On influence

Who we are depends on who we observe.

Most parents caution each other and their peers about how they should behave in front of children. They set stringent rules for themselves so they can prevent their children from adopting unhealthy practices.

Regardless of our safety measures to protect children, we often forget that, not unlike a toddler, we grown ups become influenced as well. 

We may not accept or even realise it most of the time, but we look at another person—a neighbour, a television artist, a writer—and be more like them.

That’s good in a way. When we look up to someone with purpose, knowing it will improve our life, becoming influenced in the best thing. Such influence can even spread peace and joy across the world. One person’s determination to help out during natural disasters and wars can turn into global philanthropic activities.

But when we don’t realise what we do and adopt certain behaviour for no apparent reason, influence turns bad. We lost sight of our common sense, following someone just because they are attractive.

That’s the root of most political and religious rebellions nowadays. We trust and advocate people, policies, and philosophies even though we don’t understand. We’re influenced by some famous artist campaigning for a cause they found. And since we like them as an artist, we tend to co-campaign without even evaluating it first.

In a society that turns a blind eye to these un-checked influences, no one questions a popular opinion or refutes an unclear decision. As a society, we become unruly and devoid of self-control. We neither think or reason, but serve as tools for others.

Cult groups of today thrive on such behaviour. A single spark influences so many people to rile up, evoking negative emotions in the name of goodness.

Our world isn’t a nice place. We have as many evils as we have goodness. It’s important that we prioritise our lives, understand what matters most to us, and learn to stand up for it. When we’re mindful, we strengthen our convictions. We’ll then know what kind of influence we want to attract.

That’s the sign of true maturity. We grow wiser and understand our purpose—and that our purpose changes with situation, age, interests, and responsibilities. That’s how we can choose who influence us. Without that clarity, we’d let anything and anyone manipulate us for their benefit.

Speaking of likes…

Speaking of likes

For a few years now, everyone I know is obsessed over likes on Facebook. It’s become the sort of thing that gives identity to a person. Like a beacon that assures them they’re in the right path.

Everything is about likes. It’s as if our need for recognition and social acceptance has surpassed our ability to self assess. I know I’ve made a decent photograph of the moon last night, and yet I can’t accept it unless I’ve seen a few tens of likes affirming it for me. And if the tens grow into hundreds, my confidence grows with it.

It’s a good thing in a way, because we need self-confidence to uphold ourselves in society. At the same time, however, this incessant desire for others’ approval is making us more dependent than ever. I’ve lived in the eastern part of the world all my life, and the one thing that differentiates the East from the West is that it’s more of a pluralistic society. The western world, however, is more individualistic by nature.

We see pluralism everywhere in the East; from schools that over-indulge in group activities, to local societies that promote the extended family system, to parents who expect children to live with them until they are married off. (That’s a story by itself.)

As people continue to crave more social media recognition, even the West may head towards a more pluralistic society. The current generation is, by principle, broad minded, and so it doesn’t shy away from accepting its dependence on fellows or the previous generation. Even then, this social shift seems to grow faster now than it did in previous years. Soon, we may all become more social. But — for all the wrong reasons.

The problem is social media recognition isn’t genuine. Most of the time, people on Facebook hit on the like button not because they like the post but because they want to acknowledge whoever’s shared the post. It’s a way to let the entire friends community know that they’re just round the corner. In a way, it’s a desperate measure by one person to remind others that they exist.

Though plenty of people use Facebook and other social media for specific reasons like business ads, community building, local selling, and interests and hobbies, that’s only a niche compared to the vast pool of youth who get on Facebook to chat with friends they’ve just said goodbye to at school. I remember, when in school, my classmates making appointments to meet on Facebook at a designated time just so they could chat on FB. It was a status symbol then—about seven years ago. Not much has changed since, except now it’s Snapchat.

