Posts Tagged ‘lessons’

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.

 

 

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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?

 

My quest for the last

 

You know what the problem with life’s lessons is?

They are like Technology.

Just when you think you have mastered one, life reveals its newer versions- Truer versions of truths.

Sometimes they are just upgrades. But often they are completely new, and change your old beliefs so much that it feels stupid to have clung on to them stubbornly all along.

Happens to me all the time. So if you spot contradictions in my posts, remember, they aren’t conversations of a confused soul, but new, improved, updated versions of my beliefs.

Look at 2012, for instance. I started the year eagerly with ‘First, at last’. But grew wiser through the year, and am ending with ‘My quest for the last’.

Coming to think of it, this is a lesson life has been desperately trying to tutor me unsuccessfully for five decades.

Take First Love- a concept that the world has unnecessarily romanticised, given undue importance and immortalised. In a moment I’ll tell you how meaningless it can be.

Mine happened quite early in life. I remember it vividly. I had fallen for that dimpled, giggling, bundle of ecstasy in the cradle next to mine, at the Baby Room in a maternity home. I think I was two days old and she, one. On the third day as the head matron came to take me away, mercilessly separately us young hearts, I remember, I bawled and flapped my tiny hands around in an uneven fight. As I was taken out of the room, I threw one last glance back at my love, just for keeps. She was kicking the air in protest. It was then that her diaper fell off and I saw her stark naked.

She was a he.

Forget the First, no matter how many loves you have in life, the only one that really matters is the last, because that’s the one you get married to and live with for the rest of your life.

Life is clear about its lessons. “It’s not the first, but the last that matters.”

In cricket, it’s not the first, but the last ball that counts. It’s not the first, but the last run that becomes the winning run.

In a race, it’s not how well you start, but how well you finish.

In life, it’s not who you were born as, but who you die as.

In a chocolate box, it’s not the first, but the lone last slab that’s the sweetest.

In your wallet, it’s not the first, but the last coin that’s most precious.

In school, it’s not the first, but the last day of exams that is most memorable.

Dumb me, life was so blatant about its clues and yet I didn’t catch them.

I used to come home from school and say that I was the 35th ranker in class or finished 8th in the 1500-meter heats. But I would never admit I was the last.

This, in spite of the obvious rewards that life doles out to those who finish last.

The last ranker enjoys every day of his school, and has just one bad day in a year- the day of the results. Whereas the first ranker slogs the whole year for that one good day.

But the world continues to equate finishing last to losing.

Which is why 31st December isn’t the last day of the year, but the new year’s eve.

It is never about bidding a fond farewell to the last, but always about ushering in the first.

As I write this, even the precious last seconds of the year have been reduced to just a countdown to 2013.

Not for me. At least, not this year.

I am dwelling in this last moments of 2012, slowing it down, stretching it to an eternity and delaying the year’s last tock after its last tick, as much as I can.

So much, that I have all the time in the world to publish this post.

Whoever thinks that finishing last is easy, should try finishing last in Slow Cycling.

Or, refuse to budge from the end of a bungee jumping queue.

Or, get the last word with his wife, boss or news anchor- that’s like trying to win a shouting match with your echo.

Or simply do what I have just done- become the world’s last blogger of 2012 by publishing the last post of the year in the whole World Wide Web at 11:59:59 on 31st December.

Happier, Merrier, Funnier

 

I am done with the Olympics.

As I watched the opening ceremony on TV, the truth exploded in the grey of my head, like Boyle’s fireworks in the London sky.

The seed for this sudden thought was perhaps sown a few hours earlier, while having dinner with my family that night.

The image of the four of us seated around our circular dining table had an uncanny resemblance to the tall light-towers overlooking the Olympic stadium- perhaps ominous of the revelation that was to strike me later.

The dinner itself was no different from the countless ones we’ve had through the years- as predictable. The conversations, as expected.

My younger son, always the first off the block, spoke about how his teacher threw an impossible question to the class that day. Her question seemed to have sped like a rogue train through the rows of benches, mauling 39 out of the 40 students in class, to reach you-know-who.

If that sounds like a Hollywood thriller, then the end was typical, too.

The last boy sitting, stands up in slow motion and utters the answer with echoing effect.

The teacher exalts him. The students clap non-stop.

I stifled a yawn. My wife shed copious tears of joy. My first son hastened the end-credits in a hurry to begin his show.

His show was cricket.

Six runs to win, one ball to go, last batsman in.

Obviously, the guess-who did the guess-what.

My wife shed more tears. I threw some well-rehearsed pats on son’s back. And my younger son sulked his loss of limelight, before my wife began her story.

