Preference for chaos

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“The world is not fair honey,” MaryKay Loss Carlson, Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in New Delhi, grew up hearing her mother say this very often. Being the oldest of four kids, she heard it more than her siblings. She also thought that she got a raw deal and much more was expected from her because she was the eldest: “I remember once when my brother fought with the neighbours. Instead of my father scolding him, I got it from him for not breaking up the fight.” She was so upset that she went upstairs and locked herself in the room mumbling that being the oldest was hell. Whenever she complained about this to her mother, she heard about how unfair the world was.

The dose of unfairness was not hers alone. She often saw her parents make sacrifices so that their children got a better deal; be it about potatoes for dinner or education: “My mother would often part with her share of dinner for my brother if he said he was hungry. And I would say this is not fair…the world, as my mother would say, is not fair honey”.

Seeing her parents sacrifice for all of them made MaryKay turn averse to marriage, particularly children: “I never wanted to get married or have kids, but in retrospect I think it was a crazy decision because I have had a great experience doing both. My parents would work hard so that we could be comfortable and I would say this is no fun and I definitely don’t want to do any of this. I wanted to live for myself and enjoy life rather than working hard for others”. Therefore, marriage was the last thing on MaryKay’s mind. She would stop at boyfriends: “I had many of them” she confesses. Given her good looks and charm, this fits in.

As time went by and postings took her away from home, she felt the need to “share life”, an alien thought. “I was enjoying life, but often on a cold winter evening when I would be all by myself, I would say that I am enjoying myself, but it would be much more fun if I had someone to share all this with”. Maybe it was the posting in Mozambique that clinched it: “Those days, calls to home cost six dollars per minute, and one had to dial through an operator. There was no CNN or cable television and I said to myself that if I come across a bright guy, I would perhaps interact a bit and consider taking the relationship forward or consider making it long term”. It was left at that, a mere thought that MaryKay did not see any possibility of becoming a reality. In any case it was too late in the day even by American standards. A reputed magazine had done a cover story that there was as much a chance of getting married after 35 years as getting struck by lightning.

She perhaps was “struck by lightening” when her fellow foreign officer Aubrey Carlson walked into her life. She is too much of a feminist to say that she was swept off her feet, but his presence in her life surely made her change her views on both marriage and kids.

On a more serious note, MaryKay says that Aubrey is the “right person” for her: “He was even better than my parents… I could see myself having kids with this guy”. She did and now is a mother to two daughters: “Being a mother taught me the power of giving. As a child I did not see the rewards my parents were getting when they did something for us. I then saw it as sacrifice but now being a mother myself I realize that giving your share of potatoes to your children means much more than eating them yourself”.

Marriage did bring its share of compromises. When she met Aubrey, they both were at the same level as officers, but then his career shot up and hers had a downslide: “That was hard to take, but then we were taking decisions as a family”.

It is here that her “high tolerance for chaos” came handy: “There were so many jobs that I knew I would be happy doing but that was not true for my husband. Yes, my pride did take a little bit of a hit, but looking back it has all worked out well for both of us”.

As of now, Aubrey is in India on leave without pay and quite happy doing household chores. Now it is MaryKay’s turn to have a hectic work schedule as US Deputy Chief of Mission in India.

With Indo-US relationship on a high, it indeed is a busy time for her. It is, as MaryKay says, an exciting time for both countries: “If you spin the dial 360 degrees, wherever it stops, that area is significant,” she says. Simply put, this implies that every aspect of the relationship between the two countries is important. “There is no other relationship than the Indo-US at the moment. It is at a very high point even if not at the highest”.

On whether the proverbial Modi hug and the rapport between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has contributed to the warmth, MaryKay said: “When you have synergy in strategic interests, it is easy for leaders to communicate. There has been a steady progression in our relationship and we have been building on additional trust layer after layer. A leader-to-leader rapport is important, but the real foundation is a people to people relationship”.

MaryKay’s penchant for surprises and unpredictability has helped her immensely. Very early in life, she learnt to tolerate chaos, be it in a card game or during conversations at home. Using bad words were not taboo and MaryKay soon grew accustomed to chaos: “Yes, it started with high tolerance for chaos, but somewhere along the line I was happy settling in amid chaos. So if I may, let me say that I prefer chaos to predictability. In my several postings, I have enjoyed the chaos that was typical of some countries”.

MaryKay does not mention India to be the home of chaos, but coming here was, she says, “a dream come true”. It was some two years ago that she landed here and since then she has enjoyed every bit, both in terms of work and play. “I did not expect the warmth that I received and the ability of people to let you into their homes. Two things struck me: how green Delhi was, and how every state observed different holidays. When I was told that the consulate in Kolkata observed holidays for Durga Puja that other states did not, I said: wait a minute, this is low hanging fruit; I can easily fix this. Then I did not realise how little I knew”.

Her India connect has its genesis in the way she was brought up: “My father was a football coach and my mother an educator. Back in the sixties, the salaries were not very high so our parents did not have any disposal income for fancy vacations. It was all about spending time with the family. This perhaps is why I feel connected to India because it is all about family and educating your kids. I remember our parents telling us that they will pay for as much college we wanted to do. This is rare in the US, because all families, those wealthier than us, did not do that for their kids. But in India, it is a given. Parents save for their children’s education like our parents did for the four of us”.

Even though MaryKay grew up seeing her father do a lot of work around the house, her strong sense of feminism came from her mother: “It was inconceivable that my parents would treat my brothers any differently than they treated my sister and me. As a result, all four of us went to college and then on to graduate school and have enjoyed good careers, empowered by loving parents who did not discriminate among us based on gender,” she said, expressing regret that all girls growing up are not given the same rights or opportunities. In her current assignment, she has invested her energies to promote the rights of women and counter gender-based violence.

MaryKay learnt to challenge authority very early in life. Whether that worked as an impediment for a career diplomat is difficult to say, but she knew no other except to stand up to the wrongs she saw around her. In fact, her resolve to “keep my mouth shut” during meetings never worked and she would find herself speaking her mind even while being the junior most officer.

What surprised MaryKay the most about the bureaucracy was the unwillingness to confront leaders with an alternate view: “Decision making is usually talked down, but what I find common between US and India is the ability and necessity to challenge those in authority”.

In her role as a leader, MaryKay not only speaks her mind but also encourages dissent from those she leads.

It was former ambassador to India, Richard Verma, who handpicked MaryKay for her India posting. Verma left India, but she continued to stay on: “I often joke that Ambassador Verma and I were a team. It was like an arranged marriage and we made a good match. With this ambassador it is a blind date”. Verma was succeeded by Kenneth Juster.

Among other things she loves about India, MaryKay is hooked to Indian food. She may have acquired the taste in the US, given that they would order it on weekends, but she says that she has never eaten anything she “does not like”, save the betel nut. It was at an official dinner that she saw “those triangles” on a salver. She was unsure but was talked into trying one by an Indian official: “I popped one in my mouth and oh God was it bitter…” she recalls. But that was not a patch on her China experience when they brought a live snake on the dinner table and slit it open with blood spilling all over: “That I could not take, and excused myself saying I was breastfeeding” she said. In this case, even her high tolerance, rather preference for chaos, did not come handy.

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