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Few who have not lived it will know the pleasure that one derives from seeing multiple generations of post graduates move out of the protective cocoon of their academic program, spread their wings and find their strengths as they soar into professional life. The feeling is akin to the cycle of seasons, as fresh new students enter the world of academia with hopes and dreams in their eyes and hearts and leave after two years; and you begin to prepare yourself for their exit and the entry of a fresh new batch. No attachments, just joy at seeing erstwhile unrevealed skills manifest.

There is contentment and poignancy in these moments. Poignancy because these young people will soon leave, and spread their wings, and find a niche for themselves perhaps far away from your erstwhile protective yet critical gaze. Contentment because I have given them what I had, and what they could take, and now it is up to them to keep learning and experimenting. Because if you never open your parachute and jump, you will never know for sure whether it is functional, and will hold you afloat.

I had all these thoughts as I exited full time life in an academic institution as Professor and Department Head. I wondered to myself whether I was happy that I had had this matchless opportunity to mentor bright young people over the years, or sad that I was leaving these academic corridors and would not handle batches of young students any more.

Then I realized that happiness and sadness would not be words I choose for these mixed feelings, simply because they are not nuanced enough! To use those terms would be like painting using solid patches of oil on canvas, instead of the softly merging pastels of flowing water colours on paper; like Kabuki or Kathakali with their stylized masks and bright costumes, rather than the mystical cadence of a Sufi whirl, or the gentle moves of a Lasya dancer.

Mentoring in any form is immensely satisfying and I look forward to any opportunity that presents itself, along with a potential mentee knocking at my door. I realized only when I moved out of the academic corridors of University routine, that there are eager learners spread across all walks of life. Almost everybody has an unanswered question lurking at the back of their minds, and they will ask you that question only once they trust you enough. They need to trust that you will understand their question. That you will not laugh it off as ridiculous. And of course, they need to trust that you may have an answer that satisfies them.

On your side, you have to start with the assumption that there is no right answer, and that there are a great many answers, one of which the mentee has to pick for themselves….the one that is the best fit. You have to understand that you have to be available, and alert, and an active listener in order to be a good mentor. The person who asks the question is just as important as the question itself, if not more so. And the best answer will be one that takes both, the questioner as well as the question into account.

As psychologist Robert Sternberg famously said, “Knowledge is having the right answer. Intelligence is asking the right question.” “If you ask the wrong question, you emerge with the wrong answer”. More interestingly, the Roald Dahl character, the magical Willy Wonka says, “Anyone can ask questions, it is the answers that count”.

As I leave you puzzle out that apparently conflicting set of arguments, I just want to underline the beauty and magic that goes into any Mentor-Mentee relationship. There is no schedule to follow, no set routine. There is a flow that is natural and organic, energy levels that wax and wane, and a relationship that grows stronger with each exchange.

Nothing is cast in stone, and there is a constant state of flux as the learner learns, and the mentor teaches with but a single goal in mind: that one day, the mentee will outstrip the teacher and become an even better mentor, perhaps providing answers to the mentor in return for all the efforts taken over time.

Dr Anuradha Sovani ( February 2022)
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Mentoring, handholding, contentment, Robert Sternberg, Mentor-Mentee relationship, Roald Dahl, Willy Wonka