Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Power of Faith a.k.a The Human Will

I happened to read two books almost back to back earlier this year. (The titles are not relevant.) At one look, there is nothing common between the two. You probably cannot find two stories that are more dissimilar.

They take place at two different times - the first, a hundred and fifty years ago and the second, less than a decade ago - and at two different places - almost on opposite sides of the globe. The men follow different religions. Their lifestyles are poles apart. Their circumstances are incomparable. But if we look deeper, there is something that connects them. The protagonists of these tales are thrown into the worst possible situation - that of a slave's life (Indeed, what suffering can nature inflict that is worse than what we do to each other?) - and they survive merely because of the strength of their faith. One prays to Jesus, the other to Allah. At the end, their suffering is over - the one finds peace in death, and the other returns to a life of freedom.

Both stories are not 'real' in the true sense of the word; but based on real people and real incidents, as the authors have explained elsewhere.

I was struck by the common theme that seemed to prevail - every time something happened (in every page, things only got worse, never better), the protagonist said to himself, It is God's wish. And that gave him the strength to endure it. Every time he waited for the suffering to end, he said to himself, God will end it when it is time. One read his Bible, the other knelt and prayed.

Every day they wait for a miracle. However, nothing throughout the story - nothing - happens, which could be termed an intervention from God. He does not move a leaf or give a sign to these people to show that He is with them. On those days when their hearts weaken, they look up to the indifferent sky and wonder, How many more days?

They firmly believe that this suffering has a purpose, and that it will end some day. That God had some plan for them. That we are all travellers tossed into the tumultuous ocean, having to fight our way to the surface day after day. That even in the midst of such torture, if they could lend a hand to one other person, their life has attained some meaning. When they look around, they see other victims, and in their tiniest way, they try to be kind.

Finally, when deliverance does come, it comes of their own efforts, through a chain of events that they themselves had set into motion.

If we change those stories, and remove the suggestion of God from it, say, we make the protagonists atheists, then what would happen? Would they be able to survive the hardships? Probably, yes. Merely by the strength of their will. But the chances are high that they would have given up, long ago.

The Human Will is powerful as well as creative; just look around to see its infinite capabilities. But it is also lazy; we have enough evidence of that around us, too. It would rather be idle than create. It needs to be awakened. It needs to be called.

Which is why, I think, we need God. We need the idea that someone higher than us has the power to change our miserable lives. That there is a purpose to this suffering. If we are told that there is no one up there giving a damn about us, that every thing we do and endure in this life has no meaning whatsoever; we have nothing to struggle for. Not all of us are made with a will of steel. The moment our boats begin to rock, we give up and surrender to our fate. There will be no struggle, no effort to save ourselves. Most of us would perish within no time. If we have faith, we can convince ourselves that He is watching. He will help us. He will save us. 

Which brings us to the conclusion that wise men have arrived at, long ago. There is no God but the one that resides in ourselves. God is the thread that we invoke to find the strength that is already within. When we are afraid, we chant God's name, and wake up the courage that was dormant inside us. Did God do something? Yes, and No. Might I even go so far as to suggest that the notion of God developed as an evolutionary requirement to make the species strong enough to survive? I suppose God and Science aren't on opposite sides, after all. One could very well be the by-product of the other, a tool to ensure survival.

Which is also why it is meaningless to go seeking God, or to argue whether He exists, or to fight over Him. 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

The seventy-five year old and his daughter waited for their turn. Their contact person within the system had sneaked inside and moved their file to the top. An hour of waiting later, the name was called. Both went in.

The room was small, and two young doctors were seated in one corner by a table. One of them was tapping away on the computer. The patient and daughter stood respectfully before them. There was a chair but it was pushed away to the other corner of the room, to be used perhaps only in very rare cases. The daughter wondered why the doctor did not suggest moving the chair forward and seating the patient on it. If for nothing else, at least because the patient was a much older man. We do generally pride ourselves on our Indian sense of respect for elders. He instead discussed the illness, asked about this or that relevant to the case and the patient answered politely, his body language conveying respect. The doctor sat back, threw his arm over the arm rest, and seemed to have an air of superior knowledge. He might have made himself more comfortable but the tiny room did not permit much luxury. His knowledge was superior, without doubt. The patients who visited him were ordinary people, who knew nothing about human anatomy. If the doctor said the blood test had to be repeated, the blood test had to be repeated. If he said the heart had to be taken out, it had to be taken out.

A few minutes later, the daughter, barely concealing her annoyance, pulled the empty chair from the other side of the room, and said, "Sit down, Dad."

Nothing changed in the doctor's countenance. Whether he regretted not asking earlier or whether he found her action unnecessary was not clear. He continued talking. The discussion was over quickly enough and they were given a form to sign. As they left the room, the next person was called and two men of forty-five or fifty years of age came in.

The daughter, leaving the room, observed in part-astonishment, part-understanding, that the men who went in had left their footwear by the door. She had earlier observed the same outside the laboratory door, and other doors in this hospital. In some rooms, for certain tests, it was necessary and there would be a notice asking patients to leave their footwear outside. But everywhere else, people were doing it just because of their tradition. One did leave footwear before entering a house or a temple. Why should a doctor's room or a lab be any different?

