Archive for the ‘humor’ Category

That extra Yes in Excesss!

 

A doc is no astrologer, y2k techie, falling-meteor tracker or doomsayer.

When he predicts the end, it does end.

So when the doc attending to my friend’s father said it was only a matter of hours, none protested.

“Should we take him off the ventilator?” he asked.

“No!” came the instant recoil from my friend.

“Give us a few hours,” said my friend, in a tone that reminded me of pink-slip recipients in offices.

When the doc and his entourage left the room, my friend turned to me and asked me if I could stay there for a few hours as his family needed to sort things out at home.

I agreed without thinking.

In ten minutes, I found myself alone in that hospital room, with a dying man.

They say mountains and big banyan trees make you ponder about the meaning of life.

Maybe. Haven’t climbed a mountain or sat long enough under one of those trees yet.

But I know one thing for sure.

A hospital room does make you ponder about the meaninglessness of life.

In the four hours that the family was gone, I sat there anticipating the impending gloom delayed only by hope-support systems.

God versus gadgets. Nature versus science.

Hardly an even battle this. At best, just a token resistance.

Amidst these battles raging in eerie silence broken only by the hisses and beeps of machines, I sat there, a mute spectator recollecting my only meeting with that man on the bed.

I remembered the conversation I had had with him over lunch at his place on that day, many years ago.

“Yes is more dangerous than No!” he had said, as lunch was being served.

I had at first laughed it off as a better conversation starter than ‘Today is hotter than yesterday!’ and a better ice-breaker than ‘So, what do you do these days, son?’

But when he continued and said, “One of the greatest lessons you can learn in life is to say No,” I realised he meant more.

I looked down at my plate. It was overflowing. I had been saying Yes to those generous servings.

I let out an embarrassed chuckle, and caught my friend glare at his father.

But the old man was in no mood to stop. He seemed to have a full-blown thesis on the subject ready, and had decided to premiere it on me that day.

“No is definitive. It gives a finite end to things. But Yes is infinite and invites continuation.”

“Isn’t No negative and Yes positive?” I asked, while trying to even out the pile on my plate to make it look civil.

“Maybe the first Yes is positive,” he said. “The second could be ambition. But the third is definitely greed or foolishness.”

I had five Yesses on my plate that afternoon. That’s why what he said cut like a sword.

The leftovers of the old man’s sermon through lunch that day are still fresh in my mind.

Yes is the flag-off to all excesses in our lives. Be it food, money, power, love, relationships…anything. All our problems are a result of us not being able to say No at some point in time.

We are steeped in a culture that says ‘The more the merrier’ instead of ‘Enough is enough’.

Plenty means prosperity.

Which is why glasses have to overflow. Pockets have to be stuffed. Wallets have to bulge. Bags have to burst at the seams. Love has to be unconditional. Emotions have to be unbound. Relationships have to be forever. Life has to be eternal. And we have to be immortal.

Basically, we believe happiness is about having everything unlimited.

And Yes is the floodgate to excesses.

“Excess of anything is poison,” he had summed up and concluded his sermon and lunch.

I said a meek No to a second helping of desserts that day.

That sermon might not have changed me. But it did make me more aware.

Now every time I have a problem in life, I can trace it back to a Yes that I said or to a No I didn’t.

 

The family was back in the hospital room. They all looked pleased at having sorted things out. Tensions and worries on faces were gone, though nothing had changed for the old man on the bed. Doctor and his entourage walked in for a review again. And repeated their hopelessness.

“So do you guys want to take him off the ventilator?”

Even before he had finished I heard most of them say, “Yes, Yes, Yes!”

The first Yes can pass off as inevitability. The second Yes, maybe, practicality. But the third?

It betrayed their excessive eagerness.

 

 

 

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2017: Sort of sorted

 

It was the first hour of the first morning of 2017.

I was staring at my pathetic reflection in the bathroom mirror. My special shirt, trousers and jacket were soaked in vomit. In spite of my best efforts to shoo it away, the first thought of the year came into my head: “Why am I here?”

It was the same question that my friend had asked me just a few minutes ago. I was carrying him back home midway from our NYE party, struggling up the stairs to his bedroom, when he tapped me on my shoulders and asked the same profound question: “Why am I here?”

His speech was slurred, but the inference was absolutely clear.

Doesn’t matter if you are sober or drunk, you remain clueless about some questions in life. In fact, if you are drunk, you can vomit and sleep away a problem. But if you are sober, it will fester inside and nauseate you.

So there he was, cozily curled up in his bed, blissfully snoring. And here I was, in my bathroom, drenched in his vomit, pondering about the purpose of life.

“Why am I here?”

They say this was the first question that the thinking man thought to himself the moment he acquired the ability to think. That makes this question as old as man himself. It has a long and tiresome history from the Stone Age to today’s Stoned Age. Through all these years, man has discovered Nature, created civilisations and invented tools, but hasn’t managed to answer this. (Nor has he learnt how to drink alcohol responsibly.)

