When Fears Don’t Govern Decisions in Life

Professor was going to interview a young woman in the early thirties as his Executive Assistant (EA). He sent me her CV on email to take a look and called me in the morning.

“Dr Modak, why don’t you join us at the usual coffee shop. Meeting Tanya (that was her name) should be interesting.”

I could not refuse Professors request. But honestly the CV was so compelling that I had to meet this woman.

Tanya was a globe trotter. Born in the family of people working with the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) her schooling took place in various parts of the world – mainly in the Middle East and North African region. She did her graduation in liberal arts from Williams College in the Massachusetts. Williams College has three academic branches – languages and the arts, social sciences, and science and mathematics. Tanya opted for Science and Mathematics. Williams is known for its small class sizes, with a student-teacher ratio of 7-to-1. In 2016, Williams was rated as the best national liberal arts school in the US.

After graduating from Williams, Tanya worked as UN Peace Volunteer in Cambodia for a year.  Later she moved to Hongkong to work with a Travel agency for 2 years for organizing tours to China. She learned Chinese in this process. She lost her job as she couldn’t get along with her Chinese boss. She sounded pretty bitter about this.

Tanya’s brother worked in London. He found a job for her as a Manager in Sainsbury (a Supermarket having a chain across UK). At Sainsbury, she was a part of the Green Procurement team and that is where she got introduced to working for the environment. Her job in London was on contract, so she returned to India (Uttarakhand) to look for the next steps in her career. She came across Professors advertisement for an Executive Assistant and when she saw his profile, she decided to apply and take a shot.

I was observing her as she narrated us her story.  I could see a “carefree confidence” on her face. She was all cool to say what was on top of her mind and looked an easy-going person. Her hobbies were painting and playing keyboards and She was a fan of Wilheim Kempff – legendary German pianist who I greatly admire.

Professor heard Tanya’s story and lighted his cigar. He then spoke about his expectations.

His expectations ranged from making a good coffee (not just in taste but also ensuring an aroma), doing a Google search for references, editing (polishing) his drafts, preparing presentations, attending with him meetings (that involved travel) and prepare minutes, do all the follow ups, take the phone calls, fix the appointments and remind.  Tanya said yes to everything that was said or expected. Professor however did not seem to be convinced – “Remember it’s a technical job really – not a job of an office secretary”. He said this to her in a thick voice.

He continued

“Your career has been so chequered Tanya. I really don’t see any clear focus. I was actually looking for someone who has gone through some formal training in environmental policy and management. But I still called you for a chat as a close friend recommended you”

Tanya looked a bit disappointed

I thought of butting in now. I asked Tanya “What would you like to do or become over a long term? What’s your career plan?”

“Yes, Dr Modak, I do have plans. But these plans keep changing as I get to travel, read more and get more experience. I thought working with Professor will help me to cut across various perspectives of environmental management and importantly life. I may then decide what will I do with rest of my life”

When she said about what will she do with her life –  I remembered the famous book by Po Bronson What Should I Do with My Life?

In his book, Po Bronson tells the inspirational true stories of people who have found the most meaningful answers to this great question. With humor, empathy, and insight, Bronson writes about remarkable individuals who have overcome fear and confusion to find a larger truth about their lives and, in doing so, have been transformed.

Sometimes we let our fears govern our decisions; rather than challenging the validity of those fears, we accept the boundaries set by those fears, and end up confining our search in life to a narrow range of possibilities. Its like someone looking for his car keys under the streetlight because he’s afraid of the dark. We mix for example education with vocation to earn. These two could be different. I remember one of my IIT mates running a restaurant in Pune after his PhD in geotechnical engineering.

To build his book, Bronson spent two years interviewing more than 900 people and out of the 900 narratives, 56 lives were chosen.

The inspirational success stories of Po Bronson include woman in Tech PR company who decided to become a landscape gardener; an English diplomat who spent six months in hospital and became a School teacher; a corporate lawyer who changed his life to become a long-haul trucker. I saw that Tanya too was experimenting and that was nothing wrong to me.

