Monday, March 31, 2014

THE WOMAN IN THE TRAIN – PART 1

THE WOMAN IN THE TRAIN – PART 1
ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND

The young man drops in often to see us. He says he feels comfortable and I like his company. I have seen him trying to put together the pieces of his life and go ahead. I do think that he is in a new relationship now. I have not asked him and he has not told me. But it is good, for that is how it should be. One does notice small things, the glint in the eyes and a confidence in his stride.

The old man has always occupied my thoughts since the day I first met him. I have relished these encounters for they reveal the strength and fragility of relationships. It is not fair on my part to still dwell on the good old days when I thought relationships were made for life. That is not the entire truth. Looking back, I suspect a number of them did last as there was no other option. But whether then or now it has always been the absence of empathy; insensitivity on the part of one and a weakness on the part of the other to recognize emotional and physical needs of each other that has been the reason for conflicts in a relationship. Yes perhaps it is a better choice to break away rather than suffer in silence and in that sense it is an emancipated world now.

The grieving old man, or the confused young man represent the two aspects in a relationship - strength and fragility; the former a life long commitment of love and respect and the second a reluctance to commit and what could be termed as a search for an ideal relationship. It is not for me to judge, for ultimately each person makes his own life and whether he is happy or not he is the best judge. I can only say that I am happy the way I am.

These chance encounters as I prefer to call them have helped me towards a deeper understanding and an enhanced level of acceptance of the true emotions that define the reality of relationships. These seem to be occurring at frequent intervals or may be it is because now I have learned to listen to other people and they find me receptive enough to their sensibilities.

It was perhaps six months after my tryst with the young man that I once again had what you could call a very meaningful encounter. It was with the woman in the train   She occupied the seat next to mine; a woman in her late thirties. I was returning from Bangalore to Chennai after attending a wedding. As the train started and slowly picked up speed she turned to me and inquired whether I live in Chennai. I replied “Yes, what about you?” she replied that she also lived in Chennai and had come to Bangalore to meet her son who was studying there.

“So what do you do?” I asked. She told me that she headed the marketing division in a multinational firm.

“Where does your husband work?” I asked.

“Oh! I am a divorcee” she said.

I was slightly embarrassed for I thought that I may have intruded into a topic she would rather not discuss. But she continued without the least bit of annoyance.

“It happened a long time ago, nearly twelve years now. Looking back now I am not sorry that it happened.”

“I am sorry I really should not have asked you about your husband. These things are bound to touch a raw nerve and one does not want to remember such happenings in life.”

“Don’t bother, I don’t feel uncomfortable talking about my life.”

“But after all I am a stranger and this the first time we are meeting” I said.

“I would say the same things to anyone who asked me, for I have nothing to feel sorry about.”

I was not prepared for that sort of openness. Here was an individual who had been in a relationship, had come out of it stronger and with a purpose. She was not confused or in a search, as the young man had been. But I did trace a small element of bitterness in her voice, the way she said “I have nothing to feel sorry about”.

We continued our conversation and I found her a very intelligent and confident woman. I consciously avoided asking her anything connected with her personal life and by the time the train reached Chennai we had struck a rapport as there were many areas of common interest between us. When we reached she offered to drop me at my house as it was on her way. She took down my contact phone number and said that she will stay in touch.  

It was perhaps after a month that I received a call “I hope you remember me – the woman in the train? Well why don’t you and your wife drop in at my place for dinner this Saturday?”

I said “Yes, it will be our pleasure. Thanks for the invitation.”

The eagerness in her voice I guessed was because she wanted to talk. Behind all that strength and confidence that seemed to define her personality, there was a lonely woman.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

KHUSHWANT SINGH - AN ENIGMA

KHUSHWANT SINGH - AN ENIGMA

I have often wondered what ‘a full life’ means. Is it to be understood in terms of longevity in years or does it mean a fulfilment arising out of achieving all that you wanted to and living life on your terms? The death of Khushwant Singh brings home the point that a ‘Full Life’ is a combination of both and he achieved it. He was a man who was loved and hated but no one could ignore him. While some hated him for his guts and his candid admissions of his fantasies the others loved him for those very things. It is not that I have been an admirer but over the years as I read about him and became familiar with some of his writings, I found an echo of my own feelings about life and other things. I can only claim to have read his ‘Train to Pakistan’ completely and snippets from his other books and other literary articles, but I have read reviews of his works by literary personalities.

