Nameless faces

Amarabalan.

That’s a name that stuck in my head all these years, even though I had forgotten the person. There’s very few of my classmates from school that I’ve managed to stay in touch with anyways. I don’t recall his name being mentioned in any conversation in all these years. Some of us went to school together for 12 years. And then others came in and went out of our class at various stages. Amarabalan and I were together from Class 1 to 5. I hadn’t heard of him ever since.

When I met him after all these years the other day, outside our school, I was in for a lovely surprise. And perhaps, a shock in some ways. He came, looked me into the eyes, and asked, ‘Bala, teriyuda da enna?’ *

What immediate caught my attention was his eyes.

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Most of the times, I forget names. They are most likely to be of people that I have had a happy time with, but perhaps relatively briefly. Mostly during my travels. In some town or sometimes just for the duration of a train, or bus, or even an autorickshaw ride. Nothing much more.

I tend to forget faces much less, though. They stick. I know you, I just can’t place some things. You name, may be one such thing.

This man was a rustic. We must have spoken for ten minutes  in all. In that time, the conductor had come in to say he must sit at the back of the bus. I had reserved seat in the front and the seat next to mine was vacant. I felt offended and told the conductor that he’s found a place to sit! Why make him get up? After that, I must have fallen asleep. When I awoke, he wasn’t to be seen, until much later when the man had wanted to get off at, close to our destination. The bus driver just asked him to get off in the midst of traffic, hardly having pulled up the road properly. I was upset, but then I could empathise with the drivers too. It is hard. Roads are becoming like zoos.

In the brief minutes this man had spoken to me, I observed that he was a simpleton. Probably a farmer. ‘I am from Chennai, and I had come here on work. There’s no water there for us, back home. Out here, in Chinna Salem, there’s drinking water. The cattle, poor things, they suffer the most when there’s no water.’

Then there was Manivannan. This was most recently, and I had made a (physical) note of his name, and so I remember.

He had refused to turn on the meter, I refused to ride with him. He came back to me. ‘Meter pota 80, oru 20 kooda kudu.’ ** It was quarter to 11. The second time, I didn’t have the heart nor the energy to refuse. I had observed his frail body. He wore a long grey beard, and looked older than he probably was. He spoke a lot. I was tired and sleepy, so couldn’t register it all. He hails from a village in Perambalur district. If I remember right, he had come in the early nineties to Madras. A decade later, his family went back to their village. His two sons both go to college, I was told. I remember thinking that he had done well for himself. In a strange way, that made me proud.

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It came back to me, almost as if in a flash, when he stood there in front of me. Amarabalan, the name, and the face. I was in awe of the moment. I remember he had sharp eyes. He always seemed like looking at things keenly. A lot of times his forehead would be a little creased. Maybe it had something to do with ‘pepe’, a game where a group of people is after a tennis ball, throwing it around to hit each other. He was pretty damn good at it. And I used to get hit a lot, with the ball, especially by him. I must have been easy target. And sometimes, I also remember seeing fear in his eyes. I don’t remember him doing well academically, but he was a perfectly ‘normal’, ‘smart’, talented kid. He now teaches at a college. He didn’t speak too highly of his job. Apparently, he did more for the system, than for the kids. It was evident, that he didn’t like his work. And I wondered how much our schooling had to do with where he or each one of us was. After all, aren’t schools supposed to help us carve out a path for ourselves?

That morning, I had very mixed feelings. I was extremely excited about meeting everyone. They had all planned to go to school, something I was not very keen about, for some reason. I’ve felt the same way about college, too. Not that they were ‘bad’ places, not to me in any case. In fact, I am grateful for absolutely wonderful, beautiful, colourful times as a student. As I heard names, and saw a few faces standing outside the school compound, my mind was racing away.

Through the day and until the following morning, I had a blast of a time with friends. With most people, it felt very easy. Just very easy, it was that simple. There’s something about childhood friends. I just felt like, if any of them needed me to, I’d just stand up for them. No questions asked. Each of us had parted at different points of time. A handful of them, I have since been in touch with. Every one of the rest, was a delight to meet. A lot of the girls felt the boys had changed in many ways, including having grown taller! And more than one of those pretty ladies told me that day, that I had changed to have become a lot quieter. I was quite an extroverted child. We were always up to something. We played, out in the open. A LOT.

