Me? Hard Working? Of Course!

May 28, 2007
As part of the adoption paperwork, we each have to fill up a long and detailed questionnaire that deals with all things from your childhood and upbringing, to your marriage, to your values, accomplishments etc. Amit and I answered our questionnaires separately (mine was ten pages long!) and then read each others’ yesterday night. In some things, especially regarding marriage, we had written very similar stuff, about ourselves and each other, which I think is good.

But.

Among my values, I had listed “hard work”. When Amit was reading this, he said, “You know, I don’t associate you with hard work.”

!!!

To say I was surprised would be putting it mildly. This from the person who knows me best? I was so surprised, that, far from being upset or defensive, I was curious to know why he thought so.

He said some things that surprised me even more.

I’m the sort of person who waits for a “spark”, he said, and then I work on that. That’s not hard work. Hard work is slogging at something without any inspiration or enjoyment.

Again, this surprised me. First, I never saw myself as the sort of person who has a “spark” – in the sense of a spark of creativity. For instance, when I learned to play the violin over a period of many years, I was never the sort of person who was just good at it without trying. I tried very hard in terms of practising with concentration, commitment, dedication, determination… for years. I eventually became moderately good, but in my estimation, I was never brilliant.

And then, take writing. I know I’m good at expressing myself through writing. But, I classify my writing as narrative or reporting – not creative. I wish I had the “spark” to be more creative – with writing, with music – but I don’t feel I do.

I even feel that I put in a lot of “hard work” for tennis. It’s another thing that I’m not naturally good at, and I feel that any progress I ever make is by dint of sheer hard work.

But here’s the thing – according to Amit, working at something you enjoy – music, tennis, writing, whatever – is not hard work.

“So what do you mean by hard work, or what do you mean when you say I’m not hard working,” I asked him.

Once again, I was confused by his answer. He said, “See, you did your MA while you were working. That’s not an easy thing to do, most people could not have done it, but you did it. So it was not hard work for you.”

What I understood from him – and I may have got this not quite right – is that if I can manage to do something, without too much difficulty, that other people can’t do or struggle much more with, then it is due to my intelligence or skill, not due to my hard work.

While I’m happy for the backhanded compliment to my intelligence, I still don’t get it. Does it mean that if an intelligent person accomplishes something, it is not due to hard work? Or if someone naturally gifted at music or tennis or writing or photography or whatever, does well in their field, it is not due to hard work? Can’t you be both gifted and hard working?

Of course, Amit has not seen me at work. I’m sure that if I were to ask those of you who’ve worked with me, whether you thought I was “hard working”, the answer would be a resounding yes. (Leave a comment if you disagree!)

But what I ask you instead is this: What do you think constitutes hard work?


Almost Multilingual – 2

May 25, 2007
I had noticed this six months ago when I was yet again submerged in a sea of Bengali, during a trip to Calcutta to meet Amit’s family.

By “this” I mean, I noticed that my language skills in Bengali had suddenly improved in something like a quantum leap. I still made mistakes, but at times entire sentences (mistakes and all) tripped off my tongue without my having consciously thought about them. After struggling sporadically for nine years to become coherent in a language I had acquired only as an adult, it was a pleasant surprise.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last long and up to the current date I was back to stumbling along minus the quantum leap. I did wonder why it had happened and why it had stopped happening, but I put it down to good mood (we were on holiday), feelings of self-confidence (it was before the infertility business got going), practice (the Aunt had been staying with us briefly) or other such indefinable influences.

Now, I notice it’s happening again.

One of those indefinable influences I had sort of vaguely attributed my improved Bengali language skills to, was my German language skills, which in those days were not too bad, all things considered. Now that I’m back to studying German, could it have again had a positive effect on my Bengali? Sounds strange, but perhaps it is not entirely unbelievable. After all, learning a language means forcing your brain to work in a vocabulary and grammar it is not used to. The way we’re taught German, we’re made to attempt to think in German, as opposed to thinking in English and trying to translate (which never works). So, once the brain is forced out of its comfort zone of English, could it be that it explores impartially pathways in Bengali and German?