The story of the question that has defied all evolution has got to be told. And who better to tell it than its latest victim.

So, here’s one version of what must have happened as man evolved from Adam and Eve to my friend Zaheer and me:

Adam must have been wandering aimlessly in Eden thinking “Why am I here?” when he was probably attacked by a beast, or had fallen into the sea.

“To survive is the purpose of life!” he must have then thought.

But once he learnt to survive and once he met Eve, priorities changed.

“Love,” he announced was his new-found purpose. And she blushed.

But Love ends where hunger starts.

“Food!” And soon, “Good Food” became the new purpose in life. His and hers.

Not long, though.

When Eve grew a tummy, they at first blamed it on all the apples and berries they ate. It was only nine months later that they realised the culprit was his fig leaf that she hadn’t spared.

Adam and Eve had unwittingly introduced pregnancy and children to this world.

“To create, to protect, to populate and to care for each other!” they felt was what life should be all about.

Cute babies soon grew up to become bawling children and difficult teenagers. The loving wife became a nagging mother. And the romantic husband became an angry father. The world’s first family was complete.

What one can’t escape, one learns to accept.

“Peace. Detachment. And Nirvana. That should be the ultimate goal in life!” they thought, while meditating.

But the world around them was getting increasingly crowded and chaotic.

Soon, there were more Adams, more Eves and more communities. With more people, came competition. And with competition came the one word that has been singularly responsible for much of the modern world’s ruin- Success.

“If at first you don’t succeed, try again!” said someone and elevated success to life’s most enduring be-all and end-all purpose.

Through might, if not, through money, success became all about attaining victory, fame and power. Once attained, it became all about retaining those at all costs.

Life became messy. The world, a horrible place.

One day, amidst all this mad rush, without any warning Adam and Eve died.

Suddenly life’s gains and the world’s progress seemed hollow and meaningless.

People were confused.

“Why are we here?” they asked. This time in chorus.

Collective questions get collective answers.

“There must be a Giver up there!” they said.

“The one who gave us this life must also be The Giver Of Death!”

There was a collective sigh.

“G.O.D!”

“The One who knows everything and does everything from up there!”

People looked up but saw nothing.

What one can’t see, one must hear about.

Someone got up and narrated a story.

Stories became myths. Myths became scriptures. Scriptures became hymns. Hymns became prayers. Prayers became rituals. Rituals became religion.

And the storytellers became its new messengers, priests gurus and godmen.

They introduced more Gods, superior religions, bigger promises.

Faith makes you blind. Absolute faith makes you deaf, too.

But you can never be too deaf to that voice in the head.

And that voice in people’s heads never stopped asking:

“Why am I here?”

In a bathroom, these voices resonate even more.

I stood there face-to-face with my reflection, that question still damning.

I took a deep breath.

A deep breath is to the mind what flush is to a toilet, or what alcohol is to one’s morals.

I took another deep breath and was about to flush that niggling question away in a moment.

Had I done that, mankind would have been doomed to remain as clueless as it has always been about “Why am I here?”

But I didn’t. I was distracted by a moving line of ants on the wall. They looked so purposeful. And that ticked me off.

I committed 2017’s first cruel deed. I ran my finger across that line breaking their community into two. There was pandemonium. The ants ran helter-skelter. Their purpose was gone. Their orderliness vanished. I was viciously pleased to have reduced them to my state.

But that was short lived. To my utmost surprise, I saw the ants regroup, exchange notes and disperse around, with a new-found purpose. Within minutes they were back on the trail. The moving line was restored. No great reunion or celebration. Simply back to the old purpose of going wherever they were going.

That’s when the word struck me.

“Sorted!” That’s what they were in their heads.

Ants have got to be the most sorted creatures on this earth.

In fact, most creatures other than humans are.

I suddenly remembered what I had read somewhere long ago.

“Life has many purposes. But a moment has only one.”

To understand the purpose of this moment, to pick and do what’s best that can be done in it, wholeheartedly, is what getting sorted is all about.

Ants do it so well. I had just seen a demonstration of that.

No worrying, no brooding, they are always doing what needs to be done from whatever that can be done.

“Think like an ant!” I screamed at myself.

Do I want to go back to that party?

No.

Do I ever want to use these clothes again?

No.

Then the only thing left for me to do was strip, discard the soiled clothes, have a thoroughly soaped, scrubbed bath and get into some fresh clothes for the night.

Simple. I did that.

As I tucked myself into the bed cozily, I heard a feeble voice inside my head ask: “Why am I here?”

I smiled faintly.

“To sleep, snore…”

I was asleep even before I could complete.

Looking for what’s not there. And missing what’s there.

Now that I think of it, maybe my wife had been waiting at the door for long, expecting a beaming smile and a warm hug from me. But at that moment, I was seething with rage at our building watchman. He had gone missing just when I wanted someone to help me carry my overloaded bags from the cab to the elevator.

