Posts Tagged ‘life’

2017: Sort of sorted

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why am I here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Love ends where hunger starts.

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

Not long, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life became messy. The world, a horrible place.

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

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

People were confused.

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

Collective questions get collective answers.

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

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

There was a collective sigh.

“G.O.D!”

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

People looked up but saw nothing.

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

Someone got up and narrated a story.

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

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

They introduced more Gods, superior religions, bigger promises.

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

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

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

“Why am I here?”

In a bathroom, these voices resonate even more.

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

I took a deep breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s when the word struck me.

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

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

In fact, most creatures other than humans are.

I suddenly remembered what I had read somewhere long ago.

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

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

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

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

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

Do I want to go back to that party?

No.

Do I ever want to use these clothes again?

No.

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

Simple. I did that.

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

I smiled faintly.

“To sleep, snore…”

I was asleep even before I could complete.

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In love? With love or loved one?

Here’s the thing about my wife and me.

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

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

But that’s the way it is with us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My dad did,” I protested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you serious? You still have my letters?”

Yes, all 37 of them!”

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

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

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

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

I only hope it is with each other.

Feel. Think. Act.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Why is it never a fire man?

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

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

Yes, a terrorist.

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

Why is he so elusive?

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

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

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

Is he for real?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All that vanished were my hard-earned savings.

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

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

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

Fire fighting!

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

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

Simple.

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

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

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

I least expected what I encountered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I couldn’t understand the relevance, but listened.

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

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

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

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

He simply chuckled.

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

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

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

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

It did beautifully.

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

Feel. Think. Act.

And strictly in that order.

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

I was convinced.

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

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

I read it.

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

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

Sorry sir, you forgot to pay!”

Good, by failing to be bad

Can you run a race while singing a lullaby?

Can you climb a steep ladder while changing a baby’s diapers?

I couldn’t.

At just 32, I was running a vicious rat race, climbing spiral corporate ladders and desperately vying for the world’s best husband award, all at the same time, when the nurse interrupted to announce, “It’s a boy!”

Until then, bundles of joy had only meant cash incentives at office, to me. Until then, babies had meant only baby girls to my wife- how could Barbie be a boy!

But that announcement changed everything.

Nothing mattered anymore, because our minds were doing synchronized cartwheels in celebration. Perhaps, a bit prematurely, for we were unaware of what was to follow the first child.

No, not a twin.

Parenthood.

Ever figured out why there are no training institutions, personal coaches or holy scriptures for parenthood- a job that puts the future of this planet at stake?

Or why, in a world where we can’t drive without a licence, where we can’t build a bridge without a degree, and where it’s illegal to even heal a dying man without qualifications, it is perfectly okay to be responsible for the birth, growth and life of a human being, with no prior experience, qualification, assurance or expertise?

Look for help, and you’ll find more books about making babies than about bringing them up.

Ask the much-experienced for tips, and you will get absolutely polarized views.

If one says, “Spare the rod, and spoil the child,” the other says, “Use the rod, and lose the child.”

In an environment that was as unsupportive as that, my wife and I began learning to be parents based on Trial & Error- an obsolete methodology that has for long been discarded from every professional set up, now practised only in lucky-dips, lotteries and marriages.

Nineteen years and two sons later, I realized we had committed so many errors that I could easily fill a book bulkier than the Bible with What Not To Do In Parenting.

A few months ago, on a particularly bright enthusiastic day, motivated by my wife’s “Let the world benefit from our blunders” plea, I made the cardinal sin of blogging an abridged version of those Don’ts.

I started by stating the golden rule of parenthood: Do the exact opposite of what you think is right!

As an indulgent writer, I even went on to explain that.

When my older son was around cola-demanding age, we thought it right to blanket ban cola from our home. We thought we had won the cola war, until we discovered that our boy had been going on a cola binge at family gatherings, birthday parties, neighbours’ homes and everywhere out of our home. It was by then too late to correct him. Today he can be classified as a colaholic.

For the second one, we changed strategies. We never said no to him. We gave him an overdose of cola, so much of it that we hoped he would get fed up of it. We waited for that day when he would throw up at the mere sight of cola. We waited and waited for years. That day never came. In the process, he has grown into an incurable cola junkie today.

Only bright spot of our failed experiments in parenting is- offer the kids cocaine and cola, and they’d any day choose cola.

I never knew the world had so many parents waiting for a new post with a parenting tag every day. The response to my post was fast and furious.

Dear doctor,” wrote one, “I have been bringing up my kid for the last 10 years exactly the way you have asked us not to. I am now a nervous wreck. Am I creating a Frankenstein? What should I do? Is there an antidote? Please advise.”

Why do people assume that books are written only by experts? To sound less like a trained child psychologist and more like a clueless dad, I changed that title to: Ramblings of a hapless dad

It didn’t help. From a dad I knew, came this comment: “Dear Ramesh, I have brought up my daughter exactly the same way as you have advised us not to. And I am proud to say that she is the one who has topped your son’s batch this year.”

