In my early days as a writer for hire, the lack of a degree in literature used to push their eyebrows up and my chances down. As the decades passed, another missing qualification emerged to replace the academic shortcoming—haven’t written a book yet, have you?
I may have encouraged or helped many write a tome, but the fact remains there is no book out there in my name, neither the version that evokes bibliosmia nor the one that stays behind a screen until clicked to life.
Friends persuade. You have written so much, why not put it all together in a book or two? Flattering as it is, I share a secret: it’s all out there already in bits and pieces. Why go through the pain and pay a price for booking it all? That’s when they give up, accusing me of laziness, arrogance, and hypocrisy! Does he know anything about building a brand? Says he is a writer, but doesn’t want to write a book, bah!
Maybe I am being a hypocrite when I encourage and help those clients (and friendly ex-clients) to write the book that is bursting out of their heads and hearts. But at least once I actively discouraged someone.
The draft of his blog had ended up being a bit too long. Within hours he was planning the events and locations where he would display his first book. I doused his enthusiasm by ruthlessly editing the piece and converting it into three posts.
You guessed it, he is no longer a client. Though he does remind me on the rare occasions we connect that together the three posts had garnered some 5,000 likes. No doubt suggesting that the book would have sold an equal number of copies, if only ….
By the way, Mark Richards of Swift Press, says in The Economist, that 5,000 copies is the break-even point for a book. That is the number a writer should target to reach base camp from where one can hope to glimpse the best-seller peak.
Anyone can book now
Time was when you would be rejected by publisher after publisher. I used to imagine a whole lineup of serious-looking editors trying to inject English into the manuscript (after clearance by the marketing team). Can you write good, readable English? Can you sustain a plot? Are you relevant, famous, or both? Will they pay a price to read what you write? Every question needed a positive answer, before the book could see daylight. Or so I used to think.
Now, as Abhi Singh puts it, there are no gatekeepers. You are not screened and selected by a publishing house. A lot of us have always wanted to be an author even when it was not easy. Now that publishing a book is as simple as going to the right website and clicking on the best package, there is a rush to stuff your words between the covers and put it out there.
In the past, says Abhi Singh, “publishing one paper book would cost so much you would have no money left for sending out a new one. Now it’s just bits in the ether and cost nothing.” Talk of publishing e-ase!
Today, publishing a book is all about branding. If your head is chockfull of ideas and you just need a plumber (ahem!) to get the words flowing, you can hire one and also all other sorts of help (if your publisher does not offer those). You may not even need to step out of your room (where you have your computer) until it is time to launch your book and sign a few copies. And once that is done, never miss an opportunity to suggest that you are an author, which if you do it right often enough, would become synonymous with “I am an expert”.
A book matters, but ...
Before you rush to the conclusion that I am anti-book, let me correct you. As long as you are clear about the why and what of your book, I will be the first to cheer you.
Imagine you surprise me with a copy of your first book. Days pass after all the congratulatory backslapping. As promised, I get back to you after I read the book. The silence gets awkward when I ask a simple question, purely as your reader-friend: “Why did you write this book?” I have had to painfully put up with that silence more than once. What makes things worse are the justifications that follow and the accusations of my being disloyal and needlessly skeptical.
Then there is this friend who has occupied the top echelons of management in places that normally figure in the shadow regions of newspaper headlines. You may ignore his management wisdom but there is no ignoring the weight of the life he has experienced in difficult situations. He remains a consultant not to fill his coffers but to fund a foundation that supports budding entrepreneurs. “I want to write my autobiography. No grand book. Just to pen my experiences in some form, somewhere. I want my family and friends to gain from what I have learnt. I have nothing to preach, but a lot to share. Hopefully, that will help someone, sometimes. Just to discover their answers within themselves.”
In his case, the target is not fame or brand building. You will hardly spot him on social media. His book, whatever form it takes may not make it anywhere near the bestseller list. Yet, he has a good cause for writing the book. Which gives it a good chance to succeed, regardless of where it ends up on this list or that.