This tendency is making us — both the eastern and western population — unable to survive without one another. What’s ironic though, is that while a proper pluralistic society means to promote healthy social living, we, in reality, aren’t looking for actual human interaction. We’re, instead, seeking recognition through the inanimate, yet animated GIFs and laughing faces. It’d be interesting to see how our society progresses from here. Do you folks agree? Or am I just being paranoid? (I’ve heard I could be.)

Chapter Thirty Four: Making Plans

It was a cool Sunday afternoon and Praveena lazed back on the couch, reading. Ms Marrie had recommended the book. It was a book about living life from a different perspective. It was titled Tuesdays with Morrie, a non fiction by Mitch Albom.

Praveena had taken refuge on the couch after a heavy lunch and she felt her eyes drooping when all of a sudden, her phone rang, chasing the drowsiness away. Stifling a wide yawn, she saw that it was Anil.

“Hey!” Praveena exclaimed, delighted as she answered the call. “How are you?”

“I’m good, what about you?” Anil responded with equal delight. Praveena smiled widely. She had missed the long conversations. Hearing Anil’s voice boosted her mind.

“Hmm, I’m I’m good too” she replied. “So? To what do I owe this pleasure?” she mocked.

Anil laughed. It was a deep and spontaneous laugh. It made Praveena smile. When he spoke, she could feel the joy in his voice, “nothing, just felt like talking to you.”

“So, what up with Bangalore?” Praveena sat up on the couch and placed her book on the table next to her. She didn’t feel sleepy anymore. “how’s MBA?” she asked.

“It’s alright. When has studying ever been fun?” he added with a chuckle.

“Yeah,” Praveena suddenly remembering her college life.

“So,” Anil said, “what are you up to? What’s your plan?”

That’s when Praveena realized she had done nothing since she had got back. She had been too busy becoming aware of the things around her. She told him that, along with the previous day’s events. She told him about her understanding and her conversations with Ms Marrie.

It was easier to talk to Anil now. The invisible barrier between herself and the others had somehow evaporated.

Anil didn’t say much. He listened to Praveena with evident delight and Praveena enjoyed having his rapt attention.

“Now,” she paused, “you tell me, how’s life in Bangalore?”

Anil related the story of his life. “Well, MBA’s draining most of life,” he laughed hollowly. “but it took me a while to realize that it wasn’t giving me much joy,” he paused for a breath. “so after some advice from my teacher, I joined as a volunteer in a non-profit organization.”

“Huh?” Praveena responded surprised.

Anil laughed. “You surprised?” he asked joyously.

“Ya-huh,” Praveena replied defensively. “So, tell me about this organization of yours.”

“It’s a non-profit organization; an alcoholic anonymous institution. Their primary mission is to help people recover from their drug addiction.”

“Oh…” trailed Praveena. She hadn’t expected that. She couldn’t speak for a while. Niveda’s thoughts overwhelmed her. There was an uneasy silence that widened, until Anil broke it.

“Hey, you there?” he asked knowingly.

“Yeah,” Praveena managed, “sorry, I – ”

“I know,” he said simply.

They spoke for another half hour in which Anil explained all the activities that happened in the meetings of the organization. They were mainly counseling sessions, Praveena learned. On some days they had priests, psychologists and doctors advise participants about the dangers of the habit. Some other days, they would call over “people like myself; survivors” said Anil. “Even people who have lost loved ones to drugs would come over and have a chat.” The main purpose of doing stuff like these, according to Anil, was to help addicts realize how much they matter to their families and to educate them about the physical and mental damage that drugs did to them.

Anil also told Praveena how he spoke about Niveda and that a lot of addicts had spoken to him afterward saying that they wanted his support. Anil said it almost ecstatically.

“That’s really good Anil,” Praveena said earnestly. “At least you’re doing something to change someone’s life.” she nodded to herself. If only Niveda could have gotten something like that, she thought bitterly.

“For the better,” Anil added.

“Ya. That’s right,” Praveena agreed.

Another short silence.

“Hey,” Praveena exclaimed.


“An organization! I want to be a part of something like that too. You think I can volunteer?” she asked, excited. She liked the idea of helping someone get rid of the terrible addiction.

