Saturday, March 31, 2012

An ennobling tale : A Tale of two cities

Literature and the arts, in my opinion, ought to show us the possibility of nobility in us. If, indeed, they are to rise above entertainment then they should either caution us of the evil in us or encourage us to be the best that we can be. (Not that I am averse to being entertained. In fact, most of my reading is primarily for entertainment). I find it difficult as well as useless to read something that does not entertain me and, also, tells me that I am a slimy being in a cesspool and likely to remain that for the rest of my life.

Of the very many books that I have read in my life the first book that springs to my mind when I think of a life-changing book is Charles Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two cities’. It starts off lyrically with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…’ capturing the essence of the contradictoriness of human nature. I am giving the gist of the story for those who may not have read it and, since it is an old story, I have not bothered about avoiding spoilers!

The story is set around the period of the French Revolution. Charles Darnay, a Frenchman and aristocrat marries Lucie Manette, the daughter of Dr. Manette. Dr.Manette was released from the Bastille after spending eighteen years imprisoned in it at the whim of Darnay’s uncle. Sidney Carton, a dissolute never-do-well look-alike of Charles Darnay is also in love with Lucie but never dares put it to the touch. Darnay is called back to France on business and goes there with wife, daughter and father-in-law.

The Defarge couple had sworn vengeance on his family for the many callous acts of his uncle. Madame Defarge, in particular, is relentless in pursuit of vengeance and wants the entire family including the child guillotined. Charles Darnay is imprisoned and sentenced to the guillotine and Madame Defarge has her eyes set on the rest of the family. Sidney Carton arranges for safe passes for the rest of the family as well as for himself. He, then, visits the prison renders Darnay unconscious and exchanges places with him. Darnay and family are spirited away from France and Sidney Carton is guillotined in his place.

This story taught me a lot. It taught me how unjust unbridled power can be and it taught me how bestial people can become in a quest for vengeance. It taught me how much people can risk for love and it taught me how misery has the potential to bring the best out of people. Success and failure are both tests of your character. When the powerless become powerful, their actions seem seldom tempered by the very mercy that they blame those who were in power for with-holding.

The noblest character in the tale is, obviously, Sidney Carton. A dissolute rascal of whom no-one expected anything good plans and carries out the sacrifice of his life in order to enable the woman he loved to live happily with the man of whom he was jealous! The seeds of nobility are in every man and one of the most powerful forces that can bring these seeds to flower is Love! The beauty of this tale is that it ends with the death of a man and you are left with a feeling that it was a happy ending, even for him!

I am not much of a one for remembering quotations but this one stuck in my mind. Just before being guillotined, Sidney Carton says to himself ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known!’

A 9 year old’s unfair life

Life is not fair! Why should my sis be allowed to do things that I cannot? When I am in a hurry and run out in my vest, Mom yells at me. My sis can happily go out in hers and nothing happens. Mine is at least tucked into my shorts. Her vest ends an inch above her jeans and, just because it is colorful, she can go shopping in it?

I wish she would buy jeans one size larger. Then it would not take her so long to wear them and make me late for the movie. Why should I pick up her lipstick from the floor because she buys jeans so tight that she can’t bend?

Party days for her are a real pain. Why can’t she get a dress that is properly stitched? It is all open at the back and she has me tie a zillion knots behind and still her back does not close properly. What is with those knots on her arms, anyway? Why make a slit in it and then have something to tie it up? And why should you tie it up when it won’t close properly?

I have to go around all day in shorts and she gets to wear a dozen dresses a day. She spends a fortune on clothes and they don’t even fit her properly but no-one complains. Life is not fair!

Zen and the art of mountain motor-biking

This happened during the fortnight before Leh was totally cut off due to heavy rains in 2010. We had gone on a trek to Shingola Pass and were returning by jeep from Padum to Leh. Rains had been very heavy then and all the mountain streams were in spate. Anyone, who has been to that area, knows that the streams cut across the road in several places and when they are in spate the road becomes practically impassable.

We were stuck in one place behind a long stretch of vehicles thanks to one such mountain stream which was roaring across the path rolling huge boulders as though they were mere pieces of wood. A bunch of bikers went past us and were assessing the possibility of crossing the stream. People were advising them against the idea.

One of them, however, started to cross the stream. It was difficult going but he was managing it well. Suddenly, a boulder on the edge of the road was dislodged and rolled aside. All the dammed water behind it fell down like a roaring cataract and hit the bike. The water probably also washed the ground from under his bike. One moment the bike was edging towards the other side and the next it suddenly toppled over and rolled down about twenty feet.

Miraculously, the biker was uninjured and managed to wade over to the other side. Immediately after that the other bikers, including an Indian couple on one bike, started crossing over one after the other and managed it without mishap. They helped their fellow-biker retrieve his bike and went roaring on ahead leaving the rest of us behind to await the floods to recede before continuing our journey.

That would have been the end of the story and my only brush with the biking community but for the fact that we ran into the biking couple in a bar at Leh. My friend was a biking enthusiast, though a city version. We introduced ourselves with a reference to that incident and sat with them.

“Biking on highways is a great feeling. But to someone who rides a motorbike in the mountains that is tame. Yes! You do get a rush out of speed and the thrill of controlling this powerful monster between your legs. But, if you want to really experience motor-biking you should try the mountains”, said the man.

His conversation, thereafter, was laced with driving over impossible trails with joy riding on one shoulder and death on the other. I would have thought of it all as impossible tall tales but for the fact that I had myself witnessed that hair-raising episode across the mountain stream.

“You ask me about risks? You feel more alive when you flirt with death. When you are on the bike and the smallest mistake will cost you your life; when you have every sense attuned to the bike and the road; when you know what the bike will do almost before it happens; when the bike feels almost like a part of you…that is when you are really and intensely alive!” There was almost a mystic look on his face while his mind was reliving his experiences.

For a moment there I felt like someone who was locked out of paradise and was looking in enviously! I gave myself a shake to get rid of the feeling. Anyone who is passionate about what he is doing and does it with every fiber of his being is a person who is living in Paradise. Biking is one of those few activities which human beings get very passionate about.

“To hear him talk it would appear as though he were welded to his bike! Like the Centaurs – half-man, half-horse – of Greek mythology, he is half-man half-bike” said his wife with an indulgent laugh.

He smiled and said, “I’d better feel like that or I may not survive on some of the trails that we ride!”

The conversation then shifted to bikes. After a loving encomium to the Bullet, my friend and the biker were discussing Hayabusa, Ducati, Harley Davidson and the like with a wealth of loving detail over their various component parts. I was getting a glaze in my eyes which caught the eye of the woman.

“Start the bikers on bikes and you will hear more passion than lusty teenagers would expend on describing Angelina Jolie or Jessica Alba”, said the woman with a laugh.

