Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

Don’t solve, resolve!

 

The fight was as unequal as it can get.

They were four. And I, alone.

After they had brutally slayed the others with me, I had been running through the lonely streets of the night looking for escape routes that were just not there.

I ran through the lit and the unlit zones of the street, created by its nightlights.

Alternating between hope and gloom.

Sometimes feeling safe standing in the whiteness of the light. Sometimes seeking camouflage in the blackness of the dark.

After an hour of mindless running, I gave up.

I fell to my knees in the middle of a narrow lane, gasping for air.

I could sense their long shadows slowly creep up on me. I looked up.

One of them took a step forward into the light, as he drew out a blood-tainted dagger from his belt. Unhurriedly, unnervingly.

Almost instantly, I heard my friend’s voice from behind his man.

“Check!”

After giving me a meaningless moment to think, he completed the inevitable.

“And mate!”

The game was over.

That was my eighteenth successive defeat to him. It had become a routine every night. He comes over to my place. We play long, intense chess.

He wins. I lose.

He goes home. I sulk.

At the end of it all, I hear a mouthful from my wife for the much-delayed dinner.

That night was no different. Except that on his way out, he unusually turned around and gave me a piece of cryptic advice.

“You know what your problem is, Ramesh?” he had asked.

“You are preoccupied with your queen. Stop trying to solve your problems. Start resolving them!”

I was hoping he’d elaborate, but he turned around and left saying, “Call me only when you are absolutely ready for the next game!”

Now, that’s the problem with these wise dumbos, these intelligent idiots, these evolved misfits. They expect others to be as wise, as intelligent, as evolved.

What does he mean by “Don’t solve, resolve”? Aren’t they the same?

I lay awake all night thinking about it, replaying that night’s game in my mind, without involving my queen too early.

I fared no better even in imagination.

In the small hours of that morning, I jumped up from my sleep and sat on the bed, staring into the darkness outside. The sun was just beginning to rise.

Out of nowhere, I remembered my school, and an incident in Class VII.

Jha sir, our maths teacher, had asked me and five others to step out of the class for copying in a test.

Just as we were wondering how he came to know, he pulled out the answer sheet of Shamar, the only one to get a zero in that test. He raised it as an example, and read out the only five lines Shamar had written in it:

Sorry sir. I don’t know any answer because I have not studied. But I don’t want to copy like my friends Ramesh, Sunder, Kumaresan and Hamid. I will start studying seriously from today. I promise you sir, this won’t happen ever again.

“It’s not just his honesty, but his attitude to problems that I want to appreciate here,” lectured Mr Jha. “I want you all to see the difference between these useless fellows and Shamar. Not studying is not a sin. But while these idiots are looking for easy solutions, here’s a boy who’s looking to resolve it permanently.”

 I wasn’t really listening to those words then. I was boiling over with rage.

That day after school, we waylaid Shamar and thulped him for being a sneak- black & blue.

Shamar went on to top the school in 12th. He joined IIT after that, and later worked for one of India’s finest infrastructure companies for 20 years. Ten years ago, he quit, and today runs a startup that’s already valued at $7.5 million.

And every night for the last 18 nights, he’s been thulping his old friend in chess- black & white.

“Don’t solve, resolve!”

I wish I’d learnt at least this one formula in school.

Solve. Resolve.

I spent the next four days thinking about these two words.

Slowly, they drifted apart as meanings, as philosophies of life.

One emerged as immediate, temporary, instinctive and shallow.

The other, enduring, permanent, mature and meaningful.

I contrasted Shamar’s life with mine, and the differences between our approaches to problems became even bigger and clearer.

I had always been a solutions guy, while Shamar had always been about resolutions.

A million examples came to my mind.

I distilled them to these two learnings:

Lesson 1: Don’t take symptoms to be the disease.

It’s the most popular mistake in life. We solve the wrong problem.

I should have learnt in class VII. The problem was not about scoring marks in the test, but about understanding the principle and application of the formulae.