A lot has been written about his literary achievements, in fact in the newspaper today it is stated that his work ‘ranged from scholarly to imaginative, journalistic to downright bawdy’. What if in later years he wrote about burps and farts, what if he openly declared his love for ladies and better things in life like his single malt whiskey, he had the courage to admit what he was rather than hide behind a veil. His strong likes and dislikes and his open airing of his views could have upset many but everyone spoke only of ‘The Genial Sardar’ his generosity. As the genial sardar’s girth grew and his beard long with a mix of white, black and perhaps a mix of brown and his mane flowed down to his shoulders (when he was not wearing his turban) he could have been anything from a lion to a prophet.

But what was it that made me want to write about him today? Since he passed away yesterday this could even be an obituary but that is not my intention. It all started with my ruminations as to what a full life was and now I believe that this is it. His son Rahul Singh wrote in The Times of India “In fact, as was his habit every morning, he was doing his usual crossword puzzle, when he felt tired and lay down on his bed. He did not get up again”. When I read this I remembered what he had written in his ‘How to live and die’ (Excerpted from Absolute Khushwant: The Low-Down on Life, Death & Most Things In-Between) -

“All that I hope for is that when death comes to me, it comes swiftly, without much pain, like fading away in sound slumber. Till then I’ll keep working and living each day as it comes”.

And that was how it came. In fact he allowed death to come to him on his own terms.

In my post dated 15th March 2012 ‘The Finality of Death’ I had written

“He is more than ninety years old and has reached a stage when he has to accept the fact that death is inevitable. He says that he has lived a reasonably contented life. Yes he can well afford to say that having lived a full life and well provided for by way of means, intellect and fame. In his own words he says:

‘I don't believe in rebirth or in reincarnation, in the day of judgement or in heaven or hell. I accept the finality of death. We do not know what happens to us after we die but one should help a person go in peace, at peace with himself and with the world. I've lived a reasonably contented life. I've often thought about what it is that makes people happy-what one has to do in order to achieve happiness.’

Khushwant Singh says that he often thinks as to what it is that makes people happy and what one has to do to achieve it. He in fact lists out nine requisites – good health, a healthy bank balance, your own home, an understanding partner, avoid comparisons, don’t let people encroach on your time with unwanted gossip, cultivate a hobby, spend time in introspection and do not lose you temper. Isn’t this what all of us strive for? What about the others who are not fortunate to achieve these requisites? What about those suffering from debilitating diseases like cancer etc. people who have not lived a full life and see death approaching them in the prime of life. No man can be completely happy in the context of the requisites listed out by Khushwant Singh. The question of death and the acceptance or non acceptance of its finality is what constitutes our entire life. We spend our time trying to justify one or the other. Man is pursued by insecurity throughout his entire life searching for the requisites for a happy life.

How does it matter as to whether you are buried or cremated after death? Khushwant Singh has written as to how his obituary should be announced, as to how he would like to be buried instead of being cremated. Does it really matter if you have accepted the finality of death?

He wonders why death is rarely spoken about in our homes. It is obvious no one wants to accept the inevitable. Also in our way of life we have been made comfortable by belief in God, religion and rebirth. It at least brings us solace, when we are confronted by the fact that it is not possible to achieve all the requisites for happiness. It gives us hope, which is good and helps us forward, for who can be sure that one will live up to a ripe old age.”

But looking back now I feel I had been less charitable to him when I remarked that how does it matter whether you are cremated or buried after death once you had accepted it’s finality, for in the same piece he admits that it does not really matter but it would be nice to be buried in a corner of the graveyard with a peepal tree next to his grave, a simple wish like a child asking for a piece of chocolate, a small gesture of embracing death with joy. I thought it would be necessary to reproduce a section of what he wrote in ‘How to Live and Die’ to really understand the thought process of a man who as he aged accepted the reality of death and embraced it on his own terms –

At 95, I do think of death. I think of death very often but I don’t lose sleep over it. I think of those gone; keep wondering where they are. Where have they gone? Where will they be? I don’t know the answers: where you go, what happens next. To quote Omar Khayyam, 

 ‘There was a Door to which I found no Key
There was a Veil through which I could not see
Some little Talk awhile of Me and Thee
There seemed—and then no more of Thee and Me’.

It would be most a appropriate ending to anything written about Khushwant Singh in his own words –

“I believe in the Jain philosophy that death ought to be celebrated. Earlier, whenever I was upset or low, I used to go to the cremation grounds. It has a cleansing effect, and worked like a therapy for me. In fact, I’d written my own epitaph years ago:


“Here lies one who spared neither man nor God
Waste not your tears on him, he was a sod
Writing nasty things he regarded as great fun
Thank the Lord he is dead, this son of a gun.”