Your cause may be sharing your Wodehousian humor. Or telling a fantastic story that entertains. As long as you are clear, I think you should go ahead and take the plunge. If you are keen to share some management wisdom or 25 tips about a niche domain, please pause a moment to consult Mother Google just to know what is already out there. And to ensure you can be different, if not unique.
As to the process of publishing, a word of caution. Recently, I read a self-published book by someone who has founded an institution to support a humanitarian cause. There were so many proofing errors and layout glitches that what ought to have been a good, moving series of stories had been reduced to an annoying distraction. I did not have the heart to recommend the book to anyone, lest it discredit the author and hamper the cause. Apparently, the writer had used a “self-publishing package” suggested by the publisher.
Another writer (a national figure) was castigated by a much-published veteran for using a “cheap” publisher and made to republish the book under a more reputed name because the book deserved it.
So, not just the writer, the publisher matters too. Pick someone who aligns with your thinking and has something more substantial to offer than projections of revenue and reputation.
The randomness of it all
Publishing, the knowledgeable say, is a strange, unpredictable world. Not every bestseller might be recommended reading from the perspective of your English professor. William Thackeray dismissed popular novels as “jam tarts for the mind”. However, in publishing, the hits are what sustain the business.
You must have read Danielle Steel. Her 200-plus books have sold over a billion copies! As Catherine Nixey writes in her piece in The Economist, Steel’s novels are “a literary sediment, settling on the shelves of holiday cottages everywhere.” Many are the (would-be) authors who would attempt to Chandrayaan the moon, just to become such sediment!
What is the formula then to make your book a hit? The wise say there is no formula or magic.
Apparently, that is how the publisher Random House got its name. Again, as The Economist reports, in the words of Markus Dohle, the boss: “Success is random. Bestsellers are random. So that’s why we are the Random House.” Jonathan Karp, the chief executive of Simon & Schuster, thinks taking credit for a best seller is “like taking credit for the weather”.
In 2018, Northeastern University researchers analysed almost eight years’ worth of New York Times bestsellers and came up with some tips for aspiring writers: fiction (thrillers and romance especially) sells better than non-fiction; if you must pen a non-fiction, stick to a biography; and, it really helps if your name is known.
Any lessons from the bestselling authors? They are prolific, says The Economist. Danielle Steel writes until her nails bleed. Fleming recommended writing 2,000 words a day and not to sully this with “too much introspection and self-criticism”. James Patterson has churned out more than 340 books (some in collaboration with other writers). The mantra then is, “Don’t get it right, get it writ”.
Bleeding nails? Just get it writ? Hmm, I am not sure.
What do you think, Mr. Shakespeare? If you were to do it now, would Midsummer Night have remained just that, a Dream? Or, without Much Ado, would you have simply unleashed a digital, self-published Tempest?
Graphic: https://natlib.govt.nz/records/40382902; https://www.vecteezy.com/png/9399398-old-vintage-book-clipart-design-illustration;
With change fast and furious as always, how relevant is what your school taught you two or more decades ago? What is it that you have had to or want to unlearn to cope with today?
Medscape asked this question recently about medical school. Even before I read the article in full, I shared the same question with a few doctor friends. I expected some finger-wagging about the need to keep up with technology and some frowns at the interfering Dr Google. I also expected doctors in the US and India to come up with different answers. Well, surprise!
What Medscape gathered
This is the gist of what Medscape gathered.
What my doctor friends said
What have you unlearnt?
Yes, apparently robots are wonderful surgeons today. But the patients are not automations. The core message from everywhere appears to be to take time to listen and clasp a hand before the robot takes over.
I am grateful to my doctor friends who were kind enough to share their opinion. Special thanks to Dr Srinagesh Simha, Dr Khurshid Bhalla and Dr Pushkar Khair.
So much about the medical profession. What about your profession? Is there something you have unlearnt? Is there something that was taught to you decades ago, but you disagree with today?
Today is the day, like yesterday and like tomorrow, when you will hear a couple of words a lot.
This morning, I got this arrestingly misleading, three-colored message from my bank, asking me to move towards independence by taking a loan on my credit card and to increase my credit limit so that I can be free to spend more.
How can a loan, or spending more (simply because I can), put me on the path to financial freedom?
