The video showed the nimble steps of a 77-year-old ballerina. That itself sounds anachronistic and no wonder Mrs. Poole featured in the BBC’s Amazing Humans series – “The 77-Year-Old Ballerina Who Inspires Others To Pursue Their Dreams’’.

She does, no doubt. And in that video, she speaks about ballet being her life, and her husband, who was no longer there, being her life – her husband who always thought her to be a good dancer, even though she thought she wasn’t very talented or had the right build.

Somehow, Mrs. Poole’s husband seems equally amazing to me. There would probably be no Mrs. Poole if she didn’t get the support and encouragement of her partner. This article is really about paying tribute to such numerous shadows that help successes shine brighter in their haloes.

The world is replete with success stories – of grit and determination, unwavering stoicism and untiring efforts, of not losing hope and keeping on going in the face of adversities, of perhaps a bit of luck and loads of talent, or maybe the other way round, and many more such lessons.

This piece is not about them. Not about the glitter and glamour of sweet success. It’s about what lay around them, and often behind them. About those almost unknown spouses/near ones whose contributions are much less known or appreciated by the greater world.

It is true that just the fact that someone succeeds, and someone else doesn’t, itself signifies a quality in the achiever that must have been lacking in the one who didn’t. But for once, let us not dissect and analyse what went lacking in the ones who lagged behind, why the ambition didn’t sustain itself to get rewarded. Let us instead, lend a sympathetic and patient understanding to their silent submission and sublime solitude.

Maybe they too had dreams? Maybe they too had passions to pursue? Maybe just supporting their talented spouses wasn’t their true calling? Maybe given an equally supporting spouse, he/she could also have been just as or even more successful? But no one really knows the counterfactual – what could have been.

We know stories of successes, but we don’t really know the cost at which they come – which is likely to be much more than the efforts of the achiever only – it would really be all the careers that are not pursued, all the dreams that wilt away, all the aspirations that don’t get a chance to blossom because someone has just spent too much time watering the other one’s flowers.

The other day, I was watching a ceremony where young outstanding contributors in various scientific disciplines were being awarded. The ceremony featured short videos of the winners, very professionally made with efforts to interpret intricate science for laymen. Surprisingly, however, none of these even mentioned, leave alone feature, the near ones of the awardees.

Most of the winners themselves, in their short acceptance speeches, profusely thanked their colleagues and professional mentors, but rarely their family. Though most of them, especially being Indians in their forties and fifties, would probably have very loving and supporting families – parents, spouses and children. How many of them really were living and working as islands in their offices with their scientific achievements falling like manna from heaven?

I believe it is not surprising that usually whenever we see an achiever, it is rarely the case that the spouse is also an achiever – not because he/she didn’t have any talent to nurture, just that he/she was kind enough to keep watering and nourishing the other’s passions and didn’t have enough time to devote to his/her own (I am really not getting into the gender aspect here, which is not to say that it is any less important at all, just that I don’t focus on it here).

Think of Raj K. Nooyi – we all recognise him as Indra Nooyi’s (PepsiCo’s CEO) husband. In an interview, when asked about how she incredibly balances home, work, family, children, she says, “As I have said before,… first of all, family has to support you. But more importantly, you have to pick the right husband.… I picked the right husband. Raj is a great guy and he has been a great support and I do not know where I would have been without him. I would say that without a doubt. He has been more than a husband. He has been a sounding board or friend.’’

Supporting others could be the true calling for some of them – but one never knows whether Raj K. Nooyi could have made a name for himself independently as well, Raj K. Nooyi, the author or Raj K. Nooyi, the singer, not just Raj K. Nooyi, Indra Nooyi’s husband.

The nearest recognition to such silent supporters seems to be the adage, ‘Behind every successful man, there is a woman’. Again, leaving the gender dimension aside, it should probably be more appropriate to say, ‘Behind every successful man, there is an unsuccessful woman’.

After all, how many men and women of the same family do we see being successful together. It’s another thing however, when already successful people decide to enter more recognised formal relationships like Pierre Curie and Madame Curie, whose love for science and experiments later got cemented into the bond of marriage.

And this is probably not a modern phenomenon as well. Great Sanskrit pandits of yore, like M. Haridasa Siddhantavagisa, single-handedly translated 44 volumes of the Sanskrit Mahabharata to Bengali. He had married twice and had nine children. But no one probably knows anything about them because they didn’t go on to achieve anything nearly as stellar as Haridasa during their lifetimes.

And it’s not just spouses either. Often children of illustrious parents are neglected because the father or mothers didn’t have enough time for them. Does anyone know what their aspirations might have been? Could they also have contributed more meaningfully to society had they not been required to spend their days supporting the overwhelming achievements of Haridasa?

The writer works with the Economic Research Unit of the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.

To be Concluded