Sunday, November 20, 2016

Remembering Dr. Reeta Peshawaria: Secrets of Personal Influence

With Dr. Reeta Peshawaria, Dr. D.K. Menon and my undergrad classmates
Yesterday was the birth anniversary of Late Dr. Reeta Peshawaria, the most influential teacher I have had so far in my life. And I have had the rare fortune of being taught by many extraordinary teachers. Some of these teachers are not only respected within their immediate student community but are also counted among the most influential researchers in the world. I learnt a lot from all these teachers. Whatever skills and goodness I have in me today, a large part of it was shaped by these exceptional teachers with the largest contribution made by Reeta Ma'am (as she was called fondly by her students). Today's post is my humble homage to this great teacher.

Frankly, I was a little hesitant to write this homage, because I felt inadequate to explain the greatness of this great person. Also, to highlight just three of her qualities--which I intend to do here--seemed like an injustice to the multifarious personality that she was. Yet, I decided to engage in this process because identifying the important qualities of success in others is a significant step in the direction of building the same qualities within oneself. According to me, the three qualities that made Reeta Ma'am such a great teacher and leader are her passion, humility and care.


Everything that Reeta Ma'am did, she did it with passion, be it teaching, conducting research, seeing people with disabilities (PWD) in the clinic, or counseling family members of PWDs. And the evidence that she was passionate about her work was the immense amount of positive energy she brought to work.

Probably there isn't a single adult in this world who hasn't heard about the importance of being passionate. So much so that it's almost clichéd to talk about it. Yet, in my experience, high levels of passion for one's work/profession is pretty rare. Most people--even hard working people--go about doing their jobs without much enthusiasm. For these people, their job is just a means of earning their livelihood, but there is no life in their jobs.

"If you don't have the equivalent of a child's excitement for play or a young adult's excitement for sex, then your passion has a lot of room to improve."

You may think that you are not such a passionless person, and you might be right. However, if you don't have the equivalent of a child's excitement for play or a young adult's excitement for sex, then your passion has a lot of room to improve. Nothing worthwhile in this world is created without passion (including bringing children into this world). The best teachers I have had were all super-passionate about their subject and teaching.

"Anything worth doing, is worth doing with passion."

What makes Reeta Ma'am's passion even more remarkable to me is that Behavior Modification--the topic that she taught--is an antithesis of intrinsic motivation concepts such as passion. Behavior modification (or Applied Behavior Analysis, as it is known now) is the application of reinforcement principles to increase desirable behaviors and reduce undesirable behaviors among children and people. In other words, what Reeta Ma'am taught us was how to effectively use different extrinsic rewards and punishments to change the behaviors of PWDs. Yet, paradoxically, neither did she need any extrinsic rewards to be motivated about her work, nor did she have to rely on extrinsic rewards and punishments to get us students excited about Behavior Modification. She was intrinsically motivated to learn, master and teach the methods of behavior modification so that she could make a difference in the lives PWDs and their families. We students got excited about behavior modification not because of any extrinsic rewards but because her passion and intrinsic motivation rubbed off on us. So the first lesson that I take from Reeta Ma'am's life is that anything worth doing, is worth doing with passion.


In our so called "modern" culture, the importance of being confident is overemphasized. For example, a simple Google search of "improving confidence" today yielded me 169,000,000 results. In contrast, searching for "improving humility" only yielded me 593,000 results. If these results are any indication, we seem to give 285 times more importance to being confident than to being humble.

Humility is not false modesty. For example (and this is a real example), it is not calling yourself a शिक्षित बेरोजगार (or an educated-unemployed person), when you are a published author of three books who writes regularly for reputed newspapers and magazines. Humility is also not about being submissive. Humility is having the constant awareness that you don't know it all. Humility is having the openness to learn from everyone, even those who are less successful than you. Humility is knowing that you are not above--or below--other people.

Students of Reeta Ma'am will remember she taught us about assertiveness. Assertiveness refers to behaving in a manner that is self-assured and confident but not rude or aggressive. Reeta Ma'am herself was an assertive person. In fact, she was known for her assertiveness. She did not hesitate to speak her mind, but always did so respectfully. She demanded high standards of performance from everyone, including her students and her staff. And I greatly admired Reeta Ma'am's assertiveness, and personally strove to be assertive myself.

However, drawing the line between assertiveness and aggressiveness is not always easy. That's why assertiveness sometimes alienates people. You may win an argument with your assertiveness, but you will find it difficult to win over people with it. This does not mean that one should not be assertive. One should certainly stand up for one's convictions. However, assertiveness alone can be pretty ineffective a tool. According to me, what made Reeta Ma'am effective was not her assertiveness per se, but the paradoxical combination of assertiveness and humility that she possessed. While she pushed hard for what she believed in, she didn't pretend to know it all. Although we were just undergraduate students, I found her open to our ideas and suggestions. She really listened to us. And that's what made us want to follow her.