“A woman is just a woman but a good bike is a ride”, said the man with a provocative look at his wife and earned a sharp elbow in his ribs. It seemed like this was a regular bit of give-and-take and his wife didn’t seem to take any serious umbrage.

“Motor-bikers ought to come with a warning. Anyone who marries them can only be their second love – and a distant second at that”, said the woman.

“Lucky for me that you took to biking, then”, said the man.

“Lucky for us! I couldn’t have lived with such a demanding mistress, otherwise!”

A lucky couple all round! To have a passion and to indulge in it is not given to everyone. To share a passion with your significant other should count as the ultimate in good fortune!

I have never been a motor-biker nor, at forty-seven, was I likely to start. But, for a moment there, I badly wanted to do one mountain trip at least on a motorbike. Well! On the pillion, maybe….someday….

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cleanly Bachelors: Another Oxymoron?

“He is going to live like a pig”, said my mother. One would have thought that I actually liked to wallow in filth. I like living in neat surroundings just as much as any other person. The problem was my mother expected me to actually do something to keep my surroundings clean! I defy anyone to say that they honestly enjoyed the process of cleaning up their surroundings. Why, if my mother had actually enjoyed the process, she should have been grateful to me for the opportunity to clean up my room rather than sniping at me about it! The current occasion for sniping arose because I was going to Delhi for my first job and would, perforce, be living alone.

“All bachelors live like pigs”, said my aunt in my support. One of those things that I want to understand is why is it that aunts are more understanding than mothers? My own mother is equally as indulgent with her nephews and nieces. Mom says that it is because aunts don’t have to live with the results of their nephews’ or nieces’ misdoings and can afford to be indulgent. (In her own tart words, “She doesn’t have to clean up after you, does she?”) I think that it is quite likely that they set standards too high for their own children. The truth may well be somewhere in-between.

‘Well! He will probably set a record in it”, said my mom. Meaning that pigs could take my correspondence course in rendering their sties filthy, I suppose!

“About the only thing he will ever set a record in”, chimed in my sister. 

I have a personal theory about sisters. They are probably sent to the world in order to ensure that their brothers have nothing further to fear from Hell. Unless, during your sojourn in Hell, while you are pleasantly frying in a vat of boiling oil and looking forward to comfortably curling up in your bed of red-hot nails, you find your sister taking up lodgings in the adjoining vat of boiling oil. Then, indeed, may you throw up your deep-fried hands and say, like Cain, “My punishment is more than I can bear!” Actually, I suppose that she did love me and, if I ever fell sick, she would have been as nurturing as you would want her to be but, if you think that I was inclined to falling sick merely to see this nurturing side of her, you must consider turning in your brain for a better model.

Where was I? Ah! Just proceeding towards Delhi, right! I might as well pass over the initial days of settling in, finding a place to stay and all that. Fascinating though I am, it is maybe too early in our acquaintance for you to be interested in my complete unabridged autobiography. Since we are passing over a lot many days let us pass on to one month after I had settled in my house.

Whether I had settled in can be debated but a lot of things had settled quite nicely in. An inch-thick layer of dust had settled in on the floors, a huge colony of spiders had settled in cosily in their webs and my clothing had settled in all over the place. You could not walk around in the house without leaving footprints in the sands (of Time, I am tempted to say!), could not sit anywhere without having to excavate the seat from a pile of dirty clothing and could hardly look at a wall without seeing cobwebs hanging down like curtains! Pigs would have turned their noses up at my room and galloped away to their clean sties!

Nor could I take refuge in the lazy man’s excuse of being able to find anything, when I wanted it, only because of the disorder. The least little requirement turned into a huge treasure hunt and, as in the treasure hunt, the last place searched is the one that yielded the treasure. With the periodic rearrangement that such searches caused, I daresay a chess grandmaster could not undertake to remember where every single thing could be found at any point in time. After all, those chaps merely have to remember and project the positions of 32 pieces in a neat geometric grid of 64 and where you are not even allowed to stack one piece over the other in a single square! Dead Easy!

If there is one thing I hate above all else, it is proving my mother correct in one of her caustic comments. Nothing else could have motivated me to set upon the sort of whirlwind activity that I put in for the next four hours. Who is that hobbling, stooped and pathetic figure stumbling towards his bed in a presentable room? Who else but yours truly feeling aches and pains in muscles that he didn’t know that God had given him? With regard to those muscles my only ardent wish was that they would just go away and come back after they had healed.

I never truly realized what a problem this cleaning up could turn out to be. The dratted thing just doesn’t stay done! You think you have finished it and, within the week, you see you have it to do all over again! I kept all the windows closed and suffocated inside in order to keep the dust out for longer. The damn thing simply seemed to materialize inside by telekinesis. I tried wearing out one set of clothes before shifting to the other, despite the marked repulsive effect I created on other people. I developed rashes in mentionable and unmentionable places putting that idea to death.

My worst wrath was reserved for the spiders. The dratted things just would not stop spinning. Here they were in a land full of people who were a sterling example of ‘If at first you don’t succeed, just give up’ and they would just not cease spinning the example that they were spinning for Robert Bruce.

One day my wrath broke all bounds and I decided on a slaughter to put World War II to shame. What was that wonderful phrase of Saddam’s – ‘Mother of all battles’? Well, it was to be the mother of all battles between me and the spiders. Arming myself with a pairs of slippers, I started chasing the spiders. One thing was conclusively proved that day. A spider on eight legs can scuttle faster, more nimbly and to more inaccessible places than a mere human could hope to cope with. After a couple of hours of incessant war, I stopped to count the score.

1. A pair of slippers in tatters
2. A broken mirror
3. One leg off a stool
4. A barked knee
5. Two scratched fore-arms
6. A bump on the back of the head, while chasing a spider under the dining table.
7. Not one single solitary spider-head to mount on my trophy-wall (On second thoughts, I would have spider heads on all my walls in no time, so not much of a loss!)

I sat back and reassessed my priorities.

Come right in! Never mind the dust carpet! Delivered by the one courier boy who operates everywhere – Land or Sea! Oh! Those grey-black wall-hangings and curtains? Spun by the best spinners in the world – the Arachnidae! Throw those jeans and tees to one side and sit down! Ah! That is the book that I had half-finished last week and have been hunting for ever since! What? Cigarette butts! So that is where Ritesh dumped the ash-tray! You would prefer going to the nearest bar? Let me see..where was the wallet, last I saw it? Your treat! Great! Always knew laziness would pay off one day!!

Disclaimer: This is not entirely autobiographical. I leave it to you to decide on which parts are and which are not. But you better agree that I am fascinating!!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Some Clarifications-II: Of Karma and Predestination

An interesting question was asked on one of my posts on Karma. Do plants and animals also fall within the purview of Karma? I answered that Hindu philosophy does consider such to be the case but, I am aware, that that is not a complete answer.

