The Polestar

 The ‘new normal’ that the families are experiencing due to the Corona-virus pandemic is where most parents are working from home and children are staying indoors perennially. While parents must tackle home chores along with work from home challenges, the constant struggle to engage young minds constructively became an add on to the existing list of their workload, as otherwise the kids would resort to over-indulgence of gadgets. After the initial euphoria of getting both her parents all through the day at home had mellowed down, Srinika’s home too mirrored a similar scenario.

“Srinika, why don’t you leave the phone and draw something? I love what you draw and paint.” Meenakshi, her mother, said with a ting of frustration in her tone.

“I am getting bored.” quick came little Srinika’s newfound rant.

“Bored? There are so many things to choose from… you have toys, games, books to read, online music class besides you are getting our presence too. Why don’t you spend your time in these activities rather than sitting with a tablet or mobile phone all the time?” Meenakshi said.

“Will you play with me, Amma?” Srinika said while leaving phone on the sofa.

“Of course, I will. But not now. I have got to finish cooking followed by a couple of meetings with clients. I have a tight schedule in the first half today. But I promise to spend an hour with you in the afternoon. Till then you play and read by yourself.” Meenakshi replied.

On seeing Srinika’s swollen face Meenakshi drew her closer and said lovingly, “Srini, due to lockdown our offices are closed, but our work has not come to a halt. Even though we are at home, but we must deliver the job assigned to us on time. Just remember, Appa and me are around in case if you need something, but we cannot spend all the time with you as we have other commitments to address. My big girl understands this, right?”

To which her daughter jumped with joy and said, “Yes” and went to fetch a drawing book. Meanwhile Meenakshi too went about her chores feeling relieved as she was able to convince Srinika for the time being. But a few concerns still came nagging at her, “Is she getting bored because she has no one of her age at home to spend time with? Or am I not able to give her proper attention due to my work responsibilities?”

Meenakshi tried recollecting her childhood days spent in the temple town of Chidambaram. Being the only girl of her age in the neighbourhood, she had no one to play with. Due to work at home her mother could not stay at her disposal all the time, although she tried her best to shower her with immense love and attention whenever she had time. Surprisingly, Meenakshi did not have so many options to choose from to remain engaged or get entertained as is the case with children of current generation. Yet the word ‘bored’ never really enjoyed a revered position in young Meenakshi’s life. Watching ant trails, getting fascinated at the sight of clusters of earthworm casts in the garden, imitating cuckoo callings, plucking kanagambaram (fire-cracker flower) and jasmine flowers from the garden and sitting on the veranda with mother to make garlands out of them, watching moon wading the silver clouds off its path in the night sky, watching sun setting at the distant horizon, watching stars studded sky for hours and off course walking to the Nataraja temple almost every evening with her mother to pay obeisance to the lord, were some of the memories that she could recall randomly.

“No fancy toys or games to play with, no access to television during the formative years… yet we found something or the other to keep ourselves engaged. These days cell phones and tablets, the new age idiot boxes succeed in keeping the children glued to them, but they leave them with an emptiness instead of enriching them in any way. Hmm… how things changed in just a generation’s time. Gadgets and Internet are crucial in today’s world, but to strike a balance between staying connected when essential and remain disconnect when not required is a challenge and a constant tug of war for all us.” Meenakshi thought to herself while cutting vegetables.

That day, in the afternoon, Meenakshi received a text message from her daughter’s school which stated that the school would start online classes shortly.

“Online school? How is that going to work out?” she asked her husband on getting the message.

“Let us see, with Corona virus riding on a non-stop whirlwind, classroom studies are totally nullified. At least the school thought in these lines. Otherwise we were totally occupied managing our issues.” Raghavan, her husband, replied.

“Yeah, all at once so much workload has fallen on our shoulders that her studies did not cross our mind.” Meenakshi added.

