Posts Tagged ‘answers’

Life’s Bald Head, Potbelly and Skin Colour

 

Surely, life doesn’t need theatrical effects to bring high-voltage drama into our lives. Without dark clouds, hooting owls and howling winds, it can simply drop a horrifying thought into our heads and cause edge-of-the-seat tension, the kind that fiction usually takes so much effort to create.

It was a perfectly sunny and happy day at work many years ago, when such a thought was put into my head by satan in the guise of a friend. He had dropped in for one of those idle chats. (And what do they say about idling and devil? Oh yeah, that.)

The conversation, as if by devious design, veered from work, bosses, wives to epitaphs. And since we were hovering around death, it didn’t come as a surprise when he asked, “Tell me, if you were to suddenly fall down gasping for breath and knew you had 60 seconds to death, what would your message be to this world and your loved ones?”

That would have sounded like a cousin of those stupid last questions that interviewers ask celebs on TV, had I not been in the mood for humour.

I gave him a few one liners and we both laughed, and he later left.

But for the rest of the day I couldn’t work.

“Really,” I began to think, “what would I want to say if something like that were to happen?”

Should I shout out all my passwords? Should I reveal all the secrets I know of people? Should I be thanking people for all that they have done for me? Should I use the limited time to apologise for all the wrongs done to them?

Time would run out on me before I mentally run through all the possible options and picked one.

On that day, I realised that along with life insurance and a written will, one has to keep a deathbed speech, too, prepared.

For two years after that chat with friend-cum-satan, I collected a host of deathbed stories from around the world and across cultures.

These are fascinating stories woven around people’s last words. The best came from China and India. Obviously. They have history and numbers in their favour. India alone has 1.2 billion potential deathbed stories waiting to happen.

If you overlook the morbidity of such a hobby, you will probably see realism meeting philosophy meeting spirituality in those stories, enhanced by a liberal dose of imagination over years of retelling.

I enjoyed collecting them. Not because I derived any sadistic pleasure from the plight of people gasping for breath and words at the same time. But because, through this exercise, I began to believe that the only time people say anything of any significance is when they are dying.

There’s a certain something about having lots to say but very little time and breath left to say it in. It brings out the best in people. It ensures that the message is concise, distilled, meaningful and relevant.

The deathbed is no place for polite warm-up conversations about the weather, politics and recent reads. People get to the point. It’s their last chance to say what they’ve wanted to all their lives, but didn’t have the courage, time or need to.

No other time in life does a speaker get such earnest listeners who hang on to every half-syllable uttered.

Deathbed statements are usually loaded with wisdom and are the best sum-ups of life, as it comes from someone who has seen it all, been through it all.

It’s like listening to someone talk about college life on his graduation day.

Like a bridegroom talking about bachelorhood on the day of his wedding.

Like what employees say at exit interviews.

Sometimes, it’s so profound that it takes a lifetime to understand or appreciate it. Also, because those are half-said words and sentences, they offer great intrigue, mystery and amusing misinterpretations.

I am reminded of a cute story from Jiangsu Province in East China. Elders there have been narrating it to their youngsters for generations, though I have no idea to what effect.

It is about a son who wasted all his life destroying his field, demolishing his house and digging up every inch of land, just because his dying father’s last words were: “Unearth the buried treasure, my son! Unearth the treasure!”

Many unsuccessful years later, on his own deathbed the son remarked, “I want to sing!” And he sang the only song he had ever sung in his life, stunning the people gathered around him.

“I am happy you unearthed the hidden treasure!” said an old wise one in that group as the son smiled and breathed his last.

There are many such wonderful deathbed stories in this world.

But, of all that I have managed to unearth, my favourite is from a tribe in Tamilnadu in South India.

It answers this cliché for me: If there’s only one piece of advice you can give this world, what would it be?

The answer is what the old village headman in the story, said at his deathbed: “Cover your bald head, reduce your potbelly and let your skin be!”

Though they found it weird, it is said that the whole village as a mark of respect for their leader, wore turbans, tucked in their tummies and stayed away from applying turmeric on their skins for a week of mourning. The lore says that this became a ritual every time someone in the village died- the dying would mouth the same words and the village would mourn the same way. It was believed that the soul would only then rest in peace.

The headman’s son who was barely six when his father died, was the only one who said that his father couldn’t have meant something this foolish. The son is believed to have spent all his life in trying to understand the meaning of his father’s last words.

The story that begins on a deathbed, ends on a deathbed, too- this time the son’s.

His last words were an explanation of his father’s last words, and believed to have put an end to the village’s strange mourning customs.

“All life’s problems are like bald heads, pot bellies and skin colour,” the son had struggled to complete. “Some can be overcome by smartness, some need to be solved by a strong will and some have got to be simply accepted with courage . And he who can distinguish the three is the only one who will be truly happy in life.”

Is there a more practical lesson in life?

 

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Sweet lies. Bitter truths.

Chocolates and bitter gourd.

One is sweet. The other, bitter.

One is unhealthy. The other, healthy.

 

Just like compliments and insults.

One is gleefully accepted. The other is instantly resented.

One is about sweet lies. The other, about bitter truths.

 

I know you are protesting. (When haven’t you?)

Agreed, not all compliments are lies and not all insults are truths.

But you can’t deny that compliments are about saying what one wants to hear. And insults are about saying what one hopes won’t be said.

One is like walking into a beauty parlour. The other is like being wheeled into an operation theatre.

One is about masking the faults and revealing the strengths. The other is about masking the strengths and revealing the faults.

