Choosing the Middle Path

My grandmother told me some of the best stories as a child. They ranged from fairies, witches, Gods, her friends, kings and queens, and robbers and policemen. The list could keep on going. After every story she would ask me what I had learned from it and tell me to give a moral to the story. After I heard a pretty intriguing robber-police story she asked me what I had learned and I had replied after a very thoughtful silence, “If I want to be a robber I will have to be smarter than the police.” She hit her hand on her head and hit me on the back. ” That is not the moral of the story you fool. The moral is to never steal because you will always get caught in the end.” Every story my grandmother told me was meant for me to choose and understand the right and the wrong. She would always make me choose a side.

As I grew older I realised at every moment in my life I will be given a choice and my grandmother was preparing me for it through her stories. As a player every decision I took was a choice. You have to choose if you want to get up early in the morning at six and train or sleep till  8. You have to choose if you want to practice six hours a day or three hours a day. You have to choose if you want to compete after your first major injury and make a comeback or quit the sport. You have to choose if you want to study as hard as you play. You have to choose between a dessert or no dessert because you are following a diet. Everything in life is a choice, and most of the time you can always choose the chocolate cake because nobody is watching but you still choose not to eat it because you have chosen to be on the right side of being an athlete. (I did choose the chocolate cake sometimes. After seven hours of training I told myself I deserved it.) I had to make a lot of these choices from a very early age and out of all the choices I have made the hardest has been this -How am I going to deal with failure? Will I let it affect my motivation or will I use it as a fuel to reach success?

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Failure is not the end it is the beginning! Lolo Jones after losing the 100meters hurdles in Beijing Olympics.

 

Being an athlete you have to mature very quickly and sometimes deal with life’s toughest questions even before you cross your teens. Hence to deal with the pressure very early in my career I exposed myself to meditation. I was fascinated by the stories of Mahabharata and sometimes would also indulge myself in reading a few pages of The Gita. I was also a fan of Gautama Buddha and Buddhism. A lot of my friends would laugh at my obsession and ask me , ” Are you going to become a saint now?” I never looked at spirituality as a philosophical subject. It always was  very practical for me. I wanted to keep calm and be focused as a player and meditation helped me achieve that. I looked at meditation as a means to a victorious end.

Both Buddhism and The Gita talk about two fundamental things  which have stayed with me and which I think has helped me the most as an athlete. The first is Karma yoga and the second is choosing the Middle Path. Karma yoga literally means doing selfless actions as a way to perfection. You set yourself a goal and keep working towards it in spite of your failures and success and never stop till you achieve your desired result. The second is choosing to be on the middle path. The middle path is your ability to react to failure or success in the same way. To be in a space where neither failure nor success can affect your inner peace. It is our ability  to find a constant state of happiness. Both Karmayoga and finding that middle path are most difficult things to achieve but every successful athlete has dealt with them and has found his or her own way to achieve it.

To be successful in life the most important thing is to achieve a constant state of happiness in spite of failures and, to be centered in your emotions in every circumstance you face. If you are happy you think better, you train harder and you feel much more motivated. My friend once said to me, ” I am just waiting for that one moment in life where I can find extreme happiness.” I asked him ,” What if that moment doesn’t exist? Are you choosing to not be happy till then?” It is like Christopher Gardner says in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, “It was right then that I started thinking about Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence and the part about our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I remember thinking how did he know to put the pursuit part in there? That maybe happiness is something that we can only pursue and maybe we can actually never have it. No matter what. How did he know that?”

As an athlete you have to learn that nothing is permanent. If you have lost ten matches in a row you might win the eleventh one. If you have won 10 matches in a row you might lose the eleventh one. The most important thing in a player’s career is to understand that you can never react to success and failure with extreme emotion of either joy or sadness. Understand that life as a sportsperson is cruel and unfair. I still remember when I became the national champion for first time in under 13 I felt like I ruled the world. I came home to a party. I was getting phone calls from relatives and friends. I was on cloud nine. The next day in practice I was almost floating in the air. My coach made me play against an under 19 singles player and I lost under five in both the games. I realised my place and my standard in a match and knew there was really not much to party about. I realised very early that as an athlete you will get to celebrate only for a day. The next day you will be the most hunted player on the circuit and everyone would want to beat you and if you are not prepared you will lose. Treat success just like a stepping stone and a validation of your hard work and move on.