Soon enough, every morning little Srinika, like many other kids, would sit through the class assembly, roll calls, followed by reading current news and stories by turn. Thereafter, they attended combination of live classes and pre-recorded videos. Interestingly, class tests, art, dance and yoga class were also incorporated in their schedule. During live classes, there were two teachers per session, while one of them would teach actively the other would take the supporting role of managing the class or writing answers in the chat box. Srinika’s parents were amazed to see a perfect understanding between the teachers. And the planning that went behind the scenes for a virtual field trip to Rajasthan or the coordination between teachers and students while preparing for skit remotely was quite commendable. Although nothing can replace the excitement of classroom studies, but the school had put tremendous effort to make the whole affair as normal as possible for the kids. Undoubtedly, Srinika’s parents were relieved to see her energy getting channelised in better things in an otherwise gloomy situation. And time and again they were totally astonished to see the zeal with which these unsung heroes left behind classical teaching methods and moulded themselves to jump into the choppy waters of online classes thus fulfilling the demands of the current crisis.

One day during online classes, Srinika came running to her mother while the latter was engrossed in her work.

“Look, Amma, a parent is shouting at our teacher.” she said in a baffled tone while dragging Meenakshi.

“A parent is shouting at your teacher, but why?” Meenakshi repeated anxiously.

“Yes, Amma. You should come.” Srinika said.

On reaching Srinika’s study area, what Meenakshi saw on the laptop screen was a lady sitting on a bed and angrily speaking while repeatedly pointing a finger, “How could you do this? You do not have sense…all the questions were in French. How do you expect the children to understand everything from day one? My child couldn’t submit the answers.” 

Meenakshi’s eyes went to the other half of the screen where a sober lady, supposedly their French language teacher was answering very politely to an otherwise rude and arrogant parent, “Ma’am, please check the question sheets that I have shared recently. The mistake has been rectified.”

“No, no… but, it is such a gross mistake, how could you do this? You don’t have sense.” the parent repeated hysterically.

“Ma’am, please check once. That has been rectified. Now, the previous and the present set of questions have both French and their English translation. The child will not have any problem this time. Please check, Ma’am.” the teacher repeated very calmly.

We have so many things to take care of, don’t expect us to sit with our children and help them with schoolwork.” said the parent with an antagonistic approach.

The teacher started saying, “Ma’am, please…” which was cut short with a rude remark by the parent, “Okay, thank you” before leaving the scene abruptly.

What Meenakshi could gather from their conversation is that the multiple-choice questions that the teacher had shared previously were in French, without any explanatory notes in English which caused some inconvenience. But according to the teacher that has been rectified later.  

This act of insensitivity rendered Meenakshi totally aghast. As she stood still, numerous thoughts raced against one another making her mind cluttered. “How rude of her… she didn’t even wait for the teacher to complete her sentence and abruptly made an exit. Why so much of an arrogance? Why couldn’t she talk to the teacher personally instead of creating a scene publicly? What will her child or rest of the students learn from this incident? And, why did she behave as if she is the only one overloaded with work, whereas the reality is that with lockdown in full operation and no assistance from domestic helps, each and everyone one of us have a lot of workload. Or is she brooding on a misconception that teaching is a less challenging profession?”

Meenakshi’s flow of thoughts were interrupted by the students, who had started asking questions by then and the teacher in turn started clarifying their doubts instantly. To Meenakshi’s surprise, the teacher looked perfectly poised after the storm had faded away.

On realizing this incident could cast a wrong impact on her daughter, Meenakshi quickly got into damage control mode, “It is wrong to talk to a teacher in this manner. You should never behave like this with anyone.” she said.

“Yes, Amma. I know”, quick came Srinika’s reply.

“Carry on with your classes.” Meenakshi said to her daughter and left the room.

Instantly, she felt like calling up the teacher and apologize for the incident.

“But I haven’t been disrespectful towards her, then why do I feel like this?” she questioned herself, “And, why is it that I can feel her pain so deeply?” she thought.

