Tuesday, November 26, 2013 14 comments

It is Complicated

My husband and I were out shopping one Saturday afternoon. Before long, our stomachs reminded us that it was well past lunch time. I was getting a bit worried about the delay in getting lunch as my husband is  diabetic. But unfortunately, we were in an area where there were not many restaurants. The Saturday afternoon traffic  was scary enough to put us off from  fighting our way through it  looking for the usual places we frequent. Luckily for us, we found a small board with an arrow leading into a lane near the E.V. Kalyani memorial hospital on Edward Eliot’s Road. 

The restaurant was an interesting one. It was located inside a huge bungalow. There were nice wrought iron chairs arranged around a courtyard which had two beautiful trees. Surprisingly, there was no one else there but us. Probably, the location, I told my husband.  But I liked the fact that it was quiet and far from the maddening crowd. My husband had a different take on the place. He told me that this looked like somewhere a married man would bring a woman he is having an affair with! I think he had a point there because the place certainly had what I would call a “hidden away” quality to it. Besides, the quality of the food was rather mediocre. Definitely a place where food is not the priority for the patrons!! But don’t get me wrong..it was not what I would call sleazy. It was very classy in its own way! 
We then proceeded to discuss over lunch whether extra marital affairs were sleazy or not. 

I guess the way you look at an extra marital affair depends on who you are in this triangle. If you are the wife you are devastated and yes, it is betrayal of the worst kind! But what if you are the man or the “other” woman? Is it all about a physical need that a marriage is not able to satisfy? Why would a woman go into an extra marital affair? Sometimes she is fooled into thinking that the man is single but often the woman in question is aware that he is married.   So why does she do it?  

I told my husband that one of the biggest “pick up “ lines that married men frequently use with another woman is “ My wife does not understand me”.  I was of course annoyed when he told me that it was often the truth and not a “pickup line”. Before I could pounce on him for being a MCP he corrected himself saying that it was  not specific to men. Women may also feel that their husbands do not understand them. And of course the other woman in an extra marital relationship need not always be a single person. I think it is probably one of the issues at the core of a relationship that borders on infidelity. We get married, settle down into domesticity and then start evolving into individuals who may or may not be similar to the person we got married to. We react differently to the pressure that life puts on us. Husbands might start becoming short tempered while wives might turn into nags. The goals might  be shared but the desperation to reach them makes us behave in ways that would repulse the partner. In our bid to adjust to each other we sometimes sacrifice what we like very much simply because the partner does not appreciate it. It does not disappear but stays buried within us. 

And then suddenly comes along a person who makes us feel different! Sometimes those buried likes surface as we find that this person likes them too. Then there is a feeling of bonding. Ofcourse, there is also a physical chemistry that  goes with it because one does not end up having an affair with every person of the opposite sex that one likes or bonds with. 

With married women, it is a feeling of suddenly being seen as attractive by another man. This can be very flattering and do a lot for her self esteem which often takes a downward slide in her effort to mould herself to be her husband’s wife. I remember a woman friend who once told me that she had an affair just to get her husband’s attention.  “He was beginning to take me for granted and I felt I had become invisible” she told me . And strangely, when she started having an affair, she developed a certain confidence that made her very attractive which suddenly got her husband stand up and take notice! Needless to say, she got out of the relationship once her husband started paying her more attention. I suppose it could be same with a man too. 

But this was one of the better stories. Most of the extra marital relationships are very painful and lonely experiences. Relationships with no future! Yes, there is the thrill of living in the moment and cherishing every minute of it but the pain and the guilt that come later is probably unbearable. They run their course and then fizzle out.  There are really no happy endings there for anyone. 

Someone once told me that no third party can break a relationship. We do it ourselves. Probably true..! 

As we were getting ready to pay the bill, I could not resist asking the waiter if he remembered faces. Feeling rather surprised he asked me “ Yes. But why Madam?” I told him to take a good look at both of us and then giving him my card I told him “If you see this man here with anyone other than me, please give me call at this number” 

“That was a nasty thing to do” said the husband laughing as we left the place!! The poor waiter stood looking as though he had just been at the receiving end of some “sting” operation conducted by two middle aged loonies!