The probable purpose of the questioner was to ask me how instinctive creatures can be said to acquire Karma when they do not make considered choices. Since I had said that the realm of the mind decided your Karma and since Plants and Animals are considered not to have a mind, how then could they be fitted into a system operating on the basis of Karma?

I have no facile answer to this question. If I considered that the framers of the Karma philosophy were philosophers like Descartes or Kant, I could well say that their world-view of their days assumed a mind for plants and animals and, thus, they assumed that the Karma philosophy applied to them. If they do not have minds then the Karma philosophy must be considered to be applied to human beings only.

The basis of Hindu philosophy, however, are that the Vedas are said to be given to the world by the Lord, himself. If so, this ignorance of a lack of mind in plants and animals cannot be a reason and, thus, Karma philosophy ought to be applicable to them. In what manner, then?

I have no pretensions to self-realization! I can only postulate the possible ways in which the philosophy could apply.

1. A soul may be housed in a plant or an animal in order to work off negative Karma without the means to add to it. Much like a criminal being jailed (Jails were primarily meant to be correctional institutions and not punitive) to work off what we called their ‘debt to Society’.

2. A soul may be housed in a plant or animal in order to live a life without choice so that the experience teaches it the value of the freedom to make choices and care in making choices.

I cannot think of an option that allows a soul in this condition to add to its Karma in either direction. So, it could well be that these are meant only to subtract from negative Karma.

All beliefs take a leap of faith and cannot always be rested four-square on a rational basis. Remember that even Mathematics starts off from a priori axioms, which do not necessarily admit of independent proof!

Some Clarifications-I: Of Karma and Predestination

Every time I think I have expressed myself clearly I find that I have only successfully muddied the waters. In my posts about Karma and Predestination, I have tried to explore the internal consistency of the theories without trying to bring in my own beliefs. It may be best to say that my own personal belief is in the Advaitic philosophy, though I cannot cite reasons why I repose my belief in it.

As for the areas where there is lack of clarity, the first is in the extent to which predestination operates. Theoretically predestination may be considered to operate in the following ways:

1. Predestination determines what you get in the world but not what you do or think.

2. Predestination determines what you do as well as what you get but not what you think.

3. Predestination determines everything.

I do not have any specific opinion between the first two, which is probably why my earlier post does not clearly clarify a position on this count. Equally as clearly, I do not believe in the third option. I believe that the realm of the mind is the realm of free choice.

The Karma philosophy does leave the realm of the mind to you. Firstly, you earn ‘Good Karma’ or ‘Bad Karma’ based on your life. If everything were to be predestined, you would be a mere puppet in the hands of destiny. To first make you a murderer and then assign ‘Bad Karma’ to you would be akin to sentencing the gun to death for having killed a person! Secondly, Hindu philosophy advocates ‘Nishkamya karma’ (doing your duty without desire). Tacitly then it says to desire or not desire is in your hands which, in effect, means that the realm of the mind is for you to control and not under the control of destiny.

It is easy to think of various options where I cannot give an answer to how my assumptions of predestination are suitable. I can think of some myself! But, then, my imagination is incapable of conceiving of ‘infinity’ or ‘eternity’ but that does not mean that my belief in either is misplaced!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Change the way you value yourself

It is tempting to say that the thing most requiring a change is Society’s resistance to change. That, unfortunately, is not quite the right change to seek. Not all change may be for the good and sometimes a proposed change may require to be changed itself. Society’s resistance to change can act as a necessary brake though you could always argue as to whether the resistance is unwarrantedly high.

A change in Society’s attitudes to its constituent citizens, though difficult, is easier than an internally driven change of people. Society has various rewards that it can confer – awards, publicity and the like – which can drive attitudes. This is why my earlier post ‘Change the way you value people’ concentrated on what, in my opinion, were changes necessary in societal attitudes. An internal change of people has to be self-motivated and, maybe, driven against societal disregard and, thus, far more difficult.

When society values people it has to go on deeds. When an individual values himself he can go on character since he is the best judge of what motivates him to do what he does, if he can be honest with himself. Nothing new needs to be said about what constitutes good character. The problem, however, is that we do not practice what we preach (Nothing new I am saying here either but, then, the fact that it has been said so often has not changed much!).

Honesty is the Best Policy

All of us are in agreement, of course we are! We do live by it, as far as it is practicable to do so. Really?

‘No-one can say that I am not honest. Well, if I know my company is getting this huge order and I can buy up the shares at a low price today and clear a profit enough to fund a foreign vacation for my family, why not? I know there are rules against insider trading but who cares about them anyway?’

Looks like your pride in your honesty is less valuable to you than a foreign vacation.

‘This is the problem with being honest. Look at our neighbor. He clears about twice what I make in bribes. I have to make do with an Indica and he can buy a SUV though we are in the same position’

I’d rather you said, ‘How can a man opt for a more expensive life-style at the cost of his character’. The way you say it, it seems like you are honest merely because you are afraid of getting caught. If you say it in front of your children, you are teaching them that honesty leads to unhappiness. Not exactly what I want the children of today to be learning.

I love giving happiness to the people I love

Where is the joy in life if it were not for the people we love? If there is anything I can do to keep them happy, what greater pleasure than that?

‘Listen! I have to go to the boss’ party tonight. The CEO is coming and my boss says that if I can make it he will introduce me to him.’

‘You promised Seema that you would stay over at the hospital with Ajay tonight. How can you make it now?’

‘I know. Tell Seema that I can’t make it. They will understand.’

Right! How can you let go the opportunity of getting the eye of the Supremo? Is this a one-off or are Ajay and Seema to always understand?

One should work where one can be passionate about what he is doing

Of course! I’d love to work in an area that excites me.

‘I thought you always wanted to teach. Why this shift to IT?’

‘Where is the money in teaching, dude?’

‘College teaching is not all that bad, is it?’

‘Maybe! Quantum difference in life-style, dude.’

Ah! Yes! Your joy in working in the area you are passionate about comes a distant second to an up-market flat, car and clothes!

The point I am trying to make here is that our value systems – that are the building blocks of our character – come a distant second to social prestige. Thus, what we are doing is the replacement of all the internal drivers of self-worth with dependence on society for providing you all your sense of self-worth.

There is a Sanskrit saying ‘Paradhinam prana sankatam’. Dependence on others is distressing to the soul. What we are doing is handing over the entire keys to our happiness to others, for where can you find happiness without a sense of self-worth?

All the measures that society provides involves your comparing yourself with others much like young kids standing against each other and competing for who is taller. If you find yourself falling short and you are unwilling to accept it, then you take recourse to your race, caste, religion or gender to prove your ‘inherent’ superiority much like a short kid standing on a stool and claiming that he is taller. The problem is that you have to keep lugging the stool everywhere you go and keep getting suspicious about whether people with smaller stools are trying the saw the legs off your own. Also, anyone who, in your opinion, has a bigger stool automatically makes you feel inferior!

