Sunday, December 7, 2008

Better Safe Than Sorry - Target Speech for Evaluation

This speech was delivered on the 16th of November 2008 at the Toastmasters Division Conference in Bangalore as the target speech for Division B Evaluation Contest.
The bomb was ticking. It had to be dismantled fast. It was Diwali. Yet, we did not want this bomb to go boom!

The bomb was ticking inside my mother’s body. For the last two years. She heard the ticking only last month. The bomb was a tumour that had first appeared as a lump two years ago. All tests for malignancy had come back negative then. But last month she noticed a change in the shape of the lump and became alarmed. A new round of tests suggested immediate removal. My mother had been diagnosed with stage-II Breast Cancer.

After a successful Mastectomy and one round of Chemotherapy, she is doing well. The bomb has been dismantled.

We could have avoided all the panic, the stress, the shock. Even after repeated requests from my sister and me, my mother refused to get periodic health check-ups done. And when she did feel the need to get one, the cancer had reached second stage.

In today’s world where so many toxins enter our body through the air we breathe, the quick-fix food we consume, the hybrid vegetables we eat, there is a lot of metabolic pressure on our bodies as compared to earlier times when the food was simpler and the air was cleaner. The human body has adapted to certain materials and its inputs are changing now. And unable to cope, our bodies react adversely.

The only way to pre-empt this is to go for a complete health check up at least twice in a year. No matter what age you or your children are, it is a procedure we cannot do without anymore. Our society believes that health check-ups are the prerogatives of those who have crossed the 40-year threshold, that children are somehow immune to major and terminal diseases. Further, we tend to believe that the only monsters to guard against are Diabetes, High Blood Pressure and Heart Diseases. But we need to watch against a lot many other silent killers now and in all age-groups.

Consider this. The youngest breast cancer patient that my mother’s doctor has treated is 20 years old whereas we believe that it is a condition that occurs late in life for women, usually post-menopause.

Here’s another example. One of my mother’s colleagues has a lovely daughter who is very active – a good student who attends Abacus classes on the weekend and learns Bharatnatyam. She has had no apparent health problems in life so far. Last month she complained of severe stomach ache and a scan revealed a pancreatic tumour that had burst and spread as far as to her lungs and intestines. Here’s the shocker – she us 12 years old.

This is why I stress that the entire family needs to get a full-body check up done very regularly. That should include basic blood tests for cholesterol and sugar what with cases of juvenile diabetes on the rise. Also included should be scans of vital organs. The family doctor should be kept in the loop at all times.

I realized the importance of health check ups when I lost my father to Kidney Failure 4 years ago. A history of High Blood Pressure and Gout coupled with misreading symptoms like skin asthma and swollen feet led us to not realizing till the last minute that his kidneys were going down the slope very fast. He hid other symptoms till the last minute from us and by then it was too late. He had full-blown Kidney Failure and was on dialysis for 3 years.

Apart from the fact that he personally suffered a lot, eventually we lost a precious part of our lives with him forever. Things might have been different today had there been regular complete health check ups and having his Kidneys scanned given his history of Gout.

Find out your family history when it comes to diseases. And tune your check up accordingly. And never ignore symptoms like frequent headaches, occasional black outs, dizziness, anything. Let a doctor certify that it is just migraine or low blood pressure. Don’t take chances. Don’t sit on symptoms till the last minute.

Some of you might argue that all this will lead to unnecessary paranoia and hypochondria. Believe me, once you get a check up done and get a clean bill of health, there is no better feeling. And if something is starting to malfunction, the sooner it is detected the easier it will be to treat it. Do not be apprehensive of what the scans might reveal, do not use it as an excuse to procrastinate.

Go get that complete health check up for your family today. You will never regret it. Because when it comes to health, the old adage makes sense – Better Safe Than Sorry.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

I Have Never Had Lady's Fingers

This speech was delivered at the Infosys Toasmasters Club, Bangalore on the 1st of July 2008 for the 'Cook-A-Speech' contest. The objective was to build a speech around a single vegetable.

‘Abelmoschus esculentus!’

I am sorry that is not one of Harry Potter’s spells but I was still hoping something would happen. That in fact is the scientific name of my favourite vegetable, Lady’s Finger; a vegetable I enjoy eating in every form – sauteed the Andhra way, fried with onions, boiled in Sambar, roasted crunchy the Jaipuri way and of course as a renowned side-dish with Neer Dosa! Umm…delicious!
How many of you have ever had the (mis) fortune of chopping this delicious vegetable?…You’ll all especially know what I am talking about today.