Every one of them has had his or her life. They’re all doing their things. Some work for others, others make others work for them. Many of them have been married. Some had really grown up kids! I remember all of them as being unique. And when it came to school, I look back and think that it was mostly about coping. Parts of it were fun, no doubt. I remember liking some of the subjects too. And then there was time with friends – playing, just meeting, talking, flirting with the girls, during outings and what else not.

One of them had travelled roughly 3000 km, all the way from Assam. ‘I loved school days. Mostly my friends. I love you all. I had a tough time trying to study, though. I couldn’t get a lot of what we were expected to learn. You did,’ he told me. I was shocked to hear that after all these years. In my student days, I remember I had thought this fellow coped better, honestly. I really didn’t study all that much.  We had a lot of other things to do, like I mentioned earlier. And then there were things like reading, music, ‘extra-curriculars’, or Scouting. I guess for me, they were all key parts that not only helped me learn a great deal more, they helped me cope with the whole idea of a classroom.

Back then, I was a mixed bag. I did a lot of shit. I remember one teacher. She got hold of me while I was returning from the playground. I think it was my last year at school. She took me around, and showed me to a few of her colleagues, and exclaimed, ‘Look at his shirt. They’re supposed to be grown up, and look how they play so much to soil their shirts.’ I used to like her. I think I coped fairly well with the studying part. I understood things, mostly. Or so I thought. And then I had learnt some tricks that helped me do well in examinations, thanks to my teachers. I was even appointed ‘monitor’, in my primary classes. Looking back, the term looks abhorrent. Later, it became ‘leader’. Just as ‘miss’ had become ‘madam’. In both cases, the connotation of the terms didn’t change much. My job was to ‘shepherd’ others and let the teacher know who the rogues were. Each of them would then punish us appropriately.  I wish someone explained the meaning of the word ‘leader’. I look back with a measure of guilt, that all I did was to be policing, and I never thought of helping my buddies out. It seems to me that we were taught competition more, than cooperation. All the cooperation, we mostly learnt ourselves, outside the classroom, mostly in playgrounds and so on.

I look back at my experience at school & college, and it makes me want to cry. Especially because I am now exposed to ideas around education. I wish kids don’t have to constantly struggle at school. I wish it wasn’t just about coping, but truly learning and discovering oneself. This isn’t to say that I had ‘bad’ teachers. As I remember it, most of them were perfectly nice people. Most of them perhaps wanted good things for us. Yet, I can’t help but think how limited they were in their views & consequently in doing their jobs. And I won’t blame them at all. Every teacher is but a product of the same system that is badly in need of transformation. All these thoughts are without doubt, in retrospect. Especially given that I’ve come to understand education somewhat better.

I am grateful for my work now. It adds a lot of meaning to my life. What keeps me going, is that somewhere, we may trigger some teacher may open her eyes, and change her mind a wee bit. It may just be trifle, yet I find it important to keep going. If we want a better world for ourselves & our kids, then there’s no better place than to start with our schools. Else, schools will remain places where thousands of nameless faceless entities do nothing more than struggle, and somehow find their way out. And it is high time that changed. So that another Amarabalan can discover himself.

* ‘Do you remember me?’

** ‘If I use the meter, it will come to 80. Give me 20 more.’

 

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And it goes on

My colleague and I, along with a teacher who had hosted us, were talking over lunch today. I believe he had been asked to take us out for lunch, since they couldn’t serve us lunch at school. Those perfunctory conversations had to be made. I was asked about the usual things – my education, marital status and what not.

“How long have you been with EZV?”, the teacher asked.

“In which month do you complete the 10 years?”, my colleague added. As I thought about it, I realised that it is today. If I joined on 5th of June 2006, then technically, I complete 10 years on the 4th of June 2016, don’t I? Though it turns out that one would celebrate the work anniversary only tomorrow, perhaps? Strange that I should have been asked this question just today, I thought to myself.

“You should have told us earlier, we could have celebrated it in a bigger way”, exclaimed the teacher.

I did not ask him what it meant. I am quite apprehensive, even averse of ‘big’, in any case. Moreover, a part of me is a private person. I’d much rather celebrate such things with some very special people, or none at all. I’ve requested my HR not to send those work anniversary wishes, that get mailed as a matter of routine. I had requested that I be left out, and I am hoping that my wish is respected. This isn’t to belittle such rituals, or for instance, those two fine gentleman that I dined with earlier today, but to emphasize that privacy is something I deeply value.

