Posts Tagged ‘relationship’

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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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.

Three Stories. One Epilogue.

 

What if the dog bites me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

It did.

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

I found that stupid, especially the last part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

“What if my dad dies one day?”

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

The possibility that my father could die one day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

What if the world ends on 12.12.12?”

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

I have seen quite a few doomsdays in my lifetime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He fell.

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

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

It’s a win-won’t-lose deal.

* * *

The Epilogue

Horror is when you don’t know what.

Thriller is when you don’t know when.

Mystery is when you don’t know how.

Suspense is when you don’t know who.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A friend summed it up for me, rather nicely.

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

What if he’s right?

Fly to learn

 

Do jumping from trees, benches, roofs and parapet walls in Superman’s costumes, qualify as flying? No? Well, in that case, the first time I really flew was when I was 26. In an airplane, of course.

This might be shocking to a generation that now starts flying earlier than birds do- Some of my grandnephews & nieces are Frequent Flyers already.

But my days were different.

The night before my first flight, my dad had given me a ready-reckoner of sorts, a list of what to do after I enter the airport. It equalled the kind of briefing that commandos get before they storm a hijacked plane.

That’s because, in those days the airport was a world not many have been to. Like Norlan’s movies, it had customs and rituals that were very different from the world I lived in. The airport was very different from the railway stations and bus depots that I was used to.

It had no porters, the old-world’s paid husbands who carried your baggage, listened to your grumbling and could be blamed for all things wrong.

No tea stalls, the ubiquitous Enquiry counters where you could ask anything under the sun, and get prompt, wrong answers.

Worse, no crowd, which I missed the most. It’s still the Third World’s greatest leveller. A sea of anonymity that offers you comfort in numbers, and ironically, most privacy. It is the best place to lose wallets, kids, inhibitions and self.

I remember wondering why there had to be so many complicated formalities just for a ride. In trains all we did was enter a station, wait for the train, get in and settle down. Once in, we could sit, stand, sleep, walk or talk. Most strangers would be willing to share their entire life’s story with us within minutes. A cousin of mine even fell in love and later married her fellow passenger on one journey.

But the people one encountered inside the airport looked, dressed and spoke- if at all- very differently. They spoke with cultivated accents at counters, and displayed the kind of manners and aloofness usually associated with the West. Airhostesses seemed like Bollywood heroines, and pilots, straight out of Hollywood seventyemems.

The experience was intimidating. I don’t think I have ever again felt that inadequate or lowly.

But I learnt a valuable lesson that day- That this world will never be just ONE homogenous world. There will always be worlds within worlds within worlds. Some of those, we will be familiar and comfortable with. Some, we will never be. The trick is to enter, adapt, evolve and exit by choice. There’s no need to try and belong to every world that we encounter.

To translate a popular Malayalam saying, “Subsume the world before the world subsumes you.”

That holds good not just for countries and cultures, but, as I learnt later, for all life’s relationships, experiences, roles and responsibilities.

************

Airports, flying and flyers have changed a great deal since those days. And I, a bit.

However, one thing that hasn’t changed much is my hopeless luck at check-in counters.

For many years, I used to ask for the window seat, and never get it.

I then began to ask for the aisle seat, and never get that either.

Which is why, three months ago this happened.

“Any seat preference, sir?” I was, as always, asked at the check-in counter.

“The middle seat,” I said, for the first time in my life.

“Sure, sir! Is 18B okay?”

I got what I asked for, for the first time in my life.

Don’t believe the bestsellers when they say there are 8 secrets, 10 steps, 25 ways and 101 roads to success. There’s only One. And here it is, summed up for you, by me, from that experience of mine.

If you don’t get what you seek, seek what you can get.”

I assure you, that’s the only mantra for permanent success in life.

************

I am now a regular Middle-seat seeker, getter and sitter.

On my uncomfortable journeys sandwiched between two strangers, I have learnt what no psychologist, anthropologist or sociologist could have told me.

That there are only three kinds of people in this world.

Window-seat sitters.

Aisle-seat sitters.

And the Middle-seat sitters.

I am sure you have noticed them.