A few minutes later, realising that she had dropped a certain important document at the doctor's room, she went back to find it. She saw that the two men inside were standing and listening attentively to the young doctor. The chair that she had pulled forward was ignored and they were clearly not asked to sit. She said nothing, picked up the document and left the room.

Dear Doctor, those men took off their chappals at your door, not because they were idiots, but because they revere you. Show them some kindness, ask them to sit, speak compassionately. One of them has complaints of the heart, for God's sake.

With great power comes great responsibility. Spiderman may have been the one to popularise this quote, but it is certainly not limited to him. We all hold power over something or someone. Doctors certainly do hold a lot of power over many of us. More than anyone else, doctors are the ones we visit the most.

As a very wise man once said to me, we must remember that every single person we meet is superior to us in at least one thing. He / she is an expert at something that we have never been able to master.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Death

The visitors had informed prior to their arrival. So there were snacks and tea waiting for them.

The old woman sat by the television which was switched off, her back supported by a pillow. The guests observed her without blinking and watched for any change in her behaviour. The old woman watched them without blinking, her eyes running from one to the other.

She asked each about their families, their children, their sick parents, their dead grandparents, their estranged siblings and their divorced spouses without any apology. She had always had the authority to ask questions. Now she was as old as she was, her authority had become her right. They replied, as carefully and blushingly and mildly as they could, sometimes keeping their eyes away from each other, sometimes trying to change the topic. The old woman made sure her questions were answered. Sometimes she pointed to the biscuits and asked them to eat.

They left after an hour, their duty as relatives done; they could visit now when she died and speak about how lucid and coherent and healthy she had been at their last visit, despite being so old and withered.

“She has no memory problems,” they said.

“I think the daughter had just made it up. She was asking us all about our families, and the people she had known long ago. She has no problems.”

“I suspect foul play.”

“The daughter doesn’t want to take care of her, it’s the same story with all old parents. Pathetic.”

“But what does spreading stories do? She has to take care of her anyway.”

“Yes, but it will make others think she’s doing a sacrifice.”

“What was that she said something about the girl being locked up?”

“I didn’t get that either. That was after the television was turned on for the news. I couldn’t hear.”

“Yes, me neither. But I thought she said, the girl is locked up and she cries at night to be let out.”

“Which girl might that be?”

“Her own grand-daughter. Who else?”

“Oh, no.”

“I didn’t see the girl anywhere.”

“The daughter said she had gone out.”

“Could be a lie for all we know.”

“Oh, come on.”

“Well, I don’t think the old woman is lying. Why should she?”

“Anyway it was a difficult and unpleasant visit, I am glad it is over.”

Continue reading >>


Monday, May 23, 2016

Beyond the Point of No Return

When I turn to leave
The glimmer that rises and falls
In your eyes -

Make me wonder
If there is still hope;
If there is a door... at the end of the tunnel.

I go forward; every step
Making it difficult to
Ever turn back.

If we retrace our steps, far enough
We would encounter ourselves
Making the same mistakes

That would one day lead
to today, but nothing
would we change, nothing.

For what is destined,
has to happen, no matter
Which route is taken.

The vacuum grows, that
No voice will ever penetrate
No cry for help will ever be heard.

A growing chasm, like
An apology that has become
Impossible to make;

When I sped away
The light that rose and fell-
I know now - it was relief...

There is no answer.
There is no door.
It was all over long ago.

It is only human to pretend
That at the end of a dark road
There's a sunrise, waiting.

It is our strength, this hope;
Also our undoing; nonetheless
It exists; and so we do.

Friday, May 13, 2016

A Purpose to Our Days

In Being Mortal, Atul Gawande writes about a woman who had been living independently for years and who in her old age, was forced to move to a nursing home. "The things she missed most, she told me, were her friendships, privacy, and a purpose to her days."

The reference to Being Mortal is by the way. Apart from the fact that it is a brilliantly written book that everyone should read, I have nothing to add. But Dr Gawande's phrase 'a purpose to her days' clung to me and refused to leave - as though it was the precise phrase I had been searching for, for a long time.

It is not only about the old woman in a nursing home counting her last days. We are all consciously or unconsciously seeking a purpose to our existence. When we are young and busy, this search is outside our view. Our mind is clouded by the daily routines, priorities and hurries. As we grow older, we let go of some of those activities, give more importance to the real priorities in life and then the road springs to view.

Where are we headed? Why are we headed that way? Which of my activities have some meaning to me? Which of those are my mere duties to others? Which of my life's purposes have I sacrificed? Why am I here?

What thought excites us when we wake up in the morning? What will happen if nothing I do comes to fruition? What if none of my dreams ever come true?

Why do I get up each morning and make sure my family is on their way to attain their priorities and happiness? Why do I sit before my work and strive to derive some satisfaction from it? Why do I dream about miracles that may never take place? Why do I look at the road less travelled and tell myself, 'No, I am not at liberty to pursue it today'? What if tomorrow when I am ready for it, I am not healthy enough? What if one day I find that I have nothing to wake up for?