If there is one change that I wish every individual would make then it is that he respects himself for his values and how courageously he has stood by them rather than for what he would call his position in society. Otherwise, we could end up like the biblical character who exchanged all that was valuable to him for a mess of potage.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Part-III: Of Karma and Predestination

The Vedantic philosophies – Advaita, Visishtadvaita, Dvaita and others – range from believing that all souls are actually one SOUL – BRAHMAN – to believing that all souls are different but totally interconnected. The entire universe may, thus, be considered as one all-encompassing BRAHMAN or all souls may be considered distinct but connected to BRAHMAN and all the variations in-between.

The purpose of life and the cycle of births is for the individual soul to either shed its illusion of distinctness or to realize the connections completely. If such be accepted, the entire process of what happens to you in life is merely a process that creates the circumstances to help you purify your soul to the extent that the realization of this oneness or interconnectedness becomes possible.

Looked at it this way, what you do in life has the motive of purifying your soul and whether you succeed or fail merely creates the crucible in which the dross on your soul is burnt off. Thus, where you have free will – in your motives and in your reactions to circumstances – are the only items on which you need free will since the only result that you are working towards is in altering as a person! All the rest is incidental.

Thus, your good deeds of this birth means that you have forged ahead as a person and in your next birth you need lesser purification. Prarabda Karma, in this case, works more to create the circumstances – for further purification - that are needed in the current conditions of your soul. So the circumstances of your next birth will well be determined by your motives and actions of this birth but whether more Punya will give you a better life in terms of materialistic values is debatable. It could well be that the purer soul is born poor and the grosser soul is born rich! Of course, the more realized soul could well be more content, while poor, than the grosser soul in its richness!

In the context of these philosophies, a man who claims predestination robs him of free will is like a person, who is put in to counting pins as the first step to becoming a CEO, interpreting the entire universe in the context of how it helps him count pins!!

Part-II: Of Karma and Predestination

The Karma philosophy, in its essence, says that what you do, why you do things and how you deal with what happens to you combine to determine the sort of life you will lead. Prarabda Karma – the Karma of previous births – is considered the reason why some are born poor, some are born rich, some are born healthy and some are born sick.

Karma does not restrict itself to the sort of cause and effect that material science prescribes. It goes into the motives of why you do things as well. When you do virtuous deeds you accumulate ‘Punya’ (Good Karma?) and when you are vicious you accumulate ‘Paap’ (Bad Karma?). Virtue is a combination of deed and motive. Giving to the poor in the spirit of giving is not the same as giving to the poor for the sake of publicity.

Thus, in essence, Prarabda Karma decides what is predestined for you. In effect, then, if your exercise of free will in determining your motives and consequences and your efforts may not much alter your circumstances in this life but they shall certainly determine the sort of life you lead the next time you are born.

Going by the philosophy of Karma, a person who sits on his hands doing nothing since everything is predestined for him is like a person who spends what he saved yesterday and saves nothing for tomorrow.

If you truly believe in a chain of rebirths, then the Karma philosophy gives you the perfect reason why you should work. After all, not everything that you do today gives you results today. Thus, put in the efforts in this birth in order to reap the fruits in the next!

Part-I: Of Karma and Predestination

Does a belief in predestination negate free will? Does predestination make efforts unnecessary? The normal arguments against a belief in predestination are all focused on these questions. Thus, whether or not the hypothesis of predestination is true or not, a belief in predestination is seen as detrimental to human progress.

Hindu philosophy has to be seen holistically. From the very earth from which the idea of predestination arose also sprang the Gita saying ‘Karmanyevadhikaraste ma phalesu kadacana’. This and the verses of Karma Yoga enjoin people to action without regard to whether or not such action would lead to success or failure. Thus, even if the results of the action are predestined, it is prescribed as the duty of the person to act.

In one form, you could see predestination as a form of self counseling. If your actions yield success, a belief in predestination would keep you from becoming arrogant about the success since you would not consider the success as the result of your own inimitable brilliance and hard work. If your actions fail, you would not get depressed since you would ascribe the failure to predestination rather than your own unworthiness.

The Hindu religion, probably, was not created to act as a home-made psycho-analyst for people. Thus, predestination is probably considered as the truth of the way the universe is rather than as a fiction to keep people sane. Then, if what happens to you is all predestined where, then, is the role for free will?

Assume that you are predestined to kill your grandfather and inherit property. You could want to inherit the property, push your grandfather down the stairs and inherit his property. You could love your grandfather but slip on the floor, bump into your grandfather and knock him down the stairs. In either case, predestination is served. Are both occurrences one and the same? So, if you are destined to kill your grandfather, you might as well go ahead and plan his murder since there is no room for free will?

As long as you see results exclusively in the realm of what is getting done, you would see predestination as something that negates free will. The moment you start seeing that the motives for what gets done are also important, you can see you have free will in deciding what motivates you. That, to me, is a far higher freedom.

The other aspect that predestination does not pre-define is the way you react to what happens to you in the world. You could feel rich with USD 1 million, Anil Ambani would feel poor with it and, a Saint, would be indifferent to the presence or absence of the money. Predestination would only define that you would have USD 1 million and not how you feel about it. Free Will, again!

What you get may be predetermined whether or not you put in efforts. The efforts, themselves, alter you as a person and changes the way you view what you have as well as how you see the world. If you are destined to be a millionaire, you could become one either because you earned your way or because someone gave you a hand-out. It is a miserably stunted person who would view both as being the same.

Efforts matter because they determine the sort of person you are and how much respect you have for yourself. Free will exists in determining the motives and in dealing with consequences. Predestination, thus, has room for both efforts as well as free will.

You can read the next two parts here - Part II and Part III

Friday, March 23, 2012

Of Sour Grapes

There is this fable (Aesop’s) about a fox that found a grape vine with luscious grapes hanging from it. It tried every means at its disposal and found that it could not reach it. At the end of it all, it walks away muttering, ‘These grapes are sour!’

I don’t know how it was taught to you (if, indeed, it is still being taught) but my teacher turned the fox into a figure of fun for deciding that the grapes were undesirable merely because it could not get it. I laughed along with the rest then and, for a long time, the phrase ‘Sour grapes’ only gave rise to a sort of contempt for the ludicrous fox.

Now, I find that the fox was wise after all. The option that it chose to deal with its failure to achieve its goal was one of the saner options available. There are a few other options – as good or better – to deal with the situation but there are innumerable worse options.

You can have your own opinion about whether these options are better than the one chosen by the fox. The fox could have been a devout fox and have decided, ‘If God wanted me to have those grapes, he would have allowed me to reach it’. If the fox believed in predestination, it would have thought, ‘Nobody gets anything before the right time and more than is destined for him’. If the fox were a happy-go-lucky sort it would have just shrugged and said, ‘If I can’t get grapes, let me eat cake’!