That’s when I realized how difficult it is to generalize parenting.

One man’s Dos are another man’s Don’ts.

That would have remained my first-and-only attempt to warn would-be parents about parenting, had I not gone for a recent family function and met my niece’s husband.

He is an engineer. He lives in Mauritius. He enjoys good food. He plays chess. He loves cricket. He misses no movies. And yes, he is on the verge of fatherhood.

Of all those common interests we had, he chose to pick my weakest, “So, Ramesh uncle, any tips on fatherhood?”

Now, uncles can be bald, fat, grey, boring, clumsy and terrible to converse with, but they just can’t afford to be unwise. Ever.

“Tips? Of course, plenty!” I said, pretending to prepare for a long and tiring sermon, in reality, hoping that it would scare him and give him enough time, reason and opportunity to escape.

But he is a sincere fellow. He didn’t, and I was forced to begin.

What started off as gibberish, somewhere in the middle picked up steam and started becoming relevant, and finally when it ended, I don’t know about him, but I was mighty impressed with myself.

Pardon my lack of modesty, but I today consider it as the best treatise on parenthood that I have ever come across.

Judge for yourself.

Here it is, in full:

Parenthood can be divided into 4 stages.

  1. Correcting their wrong (0 to until they walk):

Only babies have the privilege of doing the yuckiest things and yet be termed chochweet, cute and adorable. They will pee and shit on the bed and on us, and bawl to wake us up at unearthly hours. Good parenting is all about becoming sleepless zombies, mastering the art of changing diapers and soiled bedsheets, while singing a lullaby and feeding the baby.

  1. Preventing their wrong (Until they talk):

Once they are mobile, their wrongs extend as far as their hands can reach. Good parenting at this stage is all about prevention, about out-thinking the baby or simply being faster on the draw. So, fish tanks go one shelf higher as wobbly legs learn to stand on their own, glass bottles disappear in the nick of time before chubby hands reach them, electric sockets get plugged to avoid little fingers completing high voltage circuits, and sharp edges get cushioned by palms just before baldie bangs on them.

  1. Explaining their wrong (Until they balk):

Babies become kids when they begin to talk. Their wrongs are now beyond correction and prevention, and require a change of heart. Good parenting becomes all about the skill of reasoning, and the ability to hold a one-to-one conversation with someone you share no logic with, and whose attention span is 4.05 seconds- the average time between two Facebook alerts.

  1. Discovering we were wrong (Until the end):

When children become adults, every deed of theirs- good and bad- becomes a rude reminder of our follies and stupidities. Everything we thought was right would have gone wrong, and everything we thought would go wrong would have turned out right. Basically, we would have gone wrong about both the right and the wrong. Good parenting here is all about graciously accepting life’s biggest goof up.

Exasperated with the anticlimax, my niece’s husband simply asked, “Ramesh uncle, in essence, what are you saying? Is there no formula for bringing up good children?”

Now, anything that sounds impressive in longform can sound hollow and empty when summed up in a line as an essence. Does “Jesus Suffers, Jesus Saves!” justify the Bible?

However, there are days when you just can’t go wrong. That day was one such day.

In a sudden fit of inspiration, I said, “Those who starve are prone to binge!”

His eyes widened as if he had just seen a halo appear around me.

His silence told me that he was expecting a halo-befitting explanation, which at that moment, I didn’t have. But in the next, I magically got.

(I discovered that I think better not while thinking, but while talking.)

“Goodness by constraints and restrictions is no permanent goodness.” I thundered forth thinking.

“For no will is strong enough, no resolve fierce enough, to stave off all the world’s evil for a lifetime. Pent up evil is like a volcano waiting to erupt. Sometime in life, it will and how. That’s why, very often good children grow up to become terrible adults, and terrible children grow up to become good adults.”

I took time off to drink a glass of juice that passed by, so that I could end well what had started well.

“The basic mistake is, we as parents assume all children are born good, and thus spend all our lives to protect them against the bad, to keep them away from the evil. We forget that it can never be done for too long, never too well. Instead, if we assume that all children are born bad, all our efforts would go into luring them to goodness, and making values desirable. If we succeed in making them feel good about being good and bad about being bad, the job would be done. For, only those who become good because they failed to be bad will remain good forever. The goodness that comes from the failure of the evil is the real goodness, the only permanent goodness.”

As I finished, he rose and touched my feet to seek my blessings. As I was blessing him, through the corner of my eye, I spied my kids at the bar. They were having an argument with the bartender, drunk on cola.

Thank God, the father-to-be was too bent in devotion to notice.

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?

 

A child prodigy at 50 and bit


I dislike two things about child prodigies.

One, that they are children.

Two, that they have pesky parents.

Let me explain.

Child and prodigy to me is like child and facial hair. They don’t sit well on the tongue, do they?

Incongruous, to say the least.

At an age when they should be displaying child-like fragilities, they are accomplishing adult tasks.

Sad.

I can never understand why this world is in such a hurry to turn children into adults, when it’s the adults who should be trying to become children all over again.

