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Personal growth is the theme of most management text books and self-development manuals. A passage by Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran is a timely reminder in this fearful age of Covid. It reminds us that death is only the ultimate step of self-development and growth in the journey of life.
“It is said that before entering the sea, a river trembles with fear. She looks back at the path she has traveled, from the peaks of the mountains, the long winding road crossing forests and villages. And in front of her, she sees an ocean so vast, that to enter there seems nothing more than to disappear forever. But there is no other way. The river can not go back. Nobody can go back. To go back is impossible in existence. The river needs to take the risk of entering the ocean, because only then will fear disappear, because that’s where the river will know — it’s not about disappearing into the ocean, but of becoming the ocean.”
It happened one evening in the new year, driving back to the city on the autobahn from a visit to the town of Petronell-Carnuntum (once home to Marcus Aurelius’ Roman legions as they fought against the barbarians, so colorfully depicted in Ridley Scott’s movie, Gladiator). I was travelling at about 100 kmh, overtaking a column of trucks travelling at their legal speed limit of 80. There was a gusty wind blowing. The road was clear although it had snowed a day or two earlier. The temperature was close to freezing. Suddenly in the gathering twilight I saw something large and white swirling towards the windscreen of the car. Travelling in the middle of three lanes, with trucks on the right and faster cars on the left, there was neither time nor space to avoid it. A bone-jarring thump, and the windshield of the car dissolved into a criss-cross of lines as the safety glass shattered but did not break apart. Recovering from the shock, I realized it was a block of ice, the size of two or three bricks, that had dislodged from the roof of one of the trucks ahead of us. A harder gust of wind or a few km/h faster and I, with my precious cargo of three other people in the car, might all be dead.
Thinking about the incident later brought to mind the phrase “the hand of God.” Being of a non-religious bent, I am inclined to ask: was it the hand of God that threw the chunk of ice, or was it the hand of God that blocked it? Or was it both? A display of divine power? An attempt to impress that seems unworthy of an all-powerful being!
The beliefs of various religions claiming to know the origin of the universe and to give its creator a name; be it Jehovah, Jahveh, Allah, Brahman, etc. seems to me to be just that; beliefs. And the claims made by brilliant scientists like Stephen Hawking who said that the universe was decided by the laws of science simply fails my common-sense test.
“So then science is your God?” I ask Hawking in my dream.
“Well yes,” he replies. “If you like you can call the laws of science “God,” but it wouldn’t be a personal God you could meet and put questions to.” (see USA Today, Oct. 17, 2018)
So to my mind, the beliefs of both science and theology are limited, rather like the motto of the New York Times; “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Although admittedly a superior newspaper, the claim is, in global terms, ludicrous. As ludicrous as the claim of any religion or science to know all the truth. As someone who has been close to death on two occasions, I can assure you there’s nothing to fear on the other side. On the contrary, the overwhelming feeling is a warm sense of peace accompanied by deep, wordless joy. One comes out of the experience loving life more than ever, but in a detached kind of way that is infinitely liberating. As to what really lies on the other side, I’m sure no one really knows for sure, so if it comforts you, go ahead and cling to your beliefs. But for God’s sake, don’t go starting wars or fighting over it.
St. Mark, Chapter 10.
13. And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them: and his disciples rebuked those that brought them.
14. But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.
15. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.
16. And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them.
Terrible things are done, mostly by dictatorial governments, to children everywhere, especially to the children of the poor, the powerless and the dispossessed. However, when an official spokesperson for a country that likes to think of itself as a beacon of freedom and the rule of law says, “I can say it is very biblical to enforce the law,” then that person has surely never heard that the law is an ass; that laws were made for people rather than the other way round; that war crimes are committed by people who say, “I was only obeying the law. I merely followed orders.”
Met an unusual individual in Vienna last night. Spare 17 minutes to watch this video of his TED Talk from 2012. You won’t regret it. Of course it was more inspiring to meet him in person.
Imagine the school bully unchecked after a playground fight. “You,” he shakes a menacing fist at a defiant runt. “Don’t dare talk back to me again, or else…” he pulls a knuckle duster from his pocket and shoves it in the little boy’s face. “Or else you’ll have a bloody lip…” The little boy, whose name is Cutter, looks around to the smirking head boy sitting on the playground fence for support, but the head boy says nothing and does not move.