This untoward incident took Meenakshi down the memory lane… when she was subjected to a similar ordeal about thirteen years ago on her first job at an interior designing institute. While she was busy explaining a particular topic to her students somebody from the administration came in banging the door open and started shouting at her, which brought the momentum of the class to a screeching halt. Back then, in all her naivety, she could not do much but stand startled at such a behavior. After the incident had phased out, she found it difficult to face her students. Chocked with embarrassment, she excused herself from the class and rushed out. However, now, while recalling the same incident she neither felt a lump in her throat, nor did she have tears in her eyes as over the years she has been through enough to transform herself into a toughened-up soul, though not compromising on her sensitive side.

“Gold does not get charred after going through fierce and rigorous onslaught of fire instead it shines brighter than before. Similarly, the more one faces challenges the more one acquires strength to withstand critical situations in future. After all, difficulties or painful experiences are the building blocks of a person’s character. Who knows, the teacher must have been through a lot in her life. Perhaps this is the reason why she could cope with the situation so calmly and gracefully.” Meenakshi thought to herself.

But even after these many years a question still lingers with her… why is it that a teacher’s efforts get unnoticed… taken for granted, especially when they constitute the backbone of a society?

“What is the matter? You look disturbed.” Meenakshi was brought back to the present moment by Raghavan.

She narrated the whole incident to him and said, “The essential services professionals are being hailed for their courage and commitment as they are ditching their safe realm to address their call of duty. They deserve to be hailed, no doubt. But there are individuals who may not be at the front line like them but are contributing significantly during this pandemic. For instance, teachers. How quickly they have adapted to the present situation. I am assuming not all of them are tech savvy. Despite this fact they did not shy away from taking the challenge of upgrading their skills.”

“Yes, they did not get much time to learn the nuances of conducting classes on a virtual platform. Instead, they had to approach everything on a war footing. Therefore, their effort becomes quite commendable.” he said.

“And, that too handling things at such a scale.” Meenakshi nodded.

“Yeah”, Raghavan confirmed.

India, the land that has been a witness to a rich culture of gurukul system and guru-shishya parampara (tradition of teacher-student succession) in the past, has remained a silent spectator to a teacher’s plight in recent times. Guru, as the teachers of ancient India were called, were instrumental in removing darkest of ignorance with the torch of knowledge, thus molding impressionable minds. They were highly revered, and they enjoyed the same pedestal as someone’s mother or father. But unfortunately, they are being subjected to such an irresponsible behavior now a days.

“When did this transformation take place in our society?” Meenakshi asked contemplating over the matter.

“The education system has also not been exempted from systemic commercialization that we have witnessed in our country over the past few years and sadly this has given birth to a give and take approach between a teacher and a student as an after-effect. There remains no gratitude in this kind of a relationship. Maybe, due to the colonial influence a change in mind-set has seeped into our system.” He said thoughtfully.

“It is wonderful if new and innovative ideas are inculcated into a system keeping the needs of modern times into consideration, but how sensible is it to discard the very foundation upon which our society had flourished in the past?” she questioned.

At the dinner table that night Srinika asked with excitement, “How do you pronounce, only? Do you say only or onely?”

“What do you think is the correct pronunciation?”, Raghavan asked her.

“I know it is only, but you know… one of my teachers was repeatedly telling onely, onely.” she said giggling.

“Different people pronounce a word differently. They carry an accent based on their mother tongue or the place they come from. If you understand what they are trying to convey, you should not worry much about their accent. It is more important to receive the knowledge being shared with a submissive attitude. It is rude to laugh at someone just because of their accent”, he completed his sentence and looked at his wife. They both understood where this was coming from.

“Repercussion of the incident that took place in the morning.” Meenakshi thought to herself.

“Just remember one thing in life, no one is perfect, and that includes teachers as well. Therefore, instead of finding fault with them or laugh at them… learn, be grateful for what you are getting and move on.” Raghavan added while extending an arm towards Srinika, to which she nodded in affirmation and rushed with open arms towards him.

After dinner, both Srinika and Raghavan stood near the window watching the night sky. Gazing through the window was a ritual that the family had picked up during the ongoing pandemic and they call it “Window time”. Far away from the artificiality of the virtual medium, “Window time” was their only outlet to the world beyond the confinement of four walls. Luckily for them, the sky was clear after days of continuous outpour, thus the extra-terrestrial bodies were clearly visible.