What is the purpose of my days?

Friday, April 29, 2016

Gazing at the Stars

We are all looking at the stars,
And some are content just with looking.

For it's easier to look than to dream
It's easier to dream than to act

It's easier to stop than to struggle
It's easier to flow than to resist

It's easier to drown than to survive.
But why should one settle for easy?

We are all but dreaming of the stars
A few are content just with dreaming-

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Wasp behind the glass

There was a wasp at the kitchen window one day. (Not the usual golden kind of wasp, this was smaller and sort of greenish. Perhaps it wasn't a wasp, but it did remind me of one.) It was stuck at the mosquito net, unable to go out. Must have come in through one of the open doors. I wasn't particularly keen on electrocuting a wasp with a Hunter racquet (and paying the price) so I gently opened the corner of the mosquito net and tried to coax it outside. Wasps are more difficult to convince than say, mosquitoes or flies. The reason being the obvious bite factor  - the wasp may not quite understand that my intentions are honourable, and it may decide to take the offensive.

One pane of the kitchen window was open and the other closed. As luck would have it, the corner of the net that I had pulled aside was at the closed pane. In my defence, that was the closer corner to the wasp. Somehow I urged the wasp to make its way out of the gaping hole. You should have seen it. It was like a little child being dragged to school. It reluctantly, hesitantly made its way to the other side only to encounter the closed glass pane. It looked lost at the new obstacle.

Then it began to explore the new shiny, slithery surface. One could tell that it was by no means comfortable. It crawled up and down, left and right. The open window, the path to liberty, was a few inches to its left. I waited. There must have been a slight breeze blowing. I hoped it would take the hint and go looking for whence the wind blew. Escape was just an arm's length away. Minutes passed. The wasp kept searching. I began to panic. You're free, I thought, but you think you are still imprisoned. You think I sent you to a harsher jail whereas my intention was to set you free. You aren't seeing broadly enough. Your vision is limited. Look around, look around. The door is wide open. Can you not see the blue, blue sky and the trees and the miles and miles of open space?

It came close to the edge - I held my breath - and it went back. Did it not see the open window? Why did it go back to the slithery glass pane?

The truth (or my version of it) began to dawn on me. What if it doesn't want to go out? Maybe it's weary of the world around it. Maybe flying isn't all that it is cracked up to be. Maybe gliding up and down the glass was fun enough. Maybe it had decided to live in my house, spending its days exploring the mosquito net or the glass pane. Why should it go out and get caught in the wind, trapped by the leaves or lost in the vastness of the sky? What did a lifetime of trying give it, any way?

I went away, perplexed; unable to decide whether the wasp was so short-sighted as to not see freedom one step away, or if it deliberately chose to stay behind the glass despite everything. Much much later, I returned and found it gone.

But it is a fact that the next day, I found a wasp (absolutely no way of knowing if it is the same) behind the glass at the very same position, calmly gliding up and down. Did it get lost again, or had it returned to its retreat for a sniff of peace? I guess I would never know. I like to think it was the latter.

Because, sometimes - not always - I like that too. To peek at the world from behind the barrier through a pane of indifference; to admire the sky and the moving clouds, the rustling leaves, the cars and people, but not to wade in any of it. As though none of it belonged to me. Nor I to them. On those days, I would rather be safe behind the wall of glass than to expose myself to the fury of life. And when it is time to come out from hiding, to face reality, there would still be the memory of the glass pane to keep me from breaking to pieces.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Vishu

There is a Santa Clausian presence to my memories related to Vishu. Most of our summer holidays long, long ago were spent with grandparents. We would be woken up at four or five in the morning, and we would be walked with our eyes closed to the hall.

When I open my eyes, I would see the hall transformed. I was supposed to be looking at the Gods and the kani, but in reality I would be wondering, where have all those framed family pictures gone, which used to hang from the wall? Where did these Gods come from? And all these vegetables and konnappoo and the assortment? Who did all this during the night? (If I had known about elves I would have given them the credit.) For a long time I thought there was some kind of magic behind this transformation until it began to sink in that the magician was my own grandfather. I suppose I believed that my parents and grandparents also woke up and found the Vishukkani ready.

So after the kani kaanal was over and we got our kaineettam (beginning at twenty paisa or twenty-five paisa) from the elders, we would quickly go back to where we came from - our beds. No point in wasting more sleep. The coins and notes would be scattered on the bed when we woke up. The next step was to pick them up and compare.

I used to see the same wonder in my son's eyes when he was still tiny enough to think that there was something quite miraculous behind the brightly-lit lamps and the pictures that made their appearance on Vishu morning. Now, at ten, he is a grown up. He asks me if he can help me arrange the kani. Then he thinks for a while and says, "Or maybe not. You arrange it. So it will be a surprise for me."

The transition from the world of magic to a world entirely without, and the clinging to the old memories of wonder.


Read: Vishu then and now