(BTW, I don’t think there’s been any impact on my Hindi language skills, probably because I learnt Hindi as a child and have a certain level of fluency and assurance in that language, comparable to my English. I don’t have any difficulty understanding or framing sentences in Hindi; the only thing I need to improve is vocabulary.)

I have read that people who learn languages as adults generally find it easier to pick up successive languages once they have mastered the first few. This is true even of entirely unrelated languages. It seems to work for me as well, because, though I am struggling a bit with German, it is nothing like the enduring battle of nine years that I’ve had with Bengali. It is particularly easy to tell the difference when I listen to native German or Bengali speakers. It’s a bit like listening to the radio softly when you’re driving in heavy traffic… you can hear the voice saying something, but unless you really focus on it, it just washes over you like so much background noise.

For many years, I had to pay 110% concentration to someone addressing me in Bengali, to pick out key words and try to make sense of what they were communicating. The trouble often was, I might catch the key words, but would not be sure about who was doing the action, whom it was done to or on, and other such crucial bits of information. The difference, for instance, between, “Did he tell you everything?” and “Did you tell him everything?” – Even if I catch “he” “you” “tell” and “everything” – which is a lot to catch in such a short sentence – I might still not be clear on what I’m being asked and how I should respond. It has led, times without number, to awkward situations.

In German, I have come to, and largely crossed, the same level of comprehension in a much shorter time. I still have to concentrate like hell when listening to the teacher (who seems to make no allowances for our relatively rudimentary language skills when she addresses us in 100% Deutsch) – but having done so, I do manage to pick out the key words and usually even manage to figure out who did what, and to whom. Sometimes, I end up translating long and complicated instructions for my table-mates – usually capturing the essence more-or-less accurately. Now, if only I could paraphrase in German instead of translating to English… (sigh) That, surprisingly enough, is something I can do in Bengali, even though I usually make a hash of it.

I do wonder sometimes whether my Bengali is better or my German. Right now, it’s a bit of a toss-up – I think my fluency in Bengali is better, and perhaps my vocabulary, but I’ve never had any formal training in Bengali, so definitely my understanding of grammar is stronger in German. Then again, I can’t really read Bengali. Perhaps, someday, I’ll improve at that too. After all, if learning a second language as an adult makes the first language stronger, then learning a third language should make the first two stronger, right? Hmmmm… let’s see – shall it be Spanish? Mandarin?? Greek???


Two-wheelers Old and New

May 20, 2007
Ok, I know I’ve blogged about my “new” bike quite often already, but somehow I just can’t get enough of it. It’s just crossed its one-and-a-half year non-birthday, and at over 5500 km, it has averaged a little more than 10 km per day. Every day. I just got it serviced and tanked up and now it’s purring like new. It’s a vastly different riding experience from my previous two-wheeler, largely because it has an engine that’s twice the size and the power it generates is fantastic. After 5500 km, I still can’t get enough.

I never loved my previous two-wheeler, primarily because it was a Scooty. Ever since I became aware of such things, I’ve wanted to ride a big bike – and I mean BIG as in Harley Davidson, or perhaps one of the Kawasaki mean machines. As far as I’m concerned, every biker – those who really love to ride, as opposed to those who do it merely to get from point A to point B, which is actually a secondary by-product, if you ask me – every biker secretly dreams of a big bike. After all, biking is all about power, and power is all about size.

I started demurely enough with a Kinie when I had just passed my eighteenth milestone. I would have started earlier, except that there wasn’t a two-wheeler in our family and one had to be bought specifically in my name, which required me to be all of eighteen and not a day less. It was bought, after a great deal of talk and consideration, with a big chunk of my parents’ savings, and a small chunk of some money that had been put aside for my “education”. In those days, 25 K was a big deal, but, as far as I was concerned, education wasn’t.

Needless to say, I loved my Kinie. For a start, it was red. Red is absolutely the only colour for anyone who’s passionate about any vehicle. Not blue, not black, not yellow – it’s got to be a bright, blazing red.

Then, since it was a Kinetic, and in those days it was a Honda as well, it was an easy ride and required almost zero maintenance. Getting from my home, in Panchkula, to my college (GCG) in Chandigarh, a full tank would last me exactly a week. Other than tanking up weekly, I did practically zero maintenance on it and it worked well, despite me dropping it a couple of times when it was brand new (I seem to make a habit of that).

