incident which directly led to the battle of Plassey and the subsequent two hundred years British Rule of the subcontinent.”

“Hang on!”, I interject. “Is not Fort William more in the hinterland, near the Maidan?”

“Indeed”, the Chronicler continues, “but what is less known is that there were two Fort Williams. The present one near Maidan was built by Robert Clive after the attack on the first one.”

“The battle of Plassey, which was to change the history and the shape of things to come for ever for the subcontinent, was also fought on the banks of Hoogly but to the north of where we are. But that is another story.”

“The Fairlie Ghat holds another interesting tale”, the Chronicler continues.” In the mid nineteenth century, Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, while travelling on a train in England, got the brain wave of setting up a rail link to carry coal from his Raniganj colliery to the Calcutta port at Fairlie. On return he invested into setting up the ‘The Great Western Bengal Railway Company’. Unfortunately, his proposal got turned down by the British East India Company bosses on the grounds that ‘it would not be possible to allow a company using such strategic technology under native management….’ His efforts and thoughts however did push the British to set up rail services though the East India Railway Company with its Headquarters at Fairlie Place.”

“Hmm! That name Dwarkanath Tagore sounds familiar. Was he in some way related to Rabindranath Tagore?” I muse.

“Indeed he was!”, the Chronicler quips back, “He was in fact the grandfather of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, that venerable Bard of Bengal and the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature more than a century back”.

“The Hoogly ghats then were a far cry from the crumbling cesspools that we are seeing today. With magnificent facades and European classical architectures, the ghats were witness to impressive steam ships and tall masted  boats sailing out to faraway places in England, Australia and New Zealand as also upstream to ports on the Ganga.”, the Chronicler continues.

“Did you know that there were thriving French, Dutch and Armenian settlements on the Hoogly in the early years of colonisation?” I am asked.

Well I had read about the French settlement and I say so.

“Fascinating is it not that events and rivalries five thousand miles away in Europe would show up in the waxing and waning of the Hoogly ghats! And so it was that as the British colonialism went into ascendancy after winning the Napoleonic Wars in early nineteenth century, the settlements of other nationalities on the Hoogly faded into oblivion.”

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“Which brings us to the Shova bazaar Ghat and its fascinating history. The Ghat and the Shova Bazaar Rajbari ( Palace), was built with great pomp and grandeur by Raja ( King) Nabakrishna Deb.The latter famed for organizing the Shovabazaar Rajbari Durga Pujo about two hundred and  fifty years ago ( which continues till today!). What is seldom spoken of is that all of the Raja’s wealth came from the huge bribe money of Rupees eighty million paid to him, Mir Jaffar and a couple of others by the British administration for betraying Nawab Siraj–ud-Daulah on the battlefield of Plassey. A betrayal which led to a small British force of 3000 soldiers winning a decisive victory over a twenty times larger opponent. A betrayal which led to the British becoming the dominant colonial power in the subcontinent for over two centuries. Is it not ironic that one of the greatest betrayals in Indian history is so inexorably linked to one of the biggest religious festivals in the country?”

So engrossed had I become in listening to the Chronicler’s tales that I had scarcely noticed the darkness enveloping the Hoogly and the boat engine slowing down.

My companion on the deck points to a brightly lit temple and ghat complex to the right. “That is the Dhakshineswar Kali temple built in the mid nineteenth century by Rani (Queen) Rashmoni based on a dream in which Goddess Kali exhorted her, ‘There is no need to go to Banaras. Install my statue in a beautiful temple on the banks of the Ganges river and arrange for my worship there. Then I shall manifest myself in the image and accept worship at that place.’ The temple attained fame because of Ramakrishna Paramhansa, the famous mystic and the spiritual guru of Swami Vivekanand.”

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The boat docks on the Belur Math Ghat. I notice the Chronicler making no attempt to get up even as other guests disembark and start walking up the Ghat steps. The tour supervisor advises us on the way to reach the temple premises for the evening Aarati. As we hurry, some of the German tourists stop to look at souvenirs in the roadside shops.The Belur Math design incorporates the different Medieval, Gothic, Renaissance as well as Hindu and Islamic styles that Swami Vivekanand had observed during his travels in India and abroad.