What clinches it in favour of insults is this: Compliments are very rarely from the heart. While you can be sure, insults are always wholehearted- from the bottomest pit of the heart.

Agreed, both are half-truths.

But a compliment is a dangerous half-truth to believe. While an insult is a useful half-truth to be worked upon.

One is about stagnation and ruination. The other is about betterment and perfection.

You’ve got to believe me, I am speaking from personal experience here.

One of the earliest compliments that put my life off-road came from my class teacher in class IV.

Just after handing me the year’s Report Card, she had asked me what I wanted to become in life. I had said, “Surgeon,” without hesitation.

She had laughed.

But I didn’t read much into that laugh, as it was followed by a life-changing compliment: “If nothing else, you at least have the long, soft fingers of a surgeon.”

That one comment made me pursue science until graduation. I spent considerable time and effort in trying to get into medical colleges despite what my marks, aptitude and entrance tests revealed.

Recently when I was introduced to a surgeon, I shook his hands and couldn’t help take a good look at his fingers. They were dark, short and stumpy. I could hear the teacher laugh, clearly.

My second most disastrous compliment came from the prettiest girl in class. While leaving school, she wrote this in my autograph book: “Your face is your fortune!”

That she wrote such a thing was unbelievable. But what she wrote was very belief-worthy. I must have read it a million times and carried it in my head for many many years.

If my face was indeed my fortune, then my fortune had begun growing facial hair just after school. Soon it was struck with chicken pox, then it got sun tanned, pimpled, freckled, blemished and later wrinkled. The only times my face has otherwise come into play in my life have been when I’ve come face to face with failures, fallen face down in my ventures, had face-offs with people, and been told on my face the bitter truth.

And yet, when my wife chose me as her husband over two other better qualified contenders, I suspected my deteriorating face to have finally paid off. I broached this topic on our first night, masking my self-obsession, with romance.

“What made you say no to that CEO in Saudi?” I asked, seeking a confirmation for the compliment in my school autograph book.

“What’s the point in having such beautiful Kancheepuram silk sarees if I have got to wear burqas over it?” she replied matter-of-factly.

I faked a smile.

“Okay, but you could have said yes to that auditor from Delhi?” I persisted, desperately fishing for a compliment, for any compliment.

But it was not to be. This is what she had to say: “Oh, he’s too good looking, too rich, too talented. He’s too good to remain a one-woman man.” Amazing how someone can be too good to be good.

The third compliment that I am still struggling to get over came from my family and friends around me. “Ramesh is so creative, no? He writes so well.”

They used to say this every time I gave them an idea or wrote them a card on social occasions.

Here is a sample of that creativity for which everyone thought I deserved the Booker prize:

You are as beautiful as a full moon

As bright as the sun at noon

To your family you are a boon

So, please don’t marry that goon

That turned me into an aspiring writer (I am still aspiring to be one), though a poor persuader (she married that goon) and a bad advisor (he turned out to be a boon).

In comparison, the insults in my life could have been far more constructive had I not rejected them.

“You dumbo, you can never become a doctor. Set up a pharmacy next to your dad’s clinic. Maybe you will survive.”  – A friend in school after a fight.

“How do you put up with this man?” – Our neighbour to my wife after a heated building society meeting.

“Bastard, no one’s ever going to find your writing worth buying.”  – An office colleague after I criticised his work.

The last comment is what made me start this blog. No one needs to pay, you see.

Over the years, I have become a complete convert.

I don’t accept compliments now. I don’t compliment anyone, either.

There’s good reason for it.

Tell a person you like his mannerisms, and you can be sure he’ll do it 10 times in the next 15 minutes.

Tell a girl that a colour suits her and she will wear those shades until you wish you went colour blind.

Tell someone you like the way he laughs and he’ll laugh for everything you say, until it gets on your nerves.

That’s the problem with a compliment. It makes people conscious of their strength and forces them to overdo it until it loses all its spontaneity and charm.

On my wife’s birthday this month, I told her I wasn’t going to give her any gift. Instead, I asked her to list out all that she hates about me. I promised her I’d change all of those for her.

She refused to say anything.

“Nothing,” she said politely, “You are okay as you are, Rum.”

But I insisted. And didn’t let her go off to sleep that night without saying it. Finally, she sat up and said, “Okay, if you insist…” And then went on to list 86 things wrong with me, in the next one hour. At the end of which, she kissed me and rolled over to go to sleep saying, “Rum, you are the best husband any woman can have.”

I sat up the whole night seething with rage. How dare she say such things about me, and worse, go off to sleep just like that.

But then, I remembered she had said something else, too.

Rum, you are the best husband any woman can have.”

Don’t ask me how anyone with 86 faults can qualify as a husband, forget being the best husband. But who cares. When it comes to compliments, hearts don’t ask for clarifications.

What matters was I felt good. Suddenly I was happy. I kissed her lightly in her sleep and went off to sleep.

Chocolate is an excellent sedative. Bitter gourd, a rude awakener.

God lies in specifications

Come festivals, and it’s sweets.

I like them.

You give, I eat and it immediately shows up as extra tyres around me.

So gratifying.

There’s also bargain shopping.

He shows, I like. He says 300, I say 100. He says 299, I say 200. He says 298, I say 290. I buy for 297. I win, I wear.

So satisfying.

In fact, I like anything that’s eatable, wearable, usable. What I get confused about are those vague wishes.

What does “Wishing you all the prosperity” mean? That I will have a windfall? How? I haven’t even bought a lottery ticket.

How can I accept “May you succeed” seriously, especially from the one who rejected my script two days ago?

