Power of Maya Angelou’s pen…

You may not control all the events that happen to you,
But you can decide not to be reduced by them”

The mighty pen that wrote these words fell silent this week. We, the world, lost Maya Angelou, one of the greatest American writers of our times…of all times.

I had an opportunity to meet Maya Angelou very briefly. It was not the meeting itself but her words that made her such an inspiration to me, providing the guidance someone might receive from a trusted mentor. After all, a mentor helps you listen to your own voice, understand your inner strength then act to leverage the two.

Her one sentence (You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them) has done all of this for me. It has helped me have patience to deal with difficult people, to manage impossible situations and to put my failures in perspective.

As a woman and an Indian-American, it would have been easy for me to blame “the unfair world” around me as I faced challenges in the path of leadership, but Maya Angelou never let me have that luxury. Every time I tried to blame the world and wallow in despair, her words would dance in front of my eyes, as if saying, “Get up and try harder! You are better than this.”

As a tribute to Maya Angelou, I hope that you will read some of her words, for they may inspire you the way they have inspired me.

My favorites from Maya Angelou:

“I have learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

“Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.”

“Nothing can dim the light which shines from within.”

“We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated.”

“My great hope is that I laugh as much as I cry; to get my work done and try to love somebody and have the courage to accept the love in return.”

Indeed, Madam Angelou, you have cried, you have laughed, you have loved, but most importantly, you have given us ourselves!

Narendra Modi, India’s new leader, through my eyes…

On Friday, India woke up to a new dawn. Everyone was expecting the candidate for Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, to win, but only a few had expected this outcome – a landslide!

Since then, I have been asked at least twenty times, “Who is Modi, and what is he like?”

I had an opportunity to meet Mr. Modi in January of last year at Vibrant Gujarat, an annual day of celebration for his state, the State of Gujarat. I saw him in action again in January of this year when I was in India to receive Pravasi Bhartiya Samman, a presidential honor.

I don’t claim mastery over India’s politics (who could?) nor am I a serious political observer in any way. What I like and enjoy is watching people and their reaction to political turning points. Here is what I observed during these two encounters with the gentleman who has become the Prime Minister-elect of India.

I was invited to speak at Vibrant Gujarat and arrived 30 minutes before the start of the event in the VIP room. I was one of the first persons there, so I got to watch as the room started to fill with India’s top industrialists – Ratan Tata, Mukesh Ambani, Anil Ambani, Anand Mahindra – and top executives from many multinational companies based in UK, Germany, USA, Japan and China.

Fifteen minutes later, Mr. Modi arrived without an entourage and without the drama that I am used to seeing surrounding elected officials in India. He followed the same routine of shaking hands, but then I was taken by surprise when he congratulated me on my work at the University of Houston. (He was briefed well, I thought!). My surprise doubled when he complimented me on my presentation a day before in Gandhinagar (Obviously, he was aware of my presence in his state). And then he said that his state needs help and partners to expand access and establish excellence in higher education. (He was engaged with issues, I thought further).

A few minutes later, I walked along with other speakers to the stage. It was the most elaborate stage I have ever seen – three rows of dignitaries in stacked seating making it clear to everyone that Gujarat was a business-friendly state. For next three hours, many got up to speak about Gujarat, and almost everyone spent 90 percent of their time in complimenting Modi’s leadership in transforming the state of Gujarat. On that morning, he appeared larger than life.

Thousands of people sat mesmerized for hours basking in the glory of their leader. Finally, Mr. Modi himself stood up to speak to a thunderous applause that refused to quiet down despite several attempts. People loved him. He was their leader; he was one of them!

Mr. Modi electrified the crowd with every sentence. He was not negative and he was not presumptuous. Within seconds, it became clear that he loved his people. It was a magical bond between the people and the leader, witnessed by millions across India on their television sets.

I turned to my husband and said, “This is not a wave; this is a tsunami.”