The Window guys are those with a Do Not Disturb sign etched on their foreheads. On the flight and in life, they assume both handrests are theirs. They pretend to look out of the window, or be engrossed in the book on their lap with music in their ears, to suggest that their worlds are far more meaningful than yours. In reality, they are fully aware and worried about where their neighbour’s elbow and knees are, and keep a keen eye of the food-cart coming along. Their sleep is never genuine. For no reason, they seem to be anti-humanity and particularly angry with the Aisle chap. They can, at the most, tolerate the Middle guy. So, they will ask and maybe apologise to him when they have to go to the loo, but pretend the Aisle guy doesn’t exist. Communicating to Aisle guy is left to the Middle man.

On the contrary, the Aisle guys are all eyes and ears to everything around them. They’d stare and even intrude. They are the guys who watch the airhostess all the way down the aisle, until she disappears behind the curtains. They read nothing, listen to nothing and do all they can to fight sleep. They are keen and are always looking for opportunities to start a conversation. Doesn’t matter even if it’s an argument. They will have no issues if the Middle guy wants to go to the loo, but will let out grudging groans when the Window guy gets up. They are the closest to their overhead baggage, and yet they have this uncontrollable rush to reach for it at touch-down.

Between the extreme right and the extreme left are the Middle ones. Condemned as fence sitters, shunned as mediocre, described as spineless and blamed for being too diplomatic. They have been treated as nobodies because the Extremes believe that life is a shoot-out between the Window and the Aisle, with the Middle guy at best a bystander.

That’s precisely why the Extremes can be annoying. I find them too melodramatic, self-centered, opinionated, and judgmental.

In comparison, the Middler always seems saner, calmer and in control.

In a world of definitive answers, it is refreshing to hear their Maybes. Amidst  stubborn opinions, it is breezy to hear their realistic I-Don’t-Knows.

Middle Sitters sleep faster and better, often falling on to the shoulders of those beside them. There’s an air of informality and positivity about them. To boasts of “I have the Window” and “I have the Aisle”, all they say is, “I have a bit of both!”

I am beginning to believe that the Middle is the new Chill Pill, the original Cool Cucumber.

It’s definitely cooler- You get the blast from all the air-vents.

It’s safer, too- Have you ever heard of a hijacker shooting a Middle-seat sitter as his first ransom victim?

The Middle is actually more than just a seat. It’s a happy state of equilibrium.

Pity, most of us aren’t born so. And we do all we can to avoid the stigma of Mediocrity and Averageness that comes attached to it.

But the fact is, those traits aren’t as bad as the world makes them out to be.

A wise man recently tweeted: If the whole world were to take a middle path in everything, we’ll probably have a less developed world, but surely a happier world.

So true. Especially when that Middle Seat is between Obsession and Detachment, Servility and Arrogance, Delirium and Depression, the Sugary and the Bitter, the Prodigy and the Idiot, the Stunning and the Repulsive, the Too Good and the Too Bad…

Between the Absolute and the Absolute lies a happy and comfortable heaven. The only permanent heaven there is.

Don’t take my word for it. Ask for it. Fly in it. And discover the meaninglessness of fighting for the Window or the Aisle. On a flight. And in your life.

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.

Remain a reflection

 

The first set of my married nieces and nephews have had their babies recently. Tears of joy did well up in my eyes when they began to happen one by one, some four months ago. But more out of instinct than reason. More instinct, because the announcement “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!” will remain the world’s biggest breaking news no matter how many times you have heard it. Less reason, because it’s a bit complicated and takes time to figure out, especially when people you still see as children begin to have children of their own.

It is actually a huge redefining moment of life and relationships. But families don’t let it sink in. They break into celebrations.

People were calling each other, hugging, dancing and stuffing sweets into every open mouth. It was while attempting to swallow one such larger-than-mouth ladoo that an aunt came over, stuffed another and said: “Congratulations darling! You have been promoted! Now you have a new designation in life!”

Thanks to the dizzy dose of calories I’d had, the brain numbingly loud music that was playing, and an even louder family that was around, that comment passed off as a joke on my “Unemployed” fb status.

It was much later that it hit me that it was even worse. I ran to my wife for confirmation. She was busy discussing the saree to be bought for the baby’s naming ceremony.

I ran to my cousin with whom I had grown up, for consolation. He waved me off saying he was on a long-distance business call and didn’t wish to be disturbed.