I was probably frowning when I got out of the elevator at my floor. Maybe that’s why she sacrificed the idea of a warm reunion, and settled to holding my bags instead of me.

“How’s mom?” she asked, as I entered our home muttering curse words at the watchman.

“Mom?” I shot back irritated, as I roughly kicked the bags in, as if they were the watchman. “What about her?”

There was silence.

I looked up and saw her glaring. It struck me only then.

My mom’s health, of course! That’s why I had rushed from my home in Mumbai to my hometown off Chennai, a month ago!

Why do intelligent men become stupid husbands!

There’s nothing like good old humour to cover up your goofs. Provided it’s funny. So, I tried.

“Oh, yes! Motherland is safe! Enemies- Sugar, Potassium and Sodium have been pushed back to their normal levels,” I said, gesturing and sounding like a General who’s made enemy troops retreat in a battle.

When I didn’t hear her laugh, I turned around to see if she was at least smiling. She was glaring.

Where humour fails, intellect works. Mostly.

So I dumped on her all the medical gibberish that the doc had thrown at me, without really knowing what they meant and hoping she wouldn’t ask for explanations.

“Come on Rum, what I want to know is whether mom’s back to being herself,” she stopped me mid-way, countering intellect with emotion.

“Is she sleeping well? Eating well? Smiling again? Is her sense of humour back? Has she become her ruthlessly frank self, calling a spade a sword? Has she begun to fight with the gardener over her favourite plants again?”

I stared blankly.

Suddenly, I felt regret plunge into my heart, like a dagger.

“Er…I don’t know. I didn’t notice.”

“Ok, at least tell me if she has begun to laugh the loudest at her son’s insipid jokes?”

The dagger sank further in.

“Umm…I forgot to joke with her this time,” I said, rather dumbly.

My wife stopped and stared intently at me.

“Then what did you do there? A full month with your aging mother in a home that you spent all your best childhood years! Don’t tell me you just wasted the opportunity away! Surely, you created some wonderful fresh memories this time?”

Every word made me bleed more. How on earth did I miss to see this as an opportunity!

In fact, things had begun well. So very well.

I had reached the hospital only to be told by a cheerful doc that everything was fine and my mom could go home in a day or two. I had felt happy, and relieved enough to joke.

“Ah, are you telling me I came all the way here for nothing! False alarm, eh?”

All silences that follow jokes are terrible. This one was deathly.

It was an ICU. Grim patients stared back at my insensitivity. My mom glared through her Oxygen mask. And the cheerful doc lost his cheer and walked away.

My wife’s right. My jokes are good. Just that they are told at the wrong place at the wrong time to the wrong people.

Soon, my mom and I were back in my childhood home. For the first few days, I was obsessed with her medicines, bland diet and postures of sitting, walking, sleeping. All I was talking about was her illness.

Now that I think back, she did make feeble attempts to make me see beyond that.

She had asked for our old albums and home videos. But I dismissed them with some careless remarks.

“Oh, they are dusty. They will start you on a sneezing bout!”

“Oh, they are heavy and in the loft. The last thing we want is a sprained back!”

Every time she started a conversation about my childhood, I’d say, “Oh come on, why do you strain yourself talking. You have told this story a million times before. Get well. And we will all come back to listen to your old stories, see those albums and watch those videos together…some day.”

Never pausing to think: What if that some day never comes?

Or: Why can’t that some day be today?

The only time I came close to making the most of that stay was when one evening she and I took a small stroll around the house. I saw mango trees laden with mangoes, flowering plants in full bloom and a jackfruit tree braving the weight of three massive jackfruits.

Memories of my brother and I running around those trees when they were much smaller, flooded me. We had played cricket there, broken flower pots, got yelled at, seen snakes, counted birds, chased butterflies, listened and giggled at mom talking to her plants…

I yelled out to mom wanting to remind her of those days. We could have spent the next couple of hours talking and laughing about it, and probably set the tone for my whole stay there.

But it was not to be.

As she walked cautiously over dried leaves and pebbles to where I was, I spotted a bare stalk on the jackfruit tree. Clearly, someone had cut a jackfruit from it.

In a matter of seconds all that nostalgia and emotion were swept away without a trace, by anger. By the time my mom came near me, I was all worked up.

“Someone’s stolen our jackfruit!” I said.

She stared back at me, looked up at the tree for a few moments and explained, “Some branches grow barren.”

“No, I have been seeing jackfruit trees for 54 years! I know,” I argued.

“And I for 76!” she said, trying to clinch it with experience.

“I know people better than you do,” I was in no mood to give up. “I’m sure the gardener stole it when we were in the hospital.”

“Look, he would never do that. And even if he did, it’s after all a jackfruit,” she tried to bargain human values with economic value.

“No way. Today it’s this, tomorrow it will get bigger!” I tried to scare her into acceptance.

“What? The jackfruit?” she joked, hoping I’d laugh. (Like son, like mother!)