It was about the new original recipe that she had come up with that evening. She cooked and send the dish to her friends in the building, and every husband and every wife had called back to say she is truly the Masterchef, God’s gift to cooking and much more.

“God’s own cook,” I was tempted to joke, but feared being chopped, cooked and served next.

Instead, “Can you pass some more of the…er…whatever that is?” I requested, bringing into play my years of training in corporate sycophancy.

I served myself whatever-it-was, a lot more than necessary. I saw her wipe a few tears off her eyes. Not sure if they were old ones or new ones.

I proceeded to struggle and finish her experiment, pretending to have been blown over by its taste. A little later, I suddenly realised that all had stopped talking. There had been an unusual silence for a while. I looked up only to see all of them staring at me. How could I forget, the last turn is always mine! They were expecting my success story of the day.

I hemmed and hawed, did a bum-shuffle on the seat, took another serving of the disaster, coughed, drank water, pretended my phone had beeped, re-read some old messages, and basically bought more time.

Time heals, they say.

But doesn’t prevent, I discovered.

So finally, when there was no Emergency Exit visible, I spoke.

I narrated another one of those stories that I’ve been so deftly cooking up at the table all these years. Basically, a blatant lie.

Like junk food, it is delicious, sumptuous, but terribly unhealthy. But people relish it. Three happy faces are any day greater than one guilty heart. The story of my failings would have never created such a happy, contended, hopeful family moment. Never.

Life and the Olympics are about triumphs. Only about triumphs.

This parallel struck me as I sat watching the opening ceremony later that night.

There have been 12 Olympics in my lifetime. This is the 13th. (See the reason?)

I have thoroughly enjoyed all the ones that I’ve seen. That night too, I had begun enjoying myself.

The world was celebrating together. Cultures were melting into each other as one performance gave way to another seamlessly.

And yet, at the back of my mind was this lurking demon of a thought.

Wouldn’t all this bonhomie soon give way to rivalry, competition and hatred when the Games actually begin?

For the first time in my life I found the great Olympic mantra, ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ rather silly.

I wanted to scream back, “Than whom?” “For what?”, “To go where?”

That night, the slogan sounded so much like an energy beverage ad.

Images of desperate moms pushing their kids to outperform and defeat their friends came to my mind. Moms desperately trying to achieve through their children what they themselves couldn’t do in their lives. As for the dads, they are always busy getting faster, higher, stronger at work.

Don’t the overgrown, muscle-enhanced Olympic champions crouching at starting lines, remind you of those made-to-perform kids? Aren’t the failed athletes masquerading as trainers, behaving like disgruntled moms?

At the sound of a whistle or a gun shot, these athletes, like circus animals, walk, run, jump, leap, throw, swim, gyrate, fight, pass batons and play ball. Not for the love of sport. But to help their nations exert power, dominate, humiliate, and win a World War without the fear of a nuclear holocaust.

Look at boxing. One has to punch the opponent to a bloody, instant kayo, and condemn him to a life affected by Parkinson’s later, just to claim Gold medal for his nation.

Sweaty flesh wrestles sweaty flesh through postures straight out of the Kamasutra, until the victor pins down the victim like a merciless rapist, so that he can do his nation proud at the victory stand.

My heart goes out to the marathoners. Some of them come from countries where water is more precious than Gold, and would rather snatch the water bottle offered on the way, and run back home. And yet they are forced to run endless miles to upset a superpower.

Why can’t people and nations stop competing? Why can’t the world just get together more often and have simple fun? The Olympics can become a celebration of cultures, where Iranians dance with Americans, Palestinians with Israelis, Indians with Pakistanis, Sinhalese with Tamils, Koreans with…well, Koreans, Chinese with the Dalai Lama, Coke with Pepsi, Apple with Microsoft and I with Angelina Jolie.

I am telling you, there will be an instant impact on all things around the globe. Even around my dining table.

My younger son’s dinner time story would change to how wonderful it would be to fast with his friend Shamsuddin for 40 days during Ramadan. (No mom’s veggies, would be the real reason, though.)

My first son’s would be about how they are planning to go to school the next day with one leg tied up, just to know how their classmate Rishab deals with it all his life.

Mine would be true stories of my failings, fearlessly said and laughed about.

The Olympics can be the change that the world is unable to be- Happier, Merrier, Funnier.

The five rings that now seem like stress nooses would then turn into smilies.

I have already seen hope at this Olympics. Look at the empty seats at all venues. People are fed up. In contrast, look at the huge crowds for beach volleyball. The only sport where no one is bothered which nation wins or which loses. It is not about Faster, Stronger, Higher, but about Lesser. It’s not about Gold, Silver or Bronze, but about the Tan.

Therein lies the secret of bringing the world and its people closer.