There’s also plenty of “Wishing you much happiness” floating around. Everyone wants everyone to be happy. And yet, have you ever wondered how there’s so much of unhappiness still around?

Simple. Blame it on the world’s oldest warning. “If it ain’t objective, it gonna be subjective. And if it’s subjective, then get ready for bloody hell.”

Expect trouble with anything that’s vague. Much of the angst in this world can be attributed to things that are not tangible, measurable, weighable, countable.

Take Love, Happiness, Pride, Respect, Success. No two persons in the world have the same interpretations of those, or have the same expectations from those. Which is why it is difficult to please anyone for too long, with those.

In all my years in Advertising, there wasn’t one instance when I had been happily surprised with the annual increment. It had always been less that what I had expected. That’s because I interpreted every pat on my back as a zero added to my salary, while my bosses thought one is a substitute for the other.

Same thing with birthday and anniversary gifts of love. One year’s expectations go phoos when I impatiently tear open the gift wrappers and find an armpit roll-on deodorant, a ‘How to improve your writing’ book, a hair dye bottle and an anti-wrinkle cream.

I have the same issue with people who play the Guess Who game on phone.

My expectations scale down from an ambitious “Pixar?” and “Universal Studios?” to a hopeful “Yash Raj?” and “Balaji Telefilms?” until I give up after “Gopal Marriage Videos?”

It always turns out to be an anti climax. Last week, at the end of my long wish list, the voice at the other end asked, “Isn’t that Suresh Badrinath?”

No this is Ramesh Rabindranath.”

Sorry, wrong number. Happy Diwali, though.”

That’s the problem with this barrel called expectations. It comes with no lid, but has a porous bottom.

L.I.F.E might be the best management School one can graduate from, and Experience might be a better faculty than those at Harvard, but surely Expectations Management is not part of its syllabus.

How else to explain the failure of some of L.I.F.E’s brightest students?

Take the example of whom we call Karanor in Malayalam. Or his equivalent, the head of any large Indian joint family. I find him a much more efficient manager than any IIM-trained head of a multi-billion Joint Venture company.

But no matter how well he steers the big old ship through the fiercest storms and roughest seas, eventually there does come a time when he too fails. With the arrival of the second and third generation members in the joint family, expectations get messed up. Black Sheep labels will be pinned on many, but truth is, in a sinking ship there are never any villains, only scapegoats. The real reason is another unlearnt lesson in Expectations Management.

Or take the Mother, the world’s greatest General Manager.

She’s better than the best in Finance, Labour, Human Resources, Relationships, Events, Hospitality and much else. And yet, the moment daughters-in-law come into her family, she turns into this monster full of unrealistic expectations, that begins to consume the peace in the family.

Most problems in life boil down to poor management of expectations.

And one of the first lessons in Expectations Management is what Readers’ Digest dishes out as: “God lies in specifications. Devil in vagueness.”

Put down the parameters. Define it. Make it definitive,” they scream.

But who listens to the Good? After all, their theories are pristine and untested.

So hear it from the Evil, if you believe their theories are tried, tested, wrung from experience, and so more practical:

Anything left to the mercy of interpretations is up for debates, heartburns and chaos. Put down an unambiguous Yes-No checklist, and you can remove confusion and bring clarity into anything. Everything can be and should be quantified in life.”

Those are the words of Ramalinga Raju, the czar of Indian IT then, now in jail for financial fraud.

That was part of his brief for a corporate film spelling out his culture for Satyam. I remember asking him, “What about Creativity? Can it be quantified?”

Of course, it can.” he had said. “So can Happiness, Love, Pride, Respect, Success.”

I guess how well we do it will depend on how unambiguous the parameters are. I have seen it work in some cases, not work in some.

Take the example of Love in Marriage. Most husbands flounder to define it. But not this happily married friend of mine.

“Love should remain a feeling between two hearts. Not become a demonstration,” he used to say.

He had never gifted his wife a thing in all the six years of their marriage. When asked how he managed, he had given me the best quote on this:

Say it in words, and she will be happy for a day.

Show it as a gift, and she’ll be happy for a year.

Do it as a deed, and she’ll be happy forever.”

He and his wife separated exactly a year after I had heard that.

How could it fail?” I had asked. “That’s the best philosophy I’ve heard about demonstrating love in marriage.”

Because it was different from her philosophy,” he had replied.

Which is what?” I had asked, really curious.

Say it, show it and do it.”

Treasure the hunt

Why did they have to?
I mean, open the secret vaults at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvanandapuram? By doing that, they have killed one of the world’s longest-playing mysteries and one of its best kept secrets.
The Unknown is an amazing fertiliser that can make even barren minds sprout ideas. For years these vaults have provoked and prodded even dull and lazy minds to pole-vault.

Take mine for instance.

While in school, I’ve sat for hours in front of blank answer sheets, wondering if the vaults were torture chambers for those cruel people who set such impossible question papers.

On a bad-client day in advertising, I’ve hoped the vaults would be a treasure-trove of ancient concoctions that delivered kiss-fresh breath, dandruff-free hair, baby-bum complexions, odour-free armpits and never-over youth. Wouldn’t I then in one bath be able to rid the world of FMCG clients?

After a severe Harry Potter hangover (from the film, not the book), I’ve imagined an endless ocean of milk and honey inside those vaults, which when you swim across takes you to a world of magic, miracles and mysteries.

On a more spiritual day, I’ve dreamt of a stairway to heaven inside those closed doors.

Alas, those will never be. Today we know that it’s nothing but a boring collection of Gold, precious stones and elaborate jewellery. A collective worth of One Lakh Crore. That’s Rs.1000000000000/-only.
Now, even if they lured me with an apostrophe, and made it R’s 1000000000000/-, I wouldn’t change my opinion on those vaults.