“Hmm…” Anil hesitated, “I don’t know, Praveena” he sighed. “Why don’t you try volunteering for some other local institution there?”

That sounded sane to Praveena. She agreed, but she was more interested to do this a as team. She wanted to work alongside Anil.

“Why don’t we start on organization ourselves?” she almost jumped with excitement.

“Huh?” Anil was taken aback. He hadn’t expected Praveena to think like this.

“What do you say?” Praveena pressed him, “you, me, and a few others. I can gather people. What, you’re in?”

“Hey, wait.” Anil replied quite reluctantly, “this isn’t simple, you know that?”

“Yeah, of course.” Praveena said in haste, “but I’m sure we can pull it off.” She was keen to do something.

Anil thought. “hmm, maybe – ” Praveena waited with bated breath. She didn’t understand why she was so interested to get this running, but she had an impulse that it would be a great idea. It was bound to improve a lot of lives. It suddenly struck her; this is what she wanted to do. There was something inside her that pushed her to do this.

“Alright, Praveena. If you’re so sure – then do it. I’ll do everything I can to stay with you.” He said the last part a little extra cheerfully.

“Wonderful!” Praveena exclaimed. She had almost forgot Kamal was asleep in the next room. “Let’s do this!” she vowed, and heard a laughter of agreement from Anil.

Praveena felt sleepy no more. She brimmed with energy — energy that came from the thought of building their own support group. The helplessness she had felt during Niveda’s recovery acted like a stimulant within her, driving her and providing her with all the enthusiasm she needed.

That night, Praveena made plans. She didn’t want to discuss her ideas with her father until she had it all mapped out. She sat cross legged on her bed and thought about it. It seemed like a good idea, except for the problems that it involved. While speaking with Anil, she had thought only of the effect a help group would have. Now though, when she considered the smaller aspects of starting a group, she began to have questions. Her inner voices conflicted.

‘Where would she set it up?’ – ‘Home.’

‘Home? Really?’ — ‘ Ok, the garage then.’

‘Who would be the initial members?’ – ‘Anil and Ms Marrie.’ Yes, she thought, Ms Marrie would agree for sure. She was interested in these kinds of things. That was settled then.

Next, ‘where would you get the money?’ – ‘ personal savings’. Praveena doubted that. But at least, she thought, her savings would be enough for initial investment.

‘How would they spread the word?’ – ‘Internet – duh!’

‘What do we do in the organization?’ – ‘conduct meetings and discussions,’ like Anil had said, she nodded to herself.

‘Just meetings would be boring’ – ‘we’ll come up with something else later.’

‘Is this a good idea at all?’ – ‘I think I’m sleepy.’

Praveena lay back, she’d deal with her doubts later; now, she needed the rest.

Chapter Thirty Three: Cold Facts

They sat solemnly in the ambulance, along with the injured man and a couple of nurses. Ms Marrie hadn’t said anything to her, but Pravaana cast her eyes down. She felt ashamed she hadn’t offered to help the injured man. She had been too shocked to do anything, but it didn’t quite qualify as an excuse.

The nurses had handed the man’s wallet over to Ms Marrie. She examined it for anything that might say something about the injured man.

“His name’s Ali.” Ms Marrie announced gravely. Praveena looked up and watched Ms Marrie as she continued to rummage in his wallet. It was a black leather wallet full of fresh notes. Praveena watched as Ms Marrie took out and examined a few cards from the wallet. She recognized a credit and a debit card. There was also a blood donor identity card and a driver’s license. There was a photo attached to the wallet. A photograph of a small girl with jet black hair and black round eyes. She was smiling. For some reason, looking at the smiling girl calmed Praveena. She noticed Ms Marrie staring at the picture and assumed she felt the same.

“Give me your phone,” Ms Marrie asked Praveena. She did, and Ms Marrie dialed the number on the identity card.