(If you ever have to be in a disaster, choose large-scale national or international ones. At least everyone’s involved. Personal disasters, however small and insignificant, are eerily private and lonely. You are left to handle it, while the world celebrates.)

That day, amidst 150 partying people, I was alone.

That moment, a truth sunk in. No matter how many relatives, fb friends, Twitter followers, blog subscribers you gather all your life, when the moment arrives there’s none. In life there’s only one soulmate you really can call your very own, the only one you can turn to at all times, and the only one who’s always around until the very end.

The mirror.

Preferably, the bathroom one.

It’s always there to cry, laugh, sing, dance with you, and to make faces back at you. Never failing to reflect your mood back, honestly.

Yes, it shows you your paunch, blemishes, nostril hair and makes you hate yourself. But tuck in your stomach and strike a Michael Jackson pose, and it will make you feel This is it! Not Bad.

That night I went to my mirror. Like I have on countless occasions in my life.

I took a long hard look at the reflection it threw back, and yelled, “You Granduncle!”

It echoed to traumatic effect, whirling around that small bathroom space like a circus biker in a Well of Death, until it ran out of decibels and had a slow and feeble end. For a while, even the silence echoed.

People expect being called “Uncle” or “Aunty” for the first time in life to be this traumatic. That’s false alarm. I remember mine. It was an auto driver who called me that for the first time.

“Change nahi hai uncle!” (“I’ve no change, uncle!”)

I was annoyed but not devastated. Frankly, I am not sure what had angered me more- the fact that he didn’t have change or the reason he chose to call me Uncle when he had so many more acceptable options like Sir, Saab, Ji, Bhaiya, Bhai or, Mumbai’s very own- Shhh-Shhh.

But soon, I more than got used to it. Thanks to my hormone-surplus cousins, every other month I had new nephews and nieces coming into this world. Though their cacophony of “Uncle! Uncle!” resembled the dreaded bathroom echo, I must say, it was far less traumatic. In fact, I had found it cute and enjoyed my new designation in life.

I thought I had creamed one of life’s most feared experiences. I was wrong.

Nothing in the world had prepared me for “Granduncle”. It won’t. Simply because the world doesn’t really recognise anyone beyond Uncles.

Uncles are important because they are there to do what the parents won’t, and grandparents can’t. But we, the poor Granduncles are just old and unnecessarily superfluous substitutes to Uncles. Uncles without the power. The world’s first proof that blood is not always thicker than water.

Granduncles are nobodies. We have no roles to play in anyone’s life. Announced with a ladoo or not, this is a promotion to nothingness. A fancy designation that sounds grand but is hollow. A Lifetime Achievement award that says, “Thank you. Now just fade away!”

In front of that mirror that day, I realised another fact: Life, like organisations, never lets you be your best. It keeps promoting you to uselessness.

Take our birth.

A happy Foetus is promoted to Baby.

We are thrown into this strange world to fend for ourselves and stave off hunger by learning how to extract milk from human anatomy. Just when we manage to learn how, we are promoted to bottle-feed. They fool us into thinking it is the same. A rose is a rose by any name. But naming anything rose, doesn’t make it rose, does it? Same with nipples.

By the time we have mastered the art of tackling parents, we are graduated to teachers, books and exams. And then bosses. Just when we think we are getting good at this rat race, they tell us we have been escalated to the next level- a three-legged race where we will have to run with a partner, kids, career, colleagues, home loans and diets.

Tell me, do increasing incidence of heart attacks seem so unreasonable now?

Promotions and designations don’t cease all life. Son, nephew, friend, brother, cousin, uncle, husband, son-in-law, brother-in-law, dad, granddad…it goes on until it all finally ends at Granduncle.

In front of the mirror. The bathroom one.

It knows no designations or titles. Unlike in the world, in a mirror we remain a reflection all our life. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but always a reflection. Of ourselves.

The Imperfectionist

 

While the whole world prayed for Sachin’s 100th 100, I was hoping he would stay at 99. Not because I’m any less a fan of his. Not because I’m a Pakistani, as some of you suspect. It’s because of late, I have begun to worship imperfections. I think such imperfections are what make this world a world and not a drab heaven.

Had Sachin ended his career one short, posterity would have discussed the aberration forever. The way Bradman’s 99.94 average has been. But it isn’t going to be. Sachin got his 100 and now has a perfect career to retire from.