They should not have been opened. Period. Because no matter how big the revelation, it can never be bigger than people’s imagination.
In fact, revelations kill innocence.
Truth makes our thinking too realistic, practical and hence selfish. From a child-like “Could it be this?” and “Could it be that?” it becomes an adult-like “How can I benefit from it?”

Let us go back to Thiruvanandapuram’s Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple’s Rs. 1000000000000/- (See how the names and figures match in size?)
It has become Kerala’s second biggest obsession. (The first remains alcohol.)
Listen in to what a Mallu recently told me.
“This Onam they are going to divide the wealth found among all the Malayalees of the world.”
My wife made a quick calculation to tell me that our share would be a pea-sized Gem. I made an even quicker calculation to tell her that we’d have to spend many times more to thread that pea in Gold, for her.

Another Mallu said that the wealth is only for the members of the Royal family and those who served them. Since every Malayalee is in some confusing way related to every other Malayalee, my wife in under 2 hours traced her lineage back to a Palace Guard in Raja Marthanda Varma’s kingdom. Yes, that’s one of those two guys who guard the entrance with their spears forming an X at the doorway. The other guy was traced forward to me in no time. How convenient.

And yet, I wish they had left the vaults alone for the generations to come, to dream up fantastical dreams.

This is much like my fascination for magic and magicians. It ended the day I saw ‘Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed’ show on telly.
It’s the same about well-written whodunits, or those two-hour movies where the hero woos the heroine. I have always hated it when they reveal the killer and the books end, or when the hero gets the heroine and the lights come on.

During Treasure Hunts in school picnics, I used to look forward to the hunts more than the treasure. There was so much I had learnt during those hunts.
I learnt that there are lizards under boulders, not just clues. And when caught, the lizard escapes leaving behind a wriggling tail in your hand. Incredible.

I learnt never to look for clues inside a crow’s nest. Especially when the crow is in it.

Never put your hand into burrows and pull out rabbits for applause. You’ll get only screams. For, what you might pull out is a cobra. For applause, you need to pull rabbits out of hats.

Everything that looks like the bark of a tree isn’t the bark of a tree. Some are chameleons.

Never let the fattest boy in class climb the branch that you are sitting on.

Absolute gems. Compare these with the hidden treasure unearthed at the end of the game- a packet of Cadbury’s Gems. My share: A pea-sized Gem.

Similarly, a game of Hide-And-Seek for me was always more about seeking than about finding. It was more exciting to prolong the game by going perilously past bums sticking out of cupboards and give them the shivers than to end the game yelling, “I see you!”
On one such long search, I had gone up to the terrace and caught my college-going cousin standing in a corner and stealthily waving out to a young man on the road.
Much later, when she broke the news at home, the adults got together and wondered how it had happened and when it had happened. I walked nonchalantly into the middle of that huddle, plonked myself on the sofa, crossed my legs and said, “Ah, I knew it two years ago!”
Whack! Whack!! “Why didn’t you tell us then?”
That’s how unreasonable adults can be when faced with the truth. The whack was painful. But the joy of knowing what the adults didn’t know for two full years was priceless. Would this have been possible had I ended the game at the bum in the cupboard?

It’s not just about One Lakh Crore, Cadbury’s Gems or shivering bums, even life’s ultimate truths aren’t more rewarding than the search for them.

Take the case of birds, bees, storks and the truth about how babies are made.

Even in class III, I didn’t buy that story. Of course I knew the real truth. Only English kids came via storks. In India, it’s the vegetables that mothers ate that became babies in their stomachs. Carrots became tall babies, drumsticks became thin guys, potatoes became chubby ones.
I had once asked my mom what she had eaten on the day she felt me as a bulge in her stomach.
“Nuts!” she had laughed. “You are absolutely nuts, Ramesh!” she had laughed hysterically.
Oops, am I then a peanut, I had wondered.

Not for long.
In class V, after watching a rather romantic Tamil film, I got the answer. The next day, I had summoned the boys of the class to reveal what was then called Gupt Gyan.
“Dads and moms come close to each other…” I had started.
“And then? And then?” asked an inquisitive Raghu.
“And then, they bring a sunflower in front of them and shake it until all petals fall off!”
I became their Guru. But only for 15 seconds.
“Stupid!” Kumaresan rose to challenge me. “That happens only in films.” He then went on to explain how it was done in graphic detail. The class went, “Aaah! Really?” Kumareasan became our new Messiah.
That evening I refused to speak to my mom and dad. How could they do it? Even if it was for my sake? How could they actually kiss behind that sunflower? Disgusting.

It was finally in class VI that an over-aged T.K.Dinesh enlightened all of us. That evening I stole my dad’s dictionary to search for the four-letter truth of my birth. In my search for it I learnt so much more. Fuage, Fubbery, Fucales, Fuchsia, Fuchsine. Until I found what I was looking for.

Insipid. It wasn’t half as exciting as our versions of how babies are made.

Any genuine Guru will tell you that spirituality is all about the search and not about the find, about the journey and not the destination. The Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question is nothing more than just a change in punctuation.

Ultimate Question: Who am I?
Ultimate Answer: Who am I!
It is the search between the Q and the A that is enriching, enlightening and enjoyable.

Of course, I’m not generalising this. I know how frustrating it is to search for a misplaced document.
As I say this, I am reminded of a joke.
Why is it that what we search for is always found in the last place that we look?
Because why would we look anywhere else once we find it?

