Saturday, June 26, 2010

Mothers never die - or so we think.

"... but one day in my 30s, I got this impossible call from Nigeria to say that my mother had gone. We never think our mothers will die. It was like suddenly an abyss opened at my feet - I was standing on nothing. It was the strangest thing. Her passing away ripped the solidity out of the world. ... ... That was a turning point for me." says Ben Okri, the great African writer who was awarded the Booker Prize of 1991 for his book 'The Famished Road'.

I was dumbstruck.

Yes, I too never suspected my mother would die. Not anytime soon, at any rate.

There was so much I wanted to learn from her. A poem. A recipe. About her friends. About our relatives. A narrative of her experience on one occasion or the other. A chronicle of her life and times.

There was so much love I still needed to keep going in the face of everything engulfing me.

There was still so much that I had to do for her. There was so much that I failed to do - and had to compensate for - in the face of my father's last words "Take care of your mother." The last words of a man who faced Death with the same nonchalance as he faced the threats, trials and tribulations of life and passed away without any fear of death or a lingering concern for anything else he was leaving behind.

I did try my best. But did I do enough? I do not think so. The posthumous accounts of how appreciative she was of me do not fill me with satisfaction; they make me feel even more ashamed of not having been what all I could have been to her but did not end up being. Only a mother could be glossing over the shortcomings while looking at the brighter side through a magnifying glass.

How do I get her back today - so that I can apologise for the harsh words I spoke on this occasion or that or to say those words of love and kindness that I just did not say because I was wary of sounding melodramatic? Can I ever tell her in as many words that I love her?

I was the decision-maker in the home after my father's death. Yet, when she was there, I had the feeling that there was somebody standing by me and overseeing me. I miss that presence of someone standing by me - just in case I tripped over the threshold. She is not there now and I am so wary of every threshold today.

I rarely consulted her about any decisions but merely told her what I was doing or going to do. She never said much except what boils down to "You know best. You are as balanced as your father. And as full of honesty and good faith. Go ahead." When she said that, it was reassuring. When I say that to myself, it sounds awfully egoistic and even unbelievable.

When she passed away, my best friend - who has known me from my college days - said : "You have lost the only person who understood you and was on your wavelength. Your loss is more than the loss of most other children." I never knew he observed me and my mother that well. Even more so because I and my mother never spoke much to each other; we 'd mostly just sit silently in our respective rooms, sometimes together - holding hands in some very rare emotional moment. Yet she was more than a friend - much more than a friend ... perhaps the unseen God in flesh and blood.

How I wish parents never die!

Yes, her passing away has ripped the solidity out of the world - my world.

Yes, it was a turning point alright. The beginning of a downward spiral emotionally.

The internal lampposts are not up to the task yet.

The couple of friends who promised to be everything have disappeared since then - caught in their own compulsions and travails.

Here I am all alone - with a long road ahead on my journey to proving to be a good human being, a good friend, and a worthy son of two exemplary human beings.

Will I make it?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Can we do something?

Recently I came across a photograph of an aged cobbler on a footpath, making hardly enough money to earn a single meal in a day, staring straight into the camera with a stoic, serene and dignified smile on his withered face. The kind of serenity and dignity that come from honest living. And contentment.

Honest living, his certainly is. It must be a continuous heroic battle against the temptation to live otherwise. The capacity to keep smiling and remain committed to the hard and honest way of life even as he realises that his monthly income is less than the cost of a pair of those leather shoes he polishes calls for unparalleled contentment and equanimity; the stoic smile on his wizened face should chasten the world mired in the rat race called living.

It tells another story too. The compulsion to work that hard at that age; the stark economic realities behind it all.

Our rulers and administrators tell us that the economy is flourishing and that everything is picture perfect. They have their statistics to flourish at us.

But statistics lie - and lie outrageously. After all, Statistics is a subject which makes one conclude that a man is happy on the average if one end of his is in a refrigerator and the other in a raging fire!!

The disparity between the metros and the villages is glaringly obvious to all except those who can do something substantial about it; so is the disparity between income levels across the various strata of society in a metro.

Can we do something for these hapless people who have as much a right to decent living as anybody else - a right which they are too ill-equipped to enforce but a right which can be supported by us with our thoughtfulness?

Can we do something for these hapless souls to ensure at least a reasonably comfortable life, a life that assures three square meals a day, good clothing, and good shelter - if not anything fancier?

We can. If we act in concert. The more of us join the drive, the better of course. But we need not wait for anyone to join our effort right now; we can tread the lonely path for a while. If we can swim against the tide to help ourselves, we can swim against the tide to help others too.