Not all options are healthy and sane. The fox could have thought, ‘This is the story of my life! Such sweet grapes and I am incapable of reaching them!’ It could have whined, ‘Nothing ever goes right for me! How, then, could I have expected to reach those grapes?’ It could have thought, ‘Nobody likes me! Not even God! If he did, he would have allowed me to reach those grapes!’

There can be options far worse for Society. Think of the fox that says, ‘How dare the grape vine deny me my grapes! I shall destroy it’. Or the fox that says, ‘These grape vines are in a conspiracy against foxes! Let me lead an army of foxes to destroy all grape vines!’ A fox could even think, ‘The world is conspiring against us. The only way to have a peaceful life is to conquer everyone else!’

The fox of the ‘sour grapes’ was a very wise fox indeed! It seemed to have been granted the fruits of the prayer that goes, ‘God! Give me the Courage to change that which can be changed, the Patience to endure that which cannot be changed and the Wisdom to know the difference!’

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Black is also Good

How much of our attitudes owe themselves to language and how much of language owes itself to our attitudes? For example, we extend people a warm welcome. When you are broiling in the heat of Chennai, the last thing that you probably want is for your hosts to increase your temperature. Yet, you would not want them to be cold to you! The English language developed in far colder climes where warmth was welcome and, now, we think a welcome has to be warm!

In atavistic times, mankind feared the dark since dark is when their danger increased due to the limitations of their eyesight. The color black got associated to the dark and, thus, you found ‘Black as Night’ converted to ‘Black as sin’, ‘Black-hearted and the like. In effect, the color Black got associated with all sorts of negative qualities and, probably, more particularly with people who predominantly fair-skinned. (Ever wondered about the marked preference for blondes in the west of yore? Red hair, probably, reminded them of the fickleness and danger of fire in atavistic time. Even being black-haired, probably, begot the negative associations attached to the color.) We, more used to black-skinned people, were less likely to necessarily consider them in a negative manner but, then, the fairer you were the closer you thought yourselves to be to the powers-that-be of that day and the colonial hang-up has not let off yet!

Our own mythology does not carry this linkage of the color black to evil. To take but one epic – Mahabharat – you will find four characters who were, in all probability, black-skinned and these four are firmly associated with the side of the good. Krishna, the best-beloved of Hindu Gods, was black since the very name Krishna means ‘black’ (Not blue!!). Draupadi, whose beauty drew all the major kings of the day to her Swayamvar, was named Krishnaa (Draupadi only means Drupad’s daughter and Panchali only means princess of Panchal) and her color was – you guessed it – black. One of Arjun’s various names is also Krishna leading to the possibility that he, too, was dark-skinned though he apparently called himself Krishna out of love for his friend and lord. Lastly, Ved Vyas was named Krishna Dvaipayana Vyas and, quite probably, he was also black. (We did not have the sort of western humor that calls a giant ‘Little’ John!!)

The problem with the color ‘black’ is one of language. All metaphors of language associate the color with negative characteristics and, in a knee-jerk reaction, we react to the color black negatively. Great opportunity for fairness creams but pretty unfair (Yet again! The tyranny of language! Fair means just and fair also means white!!) to those who are born dark-skinned!!

If we actually thought about why we react the way we react to most stimuli, there would be a lot lesser sorrow in this world.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Ad Agonies, Again

I seem to be developing a lot of irrational fears thanks to ads. For example, when I am out on the streets, I am always looking warily around for people who would waylay me with scalp cameras and dental cameras. What can be more irrational than my wearing a hunted look on my face being afraid of people trying to sell me shampoos? Given the super-abundance of hair on my head, the last thing anyone would want to sell to me is an anti-dandruff shampoo. Something to help grow hair would be more like it.

Another of these irrational fears keeps me from buying the Cadbury Bournville chocolates. Every time I go to my local mall and try to pick it, I am frightened by the possibility that the counter clerk would put me to work packing goods for the other customers. After all, you don’t just buy a Bournville, you have to earn it!

Ads not only create irrational fears they seem to create irrational hopes as well. Take the Airtel Money ad about the chap in Goa, who is robbed of all his belongings by a woman, calling up his friend for help. I cannot understand this woman. She steals his wallet, his baggage and even the clothes off his back but leaves behind his mobile so that he can call for help!

All I can say is that if you are in the mood for dangerous liaisons in Goa, please do not think that a mobile and a convenient friend will do the trick for you. A real life woman may have less use for your soiled clothes and more for your mobile!

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Road Trip to Kanchi

‘What??’ I said, horrified. I was in Bangalore for a vacation and alone in the house for a couple of days when my friend proposed that I accompany him on a road trip to Kanchi. He was running a Travel Taxi agency at an age when I was in my first year at engineering college. He had apparently got a trip booked, had found a car but not a driver. The horror was occasioned by the fact that he was proposing to drive himself. Considering that his knowledge of driving was restricted to a vague idea about the location of the accelerator and brake, you will agree that the horror was justified.

The problem was that I was young. It seemed like an adventure to me and I had not yet learned that adventures were unpleasant things happening to other people! By the end of the conversation, I had agreed to his proposal and the only fly in my ointment was that we had to start at 4 AM – the existence of which time of the day I knew exclusively by hearsay having never seen it myself.

The journey started inauspiciously. When Uday started the Ambassador (we are talking about the early eighties, guys, and the Ambassador was as hi-fi as cars in India got then!) it jumped like a fractious war-horse for twenty feet and grazed the nearest lamp-post. I started wondering which of the three was the most fool-hardy – the chap who lent the car, Uday for choosing to drive it or me for accompanying him. I think I won by a short head since the chap was only risking his car and if Uday was risking his life he was, at least, theoretically in control of it.

After that explosive start, Uday drove the car around the town at a blazing speed of about 20 KMPH picking up his passengers. As a consequence of this high speed we exited the city of Bangalore by about 9 AM. Having to reach Kanchi by about 12 PM, the passengers were, understandably, doubtful about the progress but they did swallow Uday’s assurances about getting there on time, albeit with an audible gulp. If they really want to, people can believe anything!

Gaining in confidence, Uday upped the speed to a zippy 40 KMPH and we were proceeding merrily on our way till we reached a place called Palmaner. Uday took the car around a roundabout and unerringly hit a stationary bullock cart parked well to the side of the road. The relative sturdiness of wood vs. glass was proved by a tinkling noise that heralded the destruction of one head-light.

It was a silent deserted road up to then. The very next second almost the entire population of Palmaner had materialized around the car by what could only have been teleportation. After half an hour of wrangling, Uday parted with a hundred bucks for having used the bullock cart to break his headlight and we started on our way again.

