Sunday, December 7, 2008

Bus Driving My Emotional Bank Account

Sometimes in life you do things you do not understand and yet they deliver positive results. At a shallow level of analysis, the reasons underlying this can usually be found in some commonplace answers, everyday rules, basic values and perhaps a way of life that has been adopted not by choice but by old habit.

Sometimes later in life you may realize the profound lesson behind some of these events and the immense learning it can deliver to you on your difficult yet determined way to success.

Let me share a personal experience with you that follows these lines.
Many years ago, when I was a child, I experienced a strange relationship which I did not give much thought to, but now I see it for what it was and ever since I have realized the lesson it delivered , it has changed my life.

I was the eldest of two children in a small family in Mumbai INDIA, where the family consisted my parents and also my ailing grandmother, my father’s mother, his dad having passed on many years before. It also included an aging unmarried uncle, Dad’s eldest brother, who though a hardy veteran of life in all it’s forms, had experienced terrible setbacks and had retreated to the safety of the family, a shelter from an unfriendly and hostile world.

My father was a quiet, industrious man with a strong sense of purpose and values. His humour was infectious and he embodied the “man of the house” status as if it were natural to him to deal with all the world had to shove at us, with the greatest equanimity I have experienced. Grandma’s ailments kept taking a turn for the worse, and the world too seemed to have turned a shade darker. Yet my father went about what he had to do with more vigour and yet always found the time for us children to play, teach and live in pace with our growing worlds.

My mother, was the perfect backbone the family needed. Talented and skilled in art, she set aside her career to look after grandma, and this lasted a long and arduous fifteen years. She was the rock in the family, on which dad could build the home. She was full of life, always busy, always loving, caring to the core, and for us kids, a safe haven to run to in times of trouble. In her arms, and they were strong yet immensely comforting arms affording incredible security, we could find great sanctuary from any form of danger. Mother was invincible. She was later to hold the family together with my father through such terrifying times, that this invincibility was often battered, but never gave way.

Our invincible mother died early at the age of just sixty, six months after she helped my father recover from an unexpected heart attack on the eve of Christmas 2002.

Between our two parents we learned several life lessons, not the least being how to hold a family and faith together in violent turbulence. The smaller lessons are what this note is all about.

Helping around the house, running chores, growing up from levels of dependence to almost arrogant levels of independence can often scar behavior beyond recognition. But ingrained in us was the need to be decent and respect ourselves and others in all we did. Dad was the role model here, his colleagues often telling us how much he stood apart from the others because of these traits. Mother followed up with the lessons we needed to learn to be like Dad. Respect everyone, she said, even those you feel are below your status, like the maid servant at home, the ordinary worker on the road, the shopkeeper attendant, the bus driver and bus conductor, the peon, other children, especially the deprived. Their pain and suffering was their badge of honour, she would say, their qualification for the right to an equal life.

All this translated to simple greetings like “ Good morning, Good afternoon, Good evening, Good night” and the all essential “Thank You” and “ I’m sorry” It also meant never taking credit for anything that was not due or belonged to someone else, returning money or fulfilling payments immediately without waiting for even the next day to pass, paying our fair share, and being responsible and accountable for the little things we took charge of in and around the house.

We schooled quite a distance from where we lived in Mumbai’s northern suburbs, about 15 km away, and with traffic and transport frequency being what it was around 35 years ago, mother took on the task of ferrying us back and forth, the school not having a regular bus service of it’s own. Poor experiences with a neighbouring school’s bus which left us stranded in a monsoon flood in waist deep water left her so furious, she decided that her responsibilities must include this very difficult ordeal.
So she made three trips per day, the one in between to bring us lunch, and yet managed a home almost entirely dependent on her to run. Even as carefree children and happy to see mother as often as possible , a beacon of warmth and safety , in the unfriendly environs a school often chooses to offer children; we could see the great strain this was on her. Yet she never complained.