How about buying a couple of earthen pots for storing water from that old woman on the footpath every summer - even if we do not ever use them?

How about buying a kite from that lad staring into distant skies with dreams in his eyes, hope in his heart and hunger in his stomach - even if we do not dream to fly a kite ever?

How about buying those home-made papads from that small boy selling papads in the evening while going to school during the daytime?

Just so they continue to make an honest living and their needs are met adequately. Just so the only honest means of livelihood they know are not snuffed out along with their lives. Just so they do not turn into criminals to survive the pangs of hunger - debasing their souls and the collective conscience of society in the process.

How about refusing to frequent a fancy restaurant and going, instead, to a smaller, unimpressive one? Our custom can be the difference between life and death for the owner of that restaurant and the staff in it.

How about drinking some tea from that tea vendor operating from a makeshift stall? At least when we are not desperately looking for a comfortable place to sit and sip tea at the end of a hard day? Our custom can mean the medicines for his feverish daughter.

How about refusing to buy something from that flashy air-conditioned mall if it is available in a less impressive outlet - so that the proud owner of that small shop does not become a servile salesman in a Mall? How about buying our vegetables from a vegetable vendor on the streets rather than from one of these luxurious malls? How about the groceries?

How about buying an inexpensive perfume from the local perfumer than a ten-thousand rupee perfume imported from France? Just so our ancient art of perfumery does not die an ignoble death - and, along with it, the perfumers.

How about buying a pair of good old Bata shoes rather than a pair of Nike so that cobblers like this old man have their livelihood unaffected? Or even the leather footwear that was once handmade before the cobblers making them started giving up their profession and their livelihood?

May be the next time we are about to buy an expensive perfume or a pair of shoes shelling out ten thousand rupees, we can settle for something much less expensive and donate the difference to CRY or a home for the aged?

None of these choices may be adequate, even in the short run, to tackle a problem so huge. But it is our little contribution to the solution. A contribution that does not rule out more effective contribution from anyone.

None of these choices is all that difficult - certainly not any more difficult than the hardship the millions around us face every minute as they struggle to survive. We do not have to do anything but give up some of our fancy desires - desires which do not threaten our existence if they are not fulfilled.

Yes, in case you are wondering, I do make these choices consciously. I do indulge myself at times; but I do try to cater to the glaring but unspoken needs of the hapless around me in small and subtle ways. In a way that is charitable in spirit but does not look like charity and offend their proud spirit.

In the process, we help ourselves too. We turn humbler. And more honest too. We become more contented like that old man out there in that picture despite the coarse choices we make while foregoing the expensive pleasures. Contentment leads to happiness, doesn't it?

Monday, June 7, 2010

I'm What I Think!

I'm What I Think! My signature here. And my id on one of the social networking sites.

"I'm What I Think!", it is. Not "I'm What I Think I'm!". Nor "I'm What I 'm!".

"I'm What I think I'm!" is preposterous and presumptuous. Nobody is what he thinks he is.

(I am not sexist. But I have no fascination for Feminist preferences in respect of language; I love English far too much to be a mute accomplice in its mutilation. So, if the context so warrants it, as it does in this instance, 'he' means 'she' as well.)

One may think one is the epitome of virtue but one may not actually be. One may think one is very intelligent, sophisticated, and so on. And one may be - and usually is - off the mark in each case. Not a big deal really. Everyone has a certain amount of narcissistic, flattering estimate of oneself. Some manage to keep it minimal; some cannot. But it is there, this flattering estimate of oneself. When it exceeds all reasonable limits, one is far off the mark and that spells trouble for the person.

Again, one may think one is the President of United States. Or that he is God. Well, you know very well where he should be sent!

"I'm What I'm!" is different too. Its mildest implication suggests resignation : "I'm what I'm and I cannot change it." and its most virulent implication suggests "I'm what I'm and I don't care a damn to change no matter what one thinks of me."

"I'm What I Think!" is something different - way different.

Nobody is his name; nobody is his age; nobody is his gender, academic qualifications, vocation, profession, earnings, bank balance, and so on.

Nobody is what we usually seek to know about a person when we are acquainted with the person.

I am the same - even when I change my name. Shakespeare was right on the dot when he said "What is in a name?", wasn't he? Some of what I am may have a bearing on some of the various tags I have mentioned - tags like profession - but (usually) not the other way round.

None of these - my name, age, gender, etc - really define me.

What define me are my thoughts - what I think. My thoughts alone characterise me. A different set of thoughts - at any given point of time - define a different person.