That Kinie gave me a great sense of freedom, independence, adulthood, “hep-ness” and all things good. I might have been the only girl in the whole of Chandigarh wearing a helmet (it was the only condition my parents laid on me when they bought it), and every other college girl (and guy) might laugh at me for it, but for me, if the price of riding a Kinie was wearing a helmet, I was ready to wear ten of them!

That red Kinie went with me from Chandigarh/Panchkula to Delhi and later to Bangalore. It saw me through my abortive attempt at college, my first few jobs as a journalist, and the early days of my married life. It took me to distant and unwholesome corners of Delhi (which has many distant and unwholesome corners) and saw with me many things that might have been better left unseen. Through sizzling heat, numbing cold, and drenching rain, it never let me down.

I was practically heartbroken when I sold that Kinie – at a throwaway price, too. I only did it because at the time I thought we were leaving the country for good. As it turned out, we were back in less than a year, and I needed another bike. That’s when I bought my Scooty.

I never loved my Scooty. For one, it was blue, and it didn’t even have the luxury of an electric start. But mostly I never loved it because it was a step in the wrong direction. If you want to ride a Harley, you don’t go from a Kinie to a Scooty. But, it was all we could afford at the time, and I rode it for six years, the longest time.

Buying my bike – my Unicorn, I mean – was a completely irrational, impulsive, indulgent decision. It isn’t a girl’s bike, it was too big and too heavy for me, and I didn’t even do a proper market survey of the other bikes in its category. I ruled out Pulsar purely because its tagline is “Definitely Male” (talk about irrational!), Yamaha and Hero Honda because they seemed staid (!) and didn’t even consider any of the others. I did the briefest of test rides, during which I managed not to drop the bike, and, still doubtful that I could really handle the beast, I signed away upwards of 60 K. By my standards – cautious, careful, sensible – it was a crazy thing to do.

Now, 5000-odd km down the road, it doesn’t seem quite so crazy. After all, riding the bike is a major incentive to go to office (!) especially when the traffic is not too maniacal. Oh, and my bike loves to go fast! The Scooty hated it. But my new bike, when I put it in second gear and crank up the throttle, zips off as though it’s got a train to race.

Of course, it’s not a maintenance-free bike – I’ve had a few small problems with it already; nor is it red. It could have been red, but my neighbour had a red one already, and I didn’t feel like being a copycat – a frivolous reason, considering that I don’t even see that bike around any more. But it just goes to show – colour doesn’t really matter.

Best of all, I finally sold my Scooty to a colleague and guess what – she loves it! She’s never had a two-wheeler before, and she doesn’t drive a car so it’s given her a huge degree of independence that she relishes. The other day she came up to me grinning and told me that the mechanic had adjusted a screw on the Scooty and now it was “the best Scooty ever!” – this for a rattletrap 7-year-old vehicle that needs servicing practically every month just to get her from home to office, a distance of about 2 km each way. But, the Scooty finally found an owner who loves it, and I finally got a bike I adore, so everyone’s happy.


Crow’s Nest

May 15, 2007

No, I’m not referring to my hair.

Since it’s my work from home day, I’ve been whiling away my lunch hour trying to shoot the crows at their nest. I haven’t managed to get a shot of the two of them together, but I did manage to get one of what I presume is the female crow (crowess? crowhen?) sitting on the eggs.

It was quite difficult to get her to cooperate. She flew away whenever she saw me coming. What kind of a mum is she, abandoning her eggs like that? I waited patiently beside the window, camera at the ready, but she wouldn’t come to the nest. She sat on a neighboring branch and waited and watched and watched and waited. After a while, the second crow came by, and she talked to him briefly, seemed to be instructing him to buzz off and buy some worms and whatnot from the nearby grocery. He flew off, and she resumed her watching and waiting strategy. This had been going on for half an hour, and my knees were beginning to complain.