Shamar had been quick to realise it.

Later in life, when Shamar’s daughter turned a teen, he was faced with a perpetual battle at home every weekend- daughter’s request for a night-out with friends, wife’s flat refusal and his silly excuses to avoid permission.

In his own words, “My wife and I made the mistake of trying to solve the problem of our daughter’s requests for night-outs, when our actual problem was her safety. The moment we addressed that, we discovered permanent peace at home!”

I had missed this lesson then:

Solutions tackle the symptoms. Resolutions tackle the disease. That’s why solutions are temporary reliefs and resolutions are permanent cures.

It seems so simple now.

Lesson 2: Solutions are about anticipating the best. Resolutions are about preparing for the worst.

“Even before I began my first startup venture, I had prepared myself for its failure. That’s why when it did fail, I didn’t go down with it. I knew exactly what I was going to do. And then, when I started my second venture, I was all prepared to fail again. Fortunately, it clicked. We are always ready for successes. It’s the failures that catch us off-guard.”

That was Shamar in a recent interview to a local TV channel. Missed its essence then. Now it seems so clear:

Solutions are about preparing for the right, hoping it won’t go wrong. Resolutions are about preparing for the wrong, hoping it will turn out right.

Suddenly, I felt ready for the nineteenth game with Shamar.

Promptly, I challenged him the very next day.

Two hours after the game had begun, around 11 in the night, I resigned. He had again won.

“I had addressed the problem. I didn’t bring out my queen until mid-game. And yet I lose,” I lamented.

“Your problem is not the queen on the chessboard!” he said and left without adding more.

This time it hit me instantly.

Of course, he had all the while been referring to my wife! The queen off-board!

He had sensed that I was preoccupied with the game dragging on past dinnertime, worried about upsetting her and her routine every night.

It was perhaps showing in my game.

I had discovered the root of the problem! And had to now resolve it.

This morning, I told my wife that we were shifting the game to six in the evening so that it could get over by dinnertime. She was thrilled and even offered to serve high tea.

I don’t know if it will help my chess, but surely it’s a valuable lesson for life.

We are playing our twentieth game tomorrow. Six in the evening. Should get over well before dinnertime.

I am going into the game, fully prepared to lose, but hoping against hope to win.

 

 

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?

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.

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?

 

In search of a smarter God

(39 days ago on this blog, I had done an open evaluation of God’s performance thus far. The results were appalling. As a consequence, the CEO of Universe, Inc., Mr.God, had to be sacked, and as its self-appointed Chairman, I had promised you that I will find a better alternative soon. So, here I am.)

Honestly, I didn’t know it would be this tough. I had foolishly assumed that it would be easy to pick a God from the many that exists in this world already.

In the extreme case of none befitting my high standards, how long would it take to create a new one!” I had even boasted to a friend.

It would certainly be easier than creating babies, though not as pleasurable!” I had joked.

After all, I didn’t need a partner for this, and didn’t have to depend on her not having a headache!” we had laughed.

I was so so wrong.

Clearly, finding a common God has got to be the toughest job in this Universe.

Compared to this, God’s Creation of Man seems like kindergarten stuff- which he made a mess of, by outsourcing its mass production to Adam & Eve with absolutely no quality checks in place.

Ever since then, man has been trying to recreate his creator. It led to theories, stories and trouble. What started off as plain curiosity, soon became an obsession, then a business, and later a convenient excuse for the cunning.

But hopefully, we are past all that muddled religious times, and are ready for a more homogeneous and meaningful belief, starting now.

Yes, I have good news in this context.

(You may now rise, and get ready for a standing ovation as the announcement follows.)

Ladies and gentlemen, our eons-long search is over. I have found a new God; not just for me, but for you and for this Universe.

A more capable, proven and result-oriented God.

Someone you can touch, listen to and talk to.

Someone who will answer your prayers, guide you and correct you in real time.

Someone who will encourage no religious fundamentalism and terrorism, and make everyone accept the theory of One World One God.