I went back to one poem that has stayed with me from my school days. The one that is most quoted when the tricolor is in season.
Where the mind is without money fear
Where the mind is without money fear
And the head is held confidently high
Where finance knowledge is free and sought
Where the world has not been broken up into extremes
By birth, faith or narrow money walls
Where words speaking needs and dreams
Come out from the depth of truth
And are heard with true empathy
By those who know more and can advise with integrity
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards freedom
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of apps and influencer mirages
Where the mind is led forward by simple goals
Down the ever-vigilant path of thought and action
Into that heaven of finance freedom, my Father,
Please let us all awake.
Thank you my good friend Lovaii Navlakhi, for being a patient money teacher for so long.
And apologies, Rabindranath Tagore, for twisting your precious words to send this message.
First published here.
Blame it on Barbenheimer? Or are we being corned into popping more into our mouth just by being in a theatre regardless of what is playing before us?
Sarah Lefebvre, Ph.D., an associate professor of marketing at Murray State University says it’s all in the mood. “When we lower the lighting, we're more relaxed, which usually increases satisfaction in general with your overall experience …. We're gonna probably consume a little more because A, we’re not really paying attention, and B, we don't really care.”
Low lighting at restaurants makes you more indulgent with your choices (skip salad, have fries to fill). When it’s dim, foods with just one dimension of taste (sweet or salt, like popcorn) taste better. Add the movie distraction and bring on more popcorn! And you eat more when the air is chilly!
Plus, adds this TIME report, there is the matter of close identification with the characters in front of you. Watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Keep them pizzas coming! And when those projected finish eating, you reach for something sweet too.
Looks like eating more is scripted, no matter what the film is. So how much did you pay for the ticket last time? And for the popcorn?
Read the complete report here:The Science Behind Why We Eat so Much at the Movies | Time
The founders are selling their stake. Just another business headline. Routine. Why does it open a dam of nostalgia?
Nearly 40 years ago, there was a small advertisement in a newspaper. “A reputed pharmaceutical company in Bombay wishes to launch a house journal and is looking for a qualified Journalist/Writer to assume independent responsibility.”
This writer had wandered into journalism and after some two years was beginning to learn that there was more to it than writing. So, he applied.
It was his first visit to a big company, as a nervous job seeker and not a privileged reporter. As the clock ticked past the scheduled hour of interview, the merry receptionist, her fingers flying over the switchboard, smiled at me, and said, “Sweetheart, I have told the manager. He will call you soon.” It was doubly reassuring, mainly because for the first time someone, a stranger in a strange setting was using such an endearment to address me.
A few days after I joined, we were all friends and I asked her how she managed to make every strange visitor a “dear”, a “darling” or a “sweetheart”. It just came naturally to her, she told me. “And what is the harm in making someone comfortable, right? It’s all the family, dear!”
Over the next several years, I would enjoy being part of the family which paid me a salary.
Of and for the family
I had suggested a name for the house journal in an ambitious note: “It is only inevitable that our number grows as we develop. All 1200 of us are per force flung far and wide. In such a big family, separated by long distances, there has to be a medium through which all of us can share our thoughts, pleasures, and plans. Tablet is meant to fulfil that need. This is going to be one tablet which will not be made in a sterile atmosphere. Here we will let our germs of ideas flourish and give free rein to our thoughts.”
I might have been sold on “Tablet” but what the employees chose after a poll was a different name. What was gratifying was that very few bothered to remember my name (then and now) but the easiest way to introduce me was by the name of the magazine.
The bosses insisted that the magazine must be printed and mailed home. Not simply handed over in the office or factory. It was meant for the family and had to reach the family first—both the English and the Marathi versions.
Like the magazine, even its editor had the opportunity to visit several homes. To meet the lab technician who was a passionate collector of stamps. No one knew that the silent guy in stores was also an accomplished dancer until I went to his house and clicked him in action. And did you know that senior delivery guy always on the move on his bicycle, told a little lie that he could ride a cycle just to get that job? But you would pardon him when you also learnt how he had to struggle to save the animals in the laboratory when the whole locality was cut off by floods.