I return back to our moored boat with the intoxicating chants of the Aarati still resonating in my ears. As the boat starts on its return journey downstream, I look around for the Chronicler but he is nowhere to be seen. Dinner is announced and we go down to the dining room in the lower deck. The fascinating vision of the Hoogly  created by the Chronicler’s tales in sharp contrast to the hugely run-down and depressing sights I had been witness to, continues to wrestle in my mind.

What is it that has made the Hoogly hold onto its rusting warehouses, its hideous shanties and walls which no longer serve any purpose? What is it that has made Kolkata turn its back on the river that brought it into existence? What is that which leads us to abuse and neglect that very water that we consider holy and religious? What is that in our societal psyche that fuels such dichotomy?

As we reach back and walk off our cruise, these questions continue to haunt…..

 

……… In Learning.

Shakti Ghosal

 

 

 

 

 

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Sundarban Chalo


“In our legends it is said that the goddess Ganga’s descent from the heavens would have split the earth had Lord Shiva not tamed her torrent by tying it into his ash-smeared locks. To hear this story is to see the river in a certain way: as a heavenly braid, for instance, an immense rope of water, unfurling through a wide and thirsty plain. That there is a further twist to the tale becomes apparent only in the final stages of the river’s journey- and this part of the story always comes as a surprise, because it is never told and thus never imagined. It is this: there is a point at which the braid comes undone; where Lord Shiva’s matted hair is washed apart into a vast, knotted tangle. Once past this point the river throws off its bindings and separates into hundreds, maybe thousands, of tangled strands.

Until you behold it for yourself, it is impossible to believe that here, interposed between the sea and plains of Bengal, lies an immense archipelago of islands………”

Author Amitava Ghosh in ‘The Hungry tides’

This is the Sundarban, the beautiful forest. Also home to the Royal Bengal Tiger.

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The Royal Bengal tiger is one of the most majestic creations of Mother Nature. Known for its grace, beauty and ferocity, it can grow up to twelve feet in length and weigh as much as 190 Kgs. Possessing the longest canine amongst meat eating mammals, the Royal Bengal is a solitary animal and marks large territories for itself extending up to two hundred square miles. It has adapted itself to the Bengal mangrove ecosystem of the Sundarban by being an ardent swimmer; anything that moves in this habitat is food! One forceful attack and the prey has nowhere to run; the Royal Bengal possesses such power as to snap the spinal cord of the victim in one jerk. A less known fact is that in one to one combat with a lion, the king of the forest, the Royal Bengal tiger has almost always won. And like the erstwhile Royal families of India, the Royal Bengal Tiger is well on its way to extinction.

( Facts from Internet )

Our trip to Sundarban starts with a car ride to Godkhali ferry ghat which lies at the end of the Bengal peninsula. The road ends at a decrepit sign announcing, ‘Gateway to Sundarban’ next to the worn steps of the ghat. A short boat ride to the island of Gosaba and we step into a Bazaar, its by-lanes, its teeming humanity and the filth and squalor which today’s plastic, paper and throwaways create. Alas! Quite a contrast to the vision I had held about Bengal’s villages in my mind’s eye.

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Forty five minutes of bone rattling auto-rickshaw ride through grain fields, ponds, and hutments later we are finally at our Eco-resort. With the promise of Sundarban just beyond the flowing waters.

Sundarban. A UNESCO World Heritage site. The name itself conjures up exotic images for me. Of narrow waterways hemmed in by overgrown foliage on the banks. Of boats navigating the waterways in stealth with the rowers in search of the wood of Sundari trees, the much sought after Bagda Chingri ( Tiger prawn) and madhu (honey). Of crocodiles waiting on the banks in ambush for their prey.Of giant pythons coiled around tree branches. And of course of the Royal Bengal tiger swimming out in the darkness to climb onto the boats.

As we journey on our river cruise away from inhabited islands to the uninhabited ones, the stark beauty of arguably the largest mangrove forest land in the world begins to unfold. The kaleidoscopic flora seamlessly embracing the silted land and the silt laden waters. The fascinating adaptation of the different mangrove species to the tides and the saline water with the stilt and the breathing roots. The latter manifesting as countless hard spikes sprouting out of the ground. As if warning that you enter these lands at your own peril. As we get to  the widest water expanse created by the confluence of five rivers, the boat engine is shut. The sudden stillness and silence is enigmatic. Of time standing still, as if waiting for the Sundar Ban to reveal its mysteries.