“No, his theft,” I explained.

Logic is a bigger joke-ruiner than silence.

“How can you blame someone without being sure?”

“It can’t be anyone else. I’ll prove it to you.”

That’s how my next twenty days with my mom in my childhood home was wasted away.

All I could think and talk about was the missing jackfruit. All I did was try and trap a thief who was no thief.

I left the three fully grown and ripe jackfruits in the tree as baits, and spent many sleepless nights peering into darkness through small openings in windows. I threw crisp dried leaves around the tree and ran at their slightest crackle, only to see a snake slither away or a squirrel dive in.

Couple of nights I even made my recuperating mom take turns and stay awake.

Every time I spoke to the gardener, the words were laced with stinging innuendoes. Not that he got it.

But at the end of it all, I had to leave without solving the whodunnit.

The jackfruits left as baits rotted in the tree and fell off. I spent a whole day plucking all the mangoes even before they were ready, so that none would be left to steal. As my mom was advised not to eat ripe fruits, I packed all of them in my bags and carried them to Mumbai- even paying a huge amount for the extra baggage on the flight.

“Ramesh sir was not his usual self. He was cold and preoccupied throughout. He behaved quite strangely this trip. Maybe your illness had upset him,” the old gardener told my mom after I left.

Back in Mumbai, as I now sat on my bags full of mangoes and contemplated on the stupidity of the whole thing, my phone beeped a message.

It was from my mom.

It said: “I was the one who took that ripe jackfruit on the tree, one afternoon when you were asleep. Sorry it ruined your stay here. But honestly, the jackfruit was so so good, it was worth it!”

I felt like crying. But ended up laughing out loud at her joke. For the first time in months.

I sent her an LOL. But how I wish she could’ve heard me.

I called out to my wife.

“Nothing to worry. Mom’s back being her sarcy self!”

Love is about hate

Five days ago, when a friend called to say that a couple we know very well were separating after 11 years of marriage, my wife said, “How could that be true? They were so much in love! Why did this have to happen, that too on Valentine’s Day!”

I responded with three loud, shocked OhMyGods.

The first one was because I realized it was Valentine’s Day, and I had forgotten it yet again.

The second one was because I realized it was going to be a year since I wrote a post. The last one was about forgetting last year’s Valentine’s Day.

The third and the least shocked one was for the news.

Surprised by my over-the-top anguish, my wife said, “Terrible, na? What to do! Unbelievable, they were such a lovey-dovey couple.”

“I’m calling off all my surprise Valentine’s Day plans. Really not feeling like it,” I said, shamelessly using a friend’s plight to my advantage.

“Yes, of course. Can’t think of a celebration right now. But I’m so glad you remembered!” she said and went out of the room to let me mourn in peace.

Not that I was heartless. Just that I had been expecting this a long time now. Here was another couple that made the crucial mistake of evaluating love with love. Wishes, gifts, surprises, occasions, cuddles, kisses are all great, but are no barometer of reality. The gushing answer you get to the well-timed “So honey, how much do you love me?” asked on a Valentine’s Day candle-lit dinner, can be so self-gratifying that it hides all the lurking dangers under the table.

“Love is not about the million things that you like about me, but about the really few that you dislike about me,” I had once told my wife. “They are like those small insignificant worms on some of those flowers in paradise. They are often missed in the beauty and magnificence of romance. But trust me, they have the potential to grow into anacondas and swallow the whole relationship.”

“You know what I dislike about you? Your idea of a conversation about worms and anacondas on a Valentine’s Day dinner,” she had said.

I never brought this up with her ever again. There are things that one can’t talk to one’s spouse, but can talk to the rest of the world. This is one such.

Honestly, even if I were to keep the creepy analogies aside, the fact remains this-

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Love isn’t about celebrating all that you love about each other, but about overcoming the dislikes, the uncomfortable zones, the irritants, the disagreements. Those are the weak links that snap at the wrong time.

It will do us good to remember that relationships are built by love, but always- always- broken by hate.

What’s true for love and relationships is also true for everything else in life.

Peace doesn’t depend on those who practise it, but on those who break it.

Goodness is never about how good a person is, but about how bad the person is capable of being.

Spirituality is not about how you live in the belief that there’s God, but about how you would live if there was no God.

Happiness is determined not by how you react to the good times, but by how you overcome the bad ones.

Power is not the influence you have on others, but on yourself.

Respect is not about how people treat you when you succeed, but about how they treat you when you fail.

I put down these thoughts and read them out aloud.

I let out three surprised OhMyGods, again.

This time, the first one was because I realized I now have a post! Finally!

The second one was because I realized how far I am from imbibing all the above.

The third and the most important one was because I realized my wife was standing behind me, hands on her hips, listening to the whole thing.

I grinned sheepishly.

She said, “You know what I dislike about you? You are so profound when romancing and so silly when philosophizing.”

This. Is. Silly?

In love? With love or loved one?