( While on the topic of extra marital relationships , I invite you to read my story “Milestones” in my fiction blog “Kaleidoscope”. You can get the link by moving your arrow under the title "Milestones")

Friday, November 8, 2013 14 comments


One of my friends called me last week to discuss a rather delicate issue. Her boss, a married man, was having an affair with a junior member of their team. Moral issues aside, she was concerned that this was interfering with his work and therefore all of theirs! Now you may wonder what is so shocking about this? It happens in most organizations. True... But what is different here is that this was happening in an organization that is part of the nonprofit sector.
The nonprofit sector runs on funds donated for a specific cause. It employs a large number of professionals to manage these funds effectively and the degree of accountability in terms of trusteeship is very high. Misuse of funds in this context does not exactly mean embezzlement or fraud. It can also mean misusing time, romancing at work! Time, which is paid for by the public to reflect, analyze and work on development issues.  

Well, the government is also funded by citizens you say. Don’t they waste their time and our money every day? But there is a small difference - the NGO sector is defined and driven by a set of values and principles. Unlike the government, they do something because they WANT to and not because they HAVE to!

But reality is rather different. As a person who has worked for nearly two decades in this sector I have seen and heard about a lot of such instances.
While extra marital affairs with colleagues is one side of the story, there is another more gory side to this. Something that happens very often in organizations that are closer to the grassroots. Many of these organizations, particularly those that work with women, employ a lot of local girls and women as field workers. Most of them have just a secondary or high school education, come from poor families  and are often very dependent on their job  Such girls and women become ideal targets for sexual exploitation by their bosses, who are  usually the heads of these small organizations. 

I have come across at least two such cases in my work with a micro finance institution. The organization that I was working  for used to provide funds to smaller organizations to support micro finance programs for rural women. We provided a lot of training support to the staff of these small organizations so that they could run their programs more efficiently. Most of these training programs were run on very tight budgets so that the bulk of the money could go as loans for the rural women. It was during one such training program that I noticed something rather shocking. The training in question was being held at Bangalore at a modestly priced training centre. Accommodation was on a twin sharing basis. We had equal numbers of men and women participants and had already informed the training centre and participants about the room allotments. However, when I arrived there I found the manager of the training centre in a tizzy! Two of the participants, a man and a woman were sharing a room messing up the carefully planned room allotments. While logistics was the immediate issue to be tackled, what was worrying me seriously was something different. The couple who were sharing a room were from a small NGO in Tamil Nadu. The man was the head of the organization and the woman the micro finance program manager of his organization. I knew for a fact that she was not his wife. She was a long standing employee. A bright young woman, she had started out as a field worker and moved on to become a program manager. She was a single parent supporting her old father and two children. The job was obviously important to her.

I wanted to get her alone to ask her if she was being coerced into sharing her boss’s room (and probably his bed too). But both she and her boss were doing a very good job of avoiding me through the entire three days of our stay there. They also missed most of the sessions preferring to roam around Bangalore instead.

The second case was in a remote village in Andhra Pradesh. I was visiting the branch office of a grassroots level micro finance organization. After I had completed my review with the efficient young branch manager, she invited me for lunch to her house which was located just behind the office. This was my first visit to her home. As we entered the house her little daughter came running out to meet her mother. When I looked at the child I was taken aback! The child was an exact replica of her father – the head of the organization! I was a bit confused because I had met earlier what I thought was his family – his wife and two grown up sons. Well obviously, that was just one of his families... He told me later that he had also “married” this woman because the branch was so remotely located that it was not possible to “retain good staff”- a unique and innovative step I must say to tackle the issue of high staff turnover! 

When I brought up these cases with the head of my organization, a lady who was always mouthing jargons around women’s rights, I was told to “leave it”. I was very disturbed because in the first instance even if the room sharing was consensual, it was a clear case of misuse of funds as the couple in question were not attending the training for which they were funded (travel, boarding and lodging being paid through bilateral aid given to our organization) while the second case was blatant sexual exploitation of a vulnerable young woman.  I also realized the reason behind my boss’s refusal to do anything about it. Both these grassroots organizations were fairly good performers on the ground and their results reflected on our overall performance. They were crucial in helping us earn  a good name with the donor which would set the stage for some more funding in the future…!! 

However not all organizations react similarly to such issues. Another organization that I had worked with had a program for sex workers. One of the sex workers complained to us one day that a staff member wanted to utilize her professional services. The organization took swift action on this and sacked the man almost immediately, after an inquiry. This man was a medical doctor and it would have been difficult to hire another one with his qualifications on the modest salary that a nonprofit can pay. He was very indignant when questioned,saying that he had done nothing wrong by seeking the professional services of a sex worker – after all wasn’t that what they did for a living? And he had also offered to pay for her services! However it was explained to him at the time of his dismissal that while they may choose to earn their living by selling sex, as a person who was working for an organization that was committed to their development, it was ethically and morally incorrect for him to solicit their services. It amounted to misusing his power as a representative of an organization that was their support system. 