A God who will be not mine, yours or theirs, but ours.

(Applause here.)

I am as proud of the process as I am of the result.

In keeping with the democratic traditions of a civilised world, I had asked all the people I could meet in January this year for their best choice, for the Universe’s top post.

By simple computation, I arrived at the winner.

And then, true to the traditions of the developed world, I vetoed it, to nominate a God who I think will be better than the popular choice.

Before I say who it is, let me, in classic reality show style, announce the results starting with the bottom choice first.

In the fifth position with merely 3% votes is The Saint!

Shocking, how he, who I thought would be the most obvious successor to God by virtue of being No.2 in the pecking order of divinity, has been unceremoniously relegated to the bottom of the pile. Perhaps, making the blind see, getting the lame to walk and parting the seas no longer impress the generation that has been brought up on astounding special effects.

Also, how long can people keep watching saints perform miracles on others?! The message from them is loud and clear- “Miracles are useless unless it is happening to us. Until then, it is just a magic show.”

In the fourth position with 7% votes is this never-say-die creature who has the knack of popping up in any poll- The Politician!

That he features in this list, is no surprise. That he features higher than The Saint, surely is.

It is a hint that the job of God is a political one.

God’s tact of fueling faith through hopes and promises, and keeping that belief intact even in the face of his colossal failure and pathetic performance, is an art best practised by the politician.

If that’s so, why not get the professional for the job?” a few seem to suggest.

In the third position with 10% votes is The Corporate Honcho!

Coming to think of it, he is actually a politician dressed in business suit who communicates through PowerPoint presentations.

He features higher than the politician only because he has turned greed into a virtue and made it a result-oriented business science.

Also, unlike the politician, the business head converts detractors into accomplices by sharing his loot with them, and respectfully calling that shareholding.

So, a vote for the businessman is a vote, I suspect, for a share in God’s profits.

In the second position with 12% votes is The Superhero!

He is everything you want your God to be. He’s there whenever you need him, to save you from distress and the world from annihilation. To add to it, there’s mystery around his real identity that adds to the aura.

I guess the only reason why he didn’t become the top choice is because it is difficult to imagine a batmobile traversing the narrow and overcrowded bylanes of Mumbai or Bangkok. Or the Spiderman answering an Arab’s call for help in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. Where will he swing his web from?

And Superman? Well, it is kind of difficult to have faith in a God who wears his undies outside, no?

Finishing in the first position with 68% votes, ladies and gentlemen, is my poll’s winner, The Individual!

This one was the most unexpected. But I should have guessed. After all, who is going to miss an opportunity to vote for himself as the most powerful dude in the Universe?!

But in a way, this reiterates what the world’s most ancient philosophy says: “Your search for the greatest and the most powerful will take you all over, and finally bring you back to yourself. For, there’s no one who can change you, protect you and evolve you better than yourself. You are the best God there could ever be.”

I agree.

But as its self-appointed Chairman, I can’t have 7 billion CEOs for this Universe.

I need one.

So, I vetoed the poll verdict and continued my search.

The answer of all important searches in life is always at the last place you look for.

I went looking for a common God all over the Universe, when it was actually in my hands- in our hands.

Not figuratively, literally.

Yes ladies and gentlemen, the new God is an App!

The new temple is the Smart Phone!

It is as individual as it can get and as mass as you want it to be.

It has unprecedented universal acceptance, and is today the world’s fastest growing religion.

With the youth as its evangelists, it surely is only going to grow wider and faster.

But does it play God?

Of course, it does.

It’s omnipresent, staying with you all the time. Always accessible, always responding to your requests.

Isn’t “Seek and ye shall find, ask and ye shall be provided!” truer of your app-loaded smart phone than of any God you have known?

If God’s job is to keep you away from evil, then don’t you think that the phone has done that in double good measure?

I don’t have statistics, but I am certain that since the advent of the smart phones, the youth have lesser time and interest in other things. Parents will vouch for that.