"Humility is much more important and powerful than being self-confident."

Reeta Ma'am taught me many powerful concepts, theories and techniques, but these things alone would have made me a cocky, know-it-all guy. My love for learning got enhanced only because of the humility with which she showed that she did not have all the answers and that there was a lot more to learn. So humility, according to me, is much more important and powerful than confidence. However, it's beyond the scope of this article to talk about all the powers of humility. So I will just narrate an incident that illustrates how even very accomplished individuals are very humble. Or perhaps it is their humility that made them so successful.

The incident I am referring to happened with Dr. Kiran Bedi, the current Lt. Governor of Puducherry, and also the elder sister of Reeta Ma'am. Yes, looks like humility runs in their family. In June this year, my colleague Dr. Rama Cousik and I traveled to Puducherry to receive the Reeta Peshawaria-Menon Fellowship Award 2016 from Dr. Bedi. We had, of course, learnt about our award this same day last year, but we could physically receive the award only in June when we both were in India. The award ceremony was organized at the Raj Bhavan. The place was filled with many senior bureaucrats and police officers. At the award ceremony, I touched the feet of Dr. Bedi (for those unfamiliar with this Indian tradition, this is a gesture of respect). Now there is nothing surprising about me bowing down to Dr. Bedi; she has been one of the most powerful role models for the people of India (including me) since the 1970s. But what happened next truly shocked and humbled me. Immediately after I had touched Dr. Bedi's feet, she bowed down too and touched my feet. In the eyes of the honorable Lt. Governor, I was no less a person than her. Now that is humility!

Receiving the Reeta Peshawaria-Menon Fellowship Award from Dr. Kiran Bedi


Passion and humility were great qualities that Reeta Ma'am had, but I think the biggest reason she made such a huge difference in my life (and many others) is because she truly cared. Although an undergraduate student of Reeta Ma'am, I sought out opportunities of engaging in academic discussions with her on different topics. I did so because I was passionate about certain topics of psychology. I wanted her expert insights on those topics so that I could get more clarity about them. Reeta Ma'am was very generous in giving her otherwise limited time to me. She also patiently listened to my ideas on those topics. Of course at that point of time, I felt like my thoughts and ideas were super-genius, but now with a little more knowledge and wisdom, I know that they were almost always poorly developed and sometimes downright lame. Yet, Reeta Ma'am was never dismissive of my ideas. She gently encouraged me to continue to think and helped refine my thinking process.

When you truly care for somebody, you do everything in your capacity to help in the growth of that person. Care comes from a position of love, not very different from the love that a mother has for her infant. Care is not a moral discourse on what is the right thing to do. Care is wanting to do the right things because you care so much for that person. To care is to develop and nurture a relationship. To care is to be present. To care is to feel a sense of responsibility towards others.

"Care is not a moral discourse on what is the right thing to do, but wanting to do the right thing."

The teachers (and leaders) whom I have wholeheartedly followed were not necessarily the most brilliant (although most were), but they were definitely people who cared for my welfare and well-being. In today's age and date, where personal ambition often takes precedence over everything else, we are ceasing to truly care for people. We start seeing human beings as a collection of resources with knowledge, skills, talents, experience, etc. who could be used to attain our personal goals. Or worse, we see them as hindrances in our path of success. We forget that they are human beings first. We forget that we would have never made it to where we are today without the love and care that we received from certain people in our lives.

That said, I realize that to care is difficult. It is difficult the same way as it is difficult for a mother to take care of her kid. To care for somebody means that we have to be willing invest our time and energy for that person. To care for somebody means willing to make a few personal sacrifices. These are the lessons I learnt from Reeta Ma'am, not because she taught me those lessons explicitly, but because she lived the ideals she perhaps wanted inculcated in me. We are more likely to follow a person for who s/he is rather than for what s/he says. So the biggest lesson that I take from Reeta Ma'am's life is to operate from an ethic of care, because that is the only way I can repay the care I received from her and other caring people in my life.


  1. Paresh just finished your homage to Our Reeta Mam. Wonderfully explained her and I tell you what she taught in BM..after two decades also, no one could able to add more or substitute the knowledge she gave in shaping the PWID,means so was Her vision.
    She was the one who taught me to face and gave courage to attend the sex education and Adult life of PWID, which I am continuing since then...almost 20+years

    *I add that they were twin sisters.

    1. Thank you for reading the article. And thank you for sharing how Reeta Ma'am impacted your life. Keep up your good work. Proud of you!

  2. Inspiring to read your comments to say the least ! The very best in life and in your work especially

  3. Very good article.Much thanks again. Cool. best quotes

  4. To the festival, and wish you a Happy Ramadan! Obedience to the Lord’s command, to experience the test of hunger and thirst, Lord! Please accept your homework, forgive sins, and lead the way to success! Amen! HomeHappy Ramadan is a literal translation of English. It is awkward to use this phrase in Arab countries and is not recommended.