My second encounter with Mr. Modi was in New Delhi at a convention for non-resident Indians, organized by the Government of India. Other than president and prime minister, many chief ministers were also participating as speakers and panelists. If energy in the room were to be the measuring stick, it was obvious that Mr. Modi was the winner.

For his session, the hall was filled above capacity. Different audience, but the same spell-binding effect. It was as though Indians living abroad were also mesmerized by the Modi charisma. He spoke in Hindi and people listened, even though half of them could not understand that language. The English translation of his speech was distributed to everyone, and it appeared as if those who could not understand Hindi were happy to just be listening to his voice. For those of us who knew Hindi, he reached out to our hearts.

This time, my husband turned to me and said, “He has captured India’s imagination.”

Today, India has high hopes, and it has given a clear mandate. With an absolute majority, an Indian prime minister is far more powerful than an American president. Only time will tell whether Mr. Modi can do for India what he did for Gujarat. But, as a political scientist, I was thoroughly intrigued witnessing the emotional bond between this leader and his people.


An Ode to My Mother…

[The article below was written in Hindi and published in Sarita.  This English translation has been published in India Abroad and Houston Chronicle. On Mother’s Day, I am sharing it with my blog readers] 

More than six years have gone by, but it all seems like a big dream. I was on my way for an interview with the board of regents of the University of Houston, one of America’s largest research universities. I was excited but nervous. I knew this was no ordinary position, and would be no ordinary interview. I was fully aware that no American university had ever selected an Indian as chancellor, nor had a woman ever been appointed to such a position in Texas. I knew that the odds were against me.

To divert my mind, I glanced outside the airplane window and saw white clouds. Suddenly a rainbow shot up from their midst. My heart swelled with wonder and delight. I had seen many a rainbow in life on lifting my gaze toward the sky, but never before had I seen one on lowering my eyes. I groped for the camera in my purse and when I glanced up, not just one, but two rainbows had manifested themselves resplendent in the glory of all their vivid colors. They seemed to be racing alongside my airplane.

How could I have ever come this far? How did life bring me to this place where I could dare to dream of becoming a chancellor? Whose shoulders have supported me and whose hands have guided me on this journey? I found myself traveling back to my childhood …

My journey began in the small town of Farrukhabad, about 250 miles from New Delhi. I spent the first 18 years of my life blissfully jumping rope and playing dolls. Never once had the thought of going to America crossed my mind. Walking down memory lane, I found myself surrounded by voices from the past, and loudest of them all was my mother’s.

“OK, children, I have a question for you. There once was a fruit-seller selling oranges. The first customer buys a dozen oranges, the second buys two dozen and the third only four oranges. If the fruit-seller is now left with exactly half as many oranges as he had started out with, how many oranges do you think he had in the first place?”

“Mom, we are already done with our homework. We are too tired to think anymore,” I mildly protested. My sister and brother nodded their heads in agreement.

“Come on, there is nothing to think about here. You should be able to answer this question in your sleep. Let’s give it a try,” my mother answered. One of us would figure out the answer and the next 30 minutes would pass in answering questions as if it were a game.

This was our nightly ritual as we would lie down in our open courtyard under a star-studded dark blue sky, ready to fall asleep.

Whether we were in the car or in the courtyard, whether lying down in the shade sheltered from the afternoon heat, or huddled under a blanket on a cold winter’s night, mother’s questions would constantly hover around us. My mother is not a teacher, nor does she hold a high school diploma, but her thirst for knowledge and her impatient passion for inquiry led her to read four different newspapers every day.

Thank you, Mom, for giving me the gift of inquisitiveness.