Working in the nonprofit sector is a very challenging proposition. It is a world where the personal and professional selves cannot be kept part.  You cannot work on an issue unless you feel strongly about it. It sometimes calls for setting an example in terms of being the change that you want to bring about. However opportunities for straying are also more in this context. It is easy for colleagues working in or traveling together to remote locations to get attracted to each other and enter into a relationship. It is also easy for a male boss / colleague to misuse power over a female employee/ colleague under those circumstances. After all, as woman, where would you go if he makes sexual advances at you when you are in a speeding vehicle going down a highway or spending the night in some hotel in a small town? Ofcourse  one can take it up later but these organizations, I am sorry to say react exactly in the same way as other organizations do when it comes to dealing with sexual harassment at the work place. It is because of this that most women are hesitant to complain.

  While there are strict financial audit systems to control mismanagement of funds, the sector does not have similar control systems with respect to  the  other problems. I sometimes feel, for many in the sector it is a case of the doctor getting infected with the virus that s/he sets out to treat. All these organizations work with very vulnerable groups and are  extremely revered by the communities they work with. This often gives their representatives of  a feeling of power. Power as we know takes on a life of its own making people believe that they can get away with anything. So they become the new group of exploiters in a community that is already facing various forms of exploitation. It starts with exploiting vulnerable staff members and sometimes goes out to exploit the people whose lives they are supposed to protect from exploitation! 

While most of the non profits do have HR policies and systems to prevent such exploitation, the implementation leaves much to be desired. To be able to adhere to ethics or a value system, one has to often forego something. While in theory it seems good, in practice it is very difficult. It would mean losing efficient staff, good funding opportunities etc. So what many of them do, is try to hush up these issues or turn a blind eye to it hoping that it would die a natural death. 

In my twenty odd years in the sector, I have often been surprised that while many of the NGOs take up issues relating to different forms of exploitation of women they rarely discuss the exploitation that goes on within their own circles. Unless they are able to put their own house in order they run the risk of  losing credibility and being called hypocrites. It is this hypocrisy that is dangerous because it would ultimately work towards justifying anything .. exploitation included!   
Tuesday, November 5, 2013 9 comments

From the corners of that “Memory Box”

Have you ever cleaned out an old trunk or cupboard? While the task seems tedious to begin with, as you progress you start enjoying it because you find what can only be called “treasures” from the past. An old book with your name written in a childish scrawl, a photograph, a school uniform .. things that take you back in time. 

I sometimes think that our memory is like a box. There are lots of things within,  which remain deep inside. We forget that they are there. But once in a while something happens and you suddenly realize that they exist. So we take them out, dust them and look at them tenderly. 

This is a picture of the playground with the slide
This is exactly what happened to me a few weeks ago when a friend of mine shared on face book, a photograph of our first school! It was a primary school till the 5th standard in a small town in West Bengal. The picture she had shared was the section outside the Headmistress’s office. I could immediately remember this place as the spot we were all made to assemble the very first day we went  to school.

I think it was 1972-73. Appa says it was December. The school year in those parts of India were from  January to December.  I suddenly found memories flooding in .. I remembered faces and names that I never thought I would. I remembered my school uniform – a navy blue skirt and a white shirt with a navy blue tie. Since it was winter we wore a navy blue sweater. My hair was tied up in white ribbons. 

The first day at school  is etched in my memory. There were beautiful flowers in the lawn- roses, poppies, snap dragons. I can even smell the pollen..! Those of you who have experienced winter in India will know what I mean. The Headmistress, an intimidating lady called Mrs Lal asked us our names and told us that we “must speak in English”. She was a terror!! All of us used to tremble when we passed her.  We had to wish her and she would wish us back. But she was an extremely kind hearted person. 

I do not remember crying on my first day at school. When I checked with Amma she said that she was actually a bit disappointed about that. Apparently I waved at her and told her to “Go”!! Nearly three decades later I felt the same way as my mother did when  my little one waved me goodbye and went happily with her teacher into her classroom.

The school was run by the Indian Railways. Like all the buildings owned by the Railways this was also painted red. There was a lovely garden with lots of trees , a playground with a slide and swings that often broke due to violent swinging. There was a dragon of a lady at the gate – “Nisha”. We used to refer to her as “Nisha di” ( short for didi). She wore a starched white saree, had grey hair and kept watch near the gate to see that everyone came on time and did not leave the school unescorted. I think even parents were scared of her sharp tongue. She ensured that no unauthorized person ever stepped on campus.  There was another old lady “Bhikhiya di” who was the sweeper. Hers was not a pleasant job.  Every day there would be atleast four or five kids who used to wet their pants or soil themselves. Whenever anyone did that it was to her that they would be sent. She would give us a sound scolding and clean us up thoroughly!  And then there was “Panchu” da who was like an assistant to “Nisha di”. I don’t know what his job description was exactly but he was extremely popular person, maybe it was because   he rang the school bell!