In my career as an athlete I have failed many times. I have lost matches on 11-0 and 11-0, without scoring a point. I have lost matches when I was leading 20-10 after winning the first game. I have lost to players ranked much below me because I was too proud to give them their due respect. I have lost matches because my knee was hurting and I won’t accept it. I have lost matches because of a bad line call. I have lost so many times and for so many different reasons that there have been times when I have questioned myself if I had chosen the right career. But looking back I do value these failures much more than the successes I have had. In their own harsh way failures prepared me for life better than the trophies in my living room.

Never play to lose, give all your energy to win. But if you lose learn, make improvements and know that success will come if you believe in it. I am going to end this post with a few lines of the poem that is framed on my wall. A poem called “If” by Rudyard Kipling which speaks about the impotance of choosing the middle path.

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master; If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim; If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch; If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you; If all men count with you, but none too much; If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run – Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!

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Not everyone can be a Roger Federer but all of us can be the best possible version of ourself.

 

 

 

 

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The Class

I entered my first class for my Masters Degree with so much excitement that I feared my class mates would think of me as a freak. I was smiling from ear-to-ear and if I had lipstick on I would look like the Joker in Batman. The weird smile on my face was thankfully reciprocated by most of my classmates who were already in the class. While some also ignored me completely for which I will not blame them. I chose to sit somewhere in the center of the class. I think that was a wise choice looking back at my decision.

The class started to fill up and I had Patrick sitting on my right and Brendon on my left. Patrick is a African American who migrated from Africa to America a few years back. Brendon is blind. We are sort of the only representative of our species. Patrick is the only African-American, Brendon the only blind man and I am the only Indian in the class of 30 students. It isn’t too surprising that we connected on being the minority population of the class. For me personally I have never had a serious conversation with someone from Africa or a blind man and this makes the whole experience of learning much more exciting.

I have never represented a minority in my whole life. I was born a Hindu in a predominantly Hindu country. When I traveled the world and lived in London or Paris for training in my sport I saw Indians everywhere so I never really felt like a minority. ( WE ARE EVERYWHERE). This class is my first novel experience in being the sole representative of my country, at least in that small group and I try to make the most of it.

Learning with Brendon and Patrick on my side takes my learning experience to another level. Patrick being from Africa has this unique African accent and has a very different take on Governance and just life in general. He is so fascinated by India and her culture that most of the time when we are trying to discuss a case study in class our discussion always leads us to India. Like when we were discussing a policy on Aviation he asked me this, “So how much did you pay to get married?” I laughed for almost a minute before I answered, “Zero!”. It took him a while to digest that and we had a discussion about the dowry system after class.

Brendon on the other hand has this amazing ability to listen. Just really listen.” I can’t take notes. All I can do is listen really hard and hope that I remember everything.” And he does. He remembers mostly everything right from our first class to the class we had yesterday. It is just truly fascinating to see him recall everything word for word. It took me a while to get past his disability and to treat him normally. He inspires me in so many ways and at so many different levels.

I had heard a lot about studying in American universities to be a different experience. I just didn’t know it would be this unique. My class as a group is really a bunch of very decent and driven people who truly believe that they can change things through the system. Most of them work in Local Governments and their experiences help me understand and really appreciate what Government really stands for.

The class really is about learning to learn in a way I have not experienced before. The class just doesn’t teach me about Public Administration. I also know that it takes me exactly 157 steps to reach my class in the Green Hall building because Brendon who is truly brilliant and my friend told me this.

 

 

When Jeans is a metaphor

When my mother came to Mumbai in the 1989 she did not own a jeans in her wardrobe. She came to Mumbai from a relatively smaller town Gwalior, in Madhya Pradesh. My mother did not ever feel the need to wear a jeans in Gwalior. She was comfortable in her long skirts, sarees, salwar-kameez and long dresses. When she came to Mumbai after her marriage she had only one aim in mind to get her Master’s in Music and Physical Education. Mumbai changed her. When she took the train from Andheri to Marine Lines where her college was she saw and met women who were free, liberated and confident. Here fashion was an important thing. It was not just about wearing a saree but more about why wear a particular saree with a particular bindi. Fashion was a very individualistic statement for women in Mumbai. For my mother nothing resonated more with her spirit than a Denim Jeans.