Here’s the thing about my wife and me.

After 22 years of our marriage, we might not know when to say what, but we know very well when not to say what.

So, five days ago when my wife asked, “Shall we go out for coffee?” I instantly said, “Yes, why not.” It should logically have been, “But why?” because both of us hate the coffee at coffee shops. We believe we make the world’s best coffee at home. She, hers. I, mine.

But that’s the way it is with us.

It’s never about what’s said, always about what’s unsaid.

So, for no said reason, but for a very big unsaid one, there we were, last Friday evening, walking up to the coffee shop down our road.

Sorry sir, you need to have something red on you. There’s a dress code for today.”

I was stopped at the door rudely, like an immigrant without a passport.

With a WTF expression, I turned around to look at my wife beside me, as if she owed me an explanation to this nonsense.

She wasn’t there. She was already in. A red stole that I had never noticed before, now prominently draped around her neck. She rolled her eyes that left the “I have given up on you!” unsaid. She took out a red handkerchief from her handbag with a flourish that one only sees in magic shows, and I was in.

Ah, so you knew the code?” I asked sheepishly.

No, I knew the date,” she said as we proceeded to the counter.

Today isn’t 9th November, so it can’t be your birthday for sure!” I said and laughed at my own joke, like the smiley people insert after messages.

Even if it were, my birthday would only be tomorrow,” she said.

Oh yeah! 10th November! Slip of the tongue,” I said, biting my lip.

As we waited at the counter to get our order right, I glanced around for our seats.

The cafe was almost full. Filled with gushing, giggling youngsters- couples in love. Most of them barely as old as our children. The whole cafe was an overdose of red, hearts and mush. For a moment it seemed that the whole world had abruptly turned love-struck and young. Until, I caught my distorted reflection in the glass window. It assured me that life wasn’t a fantasy.

When done, we chose the first available seats. Usually, I choose the one facing the TV and she chooses the one facing the people. Not because I love watching TV, but because she loves watching people and I hate people watching me.

Aren’t you wondering what all this fuss is about?” she asked looking around, as soon as we settled down.

Oh, it’s just a marketing gimmick,” I said. “Youngsters are suckers for atmospheres. Create one with loud music, psychedelic lights and suffocating smoke, and everything illegal becomes a hip thing to do. Create one of love and romance, and people are more than willing to go all lovey-dovey. The occasion becomes so overwhelming that most people are overawed by it and go about like cupid zombies. It makes them do stupid things. Like proposing. Worse, accepting. Look at that,” I said pointing to a table.

A boy had just then gone down on his knees in theatrical fashion and proposed to his girl, extending a rose and then flipping a ring under her nose.

We watched the girl blush on cue and pretend to have been completely surprised by his love, this proposal and the gift. With eyes welling up- with tears of joy I presumed, and not with the disappointment of the rock turning out to be smaller than she had imagined- she uttered a yes, and it was his turn to show that this was the most unexpected answer.

They hugged and kissed. We were the only ones watching. The others were busy with their own acts of romance.

How could a grown up man- okay, grown up boy- go down on his knees and plead: Will you marry me? And how could anyone say yes to a beggar of love. Love can’t be asked for, it needs to be earned, elicited, evoked, made to feel. The problem is that people fall in love with love more than each other. In love, like most things human, people miss the soul and hold on to the frills that come with it.”

How would you know! You never proposed to me.” she said.

My dad did,” I protested.

Yes, to my dad. And after they said yes to each other, do you know where you took me out for our first date?”

There were no coffee shops around those days,” I said in my defense.

Maybe, but surely, there were beaches, gardens, malls and movies? Of all the places, you took me to the Automobile Association of India’s office. There we sat at untouchable distance from each other on a rickety old wooden bench, cobwebs dangling from the ceiling threatening to fall on our heads, in an office full of dusty files and bored clerks on the verge of retirement.”

Ah, you remember all of it, so vividly,” I said trying to bring a little glee to the proceedings.

How could any girl forget such an experience,” she said.

Did she say forget or forgive? I wasn’t going to ask for sure.

Tell me, do you also remember our marathon call that would put all these What’s Apping youngsters to shame?”

Of course, from 10 in the night to 4 in the morning. I was on the phone when my dad went to sleep and I was on the phone when he woke up in the morning. It sounds so romantic, but do you know, I was yawning away at the other end? Because all you did for those 6 hours was describe your family tree- a large one at that. Who was who, and why the whos were so special. In such detail that by the end of it, I could have written biographies of them.”

And what about my love letters to you,” I asked excitedly.

Love letters? Where was the love? I remember every word of all the letters you wrote in the four months between our engagement and wedding. The most boring ones any man could have ever written to a woman. I’ve preserved them for posterity. One day they would make a great book titled What To Expect From Life After Marriage.”

Are you serious? You still have my letters?”

Yes, all 37 of them!”

And for the next 45 minutes, all through our coffee and our trip back home, she narrated parts of those letters. Agreed, they were terribly unromantic.