If there’s still drugs and crime in this world, it must be thanks to those who don’t have smart phones yet, or those who haven’t loaded enough apps yet.

I am not saying it is all there. But it surely has the most potential.

Imagine an app where you could feed the values you want to adhere to. Such a smart app can actually prevent you from all things evil.

So, as you talk, the app can beep your cuss words, distract you when you lose your temper or warn you when you write a nasty message.

An app that will automatically dial a number in your phone book after a pre-fixed number of days, just to keep you in touch with each other. So there’s no drifting apart in relationships ever.

An app that will have no ego in sending out a “I am sorry if I hurt you” message to someone you have had a silly fight with.

It’s a God who will make tangible changes to our lives.

It’s exciting, entertaining and very personal.

But you know what really makes it the best new God of this Universe?

It just doesn’t inspire fanaticism.

No one’s going to wage a war in the name of an app. Or blow himself up just because you criticised it.

It needs no priest, no saint, no middleman.

Across caste, colour, creed and gender, there would be one app.

One World, One App.

Nothing called children of a lesser app.

It is everything God and religion were meant to be, but weren’t.

Get converted. Go download.

Three Stories. One Epilogue.

 

What if the dog bites me?”

Asked my then seven-year-old niece to her dad.

It wasn’t the first time that I had heard her offer this reason for not going anywhere near our pet dog. But I had no inkling that this time it was going to end differently and offer me a valuable lesson in life that I’d fail to learn then.

Like always, on that day too, my brother’s standard explanation to his daughter was: “It won’t. It doesn’t bite anyone. It never has.”

Her standard retort too came: “But what if it loses its mind and suddenly bites me?”

But this time her dad’s standard two-hour sermon that starts with logic and moves on to rage, and ends in plea, was missing. Instead, he smiled, put his hand around her and settled in front of her, looking into her eyes.

When dads do something this reassuring, you can be sure a well-rehearsed, clincher of an argument is coming up.

It did.

“In that case, why fear only the dog? What if I suddenly lost my mind and hit you? What if this house suddenly crumbled on us? What if your uncle suddenly turned into a Chimp?”

I found that stupid, especially the last part.

But, sometimes good recipients can make even poor logic seem effective.

My niece changed overnight. I saw her make friends with the dog the next day.

At the end of that vacation, she wept inconsolably when she left our home, the dog and the Chimp. Most for the dog, I assumed.

That story of her transformation was shorter than a tweet and more instant than noodles.

But let not its insignificant size and absence of mythical characters make it any less an epic than, say, the Bhagavad Gita, because if all things in this world could change that fast and as absolutely, we’d be living in an ideal world within an hour- something the epics have failed to do even after thousands of years.

Her story sums up one of life’s biggest lessons for me. That I failed to learn it then and took many more years and even a death to understand it, is entirely my failing, not the story’s.

* * *

“What if my dad dies one day?”

Not exams, teachers or bullies, not ghosts, demons or monsters, not dogs, chimps or tigers, you know what I was most afraid of as a child?

The possibility that my father could die one day.

Every time he fell ill, I would fear he would never recover. Every time he travelled, I would have nightmares about accidents.

What if he never returned home from work today? I have sat there worrying many days.

In all my growing-up years, I would easily have imagined more than a million such horrific scenarios. Influenced by the Hindi and Tamil films of those times, I would imagine us, as orphaned mother and sons, roaming the streets, me as a burdened first son singing on trains to make a living, and my brother, wailing and tagging along with a leaky nose.

I tried almost everything to break free from this predicament, unsuccessfully. The origin of all my life’s superstitions, beliefs, rituals and prayers, directly or indirectly can be traced to this one fear.

As a kid I’ve written numerous petitions to God, sometimes making impractical promises in return for my dad. One of them when I was probably ten, was to give up chocolates for good. Another was never to look at girls ever again. Those fierce vows must have lasted for all of two days at most, I think.

For long, I believed that it was our financial dependency that made me fear losing him. But I was wrong, because even after I matured into an adult, left home and raised a family of my own, the fear refused to go away. The What Ifs only got worse.