“How’s he?” Ms Marrie asked the nurse, her finger hovering over the call button. The nurse took a look at the unconscious man and replied, “It’s critical, but he’ll be fine.” Ms Marrie nodded once and called the number. She spoke in a quiet voice to the man’s wife, Praveena assumed. She told the other woman about the accident and, though her husband’s condition was quite serious, he would be fine. “Nothing the doctors can’t fix.” she assured the woman on the other side. She gave her the name of the hospital and other details, the location of the accident and the condition of his motorcycle. Once she had disconnected the call, she returned the phone to Praveena with a quiet “thanks.”

About an hour and a half later, they walked out of the hospital leaving Mr Ali in his wife’s care. As they went through the busy hospital corridor, Praveena turned to Ms Marrie. “I’m sorry, Miss” she apologised.

“Why would you be sorry?” Ms Marrie asked, curious. She looked at Praveena as if seeing her for the first time.

“For not helping that man,” Praveena was worried she had watched silently while a man had almost died. She hated herself.

“Don’t be sorry,” she said. “I understand you were too shocked to react.” she smiled, “just be aware of things from now.”

Praveena nodded acknowledging Ms Marrie’s advice.

They didn’t speak until they had boarded a bus. Having settled herself comfortably, Praveena observed, “People aren’t too helpful are they, Miss?”

She had startled Ms Marrie out of a deep thought. “What do you mean?” she responded in confusion.

“Those people back there,” Praveena said “they just watched — unflinching.” she said surprisedly.

“It’s not like that,” Ms Marrie corrected her. All of them could have faced the same dilemma you did,” seeing Praveena’s perplexity, she continued, “They must have expected someone else to help him. If you had noticed, once the ambulance arrived, those onlookers helped the nurses lift the man onto the stretcher.” She laughed. “It’s a queer psychology of humans — the ‘Bystander Bias’?” she asked Praveena as if trying to remind her of something. “It’s common.” she added.

Suddenly it all came to Praveena. She had heard of the Bystander Bias — she had studied about it in her first year.

“But,” began a worried Praveena not understanding what Ms Marrie said, “If it’s common,” she spoke slowly, making sure spoke what she meant, “then is there a way to not give into it?”

Ms Marrie smiled broadly, “of course there is,” she took Praveena’s hand in hers, and when Praveena raised her eyebrows in doubt, “Knowledge.” Ms Marrie replied. “When you’re aware of the thing that is holding you back, you can easily overcome it.”

Praveena smiled, but she wasn’t quite sure if she understood what Ms Marrie meant. She decided to figure it out for herself. For a whole minute, she thought over what Ms Marrie had told her and finally, it dawned upon her. She slapped her forehead hard, why hadn’t she realized it earlier?

She turned to Ms Marrie and noticed she had been watching her as she figured it out. They smiled at each other. “Thank you, Miss.”

“You know what Praveena?” Ms Marrie asked her unexpectedly, “when I saw that man, injured, about to die,” Praveena noticed her voice shaking mildly, “I reminded me of — ” she swallowed, “of Kevin.”

She turned to face Praveena, smiling painfully. “That’s how he died,” she added nodding her head thoughtfully.

Praveena didn’t know what to say. Ms Marrie bade her goodbye at the next stop.

Praveena took the lesson to her heart. She had to travel a little further to reach her stop and kept mulling over the day’s incidents in her head. She looked through the window and noticed the withered trees that lined the streets. They were beautiful, trees that spread their warmth and shade throughout the world. It was a pity to see them lifeless. They stood tall, but without liveliness in those swaying branches. They were contaminated instead, by smoke and the sounds of the city.

Praveena looked around the city, her city. It was the place she was born in, and all she could see were slums and unclean drainage systems. It was rather painful to realize she called this filthy city home.

As the bus crossed over a bridge, Praveena saw a man in the distance. He moved back and forth heavily as if a strong wind had blown him off course. He seemed to be struggling to get his feet back on to the straight path. In his failed attempts, Praveena noticed he had stamped on the muddy puddles nearby sending mud water splashing all around him. He came to a swaying halt in front of a small thatched hut and banged hard on the wooden door. A thin woman emerged from the door and Praveena noticed she was forcing a small child to stay inside. The man shouted at the woman who answered in a low and crouched position. Praveena stared in horror as the man slapped the woman hard on the face and left the hut, swaying and swinging his hands in the air. The woman went back into the hut and shut the door.