Up and down
If the editor had started feeling a little too important, the family provided enough moments to keep him grounded.
Like the wrong spelling the name of the person, who had played a key role in the golden jubilee celebrations. That too on the front page of the very first issue in four colours.
Like being taken to task by a worker on the packing line, who stormed across the corporate floors, probably for the first time after she was employed, to give me an earful. After all I had dared to change a couple of words in her poem published in the latest edition. What would I tell my family, was her primary concern.
Like being unceremoniously thrown out of the factory because I had omitted to wear the production floor attire as I went in search of someone I was supposed to interview.
The company was kind enough to give me enough mentors—like a seasoned editor from the corporate world and a veteran from the advertising arena. The latter magnanimously let me tweak a couple of words in the script for a prestigious corporate film.
As the years passed, the company gained enough confidence to let me loose in other areas—the Chairman’s communications, the annual report, the medical journal and even marketing (“for the largest organ, the strongest antibiotic”).
The greatest privilege was to spend time with the Chief, a name to reckon with in the world of global health. To watch his pen move deftly across the notebook as he explained the structure of a new drug in the making to a team of awed scientists in white aprons. It was as captivating as the delicate drop he loved to execute on the company parking lot that doubled up as a badminton court after working hours. Then, at other times, one could not but share his agitation as he wondered why it was difficult to put patients before patents.
The association with the family would continue even after I moved on from the company.
I was then a consultant for a hotel under construction in another city. One day a tall man, an old associate (and cricketer) from my employee days, walked in, ducking the bamboos sticking out from the scaffolding. He was now in charge of a new palliative care centre. He explained what palliative care was all about. He wanted a line to describe the centre. “So, what you are doing is beyond curing, right? Care beyond cure?” I suggested.
Then would come my initiation into respiratory research in addition to occasional corporate requirements.
My status on paper did not matter. After all, you do not stop being a member of the family, just because you have moved away.
As many who were my colleagues during those days say, “You may not remain in Cipla, but Cipla will always remain in you.”
Just when I thought I had distilled the secret of happiness down to some 12 bullet points after stumbling on one social media message that led me to another 99 within the hour, came this study that left me unhappy.
Elizabeth Dunn, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, and Dunigan Folk, a PhD student in Dunn’s lab, had happily accepted all the common happiness strategies when modern science grumbled and called for more stringent studies and interpretation.
So, they lined up the strategies: gratitude, social interactions, mindfulness or meditation, time in nature, and exercising.
Then, as researchers often do, they ploughed through 22,000 papers involving these methods. Only 494 of those were right about the method and out of that only 57 were constructed right to yield reliable statistics. See the smiles fading?
They went on to discover that even the two strategies that best withstood the rigors of scientific testing—gratitude and social engagement—could at best yield short-lived happiness.
The verdict? Those tips might not work for all, and when they do, the smile might not last very long.
Interestingly, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has been at it really long. It started in 1938 and has covered 2,000 people across three generations. What did the current director of the study, Dr Robert Waldinger and his team conclude?
The happiest subjects through the study had two major factors in common—they took care of their health and built loving relationships with others.
As one report of the study put it, “good things happened to those who had given up on changing their situation, and good news appeared when they least expected it.”
I decided to ask the “scientist” accessible to everyone these days. First, ChatGPT shot 10 bullets embedded in 377 words at me. When I pleaded for a shorter answer, I got this. “The secret of being always happy is to cultivate gratitude and focus on the present moment.” Nothing artificial about that piece of intelligence, right?
Bobby McFerrin almost got it right in his song. Better yet, when it comes to being happy, don’t query, just be.
By the time the second round of tea was served, two hours after the day started officially, six news clippings were on the CEO’s table.
The CEO liked to be informed at once and the managers liked to have the boss liking them. It was a company that believed in staying ahead and all of them knew what it took to stay ahead.
"Companies to sponsor cages,” was the gist of each clipping. The municipal corporation was trying to salvage the city zoo by coaxing private companies to adopt cages complete with the occupants.
“I think we must take the lead, sir” the communications manager was the first in. The CEO squirmed, imagining the company’s neat logo adorning a stinking enclosure. “We must sit on this,” he muttered. “Right away, sir.” The manager gleefully started working the phone.
