“Bas thoda aur right mei.” (A little more to the right.) I pursed my lips and stepped back to get a better look at the roof as the boys put the finishing touches on the bamboo framework. Big palm tree-like leaves would be tied on top to give it a thatched finish.
A month down the line, the coffee shop had begun to take shape. The walls were in place and bamboo had been erected around it, giving it the shape of an old-timey hut. Despite the odds, as each week went by, I had started feeling a little more confident in my role.
I now recognized some of the construction terms the workers used (“masala” is no longer about food, sadly. Except perhaps Masala Dosa :)). I spent hours observing them work, making sense of their building process. Beyond this, I discovered a little trick about three weeks in that began to make a small world of difference.
I arrived at the site one day, nervous and uncertain as usual. The site supervisor was standing on top of the hut, on the roof framework they were building. Like every morning, I asked him what they had in mind for the day and how much they would be able to complete. And like every morning, he indulged me and explained. As he finished outlining the plan, I nodded silently.
When he made to turn away, something propelled me to say, “Acha. Toh aap pehle yeh saara base banaake phir uske upar patthe baandenge?” (Okay. So, you’ll make the base first and then tie the leaves on top of it?)
He turned, surprised and more than a little shocked. “Haaaaaan, madam ji,” he drew out the word slowly. “Abhi aa raha hai na aapko samaj. Badiya hai.” (Now, you’ve begun to understand. That’s great.)
I felt a tiny rush of excitement and bewilderment. Finally, I had said something useful! At the same time, all I had done was repeat what he had told me. Why was that such a big deal?
Over the course of the day, I tested it a few more times. I would check in with him about something and then repeat what he said. Each time, he responded with enthusiasm. But why? It was befuddling.
Eventually, it sunk in that by doing so, I was validating his plan and inspiring confidence in him. I saw the play of hierarchy. When someone in a role ‘higher up’ than his took to his plan confidently, it spurred him on to work with vigour. It mattered not that the person in this ‘higher up’ role was a woman nearly two decades younger with no construction knowledge whatsoever. All that mattered was the position.
Though it was mere repetition of his words, he began to believe that I knew what I was talking about. The simplicity of this psychology both thrilled and stunned me, and I took full advantage over the next week. I parroted his plans meticulously until for me too, a slow confidence began to take root.
I began to find my footing, treading water instead of drowning in it. Even though I was still lost when it came to the technical aspects, the shaky confidence I was finding within finally enabled my common-sense button. Answers sprouted from within to all the obvious questions the team had. Everything seemed to be falling into place and my voice of insecurity had taken a backseat.
It was all working out.
But Nature comes to play in ways we never see coming. And during these times, She hits our most vulnerable spot just to see what we’re truly made of. Are we a recipient worthy of Her? She finds out.
I woke up that morning and made my way to the site. We were to begin work on the flooring but had one last bit of the roof to finish. Now, I’ve been racking my brain for a couple of minutes but for the life of me, I can’t remember what that bit was. Perhaps we had to finish tying the leaves together. Or position them differently. I’ve no idea. It’s been a year, so, the details are rusty 🙂
What I do remember is that the task was simple. Simple enough that I understood what we were about to do. I made my way to where the site supervisor was standing with his team, a couple of ashram staff and Raghu Swamiji who was receiving an update on how the construction was going. I joined them, listening and nodding along. I distinctly remember feeling intelligent and well-versed because I was able to comprehend everything the site supervisor was saying.
As he finished though, Raghu Swamiji pointed out a couple of errors in his plan and suggested a modification to the roof. I felt steam beginning to come out of my ears (as usual) which could have just been my pride hissing out. I would have never known to look for these errors because they were technical. Sigh.
The site supervisor, taken aback because he hadn’t known about the errors either, nodded eagerly. Yes, they would make the changes, he said. “Hum kal karenge aur aap zaroor rahiye hamare saath (We’ll do them tomorrow and you must be with us definitely),” he said. Assuming he was talking to me, I looked up at him smiling only to find him looking at Raghu Swamiji.
In the split second that my mind took to process the outrage and disappointment I felt, he leaned closer and whispered (presumably because he didn’t want me to hear), “Inko kuch nahi aata (She doesn’t know anything).”
Wham! It felt like my body had stumbled back from a sucker punch. In reality, it stood rooted to the ground, frozen. A prickling sensation swept over me. My cheeks turned hot. My stomach and chest filled with a strange, uncomfortable knot as I took a slow step back.
He continued talking, blissfully unaware that I had heard his words. Vaguely, I saw Raghu Swamiji give me a comforting smile. He’d seen my reaction and sensed my shock.
Suddenly, nothing made sense.
I stood there, numb, blank, until it slowly dawned on me that I didn’t have to keep standing there. I forced my body to move and backed away from the cluster of people. I started walking blindly, not knowing where I was going or even caring. Hot tears clawed at my throat and anguish filled me.
I had been trying so hard. So hard and still, it wasn’t enough. People looked at me and still saw a stupid person. Nobody would ever take me seriously. What was the point of trying when nothing came of it? What was the point of all this? All I’d ever done my whole life was do my best and it was never enough. Never.
Of all the things that Bhagvan could have tested me with, He chose the one story that dominated my life, that I was not good enough. It was the story capable of breaking my spirit and that morning, it did. For somebody to say in front of a dozen people that I wasn’t capable of anything – it shattered me. It was everything I had ever dreaded.