As they traveled further into the city, they came across a school building that looked like it hadn’t been renovated in the last twenty years or so. It was a small building and the light blue paint on the walls peeled off. She saw a lot of school children, leaving the school in groups of four and five. A smile played on her lips as she thought of the days she used to walk alone from school. It was a while before she saw that most of the students were bare-foot. A couple of kids wore cheap-looking slippers but there was a little girl with dark short hair who had covered her feet in a bundle of sack held together with a string of sack rope. Praveena was just another passerby as she watched those children involuntarily stepping on stones and muddy pools, smearing their feet with mud, and countless diseases. Praveena saw those children heading towards the slum the bus had just past by. It was their life, she realized bitterly. She thought of an article she had read earlier that day. According to the local newspaper, a few of those slum residents had been allocated small homes in areas with better living conditions, but these people had turned down the chance. Praveena couldn’t understand why they didn’t choose better lives.

Some ten minutes later, she was still in the same bus, but her view had changed. The streets were levelled, the trees were cut and shaped; forced to grow in shapes humans wanted them to. There were plenty of boxed bushes gracing the pavilions of large housing plans. It was the cleaner part of the city, cleaner because it was the home of the richer people. Here, people dressed not just comfortably but also expensively. She sized up a girl walking with her earphones plugged in. She wore a jean and a tee shirt, both branded, and had an iPod in her hand which she kept caressing every two seconds.

Moving on, the bus entered that part of city occupied by the working class. Here people dressed according to occasions. A normal day in office would mean a simple pair of trousers and a shirt, whereas a special festival was celebrated in vibrant colours and traditional dresses, not to mention the fire crackers. The bus past a temple and in a fleeting moment, Praveena got the glimpse of a bunch of people pouring milk over an idol; a part of their worship.

It was a while before Praveena realized she had forgotten to get off at her stop. Her random thoughts had clouded her mind and she had come far away from home. Chiding herself for her mindlessness, she got off the bus and took another bus that went back the same route to get home.

Sitting on the bus she couldn’t help but wonder at people’s attitudes. They were willing to spend thousands of rupees on deities they don’t know exist but they were reluctant to spend on fellow humans.

‘Money,’ Praveena’s inner voice said, ‘is the root of everything. Some people don’t help others because they of psychology, but most people don’t help just because other people are poor. Rich or poor, all these people need help to see sense. But sometimes, people don’t want to be helped. They’d rather be desperate.’

Praveena sighed, agreeing in silence.

Chapter Thirty Two: Explanations

Praveena thought back to the conversation she had had with Ms Marrie. She wondered how their first conversation in school had been an eyeopener; Ms Marrie had said, “You’re not the only one with problems,” and Praveena had realized the truth in those words the first time she had understood Niveda’s problems. Now it was Ms Marrie. Everyone has problems, but not two people show it the same way as the other. She smiled to herself.

She understood at last. She felt she had changed a lot. Her attitude towards people had changed drastically; she was now wiser to other people’s dilemmas.

Praveena thought back to the day her mother had died. She thought of how she had felt, and realized she had been trying to blame her mother’s death on something or someone, just like Ms Marrie had had. She had been searching for a reason, any reason, to blame her mother’s cancer on. Perhaps it was her age, she thought, and her immature mind that had barred her from accepting it sooner. Once again, her exchange with Ms Marrie had changed her perceptions.

And she grew greedy for more.

Praveena took a sip of her orange juice. She was at the Green Leaf restaurant again. Following their meeting a couple of days ago, Praveena had wanted to meet Ms Marrie again. She had called Ms Marrie and they had agreed on another lunch. Ms Marrie too had been eager. What began as a way of clearing Praveena’s cluttered mind in school, was growing into a relationship that neither of them could name.