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Which brings me back to that star attraction of Sundarban, the Royal Bengal Tiger. Well we fail to spot the guy even though we do the rounds of the three main watch towers in the Tiger reserve- the Sajnekhali, Dobanki and the  Sudhnyakhali. But in the bargain, we do get vantage views of the magnificent Sundarban forests as the guide points us to the Goshap     (Water monitor lizard), Horeen ( spotted deer), Kumeer ( crocodile) and different bird species.

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As we prepare to leave Sundarban, I sense its allure beckoning me to come back again.Inviting me to explore more of the complex network of tributaries and tidal waterways between the islands and atolls. Inviting me to marvel at the creation of new islands as the old ones submerge under cyclones and tides. Inviting me to immerse in the mythology of Goddess Bonbibi, that ultimate saviour of the forest and all who venture within. Inviting me to once again savour the ethereal sunset and enveloping darkness on the Vidya Dhori river. And of course inviting me to set up one more rendezvous with the elusive Royal Bengal tiger.

As I once again undertake the bone rattling auto rickshaw ride on my return journey, I see the beauty and tranquility of  an agrarian lifestyle jostling to retain its place amongst the ugliness and discomfort imposed by so-called ‘development’- once concretised roads lying dilapidated and broken,  haphazard and unfinished infrastructure and the filth of plastic and other wastes. Just like the Sundarban tiger and other wildlife having jostled for space with the ever expanding humanity through decades……….

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Sitting in the ferry moving towards the mainland, I think of the socio-political leadership needed for inclusive development of the simple and friendly people of Sundarban. Leadership which would hold the ability to listen to and align with the concerns of all on the ground. But beyond such Leadership, the question that comes to my mind is , “What could each one of us do to support and sustain the rare and fragile ecosystem that is Sunderban?”

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In Learning….

Shakti Ghosal

Travel Recommendation :  We travelled using the services of Sundarban Chalo Tours   Contact No. 9748278990, sundarbanchalo@gmail.com

We had booked the 2 nights 3 days  Tour package. I believe we need this kind of a  period to  savour and appreciate the sights and sounds of Sundarban.

While we had opted to join the tour from  Chowringhee Lane,  Sundarban Chalo Tours  in fact had  several  convenient pick up points in Kolkata for  guests. We found the vehicle quality and driver to be excellent.

 The company owns its own boat and crew and so we felt  we were on our own private cruise while sailing in the Sundarban river network and estuaries!  The  tour coordinator and the guide went out of their way to make the trip memorable  with piping hot breakfast and lunch cooked and served on-board.

The Eco-resort we stayed in was clean and the employees extremely friendly and customer oriented. All the meals served was freshly cooked with a surprise evening entertainment program of folk music, dances and barbecue under the stars!

Robben Island and a perspective shift


“I was made, by the law, a criminal, not because of what I had done, but because of what I stood for, because of what I thought, because of my conscience.”

Nelson Mandela, 1962

We embarked on our tour to Robben Island from the V & A waterfront in Capetown.

The ferry starts from the Nelson Mandela museum and one gets the opportunity to see a range of photographs about the early settlements and the apartheid era of South Africa before one embarks on the ten odd kilometer boat ride.

Nelson Mandela Gateway museum on the V & A Waterfront, Capetown

Nelson Mandela Gateway museum on the V & A Waterfront, Capetown

For me the trip attraction lay in getting a glimpse of the apartheid days and how Nelson Mandela lived eighteen of his twenty-seven years of imprisonment in that place. Interestingly, something I had not been aware of earlier but came to know during the visit was that apart from Mandela, two other post apartheid South African presidents, including the present one, were imprisoned there.

Robben Island

Robben Island

The island trip consists of a guided bus tour of the infamous lime quarry where Nelson Mandela did hard labour and progressively lost his vision, a leper colony which had existed on the island more than a century back and the military fortifications made during the Second World War. The highlight however was clearly the tour of the maximum security prison for which our guide was Henry, an ex-political prisoner who had spent six years in the island prison during the time Mandela was incarcerated there.

The lime quarry where Mandela did hard labour

The lime quarry where Mandela did hard labour

An interesting insight which Henry offered was about the elaborate cover up the apartheid government resorted to in front of international media and United Nations in those days. To the outside world, the prison administration declared that political prisoners like Nelson Mandela, keeping in mind their educated background, were only assigned ‘skilled’ activities inside the prison complex like construction work etc. While the hard labour of working in the limestone quarry, cutting stones etc. were reserved for prisoners who had been sentenced for criminal charges like murder, robbery etc. While in actual practice it was the other way round! The apartheid thinking was that while there was a chance to teach skills to criminals to enable them get absorbed back into the South African society, there was no such possibility for the political prisoners.

