Leper! He detested ugly things. And a leper was on the top of his list. The very sight of any beggar seeking alms with folded hands having no fingers, dragging feet, without any toes – brought goosebumps; and he immediately turned the direction of his sight or going.
And the report in his hand screamed that his loving wife of more than twenty-five years was diagnosed with leprosy. The world crashed. Though he could not imagine his life without her, life including her, but excluding some of her body parts was far worse. Death would be far better.
The untreated disease was considered very contagious. He could visualize himself trying to drive the car – with the stubs of hands on the steering wheel, and buttoning his shirt without the fingers.
The wife, a very mature businessperson, got herself admitted to a Centre specializing in the care of leprosy patients. Away from civilization, away from the pollution, away from the toxic thinkers. She dedicated herself – first to cure herself, and then to help cure others. The progress was slow, but with medicines, therapy, and positive attitude, the disease itself died – though not before leaving some marks on her body. During these times, she continued to exchange letters with her beloved husband – who replied to her – at first immediately, then gradually the process slowed down. She would be lucky to receive one reply in three-four months in exchange for her weekly letters. The day of her being certified as disease-free was her last day at the Centre. She had made her place in the Centre and the heart of everyone. With a mixed feeling, the staff bid farewell to her. ‘Our doors are always open to you.’ She looked forward to uniting with her husband and meeting the family and friends.
And what a welcome it was. The entire street leading to the main door of her house was decorated with banners and balloons. The children were on their best behaviour, and her husband had tears in his eyes. Unfortunately, there were too many people in the house, and he was so busy entertaining everyone that she had to control her craving to touch him, feel him. She was moved with all the love and affection showered on her.
The long day ended at last – and she went to ‘their bedroom’. The ambience of the room was the same as she had left it four years ago. Her wardrobe and her newly replenished make-up items, her favourite perfume, even the room freshener – nothing had changed. Yet something was amiss. The huge king size bed was replaced with a single bed. A single bed for a single person. Without saying anything, everything was said, and she understood.
Next few days, she noticed small changes in the behaviour of her husband (whose bedroom was at the farthest end of the house – far away from ‘their’ bedroom) and her children. Everyone was polite, but wouldn’t let her cook, clean or organize. The items she touched were immediately whisked away and sanitized. ‘You are still recovering – please don’t exert’ was the mantra. Human touch was out of the touch. Even her pet dog who, on seeing her after a long time, had jumped all over her and had licked her maimed hand – was whisked away – away from her.
This continued for a week. A terse telephone call elicited the required response. The next morning – very early – while everyone was still sleeping, a cab picked her with a small bag containing the family pictures and few clothes. She started her journey to the Centre again. Not as a patient.
She looked for the last time at the ‘dream’ house.
And she did not attempt to wipe off with her stubbed hands a single tear that trickled down her left eye.
“Honey, I am going to do the laundry. After that, I shall be attending to the garden – I need to trim some plants and apply fertilizers and weeds. I shall be with you soon.”
He spoke to his recently departed wife. His wife – the childhood friend, the philosopher, the guide, and his life. For a few days, he was lost without her. Then he learnt to cope with the loss ingeniously. She used to chide him that he was expert in not seeing what he did not want to see. ‘You have a very narrow sense of vision – and see only what you want to see.’ With that same expertise, he convinced himself that she was in the next room – and continued to live – not alone, but with her in the next room. His three children questioned his acumen and tried to convince him to move in – either with them or to a retirement home. He resisted, rebuffed, rebuked, and won.
“Honey, I have a bit of cough, and I have a little temperature. Do you think I should be worried?”
Reluctantly, he called his family physician. ‘The next available appointment is after seventeen days.’ He called his friend, who told him to go and get tested for Covid-19 immediately. ‘Do you want me to take you there?’
“No – one of my children will do so. Don’t worry.”
He called the youngest first. “Dad, I was going to call you – looks like Dolly caught something at the school. She has been coughing and has a slight fever. I hope it’s not that thing…”
He suppressed his own cough. He dialed the next number – that child did not pick up the phone. The last one was the eldest.
“Dad, tell me your symptoms. I am on the computer right now.”
The son ticked off the online checklist and demanded that the father should immediately go to the nearest Covid-19 Test Centre. No excuses.
“It’s nothing. It will pass. I shall take a Tylenol or two – and the fever will go away. The cough is asthmatic. I know my coughs.”
“No excuses. You must go right now.”
The father quivered. He hated the Hospitals and Medical Clinics. His wife always held his hand whenever he HAD to. How he missed her.
“Will you please take me there? Wait with me?”
“Dad – if you have IT, then I will also be exposed to it. I can’t afford to be sick now or ever. We had told you so many times to stay safe in the Retirement Home. But you are stubborn. Very stubborn. No wonder mom used to be always angry with you. And do you know what you are asking me? I have a fairly large bubble – and there are too many vulnerable people in it. I can’t. But you MUST GO! Promise me right now that you are going.”
“I will. I will. I will. Please don’t worry. I promise I will.” He crossed his right-hand fingers – a childhood habit whenever he told a lie.
He gulped down with a glass of warm water, the insults, the hurt and two Tylenol. He slumped on his favourite red recliner chair.
A single tear trickled down his right eye.