We were about 25 KMs from Kanchi and it was 1.30 PM. From somewhere around 11.30 AM, the passengers had started bemoaning their choice of travel. Between them, they had rung every change on the various other options that they could have tried but didn’t. At last, exhausted with the sustained effort one of them pleaded with Uday to get them there at least by 2 PM. Uday was all confidence about it when the car did a Spanish tango all over the road and halted. Tire puncture!

Whatever one may say about his driving skills, Uday had the mechanical end pat! Within 15 minutes the tire had been changed and the passengers were in the car. He started off with a flourish and drove another twenty feet when the car decided to complete its interrupted dance. Another tire gone!

There was a shop nearby to take care of this issue. Uday was convincing the passengers that he could still get them to Kanchi by 2 PM. Considering that it was nearly 2 PM then the only way he could have done it was by time travel. Realizing that the technology for time travel didn’t yet exist, the passengers wisely chose to take a bus to Kanchi.

Both tires were duly handed over for running repairs and we sat at the nearby dhaba for a meal. No amount of pleading with the server helped in assuring him that we did not want the food to contain samples of the soil in which the rice was grown. By the end of the meal, we were truly sons of the soil!

Both of us sat around thanking our lucky stars that the car tires were punctured in the near vicinity of the repairer. We were young and innocent, guys, and did not know that we had the cause and effect interchanged. That shopkeeper may not have studied in Harvard but he knew how to get customers for his service. All it cost him were a few nails strewn artistically on the road abutting his shop.

Once the car was ready, we decided to return to Bangalore rather than make it to Kanchi. (Maybe I should have named this post ‘A road trip to somewhere near Kanchi’!!). About six we ascended one of those steep inclines in the road with the sides falling off into fields and stopped for a break. A costly break it proved to be for the car failed to start!

Up to now, the journey was a pleasure trip for me. All the nuisances of the trip were for Uday to handle and I was the merest spectator! Here the sinecure ended and I found that coming along would put me in the position of pushing the car to help it start. I pushed the car downhill and Uday tried starting the car. It gave a weird moan and refused to start.

The real heavy work started then. I had to push the car uphill so that he could coast downhill again and try starting the car. No go! Once more up the incline. Once more down the slope with the car sounding death groans! Once more! Things could have seemed monotonous to me but for the fact that every muscle in my body was issuing groans in symphony with the car.

Uday must have felt the monotony and, by way of variation, slid the car down the embankment into the fields. One look at my face and the request to try pushing it back up on the road died still-born on his lips. Anyway, it would have taken King-Kong to have done it and I have never actually been accused of being King-Kong even if some chaps had said that I looked like him.

You have no idea how rapidly the imagined charms of sleeping under the sky vanish when faced with a soggy field and ominous clouds in the sky. Like it or lump it, it did seem like we were in for a night in the car. Luckily, however, a passing lorry stopped upon hearing our piteous cries. The driver said that our battery was down. He connected his battery to ours, started our car, zipped it on to the road and instructed us to go on without shutting down the engine since there was no power in the battery to start it again.

Onwards we went and the Heavens opened up. With no battery, the headlight (singular intended. Remember the Palmaner incident!) wasn’t about to go on and wipers would not function. Thus, it was for me to put my head out one window and direct him to the right when he was about to run off the road while he put his head out the other window periodically to check whether the glare he was seeing in the windshield was a motorbike or a lorry. Every time the head was to be put out it was like shoving it under a waterfall. Never in the history of driving could a journey have been made in exactly this fashion.

We had decided to stop over at Uday’s sister’s place in Tumkur for the night and leave for Bangalore the next morning. About 10 KMs from Tumkur the car shut down again! With a comfortable destination in sight it was that much harder to contemplate the idea of sleeping in the car. Luckily, a passing motorist picked Uday up and took him to a garage in the town. By the time I had exhausted the entertainment value of rain pattering on the car roof, Uday was back with a mechanic. The chap started the car somehow, dropped us off at Uday’s sister’s place and took the car along to the garage.

Next day morning, the car was back and presumably in fine shape. It went like a breeze till we reached the intersection of the MG Road and Brigade Road and stopped bang in the middle of the intersection. This vengefulness of the car was inexplicable but the consequences could be very expensive indeed. A chap who knew no driving obviously had no driving license either and, in the times of Sangliana – who was heading the traffic division of the police – traffic offenses were a serious issue for the offender.

Luckily the traffic cop was more interested in clearing the intersection and he pushed the car and started it again. We set off like a startled deer only to have the car stop bang in the middle of the next intersection. There must have been some Sicilian blood in that car and it had, apparently, declared a vendetta on Uday – maybe for breaking that headlight! Our luck was still in, however, and there was no traffic cop around. We quickly pushed the car into a nearby parking slot and quietly vamoosed to the bus stand.

Apparently the battery was bereft of water which was the cause of all the problems that we had. That information came much later after we had quietly snuck home by bus. I have traveled often enough by road since then but no journey has ever even come close to becoming as incredible a story as this unfinished trip to Kanchi.

Change the way you value people

Hmmm! Should I be honest in expressing what changes I really want in Society? That I would want the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to confer $1 billion on me for refraining from involving myself in any way in the working of Society? That I would love to be covered by every magazine under the sun on the cover page and people seeking my autographs, wherever I go, for my inimitable ability to spend time doing absolutely nothing? That my overweight, bald, pug-nosed persona should be the romantic and, dare I say, erotic fantasy of every woman? (Masochistic fantasy, you say? Absolutely not! Who is doing the wishing here, anyway?)

Money! Social Respect! Attractiveness to the opposite sex! If you are in a position to stop worrying about the necessities of life, these are the driving needs for what people do! Money is required for necessities as well as luxuries. Beyond that, what you do look forward to is the respect of the people around you, which includes allure to the opposite sex. Of course, when you are young, social respect almost exclusively means the regard of the opposite sex! The problem, to me, is that today almost everything – social respect, regard of the opposite sex and whatever else – is exclusively driven by money. 

‘Don’t give me that! I am not looking for money in my man. All I want is for him to love me and be a romantic. My ideal man would go down on his knees in his yacht on a moonlit cruise in the Mediterranean, slip a platinum ring on my finger and propose to me. If he is that romantic, I would not care if he were poor as a church mouse! I’d marry him with pleasure’, you say, Ma’am! I do understand that it is not the guy’s money that you love, it is only his romanticism.

‘Nuts to you, dude! Who is looking for a rich girl? I can earn my way! All I want is that my girl dresses up neatly in designer-wear, uses sufficient cosmetics to look and smell good, has the gadgets necessary to keep in touch in today’s world. Who wants to go around with a dowdy behenji?’. Quite, laddie! I know it is not the lack of money but the lack of taste that bothers you!