“I’ll see he doesn’t talk back to you.” stammers another little boy, whose name is Kurshid. The bully shrugs, looking out of the corner of his eye at the head boy sitting on the fence. He remembers that some time ago, the head boy came to Kurshid’s aid when another bully smacked him on the head, took away all his marbles, and kicked him out of the playground. On that occasion, to everyone’s surprise, the head boy beat the bully to pulp and had him expelled from the school. Everyone knew the head boy had done this because he liked Kurshid’s marble collection.
“Now be good boys,” says the harried teacher, who knows the boys don’t respect his authority in the least. “Be nice. Don’t all gang up on the smallest because he won’t play with you,” he says, shrugs, and turns away, knowing the fighting will start again as soon as his back is turned. Meanwhile the sadistic head-boy sits on the fence and smirks gleefully. He’s just sold a knuckle duster to the biggest bully on the playground and can’t wait to see it in action.
There are no female teachers present. This scenario is playing on the world stage. Here are the real players in this drama.
Cutter – al-Thani clan, Qatar
Kurshid – Emir of Kuwait, mediator
School bully – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia
head boy – Donald Trump, United States
another bully – Saddam Hussain
marbles – oil
harried teacher – UN
knuckledusters – US arms sales to Saudi Arabia
Other key actors offstage:
chief hoarder of marbles – China
school clown – Kim Jong Un
neighborhood dope dealer – Putin
anxious parents -Rest-of-the-world
A few weeks ago, the Guardian newspaper published a list of 13 demands made by Saudi Arabia and friends. Qatar is to comply with all of them within ten days, or else… (see https://goo.gl/KDdkeP)
I bought a motorcycle for extensive local travel in an Indian city. A few friends and most of my middle class extended family were aghast when they heard. This is a form of suicide, they said. Look at the state of traffic on the roads. You need to protect yourself in a car.
Here are my answers to the criticism. First, there’s enough pollution already, and I’d rather travel at 55 km/liter with a 100cc motorbike rather than around 20km/l with a small car. Of course, the best alternative would be an electric vehicle powered by renewable energy, or else public transport, but neither of these options is currently practicable for my purposes.
Second, as the image above shows, progress is much faster with two wheels on congested roads. And third? I was reminded of the third reason this week when I had the painful news of a dear friend killed in a freak traffic accident in a European city, one of the safest cities in the world. I grieve at the loss. My take from the deep sadness I feel is this: seize the day, live as carefully and as well as you can, but follow your heart and do as you think you should do.
This is a true story. Names have been suppressed in order to protect the identity of individuals involved, even though the events described here happened two decades ago.
Prologue: He had arrived with his wife in India from another country in order to adopt a child. For reasons that do not concern us here, the couple had decided to go it alone, rather than through one of the agencies that acted as intermediaries for the prospective adoptive parents in their home country. They had been through a series of interviews with psychologists, and their domestic situation had been thoroughly vetted by social workers in the home country before they were given an official seal of approval as suitable adoptive parents.
The Story: Armed with this preliminary paperwork, the prospective parents began to read up about adoption laws in India. Friends told them of informative TV documentaries that they should watch. One such documentary was particularly painful to watch, since it highlighted the worst malpractices that occurred in various parts of India. They accepted the contents as the unvarnished truth, since it was after all produced by a British documentary film maker of high repute. After the prospective parents had completed their due diligence, they decided to narrow their search to the four southern states of India. Kerala was eliminated as an option early on when they discovered that foreign adoptions were not permitted here. They travelled to cities in two of the other three states before they finally decided to further narrow their search to Madras (Chennai today) the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu, where they had contacted several organizations.
Going simply by gut feel, they eliminated the first two institutions they visited. The people in charge either seemed untrustworthy and shifty-eyed, or the institution seemed too affluent (were they selling children abroad for profit, and if so, how did the children come up for adoption?). There is no absolute certainty in life, but they wanted to be as sure as possible before they made their choice.
Their third visit was to an organization that was run by a foundation of some sort. The Director of the place was soft-spoken, was dressed elegantly but not ostentatiously, was obviously well educated, and from her name they could infer that she was a Muslim. They were given a tour of the place and met the matron in charge of the crèche, who spoke reasonable English. The matron wore a white cotton sari with a blue border, a pendant in the shape of a cross, and a name tag with a Christian name. Half a dozen women in colorful saris tended to the twenty or thirty infants in the crèche. Some of them wore bindi on their foreheads. The people working in the orphanage seemed like a friendly microcosm of India, with people of at least three faiths working together in harmony, so they decided to apply to this institution.
Back in her office, the Director was firm and clear. As foreigners, they came into the third and lowest category of adoptive parents. First preference was given to Indian nationals living in India. Second came Indian nationals living abroad. Foreign nationals came third in priority and could only adopt children who were not chosen by the first two. This usually means, she concluded, that the child you might get for adoption will be a dark-skinned female. Indian parents usually prefer to adopt boys or light skinned girls.