This goes back to the time when I was being allowed near dangerous equipments like kitchen knives. Being a girl, I was supposed to learn cooking sooner or later. And being the tomboy that I was then, the sooner was the better. In addition, these weapons were a good and less gory way to provide a vent to my teenage temper…stabbing vegetables…you see, no bloodshed. And one fine day, a bunch of Lady’s Fingers had to bear the brunt.

But I hated what they did to my hands! All that sticky gooey pulp dried up on my fingers even as I was chopping. It seemed as if Pinnochio’s fingers had replaced my perfectly healthy fingers – they were brown, dry and crusty.

And it got me thinking…I have never really had a Lady’s Fingers – pretty, dainty, slim and fair fingers with perfectly manicured nails at the tips. The kind they feature in the Diamond commercials, the kind any guy would love have placed in his hands, the kind you see on Wedding Anniversary greeting Cards where a sturdy hand holds five delicate fingers and there are words like togetherness, companionship and marriage written all over. That kind!

I started playing Basketball at the age of 6. When I picture girls that age, I see pink dresses and pretty smiles. My parent’s friends never had that privilege. If they were visiting on any given evening all through my school life, they would find this 4 foot something walk in wearing short hair, sweaty-smelly T-shirts and sports shoes and with incredibly muddy hands…you see the seniors played on the tar court, we got the mud-court. And the icing on the cake used to be the sight of my fingernails especially in the monsooons. Mine were just not a Lady’s Fingers.

My faithful companion while commuting to this Basketball Club or to anywhere else for that matter in my school days was my bicycle. And while I enjoyed riding, those daily rides and a hard grip of the handlebars had their not so pretty side effects too – I had callouses on my hands. Right here, at the base of each finger and also on the inner sides of the knuckles. So mine became knotty Lady’s Fingers – the sort that customers pick, feel the knots, roll their eyes and toss aside.

But they say, this too shall pass and it did…over time, my callouses softened and I started keeping the fingernails clean. Soon, the time came to peel Lady’s Fingers. No really…I am a musician and I had always wanted to learn the guitar…so I did. But in the process the ridges of my fingers got in the worst shape ever. And the skin started to peel off at a point. To make it all worse, it was painful too this time. And the feeling I had was similar to sauteing lady’s fingers at home for the first time…I burnt them…the lady’s fingers were wasted.

But you know what, Basketball is my passion. I have learnt some life lessons and found lifelong friends out there on the courts. Music is the supplement my soul survives on. When the guitar emits those magical sounds, my fingers may bleed but my soul is in fact healing. And when the wind is in my face and the sunlight streams down on me as I ride to meet dear friends on a pleasant Bangalorean Sunday morning, I feel thankful just to be alive.

Beauty is only skin-deep. But where would I be without these and other similar joys – a passion to pursue, music in my heart and friends to share it all with? It was always very easy to have a Lady’s Fingers – pretty, dainty and fair, but I would also have had a sad and regretful life…the regret of not having done what my heart desired.

So, I have never had Lady’s Fingers. I probably never will. But I would much rather chop them and cook up a delicious meal for the ones I love, even if it means being Pinnochio-fingers myself for a while. I hope they’ll love me all the same, even with my un-lady-like fingers. I hope they will feel how Tommi Jo Casteel felt about his mother’s hands -

I saw you hide your hands in line,
Behind that lady fair,
I noticed too, hers soft and white-
Immaculate from care.
But Ma, I say, it’s no disgrace
To have workin’ hands like you,
And had she lived the life you have,
She’d have hands just like it too.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Project 10 - We Are All Butterflies

Objective - Inspire your audience to noble motives

One miserable rainy night, a man named Mark decided to end his life. He had never been married, never had kids, had never known the joy of spending vacations with family, both his parents had been dead for seven years and he had a sister with whom he had lost touch. He held a menial job that left him unfulfilled. He felt as if nobody in the entire world cared if he lived or died.

While walking thus, for some reason Mark walked upto a house and knocked on their door. As he sat with the family narrating his woes, the family’s 6-year old son peeped from the staircase. His heart ached at the sight of this crying man. He ran upstairs and dug into his money jar. He pulled out as much money he could from what he was saving to buy his favourite game and ran back. He went upto Mark and handed him the money along with a warm hug. Mark was overwhelmed. He said, "Its just that I thought nobody cared. For the last twenty years I had been so alone. That was the first hug I have gotten in I don’t know how long. Its hard to believe that some body cares."