So, if you want to know me, you need not know my name, age, gender, occupation etc. and you do not need my photograph. They may be necessary to identify me at some point (if a very valid need arises) but not at all necessary - or even useful - to know me. Instead, you should try to know what I think.

This is the thinking behind my id on that social networking site. This is the thinking behind my refusal to identify myself online.

OK, I do tell people my name and gender. Just to make life a tad easy and make communication a tad more comfortable. As elementary parameters for minimal identification. Not as a means to know me. That is just about the concession I give to the curiosity of people online.

Sometimes, people are very insistent that I upload a picture of myself. Not necessary, I tell them.

Pictures as well as physical presence or physical acquaintance can have an unduly subjective influence on one's evaluation of a person.

A handsome man or a pretty woman usually creates a favourable first impression. But the person may prove to be far different later on. Someone may have a captivating smile. And someone else may have a fabulous dress sense - cultivated or otherwise. These are all subjective influences causing a prejudice or bias - either favourable or unfavourable. Both types of prejudices affect one's objectivity. I don't want to be either the beneficiary or the victim of a prejudice.

Subjective influences are best avoided if you want to have a strong relationship with someone. That is what we aim at (or should aim at), isn't it?

But strong relationships are possible only if you know a person well.

Know your person well by talking to him over a length of time; keep yourself alert as you gather what he is saying; over a sufficiently long period of time you can paint a fairly accurate picture of the person. The longish time helps you identify inconsistencies in the image created across time and decide whether he is phony.

You may not agree with me in this. I understand that perfectly.

But you know now what I think in this particular matter. And you know that it is me so thinking. This thought pattern identifies me. It does not identify me uniquely by itself, I agree. But, coupled with a good enough number of my thoughts, it does identify me uniquely.

Because I'm What I Think!

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Regret of a Lifetime

There is a wonderful book titled "The Pursuit of Excellence" by M.V.Kamath, a former editor - perhaps the last editor - of the now defunct Illustrated Weekly of India.

It's a short book - running into less than a hundred pages in all. But some book it is.

Mr.Kamath recounts an incident from the life of President Jimmy Carter of the United States. ("Why Not the Best?" by Jimmy Carter.)

It seems the young Carter had applied for a job in the nuclear submarine programme and one Admiral Rickover interviewed him for over two hours. Carter was allowed to choose the subjects he wished to discuss. In Carter's own words, "in each instance, he soon proved that I knew relatively little about the subject I had chosen." Admiral Rickover asked him "How did you stand in your class at the Naval Academy?". Carter swelled his chest with pride and replied : "Sir, I stood fifty-ninth in a class of 320." Instead of the congratulations he had expected, he was greeted with the question "Did you do your best?" Carter was about to say "Yes, sir" but checked himself in time because he "remembered who this was", gulped and said "No, sir, I didn't always do my best."

The final part of this incident as quoted by Mr.Kamath remains etched in my memory. I shall once again quote Mr.Kamath's quote from Carter's book.

"He looked at me for a long time, and then turned his chair around to end the interview. He asked one final question, which I have never been able to forget - or to answer. He said "Why not?"

Nor am I able to forget the question or answer it.

Yes, I did a pretty good job at my studies. I am remembered with awe wherever I have studied or worked. I am fairly well read - my reading spreading across several disciplines - and I am heard with respect when I say something. In short, I have always done a pretty good job of whatever I have chosen to do anytime.

Yet, I could have done a lot better. I am certain that I have not always done my best. I am just as unable as Carter to answer that stunning question "Why not?"

I remember all the time wasted in one frivolous pursuit or the other. I remember the various occasions when I failed to probe something deeper to gain a perfect understanding - the familiar refrain on each occasion being "Oh, that is not all that important for the exams." or the equally familiar excuse "I don't have the time to go into that now."

It is partly true that I was trying to bite more than what I could comfortably chew - given my varied interests. But, looking back, I wonder why on earth I had to do that. I have certainly done better than the proverbial "Jack of all trades" since I did acquire a robust understanding of the subjects of my academic courses but fell way short of the mastery I would have liked.

Perhaps I should have spent much less time on less important things like an evening of fun and frolic - particularly because I always enjoyed reading my lessons just as much as I enjoyed playing a game or watching a movie and did not need those for relaxation or entertainment.

I wish I could undo all that now. I wish I could recapture the lost time and the wasted opportunities to do better. I wish I had better sense back then. Perhaps this book by Mr.Kamath would have done me a world of good way back then had I stumbled upon it in those days.

Excellence does not come easy, as Mr.Kamath goes on to say. I wish I were more conscious of the need to excel then - much beyond what I have managed to do.

That remains a regret - the regret of a lifetime.


