The Men in My Life: Inspired by Sridar Iyengar’s “The Women in My Life”
My son Vishnu who recently left the nest to attend college, spent all eighteen years of his life offering me priceless gifts by his presence. Being a parent is the 24/7 x 365 days a year job where as soon as you have acquired the skills, the job changes, for the baby, is a toddler, a child, a pre-teen, a teen at home and then a young-adult away from home. This last stage of parenting, in the US, seems to me to be mostly parent-as an ATM and a contrarian; so as the young adult decides who he wants to be, he has a parent that he is sure he does NOT want to be like. Vishnu taught me how to upgrade the latest versions of technology to our newest gadgets, to quietly do what needed to be done, to accept everything with a confident calm attitude of ‘that is how it is’, reminding me with a shrug of his shoulders that all one can do is to be considerate and compassionate towards fellow beings and animals, and then let it go. My colleague accurately described him as an old soul, when he was not yet ten.
My ex-husband was a high school sweetheart, then a pen-friend for a decade before becoming my husband for another fifteen years. He persuaded me to not adopt a child but to have one of our own. Vishnu is his gift to me. Before Vishnu started kindergarten, he left to pursue a life of his own, disrupting my plans to be a stay at home mother to my children. Although I resented having my future changed, forcing me to find employment outside the home again, he made a huge positive contribution to my life; as an empty-nester now, it is a real blessing to have a fulfilling professional life, with an active life of the mind, more respect and opportunities than I ever aspired to, and colleagues and work that I enjoy. Too many colleagues to thank: David Bowen taught me how to be there for a colleague, Ranjay Gulati and Bala Vissa reminded me to finish that Ph.D. that I nearly abandoned when I became a single parent, in my earlier careers, Jerry (Jaithirth) Rao taught me how to say no to my boss, a very useful skill to have, especially as a woman, and David Matheson taught me to lead by mentoring, giving candid feedback and following a fair process.
My friend Sriram Balasubramaniam, has been the dependable care-taker who knows how to be there in good and bad times. Apart from dosas and parties, he has been a sports-buddy and mentor for Vishnu, with many happy memories together, be it a trip to Pondicherry and Mahabalipuram, or a hike in California, to bringing a turntable to New York. Sriram shows, by example, how a friend can save our life from being derailed. Pradeep, another rock solid man, grows plums and raat-ki-rani in his backyard, is a proud food-snob, likes to feed me and others delicious homemade meals and shares my birthday, just a few years apart. He has a demanding tech-career, has raised two boys, got a Stanford Ph.D. and published one of the most cited award winning articles in Science, while always ironing his shirts and polishing his shoes too. He would be the proverbial Ramu kaka of a Hindi short story, the one everyone takes for granted so much that his best friends are his animals, the bird, the cat and the dog. A king amongst men, Sohrab Kakalia walks into my home and asks “what I can fix?” and has actually fixed my car, my bidet and built a kayak with Vishnu, among many other things. Driving us to Disneyland, Redwoods, Tahoe and countless vacations with his family, including the grandparents, or playing the Dad-DJ for the Macarena or Dandiya, he is always lighting up the world, and if that was not enough, he is also giving away millions of cool solar lights that he has designed.
My teachers, Dr. Tarachand at St. Stephen’s College, Dr. Ronald Howard at Stanford and Dr. Sumantra Ghoshal at London Business School. Dr. Tarachand interviewed me when I was 17 for the admission to the college. He also was the one around as I discovered the joys of experiments in the Physics lab. Ten years after I graduated, he responded to an aerogramme and sent me the letter of recommendation I needed for admission to Stanford. At 50 years old, I met him again after decades as if we had always stayed in touch. He remembered more about my classmates than I did. His love for his students and his subject are inspiring for me, now a teacher myself. Ron is widely known as the father of decision analysis, and befittingly, his contribution to my life was to show me how to apply the clarity that comes from formal decision making processes, that incorporate the role of intuition and values. He is also a role model for how to express individuality and yet stay deeply connected within a community. Earlier this year, I celebrated 50 years of Decision Analysis with him in attendance along with many old and new friends. Sumantra taught me how to take the rational decision making habits that I had learned from Ron, and to put them into practice in all aspects of my life. Unashamedly practice oriented, always ready to learn by debating and never boring or dull, combining work and personal life, because it is all practice anyway. Early in my PhD, he told me that academic life is intellectual mud-wrestling. Coming from consulting, I preferred collaborative approaches to combative wrestling and argued against his view of academia, only to realize later that he had successfully initiated me into debating ideas with him, in practice.