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In her beloved skirt right next to the groom.

I now know that a jeans for my mother was a metaphor for her struggle, her hard work, her independence, her will to never give up and the fabric that made her feel very comfortable to pursue her dreams. Can a pair of jeans really mean so much? For my mother who came from Gwalior to this mad city apparently it did!

My mother after getting her degree worked in famous schools in Mumbai- King George in Dadar Hindu colony, Mahila Sangh and Arya Vidya Mandir in Bandra for the next few years. In all these schools my mother was a music and a P.T. teacher. She was the most sort out teacher for both her staff and her students. (One of her students was Prateik Babbar and she had met Smita Patil when she had come to pick Prateik from school.) I remember going to her school sometimes and seeing her surrounded by a flock of students all the time. It didn’t take me too long to realise that my mother was a rock star in a denim jeans and it was an absolute privilege to be known as Aparna teacher’s daughter.

Everything changed for her when my father was transferred to Pune after living in Mumbai for seven years. My mother didn’t like the city too much. The culture was different. People were too laid back for her compared to Mumbai’s hustle. Being an independent woman all her life she quickly started interviewing in schools. She cracked the first school she interviewed for and became a teacher in Sharada Vidyalaya. She worked there for a few years and then something happened that changed her life.

I was 17 years old and playing and preparing for the Junior World Championships in Bangalore. My sister was giving her tenth standard Prelims. My mother was on leave from school to be with my sister to help her prepare. One morning, my mother got a call on the landline from my teammate that I had broken my knee and was admitted in the SAI hospital. When I spoke to my mother on the phone a few hours later it was the first time I heard fear in her voice. I had never known that emotion in her before that for 17 years of my life. She was always a super woman for me who feared nothing.

After my surgery I came home on crutches with my mother in the Udyan train from Bangalore. After coming back from Bangalore I felt a change in her. My injury and the fear of me never playing again had shook her quite a bit. She decided she will not go back to school and give all her attention to my injury and rehab. She was with me all through the process. My diet, my exercises, my medication, my pain, my tears everything. I recovered and went back to training and then eventually competing. My mother though never went back to work after that.

In the last 12 years my mother went from being known as Aparna teacher to being known as her daughters mother and Manager Saheb’s wife. The Aparna before the Mutatkar got lost somewhere. After she left her job all her jeans were back in the cupboard she would never wear them because may be she didn’t feel the same in them. Why did my mother never work or do anything remotely selfish for herself in all these years?, is a question I am still finding an answer to. When I think of her sacrifice it always makes a dent in my heart.

The great thing about time though is that it has this amazing power to heal and change. After my younger sister’s marriage I sat down with my mother and we talked. This is what she said to me, ” This is the first time in all these years that I feel free. Really free. I think I have done a great job of making all three of you (my father, my sister and myself) decent human beings. Though I have no idea who I am or who I was 20 years ago. I want to sing, to dance, to teach,to travel, and write again. I want to be selfish and do something because I want to do it.” I listened to this and I told her that all three of us would stand by everything she wanted to do. We owe that to her.

In the time that has passed since my sister’s wedding my mother has joined a yoga course and is looking to be a certified yoga teacher. She has pulled down the harmonium from the closet and started recording her old songs. She has started writing again. She and my father are planning to start a catering business after my father’s retirement in the next two years. She is planning trips with her old friends. She is slowly getting her confidence back. When she sent me a picture of herself in her old jeans, the Aparna before the Mutatkar came back to me in a flash. I realised that a jeans is a metaphor for my mother. I can’t wait to be known as Aparna’s daughter again. Aparna is slowly finding her way back and she is doing it in a pair of jeans.

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So proud 🙂

It is really never too late to rediscover yourself or for that matter wear that old pair of jeans kept somewhere deep in your closet. Go Aparna!