“That, I think is the polestar.” Raghavan said pointing at the northern sky.

“Appa, shall we take out the telescope?” Srinika asked with excitement.

“It will take some time to assemble it… Shall we take that out some other time?” Raghavan said.

“Please, it’s a clear sky tonight, shall we?” Srinika pleaded.

“Okay, let’s see!” He sighed and went to fetch the telescope reluctantly as he was tired after a tough day’s work. The telescope was an old one which he had bought on his tour to the Unites States many years ago, which needed to be assembled and dis-mantled every time they used it.

Meenakshi was overhearing their conversation while winding up things for the day. When she came near the window, her daughter exclaimed with her eyes fixed on the horizon. “Amma, look at that… the pole star! Appa is assembling the telescope!” Srinika said jumping with excitement. 

Meenakshi looked at the tiny blob in the northern sky for some time and then asked her daughter lovingly, “Polaris, it is neither the brightest amongst the stars nor does it have a striking colour like so many other stars but still it stands out. Do you know its speciality?”

“Yes, Amma… it never changes its position”, Srinika answered.

“Correct, it maintains the same position in the sky while the entire northern sky moves around it. As a result, it had become an ideal star to help with directions. In ancient times the sailors and travellers would depend largely on the polestar to navigate”, Raghavan said while bending to adjust the telescope.

While looking at the distant horizon Meenakshi said, “Don’t you think our teachers are also quite like the polestar?”

“How, Amma?”, Srinika asked with curiosity.

“Just as the polestar remains static allowing the northern sky to rotate around it, similarly teachers take the burden of holding everything together while guiding us to find the purpose of our life and gives us a direction to reach our goal. Think it over”, Meenakshi said softly keeping her eyes fixed on the polestar.

When the world around us makes relations based upon calculated moves, in a way it rubs off on to us as well. But some relationships are such that they should be kept out of the equation of mere give and take, profit and loss. A Guru-Shishya (teacher-student) bond is one such relationship. If we do not protect the dignity of this relationship now, then the coming generations would never realize the sanctity of it.

– Aradhana Basu Das

Meagre needs but boundless desires

Raghavan was jumping from one online portal to other in order to arrange groceries and vegetables. Meanwhile, his wife Meenakshi was putting their daughter Srinika to bed. Soon after the little one was fast asleep her mother tip toed out of the room. While closing the door her eyes fell on two pairs of snowshoes and bags that were packed with winter essentials like jackets, woollen gloves, caps.

“These are of no use now.” Meenakshi thought to herself taking a deep breath.
“Any luck?” Meenakshi asked her husband and headed straight to the kitchen.
“No, not yet.” Out of frustration he flunked his hand in the air and replied.

She walked silently into the kitchen and combed through the pantry cabinets in order to take a stock of groceries.

“Half a container of rice, around three kilograms of pulses, wheat flour seems okay, but oil won’t last more than five days… ”, promptly she got into an assessment mode.
“None of them are accepting orders. Don’t know what to do.” Raghavan came in to inform.
“Leave it for now. You could try again tomorrow morning.” Meenakshi suggested.
“What’s the situation here?” Raghavan inquired looking at one of the empty pantry cabinets.
“Well, I think this stock would last for five to six days at the most.” She replied pensively.

Stocking up items that are essential for basic survival did not occupy their mental space till this moment as they were preparing for a trip to Europe that would have commenced shortly. However, life is known for throwing surprises. As a pre-emptive measure to check the spread of covid-19 virus the Government of India had imposed lockdown in the country. Hence, being trapped in an unexpected turn of events compelled them to put the trip on hold for now. Interestingly, in no time they adapted to the changing scenario. So instead of crying over spilt milk or getting in touch with the travel agency for postponing the date of travel or refund of their booked tickets, they got down just to the basics… survival. After all, challenging situations makes one realize what constitutes the core and what was the peripheral crust in life.