There are times when it bordered on paranoia. Every phone call from home was like an alarm. His every cough, cold and sneeze, I feared would be a symptom of something more terrible.

As an adult, the only progress I made was moving from a childish Please God, don’t ever snatch him away from us to a more realistic Please God, don’t do it this year, please, please!

Finally, when I was 51 and he was 78, an innocuous cough was diagnosed as an irreversible lung dysfunction.

Just as I had feared. But nearly five decades late.

I expected the world to shatter around me. It didn’t.

I thought I would blame myself for breaking sacred vows and eating chocolates or looking at girls. No, I didn’t.

In fact, there was a huge sense of catharsis. Fear, worry, anger, doubts, envy, greed, ego, everything left me, all at once. And I discovered a self, unknown to me until then.

For the next eight months, before he finally succumbed on the 7th of April this year, I shared with him some of our best moments together.

We chatted almost daily about work, life, human nature. We openly criticised and appreciated each other like we hadn’t earlier. We pointed out to each other our wrongs, which if corrected could make us better human beings.

By the time he died, I was filled with a sense of completion and wholeness about our relationship.

I found myself telling a mourner, “I am happy he died. It was the right time for him to go. No regrets.”

On one of those days that followed his cremation, I recollected my niece’s What if the dog bites story.

I appreciated and enjoyed the essence of that incident better, though the Chimp bit still hurt.

* * *

What if the world ends on 12.12.12?”

Two days ago when I heard someone say that, I laughed aloud.

I have seen quite a few doomsdays in my lifetime.

People sell properties dirt cheap, quit lucrative jobs, marry an available option and sweat it out to make babies before the world ends.

It’s very reassuring to know that there are millions who are more stupid than I am.

“No, it won’t!” I told my friend, displaying a newly developed disrespect to life’s What Ifs.

“It will,” he insisted, and went on to quote an ancient civilisation, a scientific paper, numerological derivations and astronomical observations.

Surprising how so much of knowledge and information can make a man look stupid.

“Are you willing to bet on this?” I asked, drooling over the gullible, like a cheetah would at the sight of a lame deer. Like a chimp eyeing a banana bunch.

He fell.

So on 13.12.12 if I wake up, I’d have won, and would be richer by a cool 10k.

If I don’t wake up, neither would he. Nor would the world. And his What If wouldn’t have mattered.

It’s a win-won’t-lose deal.

* * *

The Epilogue

Horror is when you don’t know what.

Thriller is when you don’t know when.

Mystery is when you don’t know how.

Suspense is when you don’t know who.

And future is when we don’t know any of those.

That’s why there’s nothing more unknown or feared in this world than the future.

It’s the biggest bestselling fiction that the world writes, day in and day out. Everyone contributes, often building on others’ imagination, making it larger and scarier. It’s got to be the world’s greatest co-creation effort.

Everyone is at their creative best. And no one’s burdened with the need to be logical or having to substantiate their worries, as fears demand no reason.

The human mind has this destructive capability of seeing many things in nothing, to see harm in the harmless.

So a simple goodbye on long-distance trains begins to seem like the last. People run with the train for a last wave to their loved ones, for a last touch of hands.

Clothes on hangers become limbless ghosts dangling inside closets. Handshowers behind shower curtains become psychopaths waiting with daggers. Old stuff under beds turn into monsters crouching to pounce. Meteors become UFOs, geographical phenomenons become alien attacks and unique dates become doomsdays.

No wonder humans spend 90% of their waking hours, often sleeping ones too, worrying about things that aren’t true and never happen.

A friend summed it up for me, rather nicely.

“We are like the dads and moms driving for a family picnic. We live our lives worrying about What Ifs. What if it rains? What if there’s a road block? What if we have a flat tyre? Instead, we should become like their kids at the backseat- playing, nibbling, fighting, looking at the scenery outside, putting their heads out to feel the wind on their hair. Enjoying the moment.”

What if he’s right?

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