The Prison

The Prison

Maximum security zone of the apartheid era

Maximum security zone of the apartheid era

The cell which was home to Mandela

The cell which was home to Mandela


As the tour ended and as we walked back to the quayside to board our ferry, I overheard a conversation between Henry and a tourist.

‘So Henry, as you look back to your days in this prison, what kind of anger or regret do you feel?’

‘Well, when I was first brought here forty years back, I did feel anger and frustration at the sheer injustice of it all. But interestingly, after a while that went away and I became more calm and accepting. This is something which most political prisoners learnt to do when here. This was important for our own well being.’

‘That’s interesting. And what did you learn to be able to do that?’

‘Well what I learnt was to shift my perspective about the situation. My perspective about what made the Government and the administration do what they were doing.’

‘And what perspective was that?’

‘Well I realised that the reason for my being imprisoned on an island like this was not because I had done anything wrong as the authorities would have me believe. Rather they were afraid and insecure about me and the ideas I stood for. So why I was being tormented physically was because I and what I stood for were tormenting them much more mentally. So it was really a quid pro quo and I had nothing to feel angry or upset about.’

Boarding the ferry I looked around to see Henry walking back slowly towards the prison. I understood how that four decade old perspective has allowed him to make peace with his own self and the world. How it keeps pulling him back to Robben Island, the place of his earlier torment, year after year and speak about it to countless visitors like me.

With the ferry speeding back towards the mainland and the Table Mountain visible on the horizon, a thought kept coming back to me.
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What stops Henry’s perspective from being created in so many places in the world where anger, torment and fear continue to create violence and unhappiness?

What could each one of us do to spread that perspective?

In Learning…….. Shakti Ghosal

Air to the bird, water to the fish……


‘The three great mysteries: Air to a bird, water to a fish, Man to himself.’
– A Hindu proverb

What are the kind of situations which bring out the worst of reactive thoughts in us? I offer a few personal examples here.

**

I am driving back from office. Mind laden with the ‘To do’ stuff for tomorrow, interspersed with unrelated thoughts from the past. I get yanked back to the ‘now and here’ by a black SUV suddenly crossing the lane from the wrong side. Slamming the brakes, I curse.
Drivers Beware!

**

In a hurry to get back home, I rush into the Al Fair supermarket to pick up a few items which my wife had asked me to. Though the place seems fairly crowded with folks like me trying to squeeze in some grocery shopping, my check-out queue moves briskly till I reach second spot. It is then that the guy in front of me gets into a long drawn discussion with the counter lady on the intricacies of some redeemable voucher. Impatiently standing there, I see rage and anger building up inside me.
Supermarket queue
**

I notice an office colleague not complying with my instructions. When asked, he voices disagreement. I see this as trying to undermine me, or worse, an attempt to derail what I propose to do. I react by knit picking on the guy, by micro-managing at the activity level and in my anxiety to enforce, I end up hurting and demeaning. In all this, both of us have lost the big picture of what we had set out to achieve.
Office disagreement
**

Now these are my examples but I can wager you would have seen one or more of these playing out in your own lives. So what is it really that brings up these reactions in us?

As I ponder over this question, I start seeing aspects of my own self-centeredness. A ‘Self centering’ that I am at the center of the world for myself and somehow my immediate needs and feelings should determine how things should operate in the world. A ‘Self centering’ which then becomes a slew of learned reactive thoughts and behaviours to make that happen. Reactive thoughts and behaviours which have got hard-wired within to the extent that it is now a default setting, a who I am wound up being.

So the guy who I am wound up being is now conditioned to curse when someone drives wrongly on the road. Or to get into a rage when someone delays completing some work. Or to hurt and demean when the other guy does not do things ‘my way’.

Chris Argyris, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, and a Thought Leader at Monitor Group, after four decades of studying individuals and organisations, concluded that, ‘… people consistently act inconsistently, unaware of the contradiction between their espoused theory and their theory-in-use, between the way they think they are acting and the way they really act.’