Within ten minutes, all managers were in the conference room, glaring balefully at communications and each hoping the boss had noticed his clipping first.
“I wonder what the others are doing,” the CEO said after patiently listening to seven different interpretations of the three-inch news. A hush descended as he said that. It meant a) it was an important project, and b) nobody knew what to do.
“We must hurry up so that we can choose the best animals,” the marketing manager said. He did not particularly care for the monkeys or the rhino, but sticking to birds would have projected a weak image. “If only we could fabricate our own animals amenable to alterations as per market conditions,” he wondered aloud.
That was agreed upon as a separate issue altogether, requiring to be sat on separately.
For the moment, the elephant met with general murmurs of approval until quality raised the issue of sampling. Also, he saw no reason why any animal should be seen in the company’s cage without an apron. Personnel made a mental note to speak to the linen keeper.
“Everything in white,” production made his point. He described the bars painted a glossy white, with matching tiles on the floor. He got a little carried away and didn’t want to spare even the tiger’s hide. “Everything must be appropriate,” the CEO reminded him.
“Yes, I agree, sir,” production sheepishly conceded but fought back instantly. “There must be documented standard operating procedures. How the animal enters the cage, how it leaves, how it is fed and how it paces.” And, of course, what it can do and not do while inside the cage. Everybody looked at production enviously. What an original idea!
Marketing was not one to keep quiet for too long. “The cage must be redesigned so that the logo can be large.” The suggestion to keep the animal out in case it didn’t blend with the décor was indeed radical.
“We must not mix up issues,” the CEO said. Everyone nodded profoundly. “The cage and its occupant will have to be evaluated in isolation first before the two are assessed for a harmonious and symbiotic association,” the CEO elaborated to vigorous stirring of steaming cups of coffee.
Personnel decided to step in. “What about discipline? We can’t have our animals behaving irresponsibly. We must enter into a contract with … with …. I mean there must be a contract—a signed copy must be in our records.” There were smirks all around, so he decided to be less personnel and more positive. “There must be training, well-structured and career oriented.” That didn’t sound strong enough, so he went on, “Let’s have a performance review every three months. In the prescribed format, of course.”
The talk of training gave production an idea. “What about safety? What if there is a fire in a cage?” There was silence until a chorus of ideas burst forth.
“There must be a second door for emergencies …”
“But then the animals will escape …”
“Include a non-escape clause …”
“Every animal must learn to use a fire extinguisher …”
Finally, the CEO said, “Let’s have a schedule.” Suddenly everybody was quiet.
Purchase, who had been trying to get a word in, grabbed the chance. “We must have user tests. In two stages. In stage one, we take turns to host the animals. That way we have a complete idea of the user’s needs. Next, we stay in the cages to complete the study.”
The meeting ended with a unanimous decision to have another meeting in the presence of the zookeeper and three or four cage attendants. The proposal to also invite a few animals was shot down as it was likely to introduce an element of bias.
Two months later, the company got a letter from the municipal corporation. “… we are unable to grant your request as the SPCA has protested against the proposal of managers cohabiting with animals ….”
Your client meeting is at 10 a.m. in a city two hours away. There is a flight at 4 a.m. and the next is at 9 a.m. You can take the first and maybe finish some work on the way. Or you can request the client to reschedule. What would you choose?
If you are the kind who would compulsively pick the 4 a.m. flight, skip sleep altogether (“might as well finish some pending reports and nap on the flight”), you are keenly aware of the rising number of people being laid off and the churn in the upper ranks of the corporate world. Or, more likely, you are yet another victim of workism.
Not too long ago, journalist Derek Thompson described workism as “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”
More recently, in his TED talk, Azim Shariff, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, noted that we tend to see a harder-working person as a “more moral”, better work partner, even though they add no extra value. He describes workism as a culture that forces all of us to participate and punishes us if we do not keep up. So, “we end up putting more and more in regardless of what comes out the other side.” The more laborious the job, the greater the appreciation even though there may be no direct correlation to tangible results. Everything else becomes less important.