Is silence golden anymore?

It has been some four days since I posted last in my blog. I know it is not mandatory that there be a daily post. I am quite aware that unless you find something to write and have the mood to write, there is no point in writing something just for the heck of it. (Why do I, all the same, feel rather apologetic about this inactivity of the last few days?)

The problem is not so much that I don't have anything to write about. It is just that I do not consider quite a lot of things suitable to write about for public consumption. I am not one of those who wear their hearts on their sleeves - or on their blogs or social networking profiles or on this ultra-latest micro-blogging mania : Twitter.

There are things we talk about to a second person, a third person, or the world at large. Then there are things that we do not. A good rule of thumb used to be that what need not be said shall not be said.

Do we really have to talk as much as we do? My grandfather used to say “Maunam panditaanaam”. The learned man shall be silent. So that he does not ignite jealousy in others because of his scholarship. He used to chuckle and, with a twinkle in his eyes, add immediately: “Maunamapanditaanaam”. The ignorant shall be silent. So that he does not make an ass of himself because of his ignorance. The long and short of it is that silence is golden, as the saying goes. Do we heed it any longer?

There was a time when people were very particular about what to talk about, where to talk, when to talk, who to talk with, and how much to talk. Circumspection. Discretion. Discreetness. Dignity. Decorum. Reticence. These used to be the watchwords of educated and sophisticated people. Parents and teachers used to play an active role in ensuring adherence to certain stringent norms of behaviour. Gossip was frowned upon. So was babbling - and the kind of babbling we notice today would have made many a mentor in the finishing schools of yesteryears wince in ill-concealed disgust.

We see people discussing their boyfriends, girlfriends, personal problems, problems at work and so on on public online forums - quite unmindful of the need for caution and privacy. We see people posting their phone numbers, mail ids, and addresses on their profiles with various social networking sites - and facing avoidable problems. Yet, they do not just seem to learn. They seem to talk just too much about themselves and about others ... throwing caution to the winds.

We see cabinet ministers talking to the press and TV about things which ought not to be discussed in public. We see ministers using media like Twitter to pass comments which, to say the least, are indiscreet. The row and furor created on at least a couple of occasions by an otherwise suave and urbane (Indian) minister with his 'tweets' is still fresh in the minds of most people.

Why is this cricketer tweeting to the public at large about the match he is going to play that day or sometime soon or about his daily workout or the outing he is planning with his family? What is this actor doing out there talking about his day’s programme? What is this CEO of that multinational company doing out there – tweeting about his company’s latest financial results or the latest product unveiled? What is this gal doing there blabbering about her boyfriend? Why is this fellow making a blatant pass at some gal thru a tweet? Why is this lady having an intimate conversation with her husband thru public tweets? What is this husband doing out there – cribbing to his friends about the quarrel he had that morning with his wife over a burnt toast?

(All the references here to tweets can be properly replaced with a reference to the Scrapbook of an Orkut profile or the Wall of a Facebook profile.)

Are these people simply out of their minds?

Perhaps the very word ‘tweet’ tells us something about these tweets and ‘tweeple’ (people who tweet). ‘Tweet’ means the note of a small bird. When were birds famous for brains? Don’t we have phrases like ‘bird-brained’?

If extremely well-educated people, highly intelligent people, highly sophisticated people, and people in responsible positions find the need to indulge in this flippancy, unmindful of well-established and perfectly sensible norms, do we have a future as a sane, civilized, and responsible society?

Somewhere along the way, the preferences of people seem to have changed radically. One is surprised to seen a sudden upsurge in loquacity, frivolousness, indiscretion, and an utter disregard for propriety of various sorts resulting in the well-entrenched habits of even the most sedate being changed dramatically.

People seem to invite all and sundry to peep into their personal lives. Do we no longer cherish and value privacy? Why do we want to lead our lives on public roads and in market places? Do we no longer remember the dictum ‘A time and place for everything and everything in its time and place’?

Why are people trivializing themselves and their lives?

Is it the influence of the junk programmes on TV where people seem to babble on to fill the available airtime?

Is it the influence of the gushing anchors on TV and the garrulous hosts on FM Radio?

Is it the influence of the myriad cheap magazines - expensive and glossy but absolutely devoid of finesse and refinement - where the various articles are an exercise in insufferable banality?

Is it the tempting scope provided by the various social networking websites to talk without inhibitions - secure in the knowledge that most of the 'friends' one has out there do not really know one in person (and, perhaps, that in any case, they are all birds of the same feathers) - responsible for this deplorable state of affairs?

Is it a sign of the superficiality of our lives and lifestyles and the shallowness of our times?