Thursday, March 20, 2014

THE YOUNG MAN – A SEARCH

THE YOUNG MAN – A SEARCH

“Come on in” I said as I led him into the living room. I introduced my wife who had just come in from the kitchen. He got up from the sofa and greeted her with folded arms and said “Namaskaram madam, it’s a pleasure meeting you”.

She said “Please feel comfortable. I shall get you coffee and something to eat; after that you may continue your conversation. I have some work to attend to. Anyway I make sure I am never present when he talks for he is more comfortable that way, after all I have listened to him for more than three decades now” and she laughed.

After my wife had left he turned to me and said “Sir, how has it been possible to retain that freshness in a relationship after so many years of staying together? When I walked in I could feel the tranquillity within these walls. How does it happen?”

For the first time I had an inkling of what was troubling him. I asked “You are married, aren’t you?”

“I was, Sir. But we split a few years ago.”

“Can I ask why?” I said.

“I knew my wife from our college days and we married after settling down in our respective professions. The marriage in fact took place with the consent of both the parents. But it took only a few years of married life to realize that we were not compatible and so decided to part ways. There was no bitterness in the entire process as we felt that we were better off this way. It is when I see people of your generation that I wonder how it has been possible to stay together for such a long time. I am sure that on the way you must have made a lot of compromises.”

“I do not like the word ‘compromise’. It sounds like a truce between two warring parties. That is not the case; it is only the level of acceptance in a relationship that is a true indicator of its strength and determines its longevity. We have accepted and respected each other’s space and worked together for the welfare of the children and that’s how the family stays as a family. Compromise really does not work for like truce it is a temporary call to end hostilities. It could breakdown any moment. I am sorry that your marriage did not work. I am sure that you would have asked yourself ‘why’ many times. You know the answers best”.

“I did sir. Like I told you earlier when we met at the club I have always been an achiever and had taken it for granted that I could never make a mistake. It was when my marriage did not work that it dawned on me that I was also susceptible to mistakes. But I could not understand one thing that despite having known her for such a long time before marriage why it did not work out. Now I do not really blame her for it. I think we were not ready for the level of commitment that was called for in a marriage. There has been no bitterness though”.

“I can understand your sense of unease, but is that all for I felt that there is something else that is bothering you?”

“You are right. Six months ago a close friend of mine died in an accident. It was all so sudden that I was pushed out of the cocoon I was in. Within the space of one year I was confronted with a failed relationship and the uncertainty in what I otherwise thought was a wonderful life I had built for myself. Since then I have been haunted by this sense of unease. I do spend time at the club, visit friends and try to lead a normal life. It has also become a habit watching other people and how they handled themselves. That is when I saw you and your friends getting together and spending time. You particularly interested me for there was something peaceful and contented in your look. You remember I told you that thirty years hence I would like to be where you are now. Now as I sit here in your house my statement has been fully validated; the tranquillity here and the way you and your wife interact”.

I smiled and replied “You still have a whole lifetime ahead of you. I wish that you sort out your problems fast, rebuild relationships and redefine your goals. What you are going through now is a transition phase and it was necessary for whatever has taken place to happen, to take you to a more meaningful life. Greater understanding leads to greater levels of acceptance, which in turn leads to the gradual diminishing of the ego to humility and ultimately to peace. That’s what you are searching for isn’t it?”

“Thank you sir, it’s been comforting talking to you. If it is not too much of an intrusion can I drop in once in awhile to talk to you?”

I said “You are most welcome, but do give a call to ensure I am at home.”

He left soon after. As I watched him get into his car and drive away I was reminded of my own self thirty five years ago when such questions on relationships and the uncertainty in our lives had also haunted me. But I had found answers for myself. I was sure that the young man would also find his.  


Sunday, March 16, 2014

THE YOUNG MAN AT THE CLUB - PART 1

THE YOUNG MAN AT THE CLUB - PART 1

“Can I join you Sir?”

I looked up and saw a young man in his mid thirties presumably half my age, standing and smiling at me. As I nodded he settled own on the chair and placed his mug of beer on the table and looked at me.

“You are alone sir today. I usually see you with a group of friends sitting here and talking. Sorry but I have at times overheard the discussions as a word or sentence would rouse my curiosity. I have watched you and found that most of the time you are a listener and would participate only when the talk veers away from the mundane everyday gossip to questions of the reality of our existence. I have nurtured the wish to converse with you and found the chance today. I hope you don’t mind.”