As Mark started to leave, the little boy’s mother asked Mark why he had chosen their door among all the others on the street.

Mark told her that while walking he read the bumper sticker on the family’s car. It said, ‘Somebody Loves You’.

Good Afternoon Fellow Toastmasters and Guests.

There is a theory in science called the Chaos Theory. It is more popular as the Butterfly Effect. And this Butterfly Effect saved Mark’s life that night.

The theory says - "The flapping of a single butterfly's wing today produces a tiny change in the state of the atmosphere. Over a period of time, what the atmosphere actually does diverges from what it would have done. So, in a month's time, a tornado that would have devastated the Indonesian coast doesn't happen. Or maybe one that wasn't going to happen, does."

It may happen that small differences in the initial conditions produce very great ones in the final phenomena. A small error in the former will produce an enormous error in the latter. There is even a movie The Butterfly Effect and it is very aptly sub-titled - Change One Thing, Change Everything.

Just like the Butterfly Effect, a small unknowingly kind gesture by that family of putting the right bumper sticker changed the course of Mark’s life that night. After that night he kept in constant touch with them and found a life again.

We all in our daily interaction as humans, constantly say or do things that have consequences for others also - both emotional and otherwise. One kind word from us can mean the world to another. One scathing remark can scar someone else. We all are butterflies with the potential to cause emotional tornadoes!

I remember the first time someone came up to me after a speech and paid a compliment - "I enjoyed listening to you." Even today if I feel apprehensive before a speech, just a recollection of those words, of the way the person said it and of how I felt quells all doubt and reinforces my confidence. Just one compliment made a difference to me as a speaker forever. So, take the time and pay a compliment if you genuinely like something...the recipient will never be the same again because you told her that she was good!

Say things you want to, are dying to. Every time you are in a dilemma of how it would be received, think of the boy who had a big crush on this girl in High School, but he never told her fearing that she might not reciprocate and might reject him. At a reunion many years later, while talking about her to a common friend this boy came to know that the girl had a crush on him too and kept waiting till the last day for him to say something!

If only that boy had kept his fear of rejection aside and said I Love You, he would have changed the course of his own life and also the girl’s. So, say I Love You. You might be doing yourself a favour. Say I Love You to your parents, siblings, dearest friends, and add a tinge of love to their daily lives. They will thank you for making their day!

On the other hand, don’t say things that are unnecessary and hurtful, like screaming "You’re such an idiot!" at someone out of sheer frustration. We learn continually at Toastmasters that the harshest of criticism can be delivered in the nicest manner if we show some respect. Let us keep in mind the erudite words, ‘They’ll not remember what you said but they will never forget how they felt.’ And that applies to both nice things and nasty. Remember the Polite Pig from the movie Babe? That animal was delivering a powerful message - everything can be achieved through nicety and politeness. As the Japanese say, ‘One kind word can warm three winter months.’

It takes very simple gestures to change lives. I have this friend whom I generally meet in CafĂ© Coffee Day whenever he comes down to Bangalore. This guy always takes a moment to read the name of the person taking the order, say Raj, and then request, "Hi Raj! Could I get some Cappucino please?" I have seen the person’s face light up like nobody’s business. It gives them a sense of being more than an anonymous face bringing you coffee. Maybe that guy has had a bad day. Maybe his boss is giving him a hard time. Maybe he is thinking of quitting. Who knows, such a simple gesture will make him feel better and keep him at the good job he is doing!

We sometimes do unpleasant things not because we want to hurt others but because we are unaware that our actions affect more than just us. Driving on the road is a highly dependent activity. Yet, we end up doing things shifting lanes without checking blind spots on autopilot. These may have dire consequences for others, like death! We use mobile phones in Hospitals when it is against the rules. I understand our near and dear need to be kept informed. But the same can be done by going just outside the building. There is this incident where a little girl on Life Support lost her life in an operation because somebody used the cell phone outside the OT and it interfered with the life support system.

I understand that life has these ways of throwing surprises at us and the daily grind of dealing with them makes us preoccupied. But if we can make just a little effort, be a little aware of the world around us, of the people around us and of their feelings, we would have played our part.