And perfect is boring.

Would you like it if the full moon rose over your terrace as a computer-generated, spotlessly white, perfect round?

How come moles on women’s faces ruin more men’s lives than blemish-free, fair & lovely faces?

That’s because perfection calls for a wow and a move-on. Nothing to discuss, nothing to debate, nothing to work on, nothing to look forward to. Imperfections are memorable, engaging.

History is littered with examples of imperfect lives.

Hitler, Che Guevara, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, John F. Kennedy, The Beatles, Michael Jackson…

In contrast, take Nehru. Wealthy childhood, great education, terrific orator, respectable freedom fighter, visionary Prime Minister and a true dad. He had a perfect death, too. And he even left behind many generations of future leaders for the country.

Now, that’s what I call a perfect 10 on 10 life.

And that, my dear friends, is precisely his problem. But for his family and party, he would’ve been relegated to a dark corner of this nation’s collective memory by now. Pity, because he was as peace-loving, honest and non-violent as Gandhi. Yet, it is Gandhi’s life that makes for a blockbuster. Know why? Most of Gandhi’s life, and definitely his death, was far from perfect. His tough childhood, child marriage, not-so-successful career, luck with trains, weird dressing sense, uncommon practices and difficult-to-practice ideals have inspired many historians, writers, artists and filmmakers. Disproportionately more than those who showed interest in Nehru.

Clearly, imperfectionists create deeper impact than perfectionists. And the world is now beginning to realise it.

Cinema has a way of spotting such trends faster than society. Cinema’s most memorable characters have always been those with failings. Superman is superman only because in reality he is shown as less than a common man. Why, can you think of anyone more endearing than Charlie Chaplin? The ultimate Imperfectionist.

Today, even the world’s most valuable company realises that. Why else would their logo be a far-from-perfect bitten apple?

Take Public Speaking for instance. Until a few years ago, the world’s best speakers were those who had the perfect language, diction, posture, gait and gestures. These days, they say “Be yourself.”

Some of the best talks in recent years have been by clumsy speakers. Their imperfections are charming and their honesty makes them adorable.

But I discussed imperfections with my producer the other day, and he had this to say: “Imperfections in characters are welcome, not in the screenplay.”

When I took the debate to my wife, she said: “Are you building a case for an imperfect husband?”

That’s when I realised that the revolution for imperfection is, well, imperfect. Perfect is what the world will always aspire to become. Imperfections will continue to remain a failing, despite the trillion examples in favour of making it a design.

Last week I was summoned to my son’s school. “What do you do, Mr. Rabindranath?” asked his teacher.

“Er…well…I kind of…er…yes, write!” I said.

“In English?” she asked. I spied disbelief in her tone.

“Yes, of course!” I said, in a quickly rustled up convent accent.

“Look at your son’s English essay!” she said, flinging a paper at me.

I read it. Poor grammar, poor spellings. Understandable, because unlike his dad he doesn’t have auto-correct when he writes. However, it was the most unconventional essay I’ve ever read. Right through the two pages on the topic, he had a conversation going with the teacher in brackets.

So, he wrote: “…comited (Miss, not sure how many Ms and Ts)…” 

And: “…Then my friend came up with a funda (I know it’s a slang. Excuse me, miss.)…”

I secretly enjoyed it, but agreed with his teacher that he must copy the first-ranker’s essay at least ten times as a punishment.

It’s not as if the world is perfect. It’s just that we are shy of admitting it, celebrating it. Isn’t it strange that we are ashamed of what we are, and proud of what we want to be but might never become?

For a minute let’s imagine that we’ve evolved to a society that celebrates imperfections. Any guesses on what its impact would be like?

Suicides would be down by 82.5%.

Divorce cases would be down by 91.6%.

Those immaculately mannered gentlemen would be laughed at.

Those prim and proper ladies would look like relics.

The annoyingly ideal children at school would be asked: “Are you always this good? Or are you at times more interesting?”

Husbands will finally be able to give honest answers to questions like: “Am I looking fat in this dress?”

We will all be free to burp after a great meal, snore at nights, scratch whatever itches, yawn during meetings, laugh at a client, admit without fear: “Sorry, I goofed up.” Or “I don’t know.” Or “I am not that good.”

What a wonderfully imperfect and interesting world that would be!

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