“Who is a Mentor?”, asked the trainer from The Smith Family – a charity organization that helps children from struggling background – as part of a corporate program I recently signed up to. I realised I had been too self-centred and decided it was high time I did something more than work, at work. If selected, I would be a mentor for a couple of school terms, spending an hour a week doing Q&A with students.

Indian culture has had a word for this: Guru, which is loosely translated to the term Teacher. But a mentor is not just a teacher; a role model, a guide who helps us navigate this complex world. Co-traveller sounds more apt to me, since no one knows everything for sure. We just need to help each other out with what we learn along the way.

I ended up answering her, “A mentor is someone who acts as a good reference point for others to emulate and learn”.

I came away feeling nostalgic, reflecting on my own reference points during the growing up years. Would start with my parents who lived their ideals, working hard and keeping it simple. While I remember my mom helping me and my sister with homework during the primary school years, my father was instrumental in me venturing beyond regular academic stuff. He enrolled me for karate and Hindi lessons and later when I finished high school, he put me onto a personality development workshop conducted by an inter-religious organisation. Those were unheard of in the 1990s in a city like Coimbatore.

I also remember being tutored by members of our large extended family when I was much younger. The many uncles and aunts who lived close by, the cousins who were in high school already were more helpful than my teachers at school, as I struggled with the spelling of King Dhritarashtra, perplexed with English grammar, confused by negative numbers, mugging up the definition of the species spirogyra. One of the summer vacation trips turned out to be an academic tour, with my cousin tasked with helping me pass an upcoming Hindi exam. And later when I was appearing complacent in my first job, my cousin brother alerted me about the Java wave that swept the IT world. I still remember trying to copy his elegant way of presenting himself for work, especially those blue stripped formal shirts.

Neighbours turned out to be excellent teachers. Not the ones next to our house who were the quarrelling type. Im talking about the passionate Maths Vaathiyaar, who also taught Chemistry as a private tutor when he was not working for the government. He was more a family friend than a teacher; he was the one who instilled pride and confidence in my work. He also helped me score a 100 in Math and Chemistry. In fact my aspiration to get into a premier engineering institute was fuelled and fostered by such neighbours – and dad’s colleague’s son who was already studying there.

Friends and colleagues teach a lot by not teaching. I owe my English speaking skills to a bunch of mates – one of them a neighbour too, whose terrace was our joint. Another friend’s friend even offered his house for more preparations as we pruned our linguistic skills for the job interview. Later, I got inspired to take reading as a serious hobby from my room mate who famously brought more bags of books than clothes to live in a new city as we started our careers together.

We spend a third of our life time at work and thus it is important to recognise the formal and unconscious learning and positive influences we receive from colleagues, subordinates and bosses. I have learnt as much from people who I managed as from the many seniors I worked for.

It is a tough mental exercise to list all my mentors in one go. I feel I have missed mentioning many more reference points. Our journey is shaped by the many masters we may never fully acknowledge. The true way to repay (Guru Dakshana) though, is for us to walk the path along these points, live a good life.

Reminds me of a quote attributed to Dalai Lama: The Buddha says, “I am a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t look at me; look at the moon.”