As I was growing up, my four maternal uncles were there for me every weekend, at my grandma’s home. Each one of them left his mark on my development. When we were not yet ten, Lachman, my eldest mama, would hand his daughter and me a rag, and ask us to dust the furniture in the house and then polish the shoes. We competed with each other to do a good job of it, crawling under tables and beds, chasing dust and shoes. We felt so important to be asked to do these chores as it included us in the adult world of housekeeping, so much better than pretending to play house with dolls. The shared activities taught me that there is dignity in work and cleanliness matters. Thakur mama was unpredictable due to mental health issues. The adults around me modeled compassionate care and respect for how he managed to hold down a responsible job. He was the eccentric genius who had been sent to Germany to study, from where he returned with this disease. He was tender hearted and would not hesitate to cry, and taught me to not be reactive, but be consistent in my respectful behavior regardless of what he might say or do. Ramesh mama was always charming and generous, bringing gifts from all his travels, be it in selling Brittania in Rajasthan or electronics in Nigeria. His can-do attitude also made him stand out as the go-to-person for anything that needed to be done. Mohan mama, with his polio stricken foot, was the one to go to for imaginative stories. I totally believed that his shirt was made by the tailor to the Prime-minister, just as his shoes had to be custom-made for his condition.
My son only had vacation uncles in my cousins Jitu, Nitin, Ravi, Himanshu and Eklavya when he visited India. However, in the US, this role was fulfilled by the many fathers who volunteered their time with the boy scout troop, teaching merit badges for citizenship in the community, nation or world, and being prepared for the countless outdoor adventures. Gordon Abraham taught him snow camping, David Webster supervised his Eagle project teaching him project planning and leadership skills, Steve Wu provided the sartorial lessons while Keith Le Plain and Rod Sinks reassured me that the situation is handled and the boys are good, when my teen was learning by making mistakes that made me want to give him ‘two tight slaps’. His teachers, Seth Donnelly taught him about activism, Mark Shaull about singing, and Gil Brown about flying in a private plane and even how to shave.
My grandfather’s brother migrated to the US after he retired from the Indian Railways as all his children were already here. He used to write letters to me describing his new life, in very personal details. The impressionable child that I was, a love for the US developed, and decades later, I followed in his footsteps. The patriarch of the family was my eldest maasi’s husband, Dada Massand. He served as the Post Master General of Indian Post and Telegraph services, bringing the luxury of a car, a telephone and a fancy home, to the family impoverished by the migration from Pakistan to India. No major family decision was made without consulting him. He also brought the gifts that made my childhood home comfortable: the sofa, the ceiling fan, my mother’s sewing machine, etc. Although my grandfather died when my mother was still a child, his stories have been a source of inspiration. He was the civil engineer on the Sukkur Barrage that saved Sindh from the devastating floods a few years ago. He gave up his life of luxury in Sindh to migrate to Delhi, where his two younger brothers lived, at the time of partition. He built the refugee colony of Rajinder Nagar in partnership with his friends. He was generous to the extent that even after losing his wealth as a refugee, he gave away one of the two plots of land he received to his family doctor, who had earlier helped his daughter during an accident. He was known to come home without his coat if he saw someone on the road who needed it more. That generous spirit and large heart lives on as an inspiration for us.
My father, is last one on the list, for I did not know him, other than a couple of short meetings. Yet his absence shaped my life’s experiences. As a child, I remember other kids in the neighborhood having to always get permission from ‘Papa’ to do anything fun, like going to the movies. Their mothers’ ominously threatened them with “I’ll tell Daddy” as a way to discipline them if they were disobeying the mother. I seldom saw their fathers who were always away at work. So in my mind, I was really glad that I never had to face this absent terror of a ‘father’ who might derail fun plans for movies or force good kids to obey their clueless mothers with their archaic rules. It was normal for me to not have him around, just as any kid accepts what is there every day as the norm. Only the interactions with adults made me conscious of the fact that it was ‘not normal’ as the adults held the belief that ‘normal’ was what everyone else had, a father at home. I bought into this idea just enough to miss the notion of having a dad at home, although I could not really miss someone I had no recollection of. Even so, I would sometimes sing an old song that was popular on the radio ‘Papa jaldi aa jana’ (Papa come home soon) while imagining that the taxi coming into the street may one day suddenly bring him back from Iran, where he was busy building bridges and tunnels. The most powerful impact of growing up without a father was to learn to make my own choices and not wait for approvals from any authority figure. This inner barometer serves me well and is a gift from my absent father. I learned early to not compare myself to my peers and think for myself based on my own experiences. A good thing to go through life with, and as an immigrant from India to the US, an indispensable attitude in not getting caught up with ‘keeping up with the Jones’ as I march to the drumbeat of my own heart.