But even after 22 years they made her laugh, tease, ridicule and talk for that long. And I played along, like I have all these years, in the know that I have made this Valentine’s Day, unforgettable for her, in my own unique way.

I don’t know if the boy and the girl at the cafe that day would remember that cafe or the readymade card they exchanged, or the gift he gave her, 22 years from now.

But I am sure on every Valentine’s Day, they would be dressed in red, sitting at some fancy place that has hearts strewn all over and soaking in the perfect atmosphere for love.

I only hope it is with each other.

Feel. Think. Act.

 

I am waiting for a knight in shining armour to come riding on a horse, sweep me off my feet and ride away into the sunset.”

Why is it never in a flaming-red vehicle with alarm bells ringing?

As she stands on the edge of the terrace atop a skyscraper in flames, I want to be the one- mask in place, cape fluttering in air, swooping down from the sky and flying away with her, as a million onlookers gasp, “That’s him, yet again!”

Why is it never a helmeted, blue-uniformed man on a snorkel?

Doctor!” “Sports hero!” “Movie star!” “Rock star!” “Soldier!” “Teacher!”

Why is it never a fire man?

Ever wondered why the fire man is missing from all our lists, conversations, books, comics, movies and everyday lives, except, of course, when the context is a fire accident?

Fifty-two years in this world and twenty-five years in Mumbai- the most densely populated city of the world’s second most populated country- is enough time to have bumped into all kinds of people that exist in this world. I have met billionaires, beggars, aliens, angels, gods, godmen, pimps, transexuals and a terrorist.

Yes, a terrorist.

Even a terrorist. But no, not a fire man.

Why is he so elusive?

Why is there no fire man in anyone’s family, or extended family or extended extended-family?

Why is he never a bridegroom at the weddings we attend? Or the stranger we bump into at a party? Or at a dentist’s waiting room? Is it that he finds toothache too mild a pain to go to a doc?

Why do we never find him sitting in our adjacent seats on a bus, train or aircraft? Is it that he doesn’t ever travel in any other vehicle other than the fire engine?

Is he for real?

Or is he that kind of a superhero who appears only during a crisis and disappears after that? Could he be our local barber or that innocent school teacher or that bored postman, who shrugs off his clothes in a phone booth or dark alley, and turns into a superhero in a crisis?

I have gone around asking everyone I know where I could meet him.

“At the fire station, of course,” was the most popular answer.

“Why go in search of him when you can get him to come home in no time? Just set something on fire,” a friend had joked.

“No, I don’t want to meet him professionally,” I had said. “I want to meet him at a coffee shop or a restaurant, where I can talk to him.”

“But why?” was everyone’s unanimous response to that.

Why?!

“Why shouldn’t we? How can we afford not to meet him?” was my thinking.

“He and only he has the formula for our life’s problems.”

As a kid I thought it would be the maths teacher, because she seemed to have a formula for everything else. But soon, I realised that no mathematical formula can ever solve life’s equation of X + Y = Z, where X, Y and Z are unknown and varying all the time.

A little later in life, I thought parents must be the ones with all the answers.

But by the time I was a teen, I knew that parents are very good at telling us what not to do, but terrible when it comes to being right about what to do.

That’s why, sooner or later everyone turns to god. Even I did.

The problem is that god does such a good job of camouflaging himself that I ended up asking my questions into emptiness, in the belief that he was somewhere around and listening. Not even an echo came back. Even if I assume that he had indeed listened and also answered, then those surely were so well-coded and encrypted that I hadn’t even realised they were meant for me.

That’s why I had in my forties turned to godmen- the self-appointed interpreters of god’s coded answers. The problem was that their interpretation was always the same: “Pay me, and all your problems will vanish!”

All that vanished were my hard-earned savings.

My search for the one with the formula for life’s problems continued without success.

It was only recently, when I was going through the copies of my old resignation letters, that an overused corporate phrase in one of the lines, struck me.

All we seem to be doing here is crisis management- fighting and dousing one fire before moving onto the next.”

Fire fighting!

It suddenly seemed to me as the best way to describe problem-solving.

If problems are like fire and solving them is fire-fighting, then the man most qualified to tell us how to do it has got to be the fire man, right?

Simple.

That’s how my search for the fire man had begun.

After almost two years of scouting around, I found a friend’s friend’s friend’s friend’s cousin who had a neighbour, who he believed used to be in some way connected with “fire, water and all that”.

So, the biggest meeting of my entire life was finally set up.

I least expected what I encountered.

There sat an eighty year old man in front of me. Watching him struggle with the glass of water in front of him, I wondered if he was indeed the man who could have walked bravely into infernos and rescued lives, or just handled those enormous turbo water-jet hoses.

But as we got talking and he began to narrate his experiences, every fictional superhero began to seem like a kiddy character in a Pixar film.

Here sat the real super hero of the real world, in front of me.