Maybe my reaction to that statement was out of proportion. What’s the big deal, one may think. But our stories bind us. And when we see them come to life in the way we fear most, it propels reactions beyond reason.
I kept walking, feeling the tears coming but determined not to let them fall. What was the point of crying? I’d cried enough over the years at my worthlessness and one more time wasn’t going to change anything.
I found myself near one of the benches on the lawn and sat down, hunched in on myself. Fury, sadness and confusion made my head whirl. What the hell had just happened? Things had been going so well, I thought. Apparently not. I’d just been fooling myself. Well, I was done then. I couldn’t take it anymore. I would meet Rajiv ji in the afternoon and tell him I wasn’t the right person for this job. He could find somebody else.
As I made this decision, despite my best efforts, a tear slipped down my cheek. I absolutely hated giving up on anything and here I was, about to walk away from seva. I felt, if possible, even worse. Another tear rolled down and another. I discreetly swiped them away, struggling to push back on my sadness. I would not cry. I just would not.
A movement to my right caught my eye and I saw Ajeet bhaiya, the ashram electrician, step out of his cottage. Mischievous and cheerful with a permanent twinkle in his eye, we got along like a house on fire, pulling each other’s legs every chance we got. In that moment though, I was annoyed. Great. I couldn’t even have a pity party in peace. Not up to facing his concern, not wanting him to see me cry, I sat upright, brushed myself off and smiled a forced, watery smile. He saw me and smiled back, beginning to walk towards me. He was almost there when abruptly, he did an about-turn. Confused, I watched as he bent down, rifled through a nearby plant and carefully plucked a small white flower. Straightening, he walked back and stopped in front of me.
He held out the flower. I reached out and took it, a real smile breaking out. Not saying a word, he simply smiled back and walked off.
I held the flower in my hand, staring at it, suddenly feeling a wave of happiness. And in that instant, I knew. It was Swamiji. This was His flower.
Along with the happiness came a second wave, of determination. Screw this! I was not going to sit around feeling sorry for myself. And NO way in hell was I giving up. I would not allow anybody to talk to me or about me like that. All my life, I had allowed it to happen by not saying a word. Not anymore.
I stood up, holding the flower firm and pulled out my phone to call the site supervisor. “I’d like to talk to you,” I said calmly when he picked up. “Please meet me by the temple.”
I hung up, walked up the stairs leading to the temple and waited for him at the top.
“Ji, madam, boliye (Yes madam, tell me),” he said when he arrived a few minutes later.
“Aapne wahaan par aisa kyun bola tha ?” (Why did you say that there?)
“Kya?” (What?) He looked confused.
“Kyun bola ki mujhe kuch pata nahi hai? Haan, sacch toh hai. Yeh baat maine bhi aapko bohot baar bol chukki hoon. Pata nahi hai toh sikha sakte hain na? Aisa bolna bilkul accha nahi tha.” (Why did you say that I don’t know anything? Yes, it’s true. It’s something that I’ve told you many times as well. If I don’t know, you can teach me, can’t you? To say something like that wasn’t nice at all.)
As I finished speaking, my breath felt shallow and tense. Holding tight to the flower, I waited for a response.
And it was a response that shook me. Perhaps because I had expected him to deny it. But the opposite happened.
He blustered and laughed in embarrassment, stammering out excuses. I heard him out quietly. When he paused, I looked him in the eye. “Jo bhi hota hai, izzat se baat karna sirf hamara haat mei hota hai.” (Whatever happens, to speak with respect is in our hands alone.)
In the echo of this dialogue, dramatic Bollywood music began playing in my head. He smiled uncomfortably and apologized. I graciously accepted and left, saying I’d see him after lunch.
Disbelief and joy beat in tandem with my heart. I had just experienced what it was to stand up for myself.
When I arrived at the site after lunch and through all the subsequent days, I saw a sea change in the way he treated me. By speaking up for myself, I had earned his respect. More importantly though, finding my voice gave me the confidence to direct the team. No matter how wrong my direction was, I learnt to take charge of the decisions I made which in turn gave them the same confidence they sensed emanating from me.
And I saw another secret along the way. Most people are just winging it. It’s the confidence which makes all the difference.
Ajeet bhaiya standing on the roof framework 🙂
The sum of this experience 🙂
The Coffee Shop, at long last!
The aesthetics I originally thought I’d be doing 🙂
It’s been a year and multiple projects since that day. Technically, I still don’t know much about construction. But thanks to the gifts of common sense and confidence, it makes it seem like I do 🙂
Perhaps the biggest lesson though has been the understanding that none of this is real. I’ve replaced one story in my head with another. The mind has been tricked into thinking that it’s smart and confident and engaging. And it’s a great story. But that’s all it is.
The little white flower showed me Bhagvan. He’s the only Reality and my only prayer is that my ego be blown to smithereens.
Maybe after all that, Nature may deem me a worthy recipient. When the “I” and “me” finally drop 🙂
Sataaye, manaaye, sataaye.
Tu Rulaaye, Hansaaye bhi tu hi
Thank you for taking out time to read the post and sticking through the three parts to the end. I’m very grateful 🙂
A very Happy New Year! May 2021 be the most transformational year yet 🙂