We had this story in our 8th standard English Textbook. A man, let’s call him John, and his friend step out of a taxi cab and after paying up John tells the taxi cab driver, "You are doing a very good job." When John’s friend requests an explanation John says that he wanted the taxi driver to feel good. And because he felt good and appreciated he would probably be nice to his wife and kids. The wife might in turn be nice to the neighbours and the storekeepers and even put in an extra effort in her day’s work. John wanted this feel-good effect to cascade. Like the Butterfly Effect through being nice to just one person...making this world a better place.

Ultimately, this is not just about us. Let us all try to Heal the World, to treat another human’s heart as carefully as the fragile porcelain vases and expensive cars that we value. Let us look before we leap, think before we speak. Because we are butterflies and our actions have huge consequences. So the next time you are about to say something or maintain silence, do something or refrain from it, all I request you to do is think about the next few steps that will follow the result of your decision, think for a moment and then proceed.

In the book the Alchemist, when a butterfly flutters between the old man and Santiago, the old man tells him that Butterflies are a good omen. So let us not be butterflies that cause emotional tornadoes. Let us be good omens for whoever’s lives we touch. Let us be The Alchemist’s Butterflies.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Project 9 - Release A Black Balloon

Objective - Persuade your audience to adopt your opinion or take an action

There was once a man who sold balloons to keep hunger from the door - balloons of all shapes and colours - red, green, orange and blue. Whenever business was slow, he would release a helium-filled balloon into the sky to attract children and his sales would go up again. One day he felt someone tugging at his shirt. He turned around to see a small dark girl who asked, "If you release a black balloon, would that also fly?" At this the man said, "My child, it is not the colour of the balloon, it is what is inside that makes it go up."

How many of us here are filling such dark balloons and letting them fly? How many of us here are allowing such dark horses a chance to even run the race, let alone win it? How many of us here...are doing our bit?

We usually discuss the state of the nation as we sit on the sprawling sofas sipping our coffee or wine in our living rooms. Why? Because it affects us. We always end up blaming the government, the bureaucracy and flawed policies. But, remember that the country whose President propounded, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" is today one of the most powerful nations on Earth. So what can WE do for our country? What can we do in keeping with Mahatma Gandhi’s call to action, "Be the change you want to see"?

On the occasion of Women’s Day and having declared that Women Rule The World, we can do one simple thing - sponsor an underprivileged girl child’s education.

Successful education of the girl child is an effective mechanism to break the inter-generational cycle of poverty, myths, social norms and social evils. Research conducted in developing countries has demonstrated that a literate female population is linked to reduction in population growth rates. Even a minimally educated woman understands the importance of savings, makes her whole family more socially aware, realizes how having more children can be a strain on the resources, can be apprised of how diseases like AIDS spread and how she can shield herself thereby reducing one carrier, etc. Now, multiply that 1 by thousands of underprivileged women and consider what impact it will have on statistics.

At this point, let me tell you about the Nanhi Kali project of the K.C. Mahindra Education Trust wherein underprivileged girls from a wide gamut of backgrounds are offered a sponsorship for their education. The idea is to enroll as many girls in schools as possible and also to ensure that the exisitng enrollments are retained because although the enrollment rates for girls in Indian schools have improved of late, the drop out rates are still very high averaging at around 60% and the reasons for giving up on education are sometimes non-issues like not being able to afford uniforms. It costs less than or equal to Rs. 200 a month on your part depending on the standard the girls study in to keep them in school...to sponsor a girl’s education.

Once you send the money to Nanhi Kali, they seek a girl who needs the sponsorship and send you a photograph and other details about the chosen girl child. Progress reports about her academic performance are regularly sent to you. The child herself is made aware that there is a gaurdian angel for her and she may send you cards and drawings that she has made off and on. So there is complete transparency and no bureaucratic hassles. You can visit nanhikali.org for comprehensive information and getting in touch with them.

There are many other projects like Amitasha by the Amity Humanity Foundation etc. which function on a similar model.