To those who say, so are teachers, doctors and soldiers, I say that it’s easy to rescue people from ignorance with a cane, save lives from a heart attack when you don’t have to go through one yourself, or protect one by killing the other.

In contrast, the fire man has to willingly walk into the jaws of death to save those already in it.

I let him say all that he wanted to say. It took a while before he finally dried up.

It was then that I asked him the question for which I’ve searched answers all my life.

Is there a formula to fight and douse life’s fires?”

I thought he would flinch and it would take me a few more hours just to explain what I meant.

But his answer was instant, as if he had been preparing for it all his life.

In my experience I have found the mothers the most difficult ones to rescue. They are like heavy emotional sacks, refusing to budge without their kids, their husband and their belongings. But once done, they are so emotionally spent that they become one of the quickest recoverers from shock and trauma.”

I couldn’t understand the relevance, but listened.

However well meaning they might be, the onlookers are a big hindrance in every rescue. But they are the only ones with objective opinions in that hour of crisis. Being relatively uninvolved and unemotional, their cold logic and suggestions have often provided the breakthrough we were hunting for.”

He ambled on. I was clueless where he was heading. Had he heard my question wrong?

The reason why I spent forty years of my life in fire service is because there’s nothing in the world as noble as this rescue act. Running into a raging fire without knowing who you are going in to save, or whether there’s anyone in there at all, is not driven by instinct like most other rescue acts, or emotion, like most human kindness acts. It’s driven by just one thing- purpose.”

Interesting, but I was not there to make a biopic on him. Impolite though it might have been, I had to remind him what I had asked.

He simply chuckled.

Every time we got a call and were rushing to the accident site, I used to follow a simple routine. I used to sit there in the van, eyes closed and feeling all that I wanted to feel- worry, fear, anxiety, shock. It was my way of draining all emotions out of my system. By the time I reached the spot, I felt nothing and was ready to study the problem like an onlooker would. Ideas come easily then. Once we had our plan A and Plan B and Plan C, I stopped thinking, and rushed in to execute the plan like any possessed fire man would. Not result, not emotion, not instinct, it was the plan that became our purpose.”

He paused to sip his coffee that had gone cold already.

To feel like a mother, think like an onlooker and act like a fire man is life’s formula for its problems. Ironically, I had mastered this routine for forty years so successfully, and yet never ever thought of using it to tackle my life’s many economic and relationship issues. Had I, how simple life would’ve been, I now wonder!”

He continued to speak, but I was no longer listening. I shut my eyes to concentrate on my thoughts. My mind was frantically recollecting all the problems that I, my family and my friends had faced, and was beginning to fit this formula in, to see if it works.

It did beautifully.

Every example of great handling of a problem had, in a way, maybe by instinct than knowledge, been the same formula.

Feel. Think. Act.

And strictly in that order.

Because if you FEEL any time other than in the beginning, you will end up as an oversized emotional baggage; if you THINK any time other than in the middle, you will end up as a nervous wreck or a grumpy brooder.

I was convinced.

This was not just the simplest, but the only way to deal with life’s problems.

I don’t know how long it had taken me, but when I opened my eyes, the fire man had left, his chair was vacant, his coffee cup was empty and there was a note for me under it.

I read it.

Dear Friend, I knew you were going around searching for a fire man and an answer. The fire man you might have found. But the answer you would never have. Because life’s answers don’t come to us well-worded. Instead, they lie buried at our work place, our homes, our lives. And anyone who lives as long as I have, and faced as many problems as I have, is bound to have come across it many times. Problem is, we don’t recognize it. Thanks for making me do it. And sorry, I am no fire man, just a poor old man! Thanks for the coffee.”

In shock I rose to leave, when the waiter stopped me.

Sorry sir, you forgot to pay!”

Walk, why fly?

Indian mothers have a unique way of interpreting western nursery rhymes to their advantage.

Many many eons ago, my mother pioneered the anti-heights campaign in my head when she summed up Humpty Dumpty with a thought provoking question: Would he have had such a terrible fall had he been on the ground and not on a wall?

Jack & Jill with: Would they have come tumbling down had they not gone up there?

Really, would they have? I grew up wondering.

Much later when my Class Four B mate, little Krishnakumar, climbed the school’s imposing banyan tree only to fall and break his bones, I heard a little voice inside me resonate that logic: Why did he have to climb it?

(I tell you, such whispers of the mind are far louder than what the world would achieve, if it stood in a line and let out a chorus yell.)

My hatred for heights became full and complete that moment, that day.

From then on, Wuthering Heights became a haunted place to be in.

Headlines of falling meteors were read with a smug, “There, another one bites the dust!”

Superman became a bad example to crane our necks and look up to, especially because, by his own admission, he was neither a bird nor a plane.

Mountaineers standing triumphantly aloft conquered peaks seemed stupid, for I knew they would have smiled through whatever little face was visible, drunk some terrible coffee just because it was hot, huffed and puffed a bit, pottered around unsteadily, and not knowing what else to do, begun their less celebrated descend. Plain stupid.