So, I got out the tripod and rigged up the camera on that. I did want a remote shutter release, but we haven’t got one, so I approached the window with camera and tripod. She didn’t seem to mind the tripod so much – after regarding it warily for a few minutes, she returned to the nest and sat on her eggs. I sat below the level of the window, so she couldn’t see me, and gradually raised my head till I could look through the eye piece. Actually, I had already set up the shot, so I didn’t even need to look through the eye piece, I could have clicked blind. Anyway, apparently my head behind the tripod was not considered much of a threat – I guess she just didn’t like the sight of my face! – and the click of the shutter didn’t disturb her either.

My shot for the day accomplished, I turned to my lunch, taking a seat facing the window so that I could watch while eating. Yeah, yeah, invasion of privacy and all that, but who told the stupid birds to go and make their bedroom right outside my living room window? They’re invading my privacy by watching me eat lunch if you ask me.

While I ate and watched, I witnessed a rather shocking event. A crow came out of the blue and started trying to mate with the crowess who was sitting on the eggs. She cawed frantically, in what seemed to me a rather protesting manner. Apparently this was not her approved mate – or perhaps she was just not in the mood? Before I could come to any conclusion on this, another crow came and angrily chased the offending crow away. So was this her husband, flying to her defence? Had I just witnessed an attempted extra-marital rape of an “expecting” crowess? This was not doing the reputation of crows any good. Carrion eaters and rapists of expectant mothers! They’re almost as bad as humans! At least the husband came to her defence – what would have been even worse would be if he had just stood around and watched – and applauded!

Did you know: the collective noun for a group of crows is… you’ll never guess this one… no, not flock, not even if they are birds of a feather… it’s… murder! No kidding: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crow


Bird-watching

May 13, 2007
Has anyone else noticed – those of you who live in Bangalore, I mean – that there seem to be more birds around the city, over the last few months?

Actually, to be precise, I’m not sure whether there are more birds around, or whether whatever few birds there are, are more audible. But I have been noticing that I seem to hear the birds more than I ever did before. Yes, I know some cellphones have bird-like ring tones, but believe me, it’s not them, it’s the genuine item. (As an aside, it’s not just cellphones that sound like birds; the other day the rear brake on my bike was squealing, and I swear some bird thought it was her mate calling to her and she answered. Unfortunately, the second time I braked, she figured out she’d been fooled and didn’t respond.)

Around my office I have noticed of late that there are a lot of those small brown birds with a dash of red and forked tails buzzing around. Also, when I use the bathroom in the office, I can hear some small birds twittering away outside. I can tell you, it doesn’t make me want to leave the bathroom any sooner. Of course, my office has five-star bathrooms that are kept cleaner than my kitchen is, and what with my non-existent workload and not-so-entertaining colleagues, there’s not much incentive to leave the bathroom anyway… but that’s another story (or perhaps it isn’t; but in any case, it’s not part of this story).

Coming back to the birdies – nowadays, before the alarm goes off at 5 a.m., my sweet slumber is broken by the chirruping of a bevy of birds outside our bedroom window. There’s practically nothing on earth that can make the sensation of waking up from deep sleep – and that too at 5 a.m. – a pleasant one, but if anything comes close to it, it’s being woken by the cheeky sound of birds conversing busily outside the window. And no matter what your alarm clock, or how pleasant and polyphonic the ring-tone of the alarm on your cellphone, it is still going to be an irritation and a most detestable thing to be stubbed out with a curse in the shortest possible order. But with the critters twittering outside your window – well, you can’t turn them off even if you want to, so you learn to lie in bed in the dark (yes, dark – the early birds don’t even wait for dawn!), sleepily listening to them and counting the minutes to 5 a.m.

For perhaps a couple of years now, there’ve been some crows hanging around outside our flat. Now I’m not such a keen observer of crows, so I can’t be sure that it’s the same crows, but I do know that he/she/they always sit(s) on the same few perches at about the same time of day and hold(s) a raucous conversation with whoever happens to be around. Crows, of course, are not a very lovable sort of bird, being big and black, with a rude, scratchy voice, and carrion hunters to boot. It really is difficult to love a creature that eats dead rats; at least owls, who eat live rats (as far as I know), are nicer looking in a predatory sort of way.