I come to the club though not very frequently to meet my friends. Usually the topic of discussion would drift away to the good old days as we settled down to languish in each others company. Today of course I had come in earlier and was waiting for them to turn up. But I also liked to sit with a mug of beer in one corner of the room and watch the others. This was for the first time I realized that someone else was also watching me. That happens I guess, for when we are bored with ourselves we watch others. I was not upset but in fact welcomed the opportunity to get into conversation with someone much younger and perhaps one who is in tune with the realities of present times.

I said “Not at all. I think it will be a welcome break for both of us. You are young and totally immersed in building up your life, your work, your family and your interests, I am sure. I am retired and totally immersed in myself. We are separated by a generation. Isn’t it? Looking at you across this table I can visualise what I was thirty years ago.”

“Exactly sir, but when I look at you I can imagine where I would like to be thirty years hence” and he laughed.

I liked that laughter. There was something genuine about it. The way a person laughs is perhaps the closest indicator of his actual self. He said that he was working with a software solutions company with global operations and as such had to travel abroad quite often. I told him that I was a retired banker having spent my entire career in this country and had gone abroad only to visit my daughter. I added that he should be happy he has had the opportunity to see more of the world. I said that I did envy him that.

“Yes, that’s true, but after a time you start feeling drained of all your energy. I am not really grounded anywhere and sometimes I feel like a gypsy. When I listen to you people talk I can always feel the stability with which your lives have been moulded. I envy that.”

I looked at him and realised that this was not the normal young man of his times – aggressive and ambitious. There was something sad in his demeanour and in the way he spoke. Something was bothering him.

Suddenly he asked “Do you believe in God sir, do you pray?”

I said “Yes, I do believe in God and I do pray. But frankly what do you mean by pray? If you want to ask whether I recite some prayers standing in front of the pictures of Gods, go to the temple and ask for favours from him, I would say yes I do all that.”

“What do you get of it? Do you get any tangible result?”

“If you mean whether he grants me all that I want, the frank answer is no, I do not know. I do not know that the things that happen are because he has granted me or they just happened. In any case, I still pray.”

“But why do you pray at all if you are not sure?”

“That is because he gives me hope and that I consider as a tangible result.”

“What about your children then? Do they also follow what you do?”

“Oh no, they follow what they want. It is a different world that they are growing up now. They are too occupied building their own lives professionally and personally, to think about God and religion and such things and I agree that’s how it should be. One finds one’s own answers to the questions in life if and when they arise. They are as old as you are and that’s why I am slightly surprised at your question. You see I belong to another generation and it has not been easy to shake of all the beliefs that I have grown up with. But in the process I have shed a lot of the baggage of my predecessors and I have let my children do the same. I am awake to the demands of this changing world and what was God to me must be different now, though the basic questions of life will remain and you will find your own Gods and give him a new form. But why did you suddenly ask me this question?”

“Sir like your daughters I have also grown up shedding all that you described as the baggage of the previous generation. I have never really felt the need for a God or that my life is controlled by external forces. I did well in my life and did not face any adverse situations and may be that was a factor. But over the last year or so I have been plagued by a sense of unease. May be the way I have lived without any anchor just floating by, wherever the tide takes me, has contributed to this. I really cannot understand whether this is how it is and this is how it will be.”

He was a troubled young man, but I refrained from asking him what it was, for that would have been an intrusion in to his private space. But I knew that he had a lot more to tell. As I sat there in silence for sometime I saw that my friends were trouping in from the far side of the room. I knew that this conversation could not continue now and I did not want to sound abrupt, so I looked at him and said –

“Sorry we cannot continue the conversation as I can see my friends have just arrived. I know you have a lot to share and I will only be too pleased to listen to you. We shall definitely continue our talk another time after all we can meet here like we did today. But if you really feel like talking to someone, as I can see that something is troubling you, you are free to come over to my house to continue the conversation. I have a lot of time in hand. Just give me a ring and check up before you come. Bye for now and all the best.”

I gave him my phone number and address and shook his hand. My friends arrived when he just left.

The young man was still in my thoughts when I reached home. I thought that was just a brief encounter between two people over a mug of beer. The ambience and the beer must have done it all and I was sure that he would be back to his usual routine the next day. A good conversation and that was all. But I was surprised when after a few days I received a phone call from my chance acquaintance, the voice at the other end asked –

“Sir, can I come over this evening to your house if it is not inconvenient and if you are in the mood for a conversation?”


“Sure, come over.”