As I sit down to write, I tell myself that I’ve been celebrating in any case. 30 days, 30 posts. About the EZV, that I have come to love and respect. About the EZV that has given me more than I can ever dream of giving it. Not that EZV needs me to do it. I have always maintained that there is only one reason to give. And that is, to giving itself. Nothing more.

I hadn’t ever imagined I’d come this far – 10 years. Or even 30 consecutive blog posts on the same subject, one everyday. I started it almost as a whim, without putting much thought into it. And then, EZV gave me the reason to continue and keep my promise to myself. That is more than I may have blogged in the past few years all put together! Perhaps, it is a celebration of pushing the boundaries, of bringing out the best in me, that EZV seems to have done so well.

I considered writing a post about Chitra too. After all, she has played a significant role in making EZV what it is, but also in my own journey thus far. Yet, I put it off – for later if not forever  – for fear of embarrassing her. Do I not have any problems whatsoever with her? Of course I do; our fights are no secret! Would I not complain about EZV, ever? Sure I would, to the right people, in the most appropriate way – for EZV has given me the space to express myself, even if it isn’t about the most flattering of things. Do I agree with everything about EZV? Not at all. In fact, I am realising even to my surprise, that I may have some very fundamental disagreements. Yet, when I look back at it all, it is more than evident to me that the things that have made my life at EZV worthwhile, far outweigh those aspects that remotely trouble me.

So what next? I consider myself a voyager of sorts, and to plan my voyages – even little holidays that I take once in a while – is something I do not indulge in. The best of my sojourns have been the ones that I have never planned, but simply set out discovering each moment as it comes. Is this list of 30 posts comprehensive, then, that it completes what I had set out to do? I do not know if there is anything comprehensive I had intended, except wanting to write a post every day for a month. And after a month, I’d like to stop here. However, not before I admit, that there is something infinitely more valuable to me than everything that I have written about thus far, in the context of EZV. It is the unspoken things, the intangibles, the moments that tug a string & touch a chord, those little thingamajigs, shall we say, that penetrate the deepest part of us, touch us so profoundly so as to almost become us, in myriad ways? For all the finest poetry in this world, I do believe that words are woefully inadequate when it comes to capturing some of the subtlest emotions. And at the end of the day, my relationship with EZV is that – a feeling.

I feel overwhelmed, as I say this one more time here in my blog, though in my heart, I shall perhaps say it till the day I die – thank you, EZV.

The things that matter

It was a long back, almost around the time I had joined. I was just getting to know the people and the ways of EZV. In a new crowd, I am not usually the first person to go say hello. I prefer to wait, I take my time to make friends. I have been told that this may not be the best, especially at the workplace. After all, being extroverted is so hyped in my opinion. I haven’t tried to change myself; I am comfortable the way I am.

He was one of the most popular people at work.  From what I understood, he was fairly good at what he did. Though I did not have too many opportunities to interact with him, from the few conversations, I could sense that he was sharp and possessed a quick wit. Clearly, he was an asset to the company. All this, is of course, from my memory, which as I may have earlier mentioned, isn’t something I am proud of.

And then one day, he quit. Just like that. Like many others, I was shocked, to say the least. How do you weigh people? What yardstick do business use to determine if people are valuable or not? This has been a question that I have mulled over, several times, in the past. I learnt later, that he was in fact fired by the management. The reason? It was something to do with his integrity. I remember how Chitra was visibly upset, when she shared the news with some of us. What upset her, was not so much this incident itself, but the fact that an EZVian turned out to be so. Hadn’t we tried to nurture people with the highest values? Did we not want to reflect the things that we stood for? Where had we failed? These were some of the questions that troubled Chitra back then.

Back then, I hadn’t fully realised the gravity of the matter. I didn’t fully appreciate why Chitra may have been so upset with the way things turned out. Over time, it strikes me – like they say, attitude is everything. And at EZV, we have stuck with this tenet. Those who, for some reason, are not able to perform but possess the right attitude, are given the longest rope. Apart from time for them to learn & grow, they are given immense support to help them in their jobs. On the other hand, someone may be the most talented. Yet, if his/her attitude is poor, they have no place in EZV. Not only is this practiced, but communicated to everyone – loud and clear. As simple as it might sound, it isn’t the easiest to practice it. In fact, so much importance is given to this aspect that over time, we have tried to articulate what we mean by these ‘softer aspects’. We have articulated, revisited and refined (and continue to do so), a document called ECD – EZV Common Denominator. It is a set of qualities that we think are most important. As it says in the document itself, it is at once, what we are and what we aspire to be. It is an attempt to define our culture, as manifested in our people.