Parents have got to take the blame.

Most parents look at children as start-up ideas, born to them in bedrooms, car back-seats or elevators. Much like garage-born enterprises.

They turn into aggressive marketers, and unabashedly hard sell their products.

Never before! Never again!

A child like no other!

In a world where USPs are invented if they don’t exist, any semblance of prodigious talent is godsend and exploited to the hilt. I have been a forced consumer of this nonsense a couple of times. That, I must confess, is the closest I have ever come to any prodigious talent.

I remember two instances.

“Darling, see who’s come! Ramesh uncle!”

Her parents expected her to shriek with joy from inside, and come running to hug me.

But nothing happened.

“Now, stop playing with that stupid doll and come here. Uncle wants to ask you something.”

Turning to me, they whispered as if it was the world’s biggest discovery being let out before going public, “You know she is just five and can name the capitals of 196 countries!”

My eyes widened and jaw dropped, in surprise.

“Oh, are there that many countries in this world?” I nearly asked, but fortunately swallowed my misplaced surprise at the last moment.

When the prodigy finally appeared, ironically, all eyes turned towards me for the performance.

The script was clear.

I was supposed to ask tough, intelligent questions and be blown away by her instant answer.

But what the hell do I ask?

I would look stupid and would be insulting her if I asked her the capital of America, India or England.

So I racked my brain and came up with this:

“What’s the capital of Waidhofen an der Ybbs?”

There was silence, as ignorant parents stared at their dumbfounded prodigy in disbelief.

She had never taken this long for anything.

Was this the moment of truth? Was she just another ordinary child?

Those must have been the terrible thoughts running through her parents’ minds, when the prodigy, to my great relief, spoke.

“Uncle, Waidhofen an der Ybbs is a city!”

I recovered faster than I thought I would. In the process discovering some hidden prodigious skills in me, too. That’s the thing about age. It teaches you how to fake intelligence.

“Ah, terrific. Of course, I know. I was only testing you!”

There was general relief all around. I felt like a winner myself, having encountered a prodigy and come out unscathed.

In another house on another day, it was a boy.

He could answer mathematical questions in seconds, his parents boasted, and invited me for a duel. These are the only duels one goes to hoping that the other wins. Who wants to be the guy who fails a prodigy and kills his parents’ dream!

“Ask!” they shouted, like the gong that gets gladiators going.

“Square root of 36?”

Answered.

Parents threw a oh-come-on-ask-better-questions look at me.

“Square root of 625?”

Answered.

This wouldn’t be done until I asked something impossible, I knew.

So.

“Square root of 52748438147344?”

“7275412!” comes the answer in an instant.

I break into a well-rehearsed jump, cheer and exclamation, making it look like an impromptu one. Parents were beaming, and I was hoping we would get on to more exciting rituals like tea and snacks, when the dreaded prodigy interrupted.

“Sorry, uncle. It is 7262812.”

There was an awkward silence. The prodigy had made a mistake for the first time in his life!

Unaware, I was celebrating even after their world had fallen silent.

Did I overdo it?

I recovered in time, and displayed more prodigious skills.

Age, I tell you!

“My God, he is terrific. Not only does he know the right answers, he also knows what is wrong!”

None got it. Not even the dumb prodigy. But it worked. Celebration broke out again in that household.

Some would say I am envious of child prodigies, and this post is a case of sour grapes.

Not entirely untrue.

But my point is that it is okay to be born with prodigious talent, but aren’t those freaks a bit unidimensional and stagnant?

They seem to have arrived in life even before they have begun. That’s why they have nowhere to go. That might be the reason why we never hear about these child prodigies after they grow up.

Ever wondered what happens to such talent? Do they just fade away? Or like the fabled tortoise, does the rest of the slow world catch up? Or do they just become big bores, doing the same thing all their life? I mean, how many times can one ask tough questions, listen to instant answers and jump with surprise!

On the other hand, look at inferior beings. They are always in transit. Their present is always more dynamic and they will always have a future to look forward to, because they have so many to catch up with and so much to improve on.

So tell me, who deserves the world’s respect?

Someone who is bestowed with abundant talent by some queer gene mix-ups at birth?

Or someone who, through effort, stretches his modest capabilities a little further everyday, to keep progressing?

Take me, for instance.

See how much I have grown and progressed from childhood.

I now have a bigger belly, scarce-but-nice silver hair and a higher BMI than when I was a child.

I also play better chess, sing better in bathrooms, have read more, written more and know more than when I was 20. Even my harshest critics say that I have become less nasty, less illogical and less annoying than last year.

Why, even my wife says I am getting better at…okay, let’s not go there.

A clear sign that I am on my way to becoming a prodigy is at our dining table. Every night, I wait impatiently for my kids to finish their victory stories of the day and their attempts to tell me that they are budding prodigies, because I have my own and much much more to tell them.

The only problem with becoming a prodigy at this age is that your family is least interested in marketing you. You have to do it all by yourself. Look at me.

But believe me, it’s a far better space to me in at 50 and bit, than at five.

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