I saw Tanya in Po Bronson’s category. I was sure that she knew how to overcome fears to be different; and look and go beyond the obvious choices. For her, making a choice of the career, was not just a matter of finding the right puzzle piece to match her skills; She wanted to grow as a person first. Few think this way. But let us face it – not all can take this “luxury”

We ended our conversation and Tanya left the coffee shop. Professor opened his folder and flashed me a CV of another woman. This woman was Masters from Michigan University in Environment, MBA from Stanford and had interned with the World Bank. “I am taking this one Dr Modak – see how focussed and competent she is”. He said this while extinguishing his cigar. So interviewing Tanya was just a ritual that had to be done and the choice was already made.

A month later, I was chatting with my wife and narrated our encounter with Tanya and told her story.

“Oh, you should have offered this girl a position of Executive Assistant with you right away! Your Professor friend is simply orthodox. Tanya would have been a perfect EA for you – given your temperament. This girl would make your otherwise drab life to something worth living. Go and find if she is still free” My wife nudged and coaxed me.

Just yesterday, I sent an email to Tanya to check out her availability to work with me as an EA. I hope she is still free and interested.


Getting a supporting, vibrant and risk taking Executive Assistant is so important when you want to live life differently. For the past three decades, I am looking for such an EA but  have never found one!

If you know someone like Tanya, then please let me know. I am still looking. My expectations for the EA are similar to the one stated by the Professor except for an addition that there must be some discussion on music during the day!

And do read the classic What Should I Do with My Life? by Po Bronson

Image sourced from www.thegeekanthropologist.com


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Dear Mrs. Bharucha

My wife asked me to start attending Parent Teacher Association (PTA) meetings at the Bombay Scottish School. “Please show some involvement” she said angrily “ How do you expect me to attend every time?”. I thought she was right.

I decided to go for the slot allocated for PTA every fortnight. I was keen to know about what the teachers thought about my daughter Devika. Devika was studying in 8th grade then. She hated mathematics and I did not blame her. She was however good at the subjects of art and literature. You have to be good at something no matter what.

The PTA meeting was scheduled on Fridays and my slot was at 3 pm. At this slot, parents having their children above 7th grade were entertained.

I did not want to be late for the first PTA encounter so I reached well before 3 pm. It was 2 45 pm when I entered the gate. And this was the first time I met with Mrs. Bharucha.

Mrs. Bharucha was a very dignified woman in early sixties. You wouldn’t miss her as she had a great complexion, a grace and a kind face.  She was at the gate with an umbrella and looked a bit lost and worried.

She stopped me “Mr.… sorry to bother you. Could you please let me make a call from your mobile? My mobile phone is dead and I need to call my driver for picking me up”

“Of course,”, I said to this gallant lady and handed over my mobile. “Could you please dial this number for me? I don’t know how to use your mobile phone”. She said apologetically.

I dialed the number and handed over the phone to Mrs. Bharucha. I saw her face irritated first, but then I saw her smile. She said “OK, Babu (presumably drivers name), finish your chai first and then come – but don’t take too long – I will be waiting for you inside the gate”

Then she returned my phone and thanked me profusely.

When I told her that I was at the school to attend PTA meeting for my daughter, Mrs. Bharucha explained to me that she too was there to attend PTA meeting for her granddaughter Shirin.

We walked towards a tree in the school’s courtyard as there was some time for Babu to come. I introduced myself and told her about Devika.

“I am glad that you and your wife are taking the PTA meetings seriously. Few parents do. My son Hirji and daughter-in-law Kermeene have never found time to attend these meetings. So, I have taken the responsibility. I don’t blame them though – life is too busy for them and the 2 pm slot is not simply working” said Mrs. Bharucha. I could see that while she was complaining, she was appreciating their difficulty –I could also sense that she was extremely attached to her granddaughter Shirin.