To regulate life somewhat, mother chose a bus route that took us directly to school without any changeover midway. This meant being exactly in time for the bus and this being a ring route, we also caught the very same bus on the way back home. So we became familiar faces being regular passengers on a generous part of the route itself. Mother as usual would prompt us to greet the conductor as we boarded the bus and thank the driver as we disembarked. We would then wave to the bus driver and conductor as the bus eased away from the bus stop.

The bus conductor was almost priestly in his disposition and demeanour. Silver haired and dignified, he would return our greeting with his own blessing for the day or the rest of it, while the driver, a burly sunburned toughie with a walrus like moustache , would break into the most delightful smile as we thanked him in chorus and later waved him goodbye.

And so life went on, for a couple of years, before I finally mustered the courage to assure mother that I could take care of my younger brother and steer ourselves and back form school safely, given the regimen we had established. Skeptical of success , but now terribly overburdened, mother made a few dry runs with us to check our navigational and other competences. She also asked the bus conductor and driver duo to “keep an eye” on us. A request they quickly agreed to comply with. But could you really expect a busy public transport employee, harassed by his very work, barely managing to keep his own equilibrium on even keel, to keep this promise ? Well, we were in for a surprise.

Like clockwork we managed to make the daily circuit without any incident worth mentioning or remembering. Life was settling down to an even regularity, as far as transport was concerned. Till one day this took a big jolt. The school principal decided to lecture the school , for ten long minutes on some moral values of life after the evening prayer at the end of day. This meant that our timetabled life was now going to be turned on it’s head. The bus stop was a brisk 12 minute walk from the school door through the playfield, out of the gate, across the road at a busy traffic junction and then a straight run. This gave us 3 minutes to catch our breath and jostle in line to be the first to spring into the bus, my brother in front of me, held and shielded from the rushing crowd. Once in, the usual greeting to the conductor and a run for empty seats if any or a position in the front so one could pick up casual conversation with the walrus-mustachioed driver.

Scrambling for freedom, the school exploded onto the road at the traffic junction just across the gate. Amidst the melee, stood a red bus, unmindful of the green signal to go, and the jarring honking of the traffic behind, pumping it’s own loud horn in an SOS manner. Puzzled, I looked up, and saw a great big burly face decorated with a walrus mustache, followed by half the burly body, leaning right through the driver’s window calling us to board the bus. Grabbing my brother by the hand, I raced across and boarded from the front, to be greeted with a loud cheer from the passengers, and a huge grin from the driver and a visibly relieved conductor. Thanking him profusely, we spent the remaining journey, being grateful for not being pushed into an unfamiliar route home or being delayed to a degree of discomfort.

The memory soon passed, until it rang several bells when I read Stephen Covey’s thoughts about Emotional Bank Accounting. This concept is so simple and so real. It simply states that just like a financial bank, we deposit and borrow from people we deal with everyday. The account we use if the one we open with each and everyone we meet and work with.

It’s called an Emotional Bank Account. Simply put, we need to have a minimum deposit and keep filling in the account to make it work. It helps when we have to make withdrawals. The deposits are simple ones, like acknowledging the other, common courtesies, keeping the small promises we make, being sincere in helping, being sincere in owning up to mistakes made and apologizing with intent to repair the damage done and so on. The small stuff. But all this has to be made unconditionally without plans for withdrawals. No strings attached.
When withdrawals occur, like shortness of temper, demands on time and work priorities, abruptness with courtesies, anger mismanaged, and all the roughshod treatment we dish out liberally in a day, the unconditional deposits we have banked allow us to save the relationship from destruction.

So where does this leave my bus driver , all those many years ago ? You got it, the Emotional Bank Accounts we opened with them were liberally filled with the unconditional deposits of children not yet coached with the skills of opportunism of the world. Simple greetings from the heart of innocent children, filled the heart of these veteran workers of the daily grueling grind of life, to extend themselves to assume the role of parents , and reach out beyond call to fulfill this withdrawal they not just sanctioned but offered.

Keeping an eye on the clock, this grizzled bear of a driver, realized we would not make it on time, so he did the unthinkable, only a parent would do. Scanning the uniformed crowd of children, to search and find , two children from amongst hundreds, and get them on board, to keep a promise made so casually must have been the consequence of the EBA being driven right home.

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