Miss Shanta Sarkar ,was our kindergarten teacher. She was plump and fair. I still remember her as the lady in a pink sari and a cream colored kashmiri shawl. She took us all in and made us sit at our desks. I was feeling awed by the teak wood furniture and the bright charts inside the class. I think we were given building blocks to play with. 

The school timings were from 7.30AM till 12.30 PM. The kindergarten kids used to leave by 10.30AM.  All of us from the railway officers colony used to travel by a creaking, groaning bus ( I think it was a dodge van and there were also some that were rebuilt trucks with seats and carpets inside). The same bus that used to take us to school also used to transport  our fathers to office and back.  By the time the bus picked up everyone in the morning, it would be filled to capacity and many of us kids had to sit on the adults’ laps. It was a major embarrassment if you were in class 3 or so and were made to sit on  someone’s lap. Some fat “Uncles” were hated because it would mean atleast three to four kids being made to sit on laps. With so many children refusing to get on laps someone  had a brain wave and came up with wooden stools. They used to be placed between the two rows of seats ( the seats ran parallel to the bus body) and we were happy sitting on them. 

I remember feeling very excited and stressed at the same time every morning the bus honked in the next street. The bus used to start from there and I don’t know why the driver had this perverse pleasure of honking every ten minutes even before he started. The excitement used to prevent me from eating my breakfast properly. Amma, being the strict disciplinarian used to insist that unless I finished what was on my plate I could not leave-never mind if the bus was at the gate. Appa, was my savior during these times. The moment she left the dining room for the kitchen I used to transfer the uneaten food on to his plate which he used to eat quietly!!!

 I used to carry my books initially in an aluminum  box on which my grandfather had had my name engraved . Later I switched to a plastic basket ( the kind that is used for shopping) because that was what everyone was carrying. Lunch would be in a rectangular aluminum box.  Though we called it lunch it was actually only a snack. The usual snack being parathas with jam ( my favorite), idli with podi and sometimes tomato sandwiches.  After lunch all of us used to line up near the water tap . There were two taps attached to a tank – one out of which the boys used to drink and one from which we girls used to ( even in those days we had unconsciously adopted some form of gender segregation ). 

The names of classmates flit in and out of my memory as I have lost touch with most of them. The class sizes were very small yet I remember only a few names  Jayshree, Jyothi, Rupa, Sharmila, Sanchita, Moushumi , Loveleen among the girls. Among the boys there was Jijo, Ramesh, Manzoor, Ashim, Debashish, Madhu, Pradeep..! Though the school was meant primarily for children of railway employees we also had a fair number of students from the  Defence colony nearby. There were a  lot of sardar kids, plump boys with colorful turbans and apple cheeked girls with tightly plaited hair in the reverse style. There was this Sardar boy in my class who used to come with Kajal in his eyes ( I am not joking!) and a new hanky every day on his top knot!  
I wish I could dig up more treasures from this box. There are memories but I am not able to put a date to it. For example I do not know if it was in class 1 or class 3 .. the classrooms used to often change so it  is a bit difficult to link it to a place. 

But I do remember being part of the Scouts and Guides. I used to love the scarf around my neck and the knotting ropes on my belt. Before we graduated to being Guides we were Bulbuls and the boys were Cubs. There used to be a lot of singing and dancing during  these periods. I have some memories of the March past during sports day and being made to practice making announcements by the Headmistress for the event. I was made to recite over and over again the line welcoming the chief guest and his wife. “We welcome Uncle… and Aunty…”. But strangely I have no memories of actually making those announcements.

There is so much more I could write.. but these are  like discrete pieces of a puzzle. I am sometimes able to put them together and form the complete picture but sometimes I cannot. I look for a friend to provide me with that missing link. And I must say I am really blessed to have at least a few who are able to do so. My friend Jyothi is what I call a “Memory Keeper” ! She even remembered the rhyme that she was made to recite when we had a visit from the inspector of schools !!

As we grow older I think these are the pieces that we cling on to. They tell us about a time when we lived without a care in this world. The world itself seemed different. And I think it is a lost world.. I don’t think I would find it anywhere except in that box inside my memory. It binds me to people who I no longer see every day but who remain a part of me. The childhood may be lost but the memories remain safe-locked inside the box- precious and priceless treasures !

( Hope all of you enjoyed your Diwali)