“Don’t worry, there will be a way out. There are so many shops nearby. Once the mad rush to hoard things settles down, we can go and buy things. We have some staple to last us a few days.” Meenakshi reassured. Although she had provided solace to her husband, but deep inside she had apprehensions regarding the hidden facets of the coming days that would unfurl eventually.

“And what if we face grimmer situation like food scarcity during this period, what are we going to do? All these years we have toiled hard accumulating wealth for our future needs but when the need came knocking at the door, no amount of bank balance came to our rescue. Even after having buying power in good proportion, the currency notes look mere paper and bank cards are useless pieces of plastic.” Raghavan asked helplessly.

That day their efforts went in vain but three days later Raghavan ventured out to buy essential goods. He felt no less than a soldier donned with a mask shielding his face, clutching a hand sanitizer as his only weapon and with fear in his heart cautiously avoiding as much touch points as possible, thus taking baby steps forward. With humanity waging a war against this dreaded pathogen, the dynamics of warfare has changed in a blink of an eye. Now, it is widely understood that a war is no longer fought at frontiers alone and an enemy could be a microscopic organism too. Though Raghavan came back home with groceries and other essentials successfully, yet he was far from feeling victorious or claim the mission as accomplished.

“Keep everything in the balcony, discard your mask and take bath. I have kept everything ready in the bathroom.” Meenakshi announced as she proceeded to toil with fruits and vegetables, cleaning and sanitizing them for an hour. After they were done with their newfound rituals, they sat relived for a few minutes before dispersing to their respective make-shift workspace. As their trip got cancelled, they thought it was sensible to resume their work straight away. Luckily, their nature of work supported work from anywhere concept.

“How was everything outside?” Meenakshi enquired.
“Okay… it looked okay as most of the people were trying to maintain a safe distance from each other. Of course some of them acted callously too. But there is a lot of confusion outside.” Raghavan replied.
“Yeah, it is better to stay at home.” Meenakshi added.
“Hmmm, indeed. Just thinking of it for some time… our home has become Noah’s ark of present times. Isn’t it?” Raghavan sighed and continued, “As if we are all floating in a deep, dark ocean of uncertainties but once inside our tiny abode, we are still safe from this torrential virus. In the same way, every creation of God who had boarded Noah’s Ark were safe despite whatever was going on outside of it.”

While contemplating about God’s design in maintaining an equilibrium in the universe, she looked around the abandoned construction site from her window. The place was hustling and bustling with activities just a few days ago, but it is sparsely populated now due to lockdown.

“Don’t know if this virus has originated naturally or in a lab, but nothing is possible without God’s consent. There must be a bigger picture, a greater purpose than what meets our eyes. If you observe properly you would realize, this incident has made everyone to stand in a single line. Anybody or everybody can get effected by this virus irrespective of their class, status or financial ability… no exemption, no favoritism whatsoever.” Raghavan added.

That afternoon, after slogging for a few hours at work she thought of reheating the food to be consumed for lunch as it was prepared in the morning. While keeping vegetable curry and rasam on gas stove she felt a sense of relief as they were able to arrange enough food for coming days. For a moment, her heart sank as she drifted away to their maiden trip to Europe. To be at the safer side they had postponed it to the third quarter of the year as the situation does not look conducive any time soon.

“We should give a call or send a mail to the travel agency to get a confirmation. They should give a clear picture, but they are just not at all responding. Oh! sometimes I feel life is a series of uncomfortable situations with a bit of relief in between.” she thought.

Strange are the ways of a flickering mind, as after her home got stacked with essentials for basic needs, it wandered to more peripheral needs such as following up the travel agent or the trip. She was brought back by shrill screams of a dog. She quickly rushed to the balcony thinking, “Why is this dog crying?”

To her surprise, a little boy and his sister were giving bath to a stray puppy at the same construction site adjacent to their building. And the puppy is in turn reluctant to get drenched in water thus screaming his lungs out. The innocence and the excitement with which they both were going about their job brought a smile on Meenakshi’s face as she knew the thrill of bringing home a pup from the streets. As kids, many a times she and her brother use to bring stray pups home, bath them or wipe them with antiseptic liquid, give them milk and even name them before getting stern orders from their mother to leave the pup outside.