Funny, but therein lies one of the world’s greatest lessons.

Career’s end is when we have nothing new to say, do or know at the workplace.

Marriage’s end is when a couple have nothing more left to be discovered in each other.

Life’s end is when we have nothing new left to learn about this world or ourselves.

Good, for nothing

 

Who‘s Shanta?’ ‘Why Shanta?’ ‘Where’s Shanta?’

It beats me hollow.

Why would people pick Shanta from a post that was all about Ram, Ravan, Sita, Lakshman-Rekha, Gandhi and Hitler?

Maybe it has got to do with the funny times that we live in.

When someone says he’s lying, we say. ‘He must be really honest to say that.’ But when someone insists he’s telling us the truth, we say, ‘I’m sure he’s lying.’

Funny world, indeed.

Last week when I narrated a simple script called The Ladder to some people, they said, ‘That’s too plain. No twists, no turns, no nothing.’

Fair enough. But when I introduced all that, and presented The Spiral Staircase, the same ones said, ‘That’s too convoluted and risky. Why can’t we have something straighter?’

Oh sure. So I went back in a day with The Staircase. Now they said, ‘That’s too laboured and out-dated.’

Not one to give up easily, I bounced back with The Escalator. ‘Oh, this is slow and monotonous,’ they said.

So I gave it my best shot and came up with The Elevator. They smiled and said, ‘ Nice. But it seems to be a direct lift.’

Oh, come on guys, give me a break! I wanted to scream that, as I left their office.

Maybe I did. For they yelled back, ‘That’s precisely what we are trying to do here, Rameshji!’

Coming to think of it, it’s not exactly a funny world.

Here’s an example straight from home.

It involves my mom. (No, for god’s sake, she is not Shanta!)

My mom has a problem with maids. (Or, the maids have a problem with her, depending on whose son is writing this.)

She finds getting maids difficult, retaining them, impossible. I think it’s because of the entrance test she has devised for the maids, which I rate tougher than that of IIMs. (I’ve always hated entrance tests. If you are going to make it so tough to enter, then c’mon, you might as well call it the exit test. Na?)

My mom’s USP (Unique Selecting Process) is a 5-month affair. The thing about mom’s test is that the entrant doesn’t know she is being tested until the results are out. It’s a secret known to only us insiders until now. Today it goes public.

Day One: The Lie Test

Entrant is asked point blank, ‘Do you have the habit of lying?’

It’s never about the reply, which is always an obvious no. It’s about where they look while saying it. Those who look straight into my mom’s eye and talk are hired. Those who look elsewhere are rejected.

I had once asked my mom, ‘Would someone who looks straight into your eyes and says yes, be rejected because she spoke the truth?’

She glared at me and asked, ‘How come we don’t see all this creativity in your work?’

Ouch! That had been below the belt.

Week Two: The Efficiency Test

A crumpled paper is thrown under the cupboard. If it disappears, the maid remains. If it remains, the maid disappears. Simple.

Month Three to Five: The Greed Tests

On the 25th of these three months, mom leaves money under the sofa, upping the stakes progressively each month from Rs.10 to Rs.100 to Rs.500.

Only three have ever managed to see Month Five. None saw Month Six, though. I clearly remember how those three had failed, too.

Ambattur being a small suburb, word had got around pretty quick. So on the 25th of Month Five, when this well-informed one didn’t find anything under the sofa, she walked up to mom and asked her about the Rs.500, and got promptly sacked for being too clever.

The second one was too anxious to impress. She returned two 500-notes and was sacked for being too honest.

When the third one crossed the final hurdle, all of us at home broke into a mini-celebration. Unfortunately, while we were celebrating, she scooted with Rs.5000 from mom’s cupboard.

Much later, my brother and I had tried to get my mom to discontinue her USP. But she shot back at us, ‘You males will never understand a woman’s issues. How I wish one of you had been a daughter!’

Now that made us instantly indebted to her for not resorting to male foeticide. We became so emotional that day that we swore to do the chores ourselves until mom found a maid.

But we quit the very next day when we discovered a crumpled paper under the cupboard and a 500-rupee note under the sofa.

How could she!

We escalated the matter. No, not to dad. He’s a male too, you see.

We went to my mom’s niece. No, she’s not Shanta, she’s our cousin on whose word mom goes by when it comes to choosing sarees, gifts, films and even daughters-in-law. (The last one is a score I’m yet to settle with my cousin.)

My brother and I waited, as our cousin was having a conversation with a prospective maid. This is what we overheard: ‘How can I hire you? You are not looking into my eyes while talking. Even when I’m saying this, you are looking elsewhere. See!’

Oh no, we thought. If that was IIM, this was IIT.

As we were leaving, we heard the maid plead, ‘No madam, I’m looking at you only! I’m squint-eyed, that’s why.’

Precisely three days after that, Shanta had walked into our lives. Walked? Na, breezed into our home without any tests whatsoever.

Just out of curiosity, I had asked my mom why Shanta was spared the USP. Her answer was, ‘Tests are only to prove to the world what I already know. Those who are good have goodness written all over them. They have nothing to hide, so everything shows. Whereas the evil have much to hide and so nothing shows until one digs it out.’

I hated that partisan answer. Maybe that’s why I’ve disliked Shanta from Day One.

All these years I’ve done all I can to prove my mom wrong. Must admit, I’ve failed miserably. And that’s only made me dislike Shanta even more.

She’s unflinching about her values and has overcome every goodness challenge that life and I have thrown at her. But that’s not what bugs me. It’s her no-fuss, no-hype, no-nonsense way of going about being good that I find tough to digest.