Monday, March 3, 2014

THE OLD MAN – DARKNESS AND BEYOND

THE OLD MAN – DARKNESS AND BEYOND

It was nearly a month after I had last met the old man that I went to the park. He was not there. I did not give it much thought at that time, but when I did not find him there during my subsequent two visits to the park, I grew concerned. So I decided to drop in at his house on my way back home and enquire whether everything was alright with him. I was slightly concerned for after all he was eighty seven years old.

When I rang the doorbell, it was opened by a man possibly in his forties. He saw me and said “Please come in. I have been expecting you for sometime now”. He led me to a sofa and asked me to sit down and make myself comfortable. I was surprised for I had never seen him before, so I asked –

“How come you know me? We have never met before.”

“No sir, but Mama had told me about you and that you will drop in to see him one of these days. He described you as the bald and bearded friend who he had come to know over the last few months. He really seemed to like you. You see he had very few friends.”

“But where is” I started to ask when I noticed on the wall directly in front of me two photographs – my old friend and the other of a lady with a graceful look and kind eyes. I understood that my friend was no more. It was for a full five minutes that I just sat there in silence. I drank the glass of water which the man had brought and then asked him –

“When did it happen?”

“Two weeks after he last met you at the park. It was peaceful. He went to sleep that night and did not wake up. I went to his room at six in the morning as usual to wake him up when I found that he had passed away. Very sad sir, I have never known a more humane person than he. You know a number of people misunderstood him and thought him rude. But that was all because he was frank and forthright. Mami was a very gentle lady and full of affection. Mama was never the same after she passed away last year. He spent a lot of time by himself. It was rarely that he found someone with whom he could share his thoughts. You were one of them sir. The last three to four days before he died, he spent most of his time inside his room busy arranging all his papers. He had even gone to the bank to take care of some work he said. Looking back now I feel that he had a premonition that he will die soon. One of the last things that he did was, give me a cover to hand it over to you when you come. He did not say anything else.”

While I sat wondering why he would want a cover to be handed over to me, the man came back with a cup of coffee and handed me the cover. Though I was eager to know what was inside I placed it in my pocket and asked him –

“What happens to you now? He told me he did not have any children and had only a brother who stays somewhere here.”

“Sir, I have been in this house with Mama and Mami for the last thirty years. I came as a fifteen year old boy. It was on one of those trips to his village that he saw me and brought me back with him to work in this house as a servant. You see I was an orphan and was staying with my uncle whom Mama knew. I have never been treated as a servant. In course of time I was accepted as a member of the family. I will now be going back to my village for Mama has made enough provisions for me to start a business on my own. He has been very gracious. But before that I will be continuing in this house for some more time to take care of certain responsibilities that he has entrusted me with. You see sir He wanted to ensure that whatever he leaves behind as material possessions should be used for the welfare of orphaned children.”

I could see the tears in his eyes as he spoke. I saw the old man through the eyes of his servant and I understood what it was that made me want to meet him and talk to him.

I asked “Was he religious?” when I saw the small pooja room.

“Oh yes, he was religious. He did believe in God but not the rituals. Mami was very devout and would do pooja daily.”

I saw the bookcase filled with books mostly on music and literature and of course a few religious books which included The Bhagavad Gita. After giving him my address I left. I asked him to stay in touch and inform me before he went.

As soon as I reached home I took out the cover from my pocket and found the words ‘To My Friend’ on it. I took out the letter and started to read –


  
“Dear friend,

You must be surprised at this letter addressed to you. I know that I have only a few more days before I finally bid good bye. You remember that the last time I met you I said that the night is creeping in. I know that it will soon envelop me and take me to the ultimate darkness. I do not know what lies beyond, but since light fades into darkness and the darkness melts away with dawn of a new morning, I believe that there does exist something beyond this darkness and that is the hope I carry with me. As I am not really sure what lies beyond I believe that I will carry with me the things that have really mattered during my life and may be that is the beyond that I will be remembered by. If you ask me whether I believe in Karma I will say yes, but at the same time I have not acted in a manner with the expectation of better things to happen as a result of my good actions for that would have been selfish. I have acted as per the callings of my heart and not by the allurements of the mind.

I do not want to be judged by what I have done. I would rather be accepted for what I was. Though I have known you for a short time only, I felt that I should address this letter to you. So here I am writing all this. Wish you the best and good bye.”

I sat for a long time with the letter in my hand and then went to my bookshelf and placed it in The Bhagavad Gita. I knew that is where it belonged and that is where it will be safe.

Yes like there is light at the end of every tunnel, there is a ‘Beyond’ at the end of this ‘Darkness’.