“Life was so simple yet satisfying back then.” she thought to herself.
“Rasam was boiling so I have switched off the stove. I have filled water bottles and put plates on dining table. Shall we sit for lunch?” Raghavan said from behind.
“Yeah, coming. Could you please call Srinika for lunch?” She replied.

Later that evening, when she got up from work, she checked on Srinika and headed straight to the kitchen to get some milk for the kid and prepared some tea for themselves. She also kept some murukku on a plate to be savoured with hot beverage.

“Raghav, will you have tea with us, or shall I keep the cup at your table?” She asked.
“Yes, I am coming in five minutes.” he replied

All three of them sat with tea, milk and snacks. With great excitement little Srinika was showing drawings and paper crafts which she had made during the day. They were spending good time together… eating, talking and laughing. From this sight who could gauge that they too have their own share of concerns. Lakhs of money stuck with travel agent, uncertainties at work front, mammoth-sized home loan. In the current situation everything seems like an albatross hanging around the neck.

“After ages we got some time together, life has become so hectic.” she said to her husband.
“Yeah, as if we are all running… a never-ending race. We did not even have the luxury to sit peacefully.” he replied.
After some time, turning towards Raghavan, she asked “Let me start preparing dinner now. What shall I prepare for dinner, tomato rice or Idlis?”
“Anything would do.” he replied.

While going back to kitchen she felt like checking on the kids at the construction area. She had developed a soft corner for those children. They appeared excited as they played hopscotch. The little puppy looked amused too as it jumped in synchrony with them. At some point, the three musketeers huddled together, and boy raised his hand up in the air pretending to take a selfie.

“Now, this is pure joy. Oblivious to the situation around they seem to be living and cherishing the moments together. Childhood is so carefree and unadulterated. I have bought a high-end camera for this trip, considering it highly essential. Is it because I wanted to relive those moments years later or is it because I wanted to flaunt our trip on social media? Somehow, in a quest to click that perfect pose in an exotic location we would have missed out on experiencing the moment. And later, we would have become so busy in our lives that looking back at those moments would have been a far cry.” she thought.

Meenakshi looked around the construction site minutely, amidst well-constructed villas their tiny shack stood upright on a framework of bamboo logs where tarpaulin and bamboo sheets were used both as roof and walls. A few cloths neatly hanging on a rope, totally dried up under the sun by now. A net basket full of onions and tomatoes hang from the roof. Aluminium utensils washed and kept in a plastic basket, a simple Kolam (floor drawing) adorned the entrance. Interestingly, a few shrubs were planted in discarded paint tumblers too. A man, supposedly their father, was sitting on a foldable charpoy and eating something. While their mother sat under an open sky near their hut and was occasionally talking with amusement with her husband. At the same time she was preparing dinner on a stove made of mud and bricks.

“There seems to be an order, a rhythm in an otherwise disorganized and temporary arrangement. They seem to be so composed amidst the turmoil all around.” she thought to herself.

Raghav was crossing by and saw Meenakshi standing by the balcony thus he joined her. On seeing him she asked abruptly, “If material opulence alone can give us happiness then why does this family looks happy with meagre resources? And why is it that even after attaining so much, a void still lingers in our heart?”

“By and large we are suffering due to polluted aim in life, namely lording it over material resources. We have become far too mechanical in chasing our dreams…desires. All our lives we stay trapped in an illusion thinking designation, position and material comfort makes us happy or defines our success but ultimately, we become slaves of our own desires. Ironic it may sound, we work hard to accomplish them, which in turn invites stress and then we go around searching for peace.” he lamented.

“True, when lockdown commenced, we were only worried about basic needs for survival. We did not think about superficial desires such as the trip. In a way, this pandemic reminds us that our needs remain limited, but we have made our desires boundless…” Meenakshi said drifting deep into her thoughts.

Humans have increased their needs far too high, but life is never made comfortable by artificial needs but plain living and high thinking. We have become so busy caring for our body and mind that we have forgotten the needs of our soul.

– Aradhana Basu Das