May contests end. Let fun begin.

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.

Losing is the new winning

 

Some clarifications to begin with- the blind beggar that I mentioned in my last post is no Son of God; His words are not the only Untold Truth; and I am no Privileged Customer of His.

Coming to think of it, that was not a unique, once-in-a-lifetime event. The likes of those happen all the time, in all our lives. It’s just that we overlook them.

Blame it on life, if you wish. For, life is truly the most chaotic classroom that I’ve been in. It is one big disorganised classroom, without the quintessential blackboard that would have otherwise summed up all teachings in white on black, for us last benchers to copy down and rote later.

Or, blame God. For, how the hell are we supposed to recognise Him if he’s going to come disguised as blind beggars, moms, dads, teachers, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, cousins, Inner Voices, wives, children, nieces, nephews, colleagues, friends and enemies?

Steve Jobs says not to worry: ‘Every encounter, every experience is a dot. At some stage, these dots connect to reveal life’s larger purposes.’

Here are four dots that I accidentally connected last week.

*          *            *

The last day of school was always my worst day of the year. It was always our Results Day. It used to be a day of high tension and drama.

The last day of Standard Seven was the worst. I failed. I was the only one in my class to be DETAINED. (That word still haunts me.) All my friends got PROMOTED to the Eighth.

Though life, since then, has been generous with much bigger failures, that one remains the most hurting. It is the only one that wakes me up in the night even today.

None of my friends would be there with me the next year, I remember, was the first thought that struck me. Raghu, Samar Ghosh, Sai, Sridhar, Satya, all gone. Worse, I will have to sit with juniors whom I had sneered at in corridors, evicted from lunch spots and bullied in play areas. How terrible.

The misery of seeing my friends celebrate their victories, give me a condolence pat and move on, can never be assuaged by a good long weep. Never.

In a situation like that, the last thing you want to see is your sworn enemy for life, walk up to you.

Introducing Kumaresan.

Now, Kumaresan and Peter were two boys the class would stay clear of anywhere, especially on the football field. But on one unnecessarily spirited PT period, I had taken a dangerously advancing Kumaresan head on, at the mouth of our goal post. And had paid the penalty.

When played with hands more than legs, without the protection of the Red Card, a football can inflict considerable damage to mind, body and soul. Especially in the presence of Renee, Hannah, Sheela, Geetha, Alphonsa. I had never spoken to Kumaresan after that incident.

Which is why I hated it when he walked up to me on my worst day, and said, “Congratulations! You have just gained a full year to prepare thoroughly for your Seventh exams! And yes, your friends are gone, but so have your enemies, like me!”

What I then thought was sarcasm meant to sting my heart, seems today as life’s most positive lesson on failure.

*          *            *

You think ODIs, Twenty-20s and IPLs make the ICC and the BCCI innovative? That’s a laugh compared to the instant formats that we in school used to come up with, depending on the time, space and players available. A popular one was Lunch Break cricket played in the corridor outside our classrooms.

On the day I am talking about, it was Immanuel’s IV vs. Ramesh’s IV. He, a captain by virtue of his batting talent. I, the opposing captain by virtue of being the owner of the bat and the ball. Set 16 to win, Immanuel was the last boy batting when the bell rang and we decided to curtail the match to one last over. Mine, naturally.

‘Captain to Captain!’ the onlookers shouted as I sent down the fastest deliveries of my life. Immanuel scored an improbable 14 of the first 5 balls.

Equation now: One ball to go, 2 to win, last wicket in hand. (Familiar plot these days, not then.)

Ramesh runs in to bowl the last ball, as Jha sir enters the class. He bowls the fastest ball the school has seen. (Obviously, with the umpire already back in Jha sir’s class, I had bowled from at least two crease lengths ahead. A no-ball even the Pakistanis can’t match.)

Immanuel moves away from the rising ball and swings his bat. The hook connects. The ball hits the classroom wall at the water-tap end. It’s a six! Immanuel’s team has won!

Almost.

As his team celebrated, Immanuel pointed to the wastepaper basket, and admitted that his bat had hit it- our stumps.

Immanuel ht wkt b Ramesh – 14

It was my team’s turn to rejoice and yell at the losers. I did to Immanuel’s face what even Sreesanth would hesitate to do.

Today I wonder who the actual hero was, and who the real loser was.

*          *            *

Do you have any idea how it feels to be standing on stage in an auditorium filled with over 800 wild and boisterous girls, screaming your name?

No? Michael Jackson knew. Shahrukh Khan knows. And I know.

The year was 1980. The venue: Ethiraj women’s college, Chennai. The event: Just Five Minutes, an intercollegiate extempore contest where one had to speak for five minutes on a topic picked from a bowl on the way to the stage. The topics were funny. And the prize was for the most humorous speaker.