How can a poor, frail, hunched and old woman stand so tall, erect and strong amidst adversities of all kinds? She stands eye-to-eye, talks fearlessly, doesn’t mince words and doesn’t sugar-coat her statements. Her opinions are ruthlessly fair and fiercely independent of us- her employers, on whom her entire family depends on.

Her best was reserved for her worst- 2010, her life’s worst year. Apart from domestic issues and family tragedies, the house she built painstakingly over the years got washed away in the rains. But she remained unchanged.

How can one remain unaffected by envy and self-pity in such trying circumstances? How does one remain good when one has everything to lose, and not become evil when there’s so much to gain? How does one have the will power to say no to the not-so-evil opportunities that promise relief? How does one be thankful to those who helped, but not be obliged to do anything contrary to one’s beliefs?

Right through the year, I called my mom to ask if Shanta had changed. ‘No she hasn’t. She won’t. She never will,’ was the answer, always.

I can accept the evil because I know why they are so. I can also understand why the good are good when in return they get rewarded, appreciated, celebrated and respected. But how do I react to someone like Shanta who remains good for no reason, no gain?

I have a devious reason for dedicating this post to her. I want her to know that her goodness has been noticed, appreciated and discussed in the World Wide Web. I want her to become conscious of her goodness. I want to inject a small dose of fame, and put a pinch of pride in her. They work like slow poison; eventually making even the best succumb to the prospect of encashing their goodness.

That would be the day! I can sleep peacefully, sorted in the mind that finally there’s no one in this world who is good, for nothing.

‘I do things to prove that the bad are indeed bad. You do things to prove that the good aren’t that good. That’s like doing a post-mortem on someone to find out why he was healthy and alive,’ says my mom angrily.

Don’t blame me, I say. Blame it on the strange times that we live in.

Om Shanta Om.

The blah blah white sheep

 

The world’s biggest lies are the quotes of famous people. These phrases, immortalised by repetition, are usually picked and chopped from a great speech, statement or remark, to fit into next day’s newspaper headline. What they reveal is interesting, but what they conceal is far relevant and could’ve, in some cases, changed the history of the world.

So when Gandhi said, ‘Hey Ram!’ he was not calling out to his God. He was summoning his friend, Ram Mohan.

‘Hey Ram! Ram! Stop panicking and listen carefully. Such an end is going to make for a terrific blockbuster. Ensure we have the rights for it. My last wish is that an Indian directs this film, understand?’

Similarly, when Armstrong stepped on to the moon, he said, ‘That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.’

NASA ensured we didn’t hear the rest, which went like this: ‘If what I’m seeing is what it’s going to be, then let me tell you that this is a fucking crater-filled hellhole. A colossal waste of money and a lifetime’s work.’

The world is full of such examples, but I’ll quickly jump to the one this post is about.

It’s a quote that turned an ordinary sheep into a celebrity overnight, and made him the world’s official ambassador of envy. It says: ‘The grass is greener on the other side.’

But the fact is that there was a lot more blah blah after this baa baa. ‘The fruits are sweeter, the stream is fuller and the air is fresher. But let me tell you, that sheep ain’t better than me no day. He ain’t as deserving of all that as I am.’

More than envy, it’s a comment on the state of mankind itself. It tells us that all our differences in caste, colour, creed, religion, nationality, etc., can be attributed to the biggest divide of them all- the one between you and me, the one between us and them. That’s the only divide that actually exists. The huge wall that divides the two doesn’t exist in any geographical space that Google can find, but in the deep, dark crevices of our minds.

It isn’t made of brick and mortar like Berlin’s, but is a virtual one that’s almost impossible to bring down.

The two sides are perpetually at war. There’s a no deuce. It is mostly Advantage Us (By virtue of our talent and effort) and sometimes, Advantage Them (Unfair, undeserving, just plain lucky, obviously).

So for Whites, the rest are slaves. For Blacks, the rest are racists.

For Hindus, others are terrorists. For Muslims, others are sinners.

For the polished, the rest are crass. For the unpolished, the rest are fake.

It’s a battle between the good and the evil, the right and the wrong- where the good and the right are Us, the Evil and the wrong are Them.

But what I ask is, who’s to decide? Who’s to say what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong?

Is it possible, I ask, that what’s good is actually evil, and what’s evil is actually good? 

I can see you are vehemently protesting.

Look, all I’m saying is that the world has not had a healthy debate on this. It hasn’t given evil a chance to even explain.

Take a look at our bookstores, for instance. So many books on goodness, and almost nothing to counter it. I mean, are we in China or what?

Maybe the time has come to understand the evil a little better. In a world where even terrorists are given a chance to argue out, the evil surely deserves its Ram Jethmalani, too. Don’t you think?

I know there would be no takers.

That’s why, I volunteer.

So, coming up is the case of The Good vs. The Evil. The Good represented by you. The Evil represented by me. Okay? Here we go.

Let me start by taking on one of the bestselling titles on Goodness- Chicken Soup for the Soul.

Chicken Soup? For the Soul?

Find anything incongruous?

No?

Okay, let me tell you how it sounds to the vegetarians: Human kebabs for Nirvana!

Sounds cannibalistic, doesn’t it?

One man’s food, another man’s poison. Cool for some, blasphemy for the others. A funny cartoon for others, fatwa-deserving for the others. Broadminded for some, immoral for the others.

That’s my point. The Good and the Evil are one and the same. It’s all just a matter of perspective.

Don’t agree?

Okay, let me try a second line of argument.

Have you seen God?

Thank you, but sorry, bumping into me doesn’t count as a yes.

