Monday, April 19, 2010

A Bird in Hand

I met R. Sri Kumar when he received the Distinguished Alumni award from IIT Madras. He is the recently retired head of Karnataka police, who's taken up social transformation through e-Governance, and he believes that a lot can be achieved by combining simple project management principles with crowdsourcing.

His address to the audience was a call to action to each and everyone to do their part, for self-motivation. Towards the end of his address, he narrated the story of the Boy with the Bird In Hand.

He said he had picked up the story several years back, when he was sent on deputation to KSRTC, Karnatka's state bus corporation. In his four years with the corporation, he slowly steered it from huge losses towards profitability. And in order to achieve that, he had to visit as many employees as he could, and engage them in discussions.

Mr. Srikumar adapted the story for his purposes. When he was called upon to address groups, he used this story to drive home the point that it was up to each employee to turn the bus company (KSRTC) around.

Soon, he became known as the guy who narrated the bird story. Apparently, bus conductors and drivers would come up and request that he narrate the story to their colleagues, even though they had themselves heard it before.

Indeed, it is a story that bears repetition, even if you have heard it before. Here then, is the story that Sri Kumar narrated to the audience at IIT Madras:

Once, in a village, there lived a wise swamiji (ascetic) who always spoke the truth. Not only that, everything he said also came out to be true. The villages had enormous respect for the swamiji and revered him for his wisdom.

In the same village, there also lived two boys, brothers, who loved to play truant and stay away from school under any pretext possible. Their mother, who saw through their lies and excuses, kept telling them that they should be more like the swamiji.

This constant nagging by his mother got to the elder boy. He decided that when he got the chance, he'd show up the swamiji. And sure enough, one day the two boys found an injured sparrow by a tree. The elder boy got an idea. He was going to put the swamiji in a situation from which he couldn’t get out by speaking the truth.

"Here's what I will do," he told his brother. "I will place this bird in my hand, and cover it with my other hand. Then I will ask the swamiji whether it is alive or dead. If he says it is dead, I will open my hand and show that it is alive and that he had not spoken the truth."
"And what if he says it is alive?" asked his younger brother.
"Then I will simply crush the bird dead first, then open my hand and show that he was wrong!"

The two boys ran to the swamiji's place taking the injured bird with them.
"Swamiji, we have a question for you."
"Yes, son."
The elder boy had the bird in one hand and covered it with his other hand.
"What is in my hand, Swamiji?"
The swami took a closer look and said "It's a frightened sparrow, son."
"And swamiji," asked the boy, "is the sparrow dead or alive?"
Right away, the swamiji sensed that the boy was trying to trap him.
"Son," said the swamiji, "it's in your hands."

And that, Mr. Sri Kumar feels is ultimately the message everyone should take away. Whether it is the Karnataka State Bus Corporation, or our own company, our school, or our neighborhood or any part of our society, how things turn out is in our hands.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Why are you crying?

Late one evening in Haridwar, my wife and I were enjoying a walk on a bridge over the Ganges. There were no crowds at that time, and we got to enjoy the fast-flowing river in peace. There was a food vendor in a trolley preparing Indian and Chinese items, and the aroma was rekindling hunger. It had been 3 hours since dinner.

The food cart on the bridge was well lit and looked clean, so we ordered a plate each. The food was great, but I couldn’t enjoy it because standing just 5 feet from the cart, in the dark, there was a woman in her twenties who was sobbing visibly.
"Why is she crying?" I eventually asked the food vendor.
He was dismissive. "Oh, her. People like her come to Haridwar all the time and are crying." His body language and tone indicated that I should simply ignore it.

But it was difficult to ignore her. After we had eaten, I asked my wife to check on her.
"Miss, what happened? Why are you crying?" my wife asked the young woman in Hindi.
"I am hungry," she said, and continued to cry.
In India, we have been hit up for food a few times, so we had a routine of sorts. Our rule was to not give out money, opting to buy them food instead.
"Okay, I will buy you a loaf of bread," my wife told her.
"Nahin Chahiye." I don't want that.
We also had a Plan B.
"Will you have fruit? We will buy you bananas." A dozen bananas costs the same as a loaf of bread.
"Nahin Chahiye." The tears continued streaming.
Now we were out of options.
"What do you want?" my wife asked her.
"That," she said, pointing to the food cart.
"Chow mein?!"
"Yes," she said nodding.

My wife looked at me. The request was a bit unusual, but understandable. The aroma of Chinese cooking would have been torturous to the woman. We had both just finished a plate each, and it didn’t seem right to refuse her.

I pulled out a few rupees and walked back to the vendor. "Please make her a plate of chow mein," I told him.
He looked at me, but didn’t say anything. When he accepted my money there was an almost imperceptible shake of his head. I know what the shake meant -- You-guys-will-fall-for-this-every­-time is what he wanted to say.

Maybe so. But he made great chow mein, and she was hungry.
"He will now make a plate for you," my wife told the woman.

I was slightly surprised because the woman didn’t thank us, or even look at us. She walked over and stood next to the cart. But she had stopped crying.