The couple returned to their home country and three months later, had a phone call. As always happens, the long-awaited news came out of the blue. There was a child available for adoption. A female child, with a very dark complexion that was a year old and had not been adopted by Indian parents. Come to India, and be prepared to stay for 2 or 3 months till the paperwork gets done. They arrived in Chennai, were fortunate to stay in a private home instead of a hotel, so were allowed to bring their new daughter home from the orphanage with them till the adoption formalities were completed. They had six weeks to complete all the legal paperwork before the High Court closed for its 2-month summer recess. To paraphrase Longfellow, the mills of the legal system in India grind exceedingly small and they grind exceedingly slowly. With the result that, three days before the High Court closed for summer recess, they still had 28 stamps, seals and signatures to gather from various offices before the adoption was complete and legal. This number of attestations, they were told, normally takes about a month to procure. A huge setback! They had to get back to their jobs in ten days. They could not take the child with them, which meant she would have to go back to the orphanage for three months, an emotional catastrophe, considering how quickly she had bonded with the adoptive parents. To the child, going back to the orphanage would be like a second abandonment, a betrayal of trust that would undoubtedly deepen whatever emotional scars she already carried. In desperation the father cast about for someone, anyone, who could help speed up the process. An acquaintance told him of a Mr. Fixit, someone who might manage the impossible.
Mr. Fixit was slim, mustachioed, dressed in khaki trousers, white bush shirt and black leather shoes; the kind of non-uniform worn by off-duty policemen and government clerks. He heard the whole story from the distressed adoptive father.
“I’ll do it. Give me five thousand rupees, half in advance. And one thousand for expenses.” he said. There was no time for character evaluations or trustworthiness assessments. There seemed to be no choice. The father handed over 3500 rupees. “Wait in the court, in front of the judges’ chambers, for the next three days.” And with that, Mr. Fixit disappeared.
The father did as he was told. It was the end of April, approaching the hottest season of the year, the “Agni Natshatram – fire star” days of May, so he waited in the shade of a banyan tree that grew in the high court grounds. Merely breathing in the heat was exhausting, so he sat on a nearby bench whenever he could, rising hopefully whenever he saw a file carrying clerk emerge from the judges’ chambers. Courts closed at 5 pm, as the blazing heat of the day began to wane. Mr. Fixit appeared an hour after the court closed on the first evening, triumphantly waving a sheaf of papers. “I got the first six today!” Six down, twenty-two to go. In two days. It seemed impossible at this rate.
“Don’t worry. It’s difficult, but not impossible,” Mr. Fixit reassured.
Day two. Another long day’s fretful waiting, hopping impatiently from sun to shade to bench. Too anxious to eat lunch, impatiently gulping water at noon to quench a raging thirst, too nervous to move away even to a toilet. What if there were last minute questions and he was not there to answer them? At the end of day two, Mr. Fixit emerged again from the labyrinth. “I got the next seven today.” Was there a trace of despondent weariness in his face? Hard to tell. “Tell me you can do it,” the father rasped anxiously. “Yes, yes. Leave it to me.” Thirteen down, fifteen to go.
Would it help to offer more money? Mr. Fixit hesitated, thought for a minute. No, he said. This is more than enough.
Day three. The tension was unbearable. Fatigue settled in waves, batted away by bouts of anxiety. Another eight-hour day, mostly on his feet, moving from sun to shade to bench, with an occasional walk around the courtyard. He saw Mr. Fixit move between offices, sometimes empty handed, at others clutching an ever growing sheaf of papers. Finally, a few minutes past 5 pm. Closing time, and the beginning of the two month summer break. It would break his heart to have to drop the little girl back to the orphanage, unclasp those trusting fingers that twined around his thumb every time he entered the room. But there was no chance that the man could have done it. Not here; not with this kind of bureaucracy. Mr. Fixit approached him at ten minutes past five. He held the sheaf of papers, and there was exhaustion and a touch of despondency in his step.
“Sir, I tried. I’m still trying.”
“What is there to try? I’ll give you the rest of the money I owe.”
“No, sir. You do not pay till I finish the job.” Then he explained. “I got up to stamp number 22 by 3 pm today. And then, the clerk who has to sign number 23 was not at his desk. He retires today, his last day of work after 30 years of service in the High Court and he’s been out at farewell parties all afternoon. No one could find him. So I contacted all the others, number 24 to 28 and told them about your case. They all said they will wait in their offices till I find the missing clerk to put his seal. So now you come with me sir. We’ll go and wait for him.”