Workism at work
A senior management consultant (“no names, please”), currently helping an MNC bring about a culture change observes that workism is a convenient term to describe what is happening at work. “Workism is a series of corporate behaviors that have seeped into organizations over a period of time. It requires a conscious change in senior leaders to break the mold—like focusing on smarter delivery than longer hours, like linking performance to results than efforts.”
It even extends to everyday attire. “We have this senior leader from the old generation who refuses to be seen in anything other than his suit and tie whether he is addressing two people over coffee or a dozen in the board room. Then we have a whole bunch of smart youngsters always clad in denims and tees, who would rather walk in, deliver, and get out than hang around and be seen to be busy.”
So, is it just a matter of bridging the generation gap? “There is a lot more,” my consultant friend tells me.
“The biggest challenge before us is to define the goal. The goal is not about the hours we put in and what we wear at work. Surprising as it might sound, we found the youngsters to be clearer about the goal than the seniors; they have a surprising level of clarity on what they would like to do and not to, in their work environment and are willing to defy the stereotypes.”
Inverting the pyramid
The team is now attempting a radical management exercise where the newbies on the block would talk about the organization’s goals in informal meetings with the seniors. This inversion of the pyramid is sure to spark conflicts initially. “But It’s worth the try. What better way to motivate individuals than by declaring that we will measure you for what you deliver, not for all those hours you clock in. We expect this to usher in a positive entrepreneurial mindset and a sense of real purpose.”
Charlotte Kramer, author of The Purpose Myth: Change the World, Not Your Job notes that “70% of millennials want to quit their jobs on the grounds of lack of purpose, and this should be no surprise; the positions we take were created to fill our pockets (if we’re lucky), not to fulfil our dreams. To think otherwise is to suggest that one’s individual purpose can be matched with a corporation’s purpose.”
The challenge for organizations today is to inject every member of the team with a common purpose regardless of one’s role. That’s where culture-change exercises are likely to become more common across domains—to change good old feel-right workism to measurable, no-nonsense purpose-ism. The organization should be sensitive to the individual’s purpose; the individuals should willingly buy into the larger team goal.
You took the later flight but after persuading the client to meet you for lunch at place you knew was her favorite. Not once did you open the laptop, but by the time the desserts arrived, you had convinced her of the positives of working with you. In turn, she convinced you to stay back and address her top team where you did use the slides to make a convincing case. That quadrupled your workload, but you chose to sleep during the late-night flight back home. You knew tomorrow would be excitingly busy. Moral: There are times when the “lazier” 9 a.m. flights are more productive than the "harder working” 4 a.m. flights.
A coincidence is a matter of pure chance. Except when the timing of the incident defies logic and forces a non-agnostic glance up.
In the movie I am watching with my wife, a rich grandmother resorts to unconventional means (like spraying pepper on those trying to help) to rescue her servant’s daughter. The girl is smart, and they had formed a bond from the time the little one started shaping alphabets from dough. Then circumstances trap the girl in a situation where she is exploited.
Of course, her conditions are different from that of Sush. Yet, that girl in the movie, teaching other children to speak English, did remind me of Sush, the real daughter of a real servant, who used to work at our place more than a decade ago.
Sush, then seven, did not think much of my teaching, the stories I told her and even outwitted me in the “spot-the-place-in-the-map” game we used to play together.
I was about to ask my wife, if the girl in the movie bore some resemblance to Sush, when the doorbell rang. I paused the movie while my wife went to open the door.
It was Sush!
She had come with a box of sweets and a sweeter announcement that she had passed her grade 12 exams with top marks.
We invited her to join us in the room where we had been watching the movie. The cloud of economic uncertainty continued to hover over her family, now larger with her little sister. Yet, her sunshine nature was undimmed.
She hoped to become a Master of Business Administration one day. She had picked up a small job where she was by now “comfortable”, giving her enough confidence to master business one day.
Yes, she spoke fluent English and was very comfortable working on the computer at her job. Those are important skills, I lauded her.
No, she was not very comfortable with numbers—neither math, nor accounts. Yes, she knows it may not be possible to do only what she likes; and she must do it well, whether she likes it or not. I applauded her spirit.