Dr. S. Radhakrishnan had said, "Educate a man and you educate an individual. Educate a woman and you educate a family". Let us keep in mind that in the patriarchal society that ours is, it is still the lady of the house who has the most influence on the family, which is why for this generation I am stressing on the girl child. It will take just one generation of girls to change the times. And then thousands of these girls empowered by you will grow up to become women who will break the cycle, whose families will be less prone to abuse and exploitation due to their awareness, who will plan their families and thereby impact population figures, who will see that their children receive education and do not suffer like the previous generations thus bringing down the petty crime rate and this decimation in population and dilation in employable people will improve the employment scenario. With one arrow you will shoot so many birds - population, poverty, unemployment. Changing the status quo and leaving our children a happier, prosperous, peaceful and safe country to live in is not as daunting as we make it out to be. You will continue to live in that better India even long after you’re gone through a woman’s grateful memories...her whole lineage owing their emancipation to you.

All you need to do is spread the word extensively since we need to impact thousands of girl’s lives and do a simple task - release a black balloon...sponsor a girl child’s education today!

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Secret Garden - Contest Speech

Text of the speech delivered at the Toastmasters Area 6 Speech Contest on Saturday the 1st of March, 2008. (Video at the foot of the post)

It is not the sap within the furrowed bark,
Nor a wing attached to a claw,
But rather a garden forever in bloom
And a flock of angels forever in flight.

So said Khalil Gibran of Beauty. Truly, a well-tended garden, like any other thing of beauty, is a joy forever. And maybe it is this pursuit of beauty that prompts many of us to take up gardening, to take the pains and nurture a plant, to see our efforts bearing fruit.

There are some gardeners who give their plants only the basic supplements like sunlight and water. They do not prune the plants or till the soil too much. They let nature take over. The plants in turn struggle initially but soon find their foothold and learn to thrive without needing the gardeners. They grow with minimal nourishing but without any shape and direction. If there are leaves lying all over, the gardeners may or may not clear them. They let such fallings rot and that becomes the manure. Such plants can grow in any environment but they seldom respect it since they are busy devising survival strategies…they are so self-absorbed. A wild beauty pervades such gardens. They are another form of the woods and forests – detached and by themselves. In the absence of the gardeners, they seek solace and camaraderie in the birds that flock them to make nests; they find family in the wind.

There are gardeners who spend ample time in their gardens everyday. They give the plants copious water, superior manure, sometimes imported and a lot of care. They pare down the plants at every chance, a little here, some more there, at the side, over the top. They turn the soil frequently. They keep the plants truncated so that they are manageable. Hence, such gardens never come around to providing any shade to the gardener even after years of nurturing. Such may become puny and start withering or languishing at the first lack of the manure and pesticide they are used to. They seldom survive in any environments other than their own. They become completely dependent on the gardener and he revels in this fact. The gardener’s presence is all too obvious in such gardens.

And then there are gardeners whose plants are allowed to grow on their own but are pruned when an abberant bud is seen. They are given decent manure at well-placed intervals. Pesticides are sprayed only when there is a threat of disease. The soil is tilled after interludes too. Such plants grow tall in the right direction and are shaped beautifully. They need the gardener but not incessantly, only to give direction to their growth. They are well adjusted and respect their environment as well the gardener because they are dependent on both for balanced growth although they are more or less on their own. Such gardens exude beauty and enough care. They make the gardener’s home beautiful and provide requisite shade later in life. Such plants are the neighbour’s envy, gardener’s pride.

I have never belived that our children can be likened to globs of clay. That sounds like a one-time job…you can’t keep moulding clay forever, it will dry up sometime and will have to be baked, and sooner not later.

I believe, children are like plants and we are like gardeners. So then, let us also not let them loose and let them grow wild lest they don’t need us anymore, lest they don’t care for their surroundings anymore, lest they have no shape and direction in life and grow wild with fallen leaves all over our garden.

Let us also not smother them with our care and let them get used to only particular things that we think are best for them, let us not supervise every leaf, let us not watch or condescend every move they make lest they start withering no sooner there is a dearth of the best manure and pesticide, get pruned beyond necessity and their growth is stunted.

Let us allow our plants to reach the heights they deserve but prune only when an anomalous bud comes out. Let us allow them to get diseases, make mistakes and stumble and fall; but let us be there to then spray pesticide, bring out the lesson in their mistake and help them get up and stand strong. Let us let them be, let them sway in the wind but also let them know that we are there for them, lest they need us. Let us bring forth beautifully manicured gardens that are things of beauty, with trees whose shade we can relish during the sunset of our life.

What can we give our children?
Knowledge, yes, and honour too,
And strength of character
And the gift of laughter.
What gold do we give our children?
The gold of a sunny childhood,
Open spaces, a home that binds
Us to the common good…
These simple things
Are greater than the gold of kings.