I walked into the rooms with Mr. Fixit, unbelieving. The High Court clerical offices were like government offices all over India, relics of the British raj, corridors lined with steel almirahs bulging with case notes, dockets, files tied with string, pages of brown and yellowing papers held together with office clips or rusting staples. From one empty desk to the next. A few clerks were packing up their desks, carting away most of their personal possessions before the long summer recess. One desk was still piled with papers, on top of which lay several gift-wrapped presents, a paper plate with a half-eaten bonda and chutney, a glass of cold tea.
“This man,” Mr. Fixit indicated the desk, “is still out celebrating. He should be back soon.” They pulled up chairs and waited for ten minutes in the now deserted hall. Finally a short smiling man appeared, with crumbs of cake or pakora on his three day growth of beard and looked inquiringly at the two men. “Yes?” Mr. Fixit rose to his feet and began to explain.
“Yes, yes, yes. I know about the case. Five people told me at the farewell party. This is the gentleman?” He looked long and hard at the stranger. The father leapt nervously to his feet, and instinctively reached for his wallet. The clerk looked at Mr. Fixit and beckoned with imperious crooked fingers.
“The papers.” He grabbed the papers, signed on the last page, took two separate seals from his draw, inked both on a worn pad and stamped the paper with loud bangs. “There!” After the days of waiting, the father was beside himself with gratitude, even though the man was merely doing his job. He took out his wallet. The clerk stopped him with a quick gesture.
“Sir. I want no money from you. After thirty years of service in this court, on my last working day, what a retirement present you have given me! It is a privilege to see what my stamp on a paper means to someone. Keep your money sir, and thank you for giving me the chance to do one good deed before retirement. I wish for your daughter a life full of God’s blessings.” The clerk was beaming now, a dark cherub with a three-day growth of beard and crumbs on his face. But there was only time for hurried thank you, thank you’s before Mr. Fixit dragged the father to other offices where clerks number twenty-four to twenty-eight impatiently waited, almost an hour after closing time, seals and signatures at the ready. At all of these desks, the by-now delirious father offered money but met with the same response. “No sir. You are doing a good deed. We wish for your daughter to have a good life.” The last four stamps, seals and signatures were obtained in ten minutes, probably an all-time record for any High Court in India. At precisely one minute to six, Mr. Fixit handed the papers to the father with a flourish.
Epilogue: A few days later the parents visited the orphanage with their newly adopted daughter to wish the staff good-bye. The child was kissed and hugged and caressed by all the staff and finally they sat down for a chat with the Director, the child seated in her lap playing with a pendant. The parents expressed their gratitude to the Director and to the foundation that ran the orphanage, remarking on how well it was run, contrary to their expectations, especially after having seen the TV documentary a few months ago.
“Wait a minute. A documentary? Was it by so-and-so?”
“Yes it was.”
“Interesting! He came here, you know, two years ago, while he was filming. He looked around the place. I told him, why don’t you show something of this place? Why not show a good institution? Not just the bad ones. But he wasn’t interested. They left without taking a single photo of this place.
Corruption: How corrupt is India? I honestly don’t know, having spent twenty-seven years in this country without paying a single bribe. I know someone, a fairly successful businessman, who claims never to have paid a bribe during his entire working career. I know many more, equally successful, who say it’s impossible to do business here without greasing palms all along the way.
Which is true? Both narratives are equally true. Transparency International ranks India 79th on its 2016 index of the most (or least) corrupt countries in the world. India’s close neighbors in this index are Brazil, China, and Albania. I have no idea how corrupt China is, but I do know that China’s infrastructure is far superior to India’s and things seem to work far better there than they do in India. However, in the worldwide rush to industrial prosperity, chasing the American dream (with, perhaps, the exception of Bhutan), I fear the world is losing its soul.
Is this single-minded rush to wealth (and exploitation of the earth) the reason why so many amoral leaders seem to come to power in America and other countries around the world? If so, I begin to think that this country (India) has something unique to offer the world. I think back to the incident at the High Court and dozens of other random acts of kindness and grace that I experienced and accepted unthinkingly, as a matter of course. Today I feel that there is some deep spring of spirituality among its people that has nothing to do with religion, but is a product of time and space, centuries of invasion, centuries of adaptation and forgiving. So perhaps, despite its low ranking on the Transparency International index, the soul of India can show the world the way ahead in the turbulent and troubling years to come.
All watercolors pictured above by Chennai-based artist Vikram Varghese.