My dislike for heights only grew in intensity as I watched people fall off stools, benches, ladders, cliffs, terraces, balconies, scaffoldings, stairs and pedestals.

Most kids learnt physics from it- centre of gravity, equilibrium, and all that.

I learnt biology from it- Unlike birds, we aren’t programmed for the skies. And, unlike our ancestors, we aren’t wired even for the trees.

Basically, the graffiti on the wall was, for once, legible- We are an altitude challenged race.

Our problems, unlike temperature and oxygen, are directly proportional to altitude, I concluded. I even had an explanation.

It is not by accident that our body parts with the least problems are the ones closest to the ground. Apart from an ingrown nail or a shoe bite, do we remember having any issues with our toes? Yes, toes? Okay, someone stepping on our toes, perhaps. But other than that? Nothing.

Now go higher. You will see problems increasing.

Aching knees.

Insatiable groins.

Rumbling stomach.

Above them, the heart. A web of complex emotional tangles, clogged arteries and choked veins.

And even higher, at the very top of it all, is the crown of all problems- our head. A beehive of noisy worries, polluted thoughts and a breeding pot of worries. They say, almost 90% of all the problems in our body originate here. I’d say, that of the world, too.

However, my attempts to turn this analogy into an ideology didn’t succeed beyond a few polite listeners.

Others were downright rude. They said I needed medical intervention.

My early signs of becoming a child-philosopher were dismissed by people with a heartless one-word diagnosis for it: “Vertigo!” said the doctors, and “Laziness!” said the elders.

Medication had no effect on me. And advice, I refused to swallow.

Simply because, most of these people who ask us not to fear heights, standing firmly on the ground below and encouraging us to climb higher and higher, are never there when we fall.

I have seen kids climb human pyramids until they stumble and fall, breaking their neck or spine. I have seen the people whipping up a frenzy until then, disperse in no time and go to the comfort of their homes while the poor kid gets wheeled into surgery.

Ditto with rising stars. Ditto with businesses. Ditto with relationships.

It’s never lonely at the top. It’s the fall that’s lonely.

Which is why, when my class was once asked what we would like to become when we grew up, thirteen said doctors; eight said engineers; five said army officers; two, teachers; two, cricketers; one, actor; one, scientist; and I said, “Nothing.”

In that year’s exam, to explain the theory of gravity, I wrote: “Not envious competitors or adverse circumstances, the biggest enemy of our soaring aspirations is the greatest force on earth- gravity. Nature won’t let us rise. Even apple wasn’t spared.”

(On hindsight, that bit on apple seems prophetic, considering even Nokia and Samsung are today falling.)

No surprises, I was “detained” in class VII.

On the very first day of the next year, I realised that the ground we stand on is no safe and stable heaven either. As I watched my old friends go to Class VIII, it seemed to give way to the hell below.

“Ramesh, yours is not a fear of heights, but a fear of failures.” I heard my old teacher say. “Always remember, those who have flown and fallen make far better human beings than those who simply stand and stare.”

I conceded defeat then and there.

That year, dreams and ambitions sprouted tiny wings inside me. They flapped and soared and took me along like a stork carries a baby. We hit air-pockets, we dipped, but we recovered and gained height again. Greed fueled the climb. Oneupmanship whirred to life, like turbo engines. Envy became its propellors. By 25, I was part of a rat race in the skies. Soon, the purpose and the destination of my life became the height- that which is higher than the rest.

I became a Humpty Dumpty with wings. An apple that defied Newton. A helium-swollen head that broke away from the part with the heart.

After almost 25 years of flying experience- the kind that would have made me an Air Commodore in the Indian Air Force- one day, I simply stopped flapping those wings. And had a free fall.

(Notice how a fall is always free?)

The thud on the ground wasn’t as bad as people had warned me about. Yes, there were mild bruises to the ego. Yes, there were a few broken expectations, but thankfully, no damage to the spine. Most hearteningly, the ground now seemed like the terra firma it was supposed to be, not a runway.

And, for the first time in my life, I discovered the joy of walking.

Unlike flying and running, walking doesn’t have an ambition, or a competitive edge to it. It’s a journey of self discovery, not a race.

No wonder even Johnnie turned a walker. After all, one can’t drink and drive, or fly, but can always walk. Well, at least, stagger, depending on how much one has had.

Flying gave me a flat, bird’s eye perspective of everything in life. Whereas walking offers a rich and varied topographical experience at every bend and turn. I see the insignificant snail crawling between blades of grass and the enormous mountains lining the horizon. I feel the vastness of the sea, the power of its tides and the little shells on the sands under my feet. All at the same time.

Walking has become the purpose and the destination.

There are times when I have missed a step, stumbled and fallen. But then, I have risen, dusted my back and continued to walk.

Mother was right, this fall can never be as terrible as the one from a wall or a hill.

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