So, let’s take that as a no. Good.

Have you seen God in idols, paintings and other man-made avatars?

Great. But have you seen God laughing in any of them?

Benevolent smiles, yes. But laughing aloud with teeth seen?

No, Laughing Buddha isn’t Buddha.

You say never?

You’re right. Never will you see God’s teeth anywhere. That’s because Gods have no teeth. They have fangs. Yes, fangs.

(It’s a complex way of saying that there’s a lot of Evil in every Good, and a lot of Good in every Evil.)

Now that even Gods have said it, do you agree that you are partly Evil?

No?

Okay, give me 30 seconds. I’ll turn your Goodness into Evil.

Here comes my third line of offence.

Would you steal Rs.100 from someone?

No?

Good.

Would you steal it, if it was $100 million?

Still a no?

Great.

What if I told you that the $100 million is like Rs.100 for the billionaire?

No again?

Okay, would you take that money if it was not for yourself, but to save an entire village full of starving farmer families who are about to kill themselves?

Oh, that’s heartless. But terrific values, must say.

What if I told you that the billionaire is Dawood Ibrahim?

Still a no? Tough nut you are turning out to be, eh?

Okay, what if that money is meant for bomb blasts in a city? You are the only one who knows it and the only way to prevent it is by stealing it. No other choice.

What? I don’t believe this. You say that your values are greater than innocent people’s lives?

In that case, let me read out tomorrow’s newspaper headline: Man arrested for refusing to prevent Dawood’s bomb blasts that killed thousands yesterday

Congratulations! To the world you’ve just become the most Evil man on earth.

See how values have nothing to do with perceptions of Good and Evil?

Okay, let’s say you are given a second chance to avoid becoming Evil. What would you do?

So finally, you say you’ll steal it and give it to the farmers! Fantastic!

Dying to see tomorrow’s headlines?

Here it is: Man steals from Dubai-based billionaire to invest in benami farmlands, duping poor starving farmers

Sorry, my friend, it’s a lose-lose situation for you. See? That’s how easy it’s to turn Good into Evil.

Ah, makes for a good book title: How To Become Evil In 6 Easy Steps.

Maybe it will correct that imbalanced bookrack of self-help books. While I do that, you look into that mirror again and laugh out aloud.

Yes, Gods have fangs, don’t they?

Psst…The only crime Ravan, the embodiment of all evil in this world, committed was abducting Sita. If only he had turned that abduction into seduction, Ramayan would have been less blood and more flesh.

But how could Ravan ever have done that, you ask. Think, I say.

Answers in the next post- Abduction To Seduction In One Easy Step. (Evil is getting simpler, it seems.)

Let them in. Get them out.

 

Life’s basic questions start with a simple What. (My first post was titled that. Remember?)

Whats are basic, simple and, often, the easiest questions in school exams. Children who keep asking What, get report cards from teachers that say: ‘An inquisitive and curious child. Always eager to learn anything new.’ (But comments from neighbours are likely to resemble Mr. Wilson’s on Dennis the Menace.)

What is necessary. But it has its limitations. It lacks the ability to take a conversation ahead. Had the world stopped with What, there would have been no discoveries, inventions, progress and even life.

Here are three examples to prove that.

Eve: ‘What are the apple and snake doing in Eden, dear?’

Adam: ‘I believe they are here to make us have babies.’

Eve: ‘Oh, how exciting! Let’s sleep early. We’ve got to wake up to bawling babies, don’t we? Goodnight, honey!’

Adam: ‘Goodnight, dear!’

*  *  *

Mom: ‘What are you staring at, Isaac?’

Newton: ‘An apple just fell on my head, mom!’

Mom: ‘Oh my baby, hope you didn’t get hurt. Move away from that stupid tree, baby. It keeps dropping apples for no reason.’

Newton: ‘Sure, mom.’

*  *  *

Archimedes: ‘Eureka!’

Wife: ‘What happened?’

Archimedes: ‘Water just spilled out of my bathtub.’

Wife: ‘You idiot! That’s the new bathroom rug that you just drenched!’

Archimedes: ‘Oops!’

*  *  *

That’s why the big Q. What after What?

How about How?

How is what makes the earth spin, hearts to beat, planes to fly. If What is theory, How is practical. If What is a seeker, How is a doer.

The Whats in exams carry 1, 2, and 5 marks. They will at best take you to 20%. It’s the Hows that come with 10, 15 and 20 marks, and have always failed us.

Even in life, Hows are the most difficult questions to answer. Here are three examples.

Wife: ‘What do you think, am I as fat as your colleague?’

Husband: ‘No way! She’s much heavier.’

Wife: ‘Really? (Deathly pause) How do you know?’

Husband: ‘Umm…er…that…she…’

(Way out: Solitaire?)

*  *  *

Boss: ‘What should we do to increase sales?’

Employee: ‘Simple. Sell more, sir!’

Boss: ‘Excellent! How?’

Employee: ‘Er…I will…I mean, we will…’

(Way out: Monster.com?)

*  *  *

She: ‘What is the meaning of LIFE?’

He: ‘ Keep laughing until the end!’

She: ‘How?’

He: ‘Huh…ha ha ha…I guess…’

(Way out: Read on?)

One day, a few years ago, I had travelled with my wife and kids within Kerala. Our day-trip started from Thachambara. We drove to Pattambi and back, halting at Ellamalacherry, Mannarghat, Guruvayur and eight other stops for reasons that varied from family visits, biological needs, mechanical faults, political protests, religious faith, touristy acts and, mainly, calming the maniac driver.