In real life, we might be completely aware of the right and wrong way of speaking, dealing with people and behaving. But come a situation or someone else’s behaviour that triggers our inner hard wiring, our reactive self takes over, ready to protect our turf at any cost. The interesting thing is that post the event, we remain hardly aware of how our reactive behaviour and actions were so much in variance to what we generally believe our actions and behaviour to be. A veritable Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde manifestation within us!

Have you ever wondered what makes it so hard for us to stop that reactive “Dr. Jekyll” self from taking over? This is because we mistake ‘Who we have wound up being’ as ‘Who we are’. This prevents us from seeing, as Chris Argyris surmised, the gap between the way we think we are acting and the way we really act. What is undistinguished begins to control us. Just like Air to the bird and Water to the fish!

So how could we start seeing the air and the water? What could we do to distinguish and remove all that acquired fluff of how we have wound up being to get down to the essence of who we are?

I believe we can make a start by holding the consciousness that we have a choice when confronted with a reaction generating situation or person. For example, what if I chose to think that the guy in that SUV who crossed the lane wrongly was rushing to the hospital where his wife was critically ill? What if I chose to believe that the guy trying to redeem those Al Fair vouchers was doing it to buy provisions for an orphanage? What if I chose to believe that the office colleague is as dedicated as me to achieve the overall objective?

The next step is to distinguish those aspects which have become part of ‘Who we have wound up being’. Read the language constructs below:

“ I Am….”

I am intelligent and smart.
I am disciplined and orderly.
I am competitive.
I am impatient with others.
I am a perfectionist and do not suffer fools.

“The way I wound up being….”

The way I wound up being is believing I am intelligent and smart.
The way I wound up being is disciplined and orderly.
The way I wound up being is competitive.
The way I wound up being is being impatient with others.
The way I wound up being is a perfectionist and who does not suffer fools.

What do you notice?

Do you notice that as the language construct shifts away from “I Am……” you gain the ability to distinguish the several traits you have acquired from who you intrinsically are?

Do you see that unlike the birds and the fishes, you are now able to discern the air and water around you?

Do you realise that you now have a choice?

***

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says,” Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes,” What the hell is water?”

David Foster Wallace in ‘This is Water’, commencement speech, 2005

Acknowledgement:
“Being A Leader And The Effective Exercise Of Leadership: An Ontological / Phenomenological Model” by Werner Erhard, Independent & Michael Jensen, Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration Emeritus, Harvard Business School.

Varanasi……. and the differing Realities


“Enlightenment, and the death which comes before it, is the primary business of Varanasi.”
Tahir Shah, author – Sorcerer’s Apprentice, 1998

If you are born in India, as I was, Varanasi, that immortal city of Lord Shiva and his consort Sati, slowly but surely becomes a part of your psyche.
Varanasi - that eternal city
My first visit to Varanasi with my mother continues to hold vivid memories for me even today. In my teens then, it was possibly the first time when I faced the confusion of how the same ground situation occurred so differently to my mother compared to me.

What occurred to me as narrow serpentine alleys, overcrowded and difficult to breathe places showed up as a delectable array of holy shrines, temples and ashrams to my mother.

What occurred for me as slippery, dirty steps to be avoided at all costs lest I fall into a smelly cesspool, showed up as venerable ‘ghats’ of the holy Ganga river, promising salvation and nirvana to my mother.

What showed up for me as a city bursting at its seams with the old and the dying, sickness, leprosy and burning funeral pyres, seemed to show up as life’s final destination and a passport to heaven for my mother.

As is the norm, come sunrise, I accompanied my mother for the holy dip in the Ganges. When we reached the ghat, the place was already thronging with hundreds of people, some already in the flowing waters, others taking an oil massage as a prelude to the dip. A motley crowd of beggars, tea sellers, urchins, saffron clad ‘sadhus’ and devotees jockeyed for space and spiritual advantage.
Sadhu at Sunrise

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My mother urged me, “Come, take a dip. Doing it is so holy, it would cleanse you of all your past sins.”

Now that was no doubt tempting. I could recall sins a plenty that I had committed over the last few months itself. But what held me back was the sight of raw sewage belching into the river with a dull roar. Not to speak of what appeared to be floating dead bodies and the vultures above. I had also heard sordid tales of unclaimed bodies, which no one came to cremate, being tied to a rock and sunk to the river bottom. I had this scary vision of stepping onto a body and being possessed by an angry spirit thereafter. The net result was that I refused to take that holy dip, much to my mother’s chagrin and embarrassment.