‘Why should you always talk of men as the provider? Woman can do anything that a man can do, you bloody MCP?’. Quite true, Ma’am Feminist! But I am yet to find general acceptance in Society for woman bearing the primary responsibility for providing for the family. So, as yet, I shall have to address my comments to the attitudes of the majority!

Make no mistake about what I am trying to say. I am not against money. Money is an exceedingly useful tool and a necessity. So also is a screwdriver but I am yet to hear of any great social respect being accorded to a person who collects millions of screwdrivers!

What we spend our money on is driven first by our needs. Beyond a point, however, we spend on things merely to preen ourselves in the face of society much like a peacock flaring its feathers to attract a mate or a teenager doing hand-stands on his bicycle. What we call success is achievement of goals defined by society and, thus, it is primarily social respect we work to achieve.

Money-making as a criterion of social success is quite acceptable. The problem is when the possession of money is an unqualified certificate of success and the absence of it is an unqualified definition of a loser. There is a saying in Tamil ‘Naai viththa kaasu kuraikkathu’ (Money, made out of selling a dog, does not bark). Money can be made by any means and, thus, does not mean that the person concerned has actually contributed to society commensurate to what he has earned.

If money is an unqualified criterion for success, those who can will earn and those who can’t will cheat. (Before you say ‘and those who can’t do either will whine’ and point that at me, let me hasten to add that I am an IIM MBA and, thus, I am certainly one of those who can earn! That is another thing to change in society – the tendency to analyze the person saying something rather than analyzing what is said!). One of the reasons, in my opinion, for the proliferation of corruption is the exclusive dependence on money-making as an unqualified criterion for declaring social success.

When I keep using the word ‘unqualified’ what I mean is that the respect for a person’s money should come only when the means by which he earned it are also worthy of respect. In other words, there ought to be more respect for a less affluent person who earned his money by the sweat of his brow than the more affluent man who cheated his way to riches.

If cheating is eliminated as a source of riches can money then be the sole criterion for granting social respect? In fact, the very foundation of the rationale for making the possession of money as the grounds for social respect is the assumption that money is earned by a person commensurate to the value of his contribution to society and, thus, the more money a person makes the more valuable his contribution to society has been. Is this necessarily true?

Would you say that the contribution to society of a BPO employee is at least twice that of an elementary school teacher? (Please! I mean whether you value elementary school teaching as half as important as getting customer calls. If you get into arguments about the quality of teaching and all that, I have to say that the thrust of my argument is that if you paid teachers more, you would get better teachers!) Does the chap who structure derivatives contribute about a hundred times the value to society as a cardiologist? What of the man who inherited land in Sarjapur Road in Bangalore? His contribution to society is worth a hundred of us? Let us understand that the market economy is flawed and incapable of properly valuing services to society nor, indeed, is it meant to do so.

Where the blind workings of a market economy are incapable of motivating the best people to work in the most valuable jobs to society, Government is supposed to step in and do the needful. Here you have a Kapil Sibal limiting remuneration to IIT professors and simultaneously bemoaning the fact that good quality faculty is not becoming available as though he finds it mystifying that a chap who does a PhD from a US Ivy League university does not leap at the chance of working for peanuts in a society which is learning to look down on professors!

One anecdote about the workings of government should settle the issue of whether you can expect the government to do a decent job of ensuring remuneration to those important jobs which the market economy fails to encourage. MS Dhoni hit 183 against Sri Lanka and won a match for us. About the same time, a bus driver in Delhi -Kuldip Singh – jumped out of a bus with a live bomb in order to save the lives of his passengers and lost his eye-sight in the process. Dhoni was granted in excess of Rs. 1 crore for his contribution to Society and Kuldip Singh got Rs. 5 Lakhs. Both these amounts were paid by state governments and, thus, we get a clear idea that winning one match is worth twenty times risking life and limb to save a bus-load of passengers in the view of our leaders!

You still have at least some good quality teachers, professors and even Kuldip Singhs in society but, make no mistake, they are there despite the fact that they don’t get paid well. If the market economy as well as the government will not help in ensuring their remuneration, they will not have as much money as their counterparts elsewhere. So, using possession of money as the sole criterion, should we also respect them lesser than the BPO employee and the derivatives dude? Since home-makers do not get paid at all for their services, is their contribution to society ‘Nil’ even if they keep their family healthy and bring up well-adjusted children?

As has been said earlier, beyond a point, the sole use of money is to preen in the presence of society. If society accorded respect to teachers regardless of their monetary status; to government doctors merely for being government doctors etc. then, maybe, it will prove a substitute to money - to the extent that it is used merely to catch the fancy of society. If so, there would be better quality people coming in even if the remuneration is lower (though not so low that they can’t maintain a decent quality of life).

A case in point is in the arts. Even though there is more money in varieties of popular music you can still see a lot of youngsters performing in the Carnatic Music season in Chennai - driven merely by the quest for peer respect and popularity amongst the cognoscenti. If Social respect can render a vocation attractive regardless of the lower monetary compensation it could well work for society at large.

When one talks of Social respect one needs to talk of specifics. What is meant is that no uncle says derogatorily, ‘Arre! Why do you want to become a teacher? Go into IT and you can make millions!’ to a nephew who wants to do his B.Ed. No father says, “Could you not find someone better than a college prof. to fall in love with? You could live like a princess with this financial analyst”. I can probably give endless anecdotes on how we talk derogatorily of the very professions that form the backbone of society and then bemoan the declining quality of these professions.

To give one example of how ordinary people drive negative influences in society let me tell you what they used to say about government employees as potential bridegrooms in my youth. ‘He is in the government. His salary is about Rs.1000 per month but he earns thrice that in additional income.’ This additional income is a euphemism for bribes and it was stated as an additional attraction of the bridegroom! So, then if the same chaps then go out in protest against corruption, do you think that protest is going to work?

If there is, indeed, a change that I ardently wish for, then it is that Government, at least, learns to adequately compensate those vocations of importance to Society and Society accords respect to what people do and with how much dedication they do it rather than to what they possess!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A touch of the divine

Ever looked up at the sky to see a sky like black velvet with a glorious multitude of diamond-bright stars strewn all over it? Ever see the rising sun’s rays strike a cloud just as it is crossing an ice-clad peak and make it appear as though there was a flame in the heart of the mountain? Ever seen an ice spear, tall as five men, break off from a mountain and fall thunderously down? Ever looked down on a large emerald-green pool glisten softly in the sunlight? It is experiences like this on a trek to the Himalayas that lift you from your mundane concerns and put you in touch with the serenity that is at the heart of all creation. A touch of the divine, one may say.