Kerala roads and drivers can convert even the staunchest rationalist. By the time we reached Guruvayur, all I wanted to do was fling myself at the feet of the Lord, to thank Him for the trip so far and to pray for the one back. But I couldn’t. Here’s why.

At the entrance of the temple, one of my biggest paranoia at security checks came true. The alarms went off. My wife and kids had passed peacefully, but I failed. So there I was, surrounded in no time by the local version of the NSG, clad in sacred threads and dhotis. I had suddenly become a bigger spectacle than the Lord inside. Even today I haven’t forgiven my wife for the look on her face as she turned back to see me being whisked away. It was a look that said: ‘Rum, you a terrorist? All this while? And I didn’t know?’

Actually the whole drama was just because I had simply forgotten to take my shirt off. That temple allows no shirts, no trousers and no cellphones inside. They believe that the temple is no place to differentiate between the branded and unbranded, the expensive and the discounted. Noble thought. But tell me, how does nakedness be a leveller? Far from it, I think it is the biggest differentiator. Even half-nakedness can be extremely discriminating. Well-toned torsos vs. Roly-poly ones. Hairy chests vs. Clean-shaven ones. Sweaty armpits vs. Well-sprayed ones.

By the time I stripped and got in, the men’s queue was estimated to take me two hours to get to the Lord. That’s longer than it would take me to fly back to Mumbai.

I gave up. I stepped out feeling rejected by the Lord. It was this guilt that made me do a mad act. I dropped a thousand-rupee note into the bowl of the first blind beggar I came across.

Without waiting to see him overwhelmed, I made a quick exit. Only because I didn’t want onlookers to wonder what ‘grave sin’ I might have committed that warrants such a ‘redemption’ with ‘ill-gotten wealth’. Petty things can assume huge significance in small towns. I for sure didn’t want the local newspapers to carry it the next day: Mumbai Sinner Seeks Redemption In Guruvayur!

I had barely taken a few hurried strides, when I heard him shout out for me. I thought it was to make me his Lord. Little did I realise then, that in the next one hour, it would be the other way around.

“Please take this back, sir,” he said, freezing me mid-way. I didn’t want to be the world’s first man to beg a beggar to accept alms, or start a reverse bargaining of sorts with, ‘Please accept at least 500, okay 100, how about 50?’ I snatched my note back and was preparing to flee, when he spoke again.

“Sir, will you do me a favour? Will you take me to the kulam (Temple pond)?” he asked, ruining my second getaway.

I hated this. This was becoming a mega charity show for the idle onlookers. But I had no choice. ‘Beggar Refuses Sinner’s Money, Prefers A Walk’ reads better than ‘Beggar Drowns In Kulam After Devotee Refuses To Help’.

So I held his hand and we walked towards the Kulam.

“I’m sorry about that,” he said. “Your big note would have destroyed my ability to be thankful for the one and two-rupee coins that drop into my bowl everyday, and to be thrilled with the occasional five-rupee coins. Happiness is such a bitch! It never comes to us. We need to pursue it, you see.” He laughed a full-throated laugh. “And mind is such a monkey! We will have to train it to be happy on command.”

‘How?’ I asked instinctively.

The sermon that followed until we reached the kulam is the best I’ve heard, read or understood. The only one simple enough for me to try and practice.

The problem with remarkable experiences is that they become so only in hindsight. I wish I had the foresight to know what was coming. I’d have recorded it. Nevertheless, here are the highlights of whatever I could retrieve from memory.

He on Mind: “Spirituality is not about turning our mind into an impenetrable fortress or an emotion-proof metallic ball. It is about imagining our mind to be a simple, porous bowl. Letting everything pass through, but retaining nothing. Greed, hatred, envy, grief, desire, ego, ambition, anger…let them all in, get them all out. If we let them remain, they cause stains. Stains mean guilt. And guilt is the big, bad Devil- the only one.”

He on Karma: “Anything that passes through our mind smoothly is Good Karma. Anything that causes turbulence and leaves a stain is Bad Karma. Even charity can be Bad Karma, if it is a symbol of pride, righteousness, generosity, magnanimity or patronage.”

He on Prayer: “It is the worst clog of mind’s pores, the cause of most permanent stains. Prayer is nothing but a cunningly disguised plea for miracles, an attempt to change the rules and policies of this universe in our favour. At the core of any prayer is absolute selfishness, favouritism and an attempt to influence power. It is a close cousin of greed.”

He on Faith: “Unshakeable faith, whole-hearted dedication, selfless devotion to anyone or anything are the best known cleansers. When done without an eye on results or an accompanying request for miracles, they work like high-pressure water jets to clear mind’s pores and remove all stains. These should become our daily rituals, our life’s religion.”

He on Happiness: “Happiness is not ecstasy, laughter or smile. It’s contentment. It’s the ability to keep our mind’s bowl empty, unclogged and stain-free. Often described as a state of nothingness.”

He on God: “When mind celebrates its powerlessness, and doesn’t try to wield any influence on the happenings in life, it becomes omnipotent, omnipresent. Mind becomes God.”

“So as you can see, God is nothing but this clean, empty, porous bowl of mine!” he said, flashing his begging bowl at me. He laughed his full-throated laugh again. “Thank you, sir. I’ll go my way from here. I’ll starve today so that I can accept a one-rupee coin tomorrow with child-like glee.”

I let go of his hand. He walked away. I stood there long enough to see if he vanished, like they do in religious films. But nothing of that sort happened. He groped, stumbled and walked on.

On our more-peaceful drive back home, my wife asked me, ‘So did you get a good darshan of the Lord?’

‘Yes, I did.’ I said.

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