“Shirin studies in the 5th standard” Mrs. Bharucha said while returning to the gate to locate her driver Babu. She showed me her picture. Shirin looked so innocent and beautiful.

I did not see Mrs. Bharucha when I went for the second PTA meeting. Maybe she left before I reached the school -I thought.

The third time therefore I reached the school early and there she was – standing at the gate with her umbrella.

“Hello Dr Modak – how are you and how is your daughter Devika doing”. I realized that Mrs. Bharucha had a sharp memory and real good manners.

Well, all OK Mrs. Bharucha I said

“I may need your help Dr Modak. Mrs. Bharucha said. “Shirin has been asked to do an environmental project –on waste segregation and composting. I see you are a medical doctor, but do you have a friend who works in the environmental field and who can help me out?”

I smiled and explained to Mrs. Bharucha that I was not a medical doctor and incidentally worked in the environmental field.

“Oh then, you are an angel, Dr Modak”. Mrs. Bharucha said in a voice with tremor. “Would you mind giving me some literature, pictures and brochures that Shirin could build on? Shirin is so passionate about environment.

And I said it will be my pleasure.

This is how our interactions began. I used to come 15 to 20 minutes early before every PTA and meet Mrs. Bharucha for a brief chat under the tree. Each time I used to listen to a new story about Shirin.

“Dr Modak Shirin is now into a competition to write an essay on Ozone Hole – Help me please”;

“Shirin is taking part in the green warriors group in our society. This group is chasing residents to replace candescent lamps with CFLs and LEDs. Need some material from you Doc”

Mrs. Bharucha used to demand my help and I used to happily provide her with materials whatever I could.

I also realized that there is so much to do to help school children to understand the good and bad news on environment – with nice infographics in local languages, audio visual clips, interactive web sites, stock of posters and stickers and so on. We do have agencies in India like the Centre for Environmental Education, C P Ramaswamy Iyer Foundation, Centre for Science and Environment etc. – but we need many more.   I thought I should do just this work on a mission mode now instead of generating consultancy reports that are not read and various recommendations that  I make that are never paid heed to.

I was therefore very keen to see Shirin one day.

“You certainly will” said Mrs. Bharucha. “In fact, I am asking Hirji and Kermeene to invite you, your wife Kiran and daughter Devika for a dinner at our home in Parsi Colony. I will prepare Dhansak (a Parsi dish)– Shirin loves my style of cooking”

Oddly and strangely enough I did not see Mrs. Bharucha for the next two PTA meetings. I was wondering whether anything was wrong. I was not comfortable and decided to find out.

So, after my PTA was done, I went to the Principals office. I knew the Principal otherwise through some social connections.

When I narrated my encounter with Mrs. Bharucha, and that I wanted to know whether everything was alright, I saw the Principal’s face solemn and quiet.

“Well Dr Modak, Mrs. Bharucha passed away two weeks ago. She suffered a massive cardiac arrest”

“Oh”, I was stunned. I remembered every conversation with her, the good chats we had and her tremendous love and affection towards Shirin. And of course, Shirin’s passion for the environment.

“It must be a shock to Shirin and a great loss to her Son Hirji and daughter in law Kermeene” I said to the Principal.

Now it was the Principal’s turn to be shocked.

“Dr Modak, didn’t you know that Hirji, Kermeene and Shirin met with a fatal car accident on way to Mahabaleswar some five years ago. Mrs. Bharucha suffered a brain hemorrhage and never believed that such a tragic loss happened. She started coming to the school to attend PTA meetings for Shirin and on consultation with her doctors, we let her come so that she stayed blissfully unaware in her own world. We knew that the reality will be so savage that she won’t be able to bear”

When I stepped out of Principal’s office and reached the gate, a little Parsi girl came running. She  almost banged on me

“Very sorry uncle” she said. She was wearing a green cap that had a slogan “Green Warrior”

Was she Shirin? Or was the Principal lying? Or was I hallucinating?

I asked my wife to take over attending the next PTA meetings


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