I am grateful in EZV, for showing me the way – for what I can be. I am grateful to EZV, for valuing the right kind of things in people. I am grateful to EZV, for choosing the path that is tougher, but a lot more gratifying.

How it all started

What do you make out, when you hear that someone has their ‘heart in the right place’? When I heard it, I did not think much of it back then.

I was then teaching at a school, part-time, for a monthly salary of INR 5000. It wasn’t enough, especially considering my lifestyle would include certain luxuries, but then how much ever is I have wondered! I found a kind-hearted schoolmate who would accommodate me in his dwelling, so the major expense of rent was saved. I quite enjoyed teaching, except that it required me to be tremendously patient – a virtue that I did not possess. However, it was still a contractual job and by the end of the academic year, I was asked if I wanted to continue. I had no idea; it wasn’t like I had many options to choose from.

One day, I received a very brief email from a cousin working with Wipro. It was about Wipro looking to hire a person. ‘Are you interested in working on school education?’ it said. Or some such thing. It was very brief in any case. I shot off an email which said that I was indeed interested; I had nothing to lose. In a few days, I received a response, requesting for an application to be filled out. It was a mundane application form, but quite unlike all other mundane application forms, at least in parts! Following this, a few days later, I received a mail requesting for a telephonic chat. That turned out to be anything but mundane and it piqued my curiosity. I was finally invited for an interview, which I did attend. One thing that struck me about this entire experience was that these were good people to work with. I was hoping I’d get through, though during the interview itself, I realised that some of the others who had turned up were much more experienced, older and more educated that I was. This, I had noticed, not without some trepidation.

A few weeks later, I received a call from one of the people who had interviewed me. I was told that I wasn’t selected. There was the customary wishing and thanking that came with it, but the facts looked pretty plain. Just as I thought he was going to hang up, he offered something more to say. “Would you be interested in exploring opportunities with this outfit called EZ Vidya? They are based out of Chennai. I don’t know if they have requirements right now, but they are good people to work for. I know Chitra, who runs it, personally, and I think she has her heart in the right place”, he added. I had no reason to refuse. Very soon, he very kindly sent out an email introducing me to EZV, following which EZV was kind enough to offer me a job.

Looking back, I am grateful to that gentleman. However, I am also grateful to EZV, for being associated with Wipro in the first place, but also making a mark in that relationship. It is this impression that EZV had left on its partner, which doubtless led to my interviewer thinking of EZV in the context of my interview with him. Most importantly, I am grateful to EZV for hiring me 10 years ago.

Taking responsibility

For the longest time now, I’ve been asked to interview people who apply with us. Invariably, the first conversation would end up being with me, unless it is clear that the person has applied for a very specific position. I tell people, in jest, that perhaps I am the most jobless person in EZV.
I remember this once when I had had a chat with Chitra about a candidate and asked for her opinion. I didn’t much of an opinion. What I did get was some questions, about the candidate and the possible role that I had in mind for him and so on. I thought about it, posed further questions and we perhaps ran out of time just then. Later, it struck me that we hadn’t really arrived at a decision and so I mailed her, presuming she needed a reminder. I received a prompt response asking me what I had thought of the candidate. I was mildly annoyed, because I do remember giving a detailed update in person.
Nevertheless, I wrote down a detailed mail, giving the pros and cons once again. I was hoping that I’d get some help deciding and so ensure it was a fairly detailed, and as unbiased an account as possible. Yet again, I received a prompt response. This time, it simply said, “I thought I had shared my thoughts. Go ahead and take a call.”
Now I was a little more than mildly annoyed and all set to shoot another email. “I needed help after all, was that so difficult to understand?”, I thought to myself. As I was writing this mail, it struck me that inadvertently, I may have been evading making a decision. And that’s precisely what I was being pushed for – to decide, and to stand by the decision. Very often, we find people who simply want to let others take the decision. It is after all, quite safe to play it that way.
I am grateful to EZV, that I have been pushed to take decisions and be responsible for them. I am even more grateful to EZV, for standing by me and my decisions, even when I have gone terribly wrong.