Sitting in the train to Delhi, I was lost in the thoughts of the wonders of my last trek and the expectations of the one that I was intending to go on this time. There was just one old rustic lady in the compartment with me, whose daughter-in-law had parked her there and left for her seat in another compartment. I had just recaptured the serenity that I usually feel on my treks when it was rudely shattered by a cacophony of voices. The rest of the companions on this train journey had arrived – in the form of two twenty-something girls and four boys of the same age. I mused bitterly about what it was that caused the young to think that enjoying themselves necessarily involved making noises fit to wake up the dead.

Thankfully, they did feel sleepy at around the same time that I did and, so, the night passed off reasonably peacefully. The next day morning the chat-fest was at full swing and I was looking out the window trying my best to deafen my ears to it. The old lady opposite me was fidgeting in discomfort, as well.

“Maaji! Do you need some help?” asked one of the girls in Hindi. The old lady demurred but continued to fidget.

“If you want to go to the bathroom, I will come with you”, said the girl.

“My daughter-in-law will come soon”, said the lady.

“How long will you wait. Come with me”, said the girl and took the lady along.

It seemed a common enough affair for me till I started thinking about it. In a world too full of its own affairs, it is difficult enough to find someone unknown to help you even when you ask for it. Here was this young girl, who not only had enough empathy to guess the need for help but also insistently offered it to someone from whom she could have had no expectations.

From then on, the old lady’s needs were met by this girl almost before she felt the need. Slowly, the other girl and then the boys, too, were participants in the affair. Make no mistake, the noise levels were as before and the group was not hovering over the old lady every moment of the day. Other than, almost instinctively, helping her, the group was busy with its own business. Strangely, however, their chatting had ceased to rub me raw! It made me realize that it was I who had grown too far away from my youth to enjoy their high spirits.

By the time it was midday, all of us were sharing snacks and tea and, it seemed as though we were all one family traveling together. Not that they got the old woman to open up at all but, to them, taking care of them like their responsibility…no, that is too serious a word! Taking care of her came as naturally to them as offering tea to a friend while you were ordering one! An interesting side-light to the tale is the case of the vanishing daughter-in-law. She did come later that morning but once she realized that there were people around to help her mother-in-law that was the last we saw of her!

There are times when you cease to view the world from the perspective of your own concerns and feel a sort of oneness with your fellow-men and, indeed, with all creation. A touch of the divine, dare I say? This wonderful young girl with her instinctive generosity of nature had, for a day at least, made a group of people feel that quiet joy that comes of being taken out of your own self and enjoy the unalloyed good will of companionship.

Reminded me of my earlier experience on my trip to Haridwar. I had had my pocket picked and was stuck with a RAC seat to be shared with a youngster. He was asking me about ‘managing’ the TTE and getting a berth. I told him I was in no position to ‘manage’ the TTE, thanks to a picked pocket. In whatever manner it happened he did get a berth and that was the last I saw of him that day. The next morning when we were disembarking I ran into him again. He remembered my moneyless situation, asked me if I needed help and insisted on dropping me close to where I needed to go. Rare people like this make my day and every time I remember the incident it makes me happy.

Nature brings you close to the divine. Wonderful people like this do that to you as well. It is my privilege that my life touched, however peripherally, upon their lives and I certainly live in the hope that many more will come my way even if they are becoming a rare breed. Hopefully, there will be more interesting stories of this sort in this thread as well as in my life!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Of Nature and Human Nature

It was a whole different world in the sixties and seventies in Neyveli and the memories of those days are still green for me. Vignettes of those days still pop up in my mind at unexpected moments and bring the carefree smile of childhood to my lips.

Who could ever forget roaming around in the nearby villages and woods eating berries from the wayside? When the unexpected sweetness of an unpromising guava sends you into ecstasy? The memory of the taste of half-ripe tamarind and unripe mangoes puckers up my lips even now. Ever tasted the cashew fruit? I try to recollect the taste now and find the memory elusive.

Time was when a scummy pool was a siren song of inviting coolness and not a seething hell with a zillion bacteria. Roaming around barefoot in the grass was an ineffable pleasure and not filled with the fear of infection. Sometimes it occurs to me that the more we coddle ourselves, the more prone to infection we become. I cannot remember incidences of sickness in my childhood in any greater frequency than in the children of current days though I lead a far less sanitized life than seems permissible now.

Nature is not always fun. One can write a tome on encounters with snakes culled from the experiences of people from Neyveli. As for me, snakes have always found me in the most compromising situations. Imagine latching yourself in the bathroom, disrobing and pouring on your first mug of water to have a hiss warn you of a coiled snake sharing the bathroom with you. Worse still was getting caught by a snake with your pants down in the obvious location. Thanks to these experiences, snakes on my treks have only caused a mild flutter in my stomach and not a spreading stain on my trousers.

Playtime was always out-of-doors and most games were improvised with minimal support from accessories. The toys of our childhood never went beyond tops and marbles, with ball bearings playing the role of marbles where necessary. The number of games improvised from marbles can only be believed by those who played them. Rich or poor, one could always afford a few marbles and, by the end of the day, the richest guy in marbles was the one who was most skilled in playing with them. One of the few times in life when you get the feeling that ability can take you far beyond your origins.

Growing old enough for cricket exposed us to the inequities of Society. Things were fine as long as we played with a piece of wood and a wad of paper swathed in rubber bands. Graduating to the cricket ball and bat is when our problems started since only one of us actually possessed them.

He was more difficult to get out than Rahul Dravid. When he was at the crease LBWs, catches, run outs and stumpings just did not exist. The only way you could get him out was by uprooting the stumps; have the wicket-keeper and all the fielders swear in a dozen languages, including Swahili, that it was the ball that dislodged the stumps without any help from them; and the kid, doing duty as umpire, swearing on all his ancestors that there was not a smidgen of a chance of declaring the ball a no-ball!

As a bowler, he was a wicket-taker to put Shane Warne and Muthiah Muralitharan to shame. If the ball was caught without bouncing you were out and the fact that the bat was nowhere near the ball was dismissed as a mere quibble. If you were rapped on the legs in front of third slip you were out LBW. At that you counted yourself lucky that you were not dismissed earlier because the ball rapped the legs of third slip! Refuse to walk away and he would walk away --- with the bat and ball! So, early in childhood, we learned that the chap who pays the piper called the tune.

It needs be said, though, that the indignation meetings amongst the rest of us, after the match, were fun with everyone trying to outdo the others in cursing him. What a wonderful feeling of closeness we felt then! Indeed, there is no stronger uniting factor than a common antagonist!

Living close to Nature, alas, is not an option for the city-bound. The thrill of finding a new berry patch, the unexpected ecstasy of finding a ripe mango and the flutters caused by coming upon a pair of snakes mating have all been exchanged for the local supermarket and Discovery channel. If I sound too much like the old man talking of ‘the good old days’ it is because I am one and I would rather that children were holding indignation meetings than being glued to a games console!

Children of today have a lot more than we ever did. But do they have as much fun?