Today, people ask me, “What is the secret behind your success?” I know that my mother’s expectations are my secret. Being the firstborn, I was the darling of the house and the center of my family’s attention. Someone had to assume the responsibility for making sure that I was not spoiled. Needless to say, this task fell solely on Mom’s shoulders, because Dad was too busy practicing law. Mom’s philosophy was that excelling in academics was meaningless if one ignored the other facets of life. Hence, in addition to schoolwork, I was sent to learn classical Indian dance, Indian drums, sewing, embroidery, painting and cooking, among other things. I am sure if it were possible to pursue any sport in my little town, she would have sent me to participate in that as well. I published my first poem when I was 15 years old, and even though it challenged traditional social norms, she swelled with pride reading it.

I never mastered anything but learned to appreciate everything. Today, when people ask me the secret of my seemingly balanced lifestyle, I just smile and thank my mom for it.

From the day I arrived in America, I found comfort in exploring new ideas and new fields. Even though my mother denies it, I am convinced that she is the one who gave me the confidence to step outside my comfort zone. Thank you, Mom, for giving me the courage to explore and try, try and fail, and fail and try again.

I remember an episode when I was in the sixth grade, where all the girls had to take mandatory home economics class. Preparing a dish at school was the final requirement to pass the class. My lottery pick paired me with the dish Sujii Kaa Halwa, a dessert made with cream of wheat. The problem was that I had no clue how to light the stove, let alone make a dessert. Mother’s school began, and for four days everyone ate Halwa for breakfast, because that is all that was cooked. On the day of the exam, mother measured out all the ingredients, packed them neatly in small packages, and labeled them clearly. “Is it necessary to do all this?” I asked. “There is no grading in this exam. All I have to do is pass.”

“Not only is it necessary,” she said, “it is required that you always aim for above average.”

“What is wrong in being average?”

“Average results come from average efforts. If you dare to immerse your heart and soul in your work, the results are bound to be above average. And all I expect from you is to put your heart and soul in whatever you do.”

How can anyone who from childhood was expected to immerse herself completely in the task at hand ever be satisfied with passable results?

My mother never expected any less from me because I was a woman. I may have had to cross extra hurdles or jump extra loops, but in my mother’s eyes, I was not being defined by my challenges but by the way I faced them. In those days, when the social norm dictated that sons be given preferential treatment, my memories are of mom stuffing extra chocolates in my coat pockets as I went off to school and patting me on my back as I returned.

I thrived on my mother’s pride. It was a given that on returning from school I would find mother standing behind the partly ajar main gate. I would know that she was there as I crossed the alley and walked up the stairs. She was rarely seen in public without my father, as per his wish. It is only natural for someone who is accustomed to seeing her mother’s eyes cover the path of her walks to see rainbows even during the most anxious times.

Thank you, mom, for giving me the gift of knowing that I am never without friends.

I was only 18 when my life took a major turn. One night, I went to bed as a carefree teenager only to wake in the morning to the realization that I was to marry, in 10 days, a man studying in America. I was shattered because I thought it meant the end of my educational journey. On seeing me bawling, my mother said, “That you are going to get married someday is inevitable … today is as good as tomorrow. Your father knows what he is doing. He has made this decision after much consideration.”

“Everyone is concerned only with his own opinions and considerations. No one cares about what I think. I want to complete my master’s program and then get my doctorate. Whatever happened to father’s big talk of ‘the milk boiling over and the ghee being wasted’? How can he think of marrying me at this stage in my studies?”

“I know you want to continue your education, and I am sure your new family will let you do so.”

“How do you know that? Can you point me to a single woman in our extended family who was allowed to go to college after marriage? Who can guarantee me my education?”

“I give you the guarantee. My mother’s heart is giving you this guarantee. Deep down here,” she said putting her hand on her heart. “I know they will let you continue your education. He will keep you happy.” I was smart enough to know that these were simply words to cajole me. Who would let me study in America when I could not even speak English? I only believed my mom’s words after securing admission at an American university. Mom wrote me regularly, and in each letter she never failed to remind me, “It is only because of Sureshji (my husband) that you are able to go to college … to reach such heights.”