All the many things

I remember one of my first adventures at EZV was a trip here. I chose to ride the distance, though I recall the duration of the ride turned out to be more than I had anticipated. Back then, I used to ride my motorcycle a lot and this was yet another opportunity. I paid a quick visit to an ancient temple in the vicinity as well. However, it is not only for these reasons that I remember that day. It was my first official ‘sales call’, all by myself. I had never imagined myself selling anything before that day.

Back then, ‘Chrysalis ICT’ was our mainstay. For some reason, I was asked to go to this particular school and make a sales presentation, which I did. I felt on that day, that I had done a fairly good job. It is another matter that I couldn’t clinch the deal. I wasn’t just allowed to go for the call though. We had a mock sales presentation at office, when one of our colleagues was asked to play the Management Representative of an imaginary school and I had to ‘pitch’ to him. This person was known for his histrionics and I remember him going overboard, that I struggled to keep a straight face and do my job. After all, Chitra was watching! Looking back now, I can’t believe the kind of time we may have had on our hands to go through such a thing!

This was but one example. I have had to work on numerous other things that I wasn’t ‘meant’ to work on. For instance, I remember doing Quality Checks for several content objects, particularly audio-visuals, perhaps some ten years back. I was told that I possessed an eye for detail back then, which was quite a surprise to me. All these experiences were significant learning experiences for me. Equally importantly, the experience in itself was of value. Each activity allowed me to enjoy a certain unique experience irrespective of what I learned out of it.

I see now how we try to allow people to try their hand at different things for just these reasons. Now, of course, things are a lot different and as we scale, we may not have the luxury that some of us had back then. Yet, this aspect is slowly becoming a part of the system, so that we consciously allow people such experiences as best as we can afford. I am sure that this inherent variety in work, the associated challenges, the richness in varied experiences and the learning thereof are significant perks at work. And I am grateful to EZV for these invaluable experiences.

You did it

My father and I share an interesting relationship. As a child, I do not remember much of him, except for his stern looks when I would do something that I wasn’t supposed to. Given the number of times I was guilty of that, I am not surprised about the stern look as a predominant memory. As I grew up, things got even more difficult. I was turning out to be the problem child. While the things I was interested in changed with time, the one constant was my strong affinity to indulge in activities that put him off. Be it staying up late at night or watching one movie too many, not coming home during the semester breaks or just binge drinking, I found just about every way to displease him. It continues even as an adult, be it the divorce or more recently, my refusing to participate in a family vacation. The only difference is that he seems to have found ways not to react.

Another and related memory for me is that he wouldn’t appreciate me. “Don’t be too proud”, and “You can do better than that”, are two messages that I would receive from him time and again. The latter being well deserved, and the former, more a cautionary note. I sometimes think that he may have held the belief that appreciating his children would put them at the risk of becoming vain. Perhaps it is culturally influenced, and as a grown up, I look back and I am able to understand him very well. I am also grateful to him & my mother for bringing me up the way they did. I ought to write more about them, I remind myself.

So, when six months into my stint at EZV, I got an unprecedented raise in my salary, the first thing I wanted to do was to let my father know. It was unprecedented, because it was done exclusively for me, before my completing a year, which is when these things happen. And I remember some people telling me that it had never happened before. I was of course excited, and perhaps mildly surprised at myself. However, I made a request to Chitra – that while I was grateful, the raise itself wasn’t so important for me. I requested her for a letter of appreciation, and she readily obliged. The only reason that I had wanted it was to show it to my father.

It has been ten years now, and it is now time for me to be doing the appreciation. With several young, energetic and committed people giving it their all, I sometimes rue at my inability to be so generous with praise. Partly, it is because I am just not mindful of the fundamental need that most people have – a pat on the back. However, I also think I may be a tough taskmaster, and my benchmarks are usually high, sometimes perhaps unreasonably so. This is only with me, of course. Chitra still is the one to quickly recognise promise, and acknowledge it publicly, even though her own benchmarks are no less. Over time, it has become a part of EZV itself. I am grateful to be working in an organisation that is quick & generous to acknowledge and even reward contributions from people. While it in itself is a wonderful thing, I am also grateful that it reminds me of what I ought to do better – be less grudging and more generous with praise.