Praveena looked around the restaurant. It was a wet afternoon and as a way of complimenting the weather, the blinds were raised, letting nature’s dull light wade inside the restaurant in pride. Even though the dim light illuminated the inside of the restaurant, there was an unlit candle and a matchbox on each of the small round tables. Praveena admired the white candles on the scarlet tablecloths as Ms Marrie walked up to her.

Praveena smiled at her. Ms Marrie looked beautiful as ever. She wore a light brown cotton sari, a colour that matched Praveena’s tee shirt. Ms Marrie’s eyes looked content again, and joy radiated in her broad smile. She took her seat and they placed their orders.

“How’s your father, Praveena?” Ms Marrie asked as she ate.

“He’s fine, Miss.” Praveena answered, licking her fingers and trying to look decent at the same time. “He’s so busy with work nowadays.”

“Hmm…” Ms Marrie acknowledged as she continued to eat. “So,” she swallowed, “has he spoken of marriage yet?” she asked casually. As if she had known all along.

Praveena choked on her mouthful of rice. Ms Marrie offered her some water and she took it. Eyes watering, she asked, “How did you know?” She didn’t hide her surprise.

“Happens to a lot of girls, and most of them agree,” It was perhaps the first time Praveena had noticed a hint of disapproval in Ms Marrie’s voice. She held on to it. “It didn’t happen to you, though. Did it?” she asked, enviously.

“Oh, yes it did,” Ms Marrie almost laughed thinking about it.

“How did you handle it?” Praveena was now full of devotion for Ms Marrie.

Ms Marrie shrugged, “I told my parents that I would marry when I wanted to.” she said simply.

“And they were ok with that?” Praveena asked, disbelieving. It seemed like her father wasn’t the only super dad.

Ms Marrie nodded, “As long as you’re sure, your parents would never try to change your mind. They’d start believing in you.”

Praveena nodded. She understood why Kamal hadn’t objected; he believed in her.

Praveena told Ms Marrie everything about the marriage proposal, from her aunt to the phone conversation. She also told her about Kamal’s reaction to her request.

Ms Marrie listened without interrupting.

Once Praveena had finished her narrative, “So, you need some time,” Ms Marrie observed. “Do you say that on someone’s influence?” She paused, “Are you interested in someone?”

Praveena thought. Why didn’t she want to get married? “No,” she said after a while. Ms Marrie raised her eyebrows in a questioning look. “I want to figure out what I want to do with my life, before I commit to marriage.”

“Ok,” Ms Marrie said simply, “you’re fine.” She shrugged smiling.

Praveena smiled in return, a little doubtful.

They left the restaurant together. Praveena volunteered to accompany Ms Marrie to the bus stop. It was a busy Saturday afternoon and the streets were full of heavy vehicles. People traveled long to enjoy the weekend with their family. There weren’t too many pedestrians though. Praveena and Ms Marrie crossed the street cautiously and waited for the bus to arrive.

Praveena suddenly noticed a group of people huddling together some forty feet away. She pointed it out to Ms Marrie and the two of them approached the crowd.

When they reached the crowd, they saw a biker, injured badly and struggling to breathe. Praveena stood stunned. She didn’t know how to react. The man on the ground was writhing in pain. He was surrounded by a pool of warm blood and she could see the gash in his head. His bike was a few feet away from him, the hand bar lopsided and bent in an awkward angle.

Praveena stood horrified, looking at the man who now seemed to have lost his consciousness. She turned around and realized Ms Marrie was missing. Before she could react however, Ms Marrie appeared with a bottle of soda. As Praveena, along with the onlookers, watched in silence, Ms Marrie went over to the injured man, lifted his head on to her left hand and poured some of the liquid into the man’s mouth.

A minute or two later, the ambulance arrived. No one knew who had called the emergency ambulance service. They took the man in a stretcher and asked Ms Marrie to accompany them. Without a second thought, Ms Marrie went with them, pulling Praveena along.