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Whenever I have mused about that visit subsequently, I have wondered what was it that created the almost diametrically opposite reality about Varanasi for my mother and me.

Coming as she did from an overly traditional, semi agrarian Bengali household in suburban Calcutta and growing up in a joint family, my mother imbibed strong elements of religious and ritualistic ‘Dos and Don’ts’ apart from a conditioning to not question the collective view and mindset. I suspect this is what would have made her take to Varanasi and its ethos like a fish takes to the water. For Varanasi is all about the occurring of a collective mind. That collective mind which through centuries and millennia, has read the Gita, quoted the Upanishads and chanted the vedic mantras on those very ghats.

I on the other hand, born and living in a nuclear family and receiving a liberal education, had very little exposure to the traditions, rituals and collective beliefs coming down the ages. So where my mother could selectively ‘see and tune into’ the devotional hymns, the fragrance of the incense and purity of the saffron colour all around her, I was left struggling to come to terms with the sludge and the floating trash, the smell of feces, the sickness and the poverty on physical display.

Today, when I look back to that Varanasi visit, I can see how the differing realities of the city effected us. My mother’s occurring of reality brought her great bliss and fulfillment. My occurring on the other hand brought in trepidation and doubt. I begin to realise how both the realities were illusions, anchored as they were to how the situations occurred to each one of us.

Like the above, do we see how most conflicts in society and the world can be traced back to the aspect of reality illusion? An illusion which makes us erroneously conclude that what shows up for us as a result of our own world view and frames of references is in fact the only reality and we refuse to accept any differing perspectives. Merely holding the awareness that differing realities can and do occur for each of us, and this is but normal, can lead to significant lowering of conflicts…….

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Albert Einstein

In Learning…….. Shakti Ghosal

How can I use my Context?


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In my last post ‘My Context uses me’, I had dwelled on how my Context, that omnipresent meaning making machine in all my situations, uses me. How my context wields the power to put me on rails and makes me react in predictable failing ways. I was left wondering whether I could do something about shifting away from such almost certain failures.

The “Being a Leader” course, attended by me recently, revealed a pathway.

As we saw in the last post, our context does function as a cognitive lens, a filter so to speak, through which we view the world, others and interestingly, even our own selves. As we look at a situation, our context highlights some aspects, dims a few and even blanks out yet other aspects. So what makes up our context? It’s our Worldview and frame of reference for the situation at hand. It is our beliefs, biases, prejudices and assumptions which play a part in the context’s meaning making and filtering process.

Cognitive-Distortions-Skew-Your-Perceptions

Now let’s consider what constitutes our beliefs, biases, prejudices and assumptions. In a nutshell, it is our past experiences. Our brains are adept at using this past to create a default context which comes automatically with the situation at hand. This default context, coloured as it is by our past concerns and fears, restricts us and our actions. As the context is decisive, one can see the wisdom of the old French proverb, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”.

The “Being a Leader” course went on to show that a critical part of our effectiveness in leadership and life arises from our ability to replace the default context by a created context for the same situation. This created context, unencumbered by anything from the past, allows us to see possibilities which were not being allowed so long by our past.

So how does the above work? To understand that let us revisit the situation which we had talked about in the earlier post, ‘My Context uses me’.

“Whenever I notice someone, be it a family member, relative, office colleague etc. not doing it ‘my way’ or voicing disagreement about my way or style of functioning, I feel that the person is actually trying to prove me wrong , undermine me, not giving me the respect which I deserve etc.”

.My default context was, ‘Disagreeing with me implies proving me wrong, undermining me, disrespecting me etc’. This context led to situations occurring for me negatively and made me react in negative, hurtful ways.

As I review the above situation, I realise that I do hold the power to create a new context for myself. A context which says, ‘Getting the job done is what counts and it really doesn’t matter if the way adopted by others is different to mine so long as the job is done’.

As I think of this created context, I can see that it allows me to hold the big picture of getting the job done and get people to align their focus and actions to that. I also begin to see that with this context, I am no longer getting undermined, proved wrong and getting disrespected.
I now see that I hold the power to use my context to my advantage.
***
On a lighter note, I append below an extract from the ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ by Norton Juster, which highlights how one could mis-use the context to the other person’s disadvantage!