The 18-year-old sitting and talking to us barely looked bigger than the little girl we knew then. Yet, her confidence was several notches higher.
While we were talking, I located the blog I had written about her. She stopped talking when she saw the image of the little Sush on the monitor. Halfway through reading it, she started crying. The tears just wouldn’t stop.
When she finished reading and got her tears under check, I asked her why she had cried. “I remember everything. I was always so happy coming to this room, being here. I must have this," she pointed to the blog. "Please give me.”
I shared the link with her. And assured her she was welcome to visit us whenever she wanted.
When I wrote “At 45-minute school with Sush” I had never imagined that I would be spending another 45 minutes with her 11 years later. For a change, this time she agreed to do some homework. She would write about her memories of those years. Perhaps she would explain those tears and share some of her dreams?
She may or may not submit that homework. But when we resumed the movie, it was difficult to unsee Sush whenever that frightened, English-speaking, fragile-looking servant girl came on the screen.
The movie ended happily, showing the girl being cared for by those who loved her. She was set to live happily ever after.
We are sure so will Sush. And that would be no coincidence. Because Sush writes her own script.
Last Sunday, the day the world celebrated mothers, was no different for this mother. Her two sons, 33 and 31, are growing without hunger, pain, joy or sorrow, thanks to her. But do they even know her?
Sometimes they do in the dining hall what they ought to do in the bathroom. Or do in the kitchen what they ought to do out in the yard. Radhamani would discover after cleaning up the mess that the younger was down after another epileptic fit. She would rush to find someone to mind the elder son and then rush to the hospital to fix the wound.
She has just one persistent sorrow. That they don’t know her, her love. Every moment, she pines to hear them calling out to amma. There are times when she is cleaning the vessels or sweeping the yard, that she would hear that call. She would look up eagerly, only to realize nobody had called her.
Writing erases pain
Writing offers her relief. When she writes, her sorrows get erased. She has already published three books in Malayalam.
She had a small government job. Father was a sweeper at a bank. Mother was a housewife. After finishing his work, in the afternoon, her father would go to pick jackfruit leaves which he would bundle up and take to the market to sell. Her most cherished moments were when she and her mother joined him to help pack up the leaves and carry those to the market.
Radhamani had to displease her parents when she decided to marry her childhood friend, Raj. Both families objected. But the couple stuck to their decision.
Radhamani and Raj had their first son nine years after marriage. They named him after the poet they both loved — Shelley. Two years later was born the second son — Sherry.
The boys were a little late to start talking. When Shelley was three and half, their regular doctor felt something was wrong and recommended admission to a larger hospital. Both children were diagnosed to be autistic. The parents were advised to pray.
“I realized the truth that they would need my help to go through life. Gradually I regained strength.” Radhamani had no option.
By this time, her father was dead. Radhamani’s family returned to live with her mother. When both of them left for work, Radhamani’s mother would look after the boys. “The boys would be at a special school until the afternoon. Then mother would feed them and take care of them.”
Waking up to cruel reality
Radhamani’s world collapsed when her mother passed away. That’s when she came to know firsthand how tough it was to bring up the boys.
When the boys were 8 and 6 respectively, a heart attack claimed Raj. That shock haunted Radhamani for a long time. Now, it has been 25 years since he moved on.
She learnt that the boys had no clue about death when the family went through Raj’s cremation rituals. They were in no position to do whatever they were expected to do as sons. That whole night Radhamani spent crying.
“I know when I die my sons will forget me within a week,” Radhamani states calmly. “Yet when I go out somewhere, they would be waiting at home. Waiting in the hope that I would get something to eat. That waiting is enough for me to live on. Else I would have taken my life long ago.”
Finding refuge in words
People tell her death lurks in her stories and poems. Radhamani knows. “It is my writing that keeps the thoughts of suicide away. That is why my writing smells of death.”
“After I die, someone should adopt my children. I hope the government opens a facility to take care of such children in every district. That is my appeal, my prayer. Then I can die in peace.”
This is based on a report dated May 14, 2023, in the Malayalam newspaper Mathrubhumi, written by Sajna Alungal. Illustration based on images accompanying the story.