“We are starting our descent…” the flight attendant’s voice echoed in the plane and jolted me back from the past into the present. When I peeked out of the window I saw that the rainbows had been left behind and beneath us was America’s fourth-largest city, Houston. My mind was as light as the morning dew and my head free of all preoccupations and worries. Exactly eight hours later, the dual appointment of chancellor and president was in my hands. The very first person I called was my mother back in India. In my impatience I woke her up in the middle of the night.

“Mummy, I got great news for you. I have become the president of the University of Houston.”

“Very good. Can I speak with Sureshji?” She always adds ‘ji’ as a sign of respect for her son-in-law.

“Mom, didn’t you hear what I just said? Aren’t you going to say something?”

“I heard everything, my dear. Now, give the phone to Sureshji.” Dejected, I shoved the phone in my husband’s hand.

“Sureshji, heartfelt congratulations to you on Renu’s becoming the president. It is the results of your efforts and you deserve full credit for this day.”

This is my mother, ever encouraging others and always sharing credit with an open heart.

Mom, please forgive me for not listening to you today, but I want the world to know that you are the one who deserves all the credit for my success.


A Gourmet Night to Remember…

I am invited to many black tie events every year. Houston loves to dress up and raise funds! But my favorite black tie event every year is the Gourmet Night organized by the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management here at the University of Houston. Nearly 400 students make this a night to remember.

Student Manager Team

Student Manager Team

Let me take you to this year’s Gourmet Night with me.

The theme is Route 66. The invitation itself takes you back in time – very retro, very nostalgic! You are requested to dress in theme-appropriate attire or black tie. I was raised in India, and therefore have nothing in my closet that could be called “theme-appropriate,” so I opt for a red gown. One can never go wrong with red!

Upon arrival, you notice that there are no professionals running around because no event planning companies or outside vendors are involved. Every little detail has been planned, and is now being executed, by the college’s students as part of their training.

We are offered a glass of Champagne and are given a number that we can use to bid on hundreds of items displayed in the silent auction. I am drawn to the section on vacation packages and restaurants – too many to count and each one under fierce bidding. What else would you expect from a hospitality college? I stop in front of an item, called “A Collection of Wines by the Faculty.” Before I can place a bid, I hear someone calling my name and asking if he may introduce himself. I turn around and greet him and forget the bidding.

With Martina Bahr, sous chef

With Martina Bahr, sous chef

In few minutes, the sound of the dinner bell invites us to the ballroom which has been transformed into Diner 41 in celebration of the 41st year of the Gourmet Night. Women in poodle skirts and men in 1960s hair style greet us in the hallway. We stop for a quick photo, one being taken with an IPhone and one with an old-style camera. We find our table, decorated with records and candy jars. A loud band plays familiar songs and I can see people moving in their chairs to the beat of the music.

With Katie Proctor and Diego Cardenas

With Katie Proctor and Diego Cardenas

Now we are ready for the gourmet part of the night. Five courses accompanied by five wines please our eyes and taste buds. Hundreds of students offer synchronized wait service on multiple tables in an expertly choreographed fashion. They are eager to explain any wine or food item in front of us.

Here is the part that I always wait for. The student general manager takes the microphone and introduces all of her managers – the food manager, the beverage manager, the service manager, the marketing director, and on and on. Then she calls on all the volunteers and a parade of 400 students enters from one side of the ballroom and marches across to the other side.

We all sit in amazement as this night comes to an end. Students start to plan this event as a part of their curriculum almost a year earlier. They compete and audition for leadership positions. They take responsibility, form teams, delegate tasks, hold each other responsible, manage conflicts, and finally produce an evening that is unparalleled in experience and elegance.

In order to pass, students are judged by a really tough group, because the room is full of big names in the industry, from people who manage their own restaurant to those who are the owners of the largest franchises in the world!

As we walk out of the ballroom, we are handed a Coke bottle reminiscent of the good old days. We thank the students and walk to our car, proud and happy in the knowledge that all of the managers will get job offers – if they don’t have one already! Because, after all, they are the best of the best!