“I don’t think you understand,” said Milo timidly as the watchdog growled a warning. “We’re looking for a place to spend the night.”
“It’s not yours to spend,” the bird shrieked again, and followed it with the same horrible laugh.
“That doesn’t make any sense, you see—” he started to explain.
“Dollars or cents, it’s still not yours to spend,” the bird replied haughtily.
“But I didn’t mean—” insisted Milo.
“Of course you’re mean,” interrupted the bird, closing the eye that had been open and opening the one that had been closed. “Anyone who’d spend a night that doesn’t belong to him is very mean.”
“Well, I thought that by—” he tried again desperately.
“That’s a different story,” interjected the bird a bit more amiably. “If you want to buy, I’m sure I can arrange to sell, but with what you’re doing you’ll probably end up in a cell anyway.”
“That doesn’t seem right,” said Milo helplessly, for, with the bird taking everything the wrong way, he hardly knew what he was saying.
“Agreed,” said the bird, with a sharp click of his beak, “but neither is it left, although if I were you I would have left a long time ago.”

In learning…….. Shakti Ghosal

Acknowledgements:
1) “Being A Leader And The Effective Exercise Of Leadership: An Ontological / Phenomenological Model” by Werner Erhard, Independent & Michael Jensen, Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration Emeritus, Harvard Business School.

My Context uses me.


“For me context is the key- from that comes the understanding of everything.”
– Kenneth Noland, American contemporary artist.

context-img4

Interestingly, my first acquaintance with ‘Context’ was from an experience with something which is opposite, that is ‘Out of Context’. I was in junior school when one of the girls in my class came running to the teacher and exclaimed loudly, “Miss! Miss! Dilip is saying he will kill someone!” When Dilip was called in for his explanation, it transpired that during lunch, he had remarked, “It is so hot. I feel like killing that person and sitting in his place in the air-conditioned school office.” Here was a case of a young mind taking some words out of context. The listener, listening to the specific set of words without the benefit of the context in which they were spoken, however derived a different meaning altogether.

As I go through life, the power of context continues to be revealed to me. I am witness to myriad claims and counterclaims in the realms of politics, media and entertainment in which politicians and celebrities, when confronted with some of their past utterances, resort to saying, “I never said that, I was quoted out of context”. Stating this, the individual is quick to articulate a context which completely shifts the meaning of what he /she had said.

The dictionary meaning of Context is ‘the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement and idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed’.Said another way, Context is something which interweaves into a situation to provide meaning. While we may not be conscious when we look at a situation, there is always a context that we hold that generates for us the sense that we make of what we see. A situation in a vacuum is apt to lose much of what it might mean or imply for us.

How a context can shape the way of being and actions of people is wonderfully portrayed in “The Life of Brian”, the 1979 British Comedy film. Tired of masquerading as a phony messiah, Brian tries to run away from the crowds following him and loses one of his shoes in the process. To the crowd however, the context is one of ‘every word and action of Brian is a point of doctrine’. The accidentally lost shoe of ‘Messiah’ Brian is held up as such. This is humour and satire at its best!

***

As I start distinguishing the contexts in my own life, I see a particular situation playing out repeatedly.

Whenever I notice someone, be it a family member, relative, office colleague etc. not doing it ‘my way’ or voicing disagreement about my way or style of functioning, I feel that the person is actually trying to prove me wrong , undermine me, not giving me the respect which I deserve etc.

I thus see all such situations from a context of ‘Disagreeing with me implies proving me wrong, undermining me, disrespecting me etc’.

As I hold this context, the situations occur for me negatively. This negative occurring impacts my mental state, emotions and thoughts as also the actions I contemplate. So how do I react? I tend to lose sight of the big picture. I justify myself by knit picking on the right or wrong ways of doing things from my perspective. I get down to micromanaging and in my anxiety to enforce, end up in confrontation, acrimony, blame game and what have you. So even though I started trying to get something done, I have really ended up fanning dissent, demotivation and unworkability.

I can see now how my context has been using me. How, time and again, it puts me on rails and makes me react in a predictable, disempowering manner. How my reaction gets based on how the situation, shaped and coloured by my context, shows up for me.

So if my context uses me thus, can I shift away from it to avoid my disempowerment and failure to get the job done?

I am left wondering about what kind of practices I need to adopt to shift away from disempowering contexts to empowering ones for myself……to be continued…….

In learning……… Shakti Ghosal