The crowd was as rowdy as it can get. Girls were summarily booed out of the stage. Guys were given half a chance, and were dished out the same treatment if they tried to be funny in a funny way. Some managed to evoke a few laughs and whistles.

The code got cracked after many deaths on stage: Girls wanted to have fun. And fun meant naughty, risqué, double entendres. The closer one got to the explicit, the longer one stayed on stage.

Trembling off stage, waiting for my turn, I forced misplaced confidence into my head: If that’s what they want, that’s what they’ll get.

But just before my turn, Ms. Mathews, the college Principal and Ms. Terror Incarnate, interrupted what was fast turning into a stand-up porn. She threatened to stop the show if the girls and the participants didn’t behave themselves.

So there was absolute silence when they called out the name of the next participant- mine. My wings clipped, my trump card gone, I walked up to the bowl like a shaven sheep to slaughter. My topic: You are atop the Everest when you realise it’s only an ant hill. (Never heard a better description of my life, ever.)

Do you know what it is like to be standing blanked out in front of 800 girls who have just tasted the Forbidden and have been denied more?

I knew the moment of truth would be my opening line. So I began: ‘I’m sorry Ms. Mathews, we are in the 1980s and your views are so 1950s!’

The girls of Ethiraj who were waiting to let Ms. Horrible hear it for all her past sins, found their Che Guevara. They exploded. And local Guevara obliged them with even more.

Organic chemistry says that Nervous Adrenaline when combined with Potent Testosterone in the presence of Willing Catalysts results in Mutated Humans.

I turned into this incorrigible idiot who went on and on, making one sacrilegious statement after the other, most of it thankfully drowned in the riotous atmosphere of the auditorium. I spent my five full minutes educating Ms Mathews. Nothing even remotely relevant to the topic I had picked.

At 19 that’s how easily libido conquers wisdom.

A few minutes later, I was up on stage again. This time to an even bigger reception, to receive my prize from- who else- Ms. Just-Educated. The girls were screaming my name even as Ms. Mathews went up to the podium.

“I wish I could say I’m proud to hand over this prize. That I’m not, but I do respect the verdict of the student jury. I wish to give this young lad a piece of advice though. Winning is not always about popularity or trophies. But it always is and should always be about excellence. Excellence is often the fine art of treading thin lines, in this case between the naughty and the crass. I hope the young lad learns to walk such tightropes sometime in his life.”

I didn’t care then. Today I do. At 50, wisdom regains its independence.

*          *            *

Those three instances would’ve remained unconnected with each other had our building society not organised an early Christmas celebration last week. Wives, kids, maids, pets, all had their quota of good, simple fun the whole day, leaving the grand finale for us dads. A wretched quiz.

Pitted against doctors, engineers, lawyers, corporate honchos, business tycoons and an IIT gold medalist, this could have been worse than a bloody street brawl for me. Thankfully, every question on History, Literature, Geography and Politics was followed by one on Bollywood or Hollywood. My forte. The fight was now even.

After three rounds, it was clearly a fight between the IITian and the Unemployed. Every time the Derek O’Brien imposter asked something like What does section 1168 under the Companies Act 2006 signify? the IITian would answer and receive an almost standing ovation. Every time the imposter asked anything like Why was Yana Gupta in the news lately? I would answer with the stagger of a winner. But all I got in response were giggles.

So we have a partisan crowd here. Unfair, but so is life. I self-talked like a gritty competitor. Every time I looked at my wife for some encouragement, she looked away. Damn.

So it went, until we were tied at the end. ‘Ties are for the suits, not for the cool!’ I said trying to barter humour for popularity. That deal fell through. Nothing of 19 works at 50.

Out came the tie breaker question. From these pictures of eyes, lips, cleavage, navel and legs, can you identify the actresses?

I was up and answering by then. I gave my kids in the crowd a don’t-worry-dad-will-do-you-proud look. In return they shook their heads to say, ‘Don’t go for it dad, please, please dad, don’t!’ I didn’t understand. I ventured ahead.

‘Eyes- Kangana. Lips- Angelina. Cleavage- Hurley. Navel- Shilpa. Legs- Sonam.’

I had clinched it! The Unemployed defeats the IITian, minus crowd and family support!

Two days later, I was going up to my flat in the elevator with the IITian and some others. People helloed him and sought his views on the share market, the steel industry and onion pricing. And as they were about to get out, they turned and asked me, with a wide grin, ‘So Rameshji, what do you think, will Sheila ki jawaani beat Munni badnaam hui?’

It was only later when I began to wonder why winning had so little to do with earning respect, that all the dots connected.

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