So what with everything, I didn’t pay much attention to the crows, except fearing once in a way that they might come in and nibble at my breakfast, which lies on the dining table near the verandah door, while I bathe and dress. However, they have never ventured to do this, probably having no great fondness for puffed rice (dry rice? rice flakes? It doesn’t seem quite right to call something “puffed” rice when it is totally flat like a piece of paper, but I hope you know what I’m referring to) soaked in soy milk.

The other day I noticed that these crows have made a nest in a tree right outside our living room window. At first, it was a straggly, messy nest; but over the past two-three days, they’ve been working at it. There’s now quite clearly two of them, though gender is impossible to detect. One of them is particularly fastidious… he (or, more likely, she?) perches just above the nest and carefully tidies up the home, pushing a twig in here, pulling another one there, considering the matter with its head on one side, then hopping across to make some more adjustments from another angle. It appears totally domesticated and quite sweet. Sometimes both of them cluster around the nest and discuss what home improvements they should make next. I think there are no eggs in the nest yet, but probably it’s just a matter of time.

Naturally, the photographic opportunity is irresistible, so there will be a photo-feature coming up if all goes well. I only wish they were some prettier birds than crows, but perhaps it is a good chance to see the “sweet” side of an otherwise ugly bird.


Deutsch Lernen – Again!

May 7, 2007
It was like being thrown into a bucket of cold water. I walked into the room and was greeted by a flood of German. It passed over my head just as smoothly as water too – in all, I comprehended not a single word in the first five minutes.

For the next two hours, I concentrated very, very hard. I found that, by doing this, I could usually catch every fifth word or so, and inspired guesswork did the rest in making sense of the verbal onslaught. Occasionally, I got lucky and would catch an entire phrase.

After two hours, I was tired. It was so much easier to just let the language flow overhead without making any conscious effort and that way only about one word in two hundred would make any impact on the poor, sodden mind.

It’s bad enough that, having spent eight months of weekends attending German class, I took a break of eight months, thus throwing down the drain about 80 % of what I’d spent the first eight months struggling to learn. Language, like any motor skill, once acquired does not really ever go away, though it might get rusty with neglect. But first, you must acquire it, and in eight months of weekend classes, I had only just begun to acquire it.

By the end of class on Saturday, my brain was reeling, spinning, and doing somersaults, all at once.

Sleep helped, as did the fact that Sunday classes are in the morning, as opposed to Saturday classes, which are in the afternoon. On Sunday, I relaxed the concentration effort a little and managed to catch a little more of the flood that assaulted me for four hours. That was good as far as it went, but it really didn’t go very far.

The trouble with language is, it is not enough to understand it – one must be able to speak it as well. This is where I always have the greater difficulty. Inspired guesswork just doesn’t help in stringing a meaningful sentence together. What usually happens is that both inspiration and guesswork fly out the window, leaving you blank and silent and thoroughly embarrassed. That’s what happened to me when I tried to say: “she drinks a cup of coffee and reads the newspaper, as I do every morning.” Perhaps the word for newspaper stuck in my throat because this was such a blatant lie – I never read the newspaper, least of all in the morning, except on a Sunday if I have time, and this Sunday I hadn’t.

There was some small consolation in the fact that most of the others in the class struggled almost as much as I did. But it was small consolation indeed – I rate myself by where I want to be, not by where others are.

The good thing about a class is, it doesn’t really matter how many mistakes you make, because after all you are there to learn. Of course, people will laugh – for instance, we were supposed to be speaking about our partners (I mean life partners, spouses) in class and two guys who were supposed to exchange views on their respective partners ended up inadvertently speaking about themselves as partners (actually a very understandable slip-up), which led to raised eyebrows, pointed questions, and – as the newspapers love to say – uproarious scenes.

So, it’s ok to make mistakes in class, but it’s more difficult when you’re in an actual conversation and you want to say something and you don’t know how. For instance, the teacher was telling me how the woman at the cafeteria was so rude to her and refused to serve her, and I wanted to look sympathetic and say: “ohhhhh – that’s too bad,” but I didn’t, right at that moment, know how to express even this simple sentiment in German.

Oh well, if I keep at it, I might learn, eventually. That’s assuming that I can withstand the continued onslaught of German over the coming weekends. Wish me luck. (In German, if you please!)


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