Pragna woke me up from the deepest sleep. ‘There’s a bad news?’ I feared the worst. But never imagined what she told me – whispering, incoherently sobbing – Satish is no more! Sleep alluded us. We talked into the wee hours about our last meeting(s) with him – when we were in Goa. After a few days, with my mind still trying to grapple with the loss, I wrote this small eulogy – which I am sharing now. The pain never dulls, and never a day without remembering my friend, Satish S. Sonak.
“How did you know that the stranger is a foreigner?”
“For one thing, I have never seen him in our city. Secondly – he is so skinny and positively very undernourished. He is dressed very shabbily. Even the beggars of our city are dressed.”
On further enquiries, the soldier revealed the name of the visitor to the palace – “Sudama”. And Krishna jumps, runs – oblivious of the status or shows – towards the main entrance of the palace.
Krishna is the Lord, whereas Sudama is the destitute Brahmin. Their paths crossed in their early childhood – at a school – resulting in a very strong bond of friendship.
The childhood friendship is the purest – and most unselfish. It doesn’t weigh the benefits nor is it deterred by economic divide. Friendship for what it is – just friendship.
Let’s compare (most of) the friendships ‘cultivated’ in the later parts of life. Remember – childhood friendship happens – just like love happens. The other friendship is ‘cultivated’ – as in the fields and farms – you cultivate the potatoes and plums. The former has no expectation or form, the purpose of the other is ‘fruits’ in any format.
The mind zips into calculations – at a speed that surpasses supercomputer. “If I befriend her, then through her (or her contacts), I can reap economic or other rewards. The question is how?” You are very much involved in cultivating friendship. You are immediately on guard – when someone tries to befriend you. ‘Judge others – as you are!’ The brain storms into super-computer / calculator mode. “Why is he or she so chummy with me? What does she want?”
No doubt you have few hundred friends / followers on your social media. All your posts and pictures get multiple likes and comments. But when did you actually meet your ‘close friend’? Or talked to him? Today’s friendship is aptly summarized in the words of W. H. Auden’s poem ‘The Unknown Citizen):
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.
When was the last time your friend and you roared with laughter? ‘ROFL’ is the only thing you get. Really? These days, you can hardly discern the difference between the genuine guffaws at your jokes and the ingratiating fakes. It is sad truth that the rich man’s ‘poor jokes’ earn maximum applause.
Krishna and Sudama:
At constant prodding of his wife (“She Who Must Be Obeyed”), poor Sudama visits his childhood friend, Lord Krishna. Instead of being jealous (as a normal being), Sudama revels and rejoices in the wealth and glamor of his childhood friend. The friendship had yet to pass the tests. Nobody in the city would guide the poor Brahmin to Krishna’s palace. Various reasons: Sudama resembled a mad person, or at best a poor beggar; and Krishna needed to be protected from such vagabonds. Against all odds, Sudama at last arrives at Krishna’s palace; and is stopped from proceeding further by the soldier on duty. At his persistent requests, the soldier approaches the Lord, and announces the arrival.
On hearing Sudama’s name, Krishna jumps to welcome the childhood friends, and gives him utmost, undivided attention. Forgetting his daily chores and duties, Krishna’s entire focus is on Sudama, the mission to make him comfortable.
After a few days, its time to move on. Sudama goes home, without having received any material benefits. Honour and utmost, unselfish love – YES. Money and wealth – NO!
A modern friend would have called names – “stingy, miserly, close-fisted”; and then cursed his own misfortune. Not Sudama. He continued to revel in his rich friend’s fortunes. Only when he reaches his own place, he finds that his place (a hut) has been replaced by a palace. And his ‘poverty-stricken penny pinching existence’ had been changed by Krishna. For ever, forever! Mysterious are the ways of the powerful friends.
Light clicks on:
“Veni, vidi, vici” – applied aptly to Satish. I was born in Panaji, Satish entered Panaji when he was about nine. Immediately, we were inseparable friends. With passing years, the bond of unselfish, undemanding friendship became stronger. We read the same books, ate the same (vegetarian) foods, chased the same interests (butterflies and girls?), and shared our deepest secrets and desires. The time took its toll; and we went different ways. He became the unspoken Lord; whereas mortal moi toiled away in different country. Satish came, Satish saw, and Satish conquered ALL.
The bonds of camaraderie and love for Panaji brought me back to Goa – again, and again. And at each time, Satish and I managed to spend quite some time together. Despite his busy schedules, court dates and pressing engagements, he ‘managed’. He gave me – time permitting – ‘utmost, undivided attention’. Many times, we would just travel in the vehicle on way to his appointments (all over Goa), and share our news / views. We discussed everything under the sun and also the dark. He took time to re-introduce me to brand new Central Library at Pato, Panaji – and showed me several books for which he was instrumental in getting published.
And every time, on my returning home – I found that he had changed my ‘poverty-stricken penny pinching existence’. He enriched the very existence and the life. He was truly Krishna and all of us – Sudama!
The light goes out:
His untimely death shook me very much. Where is he? During our various meetings, Satish and I discussed a lot about re-incarnation and ‘life after death’. Our favourite quote was “Is there life after birth?” Once we agree on it, we could discuss about life AFTER death.
All I say with watery eyes – Wherever he is –
Is he free? Is he happy? Is the question absurd?
Everything is so wrong! His voice – it never be heard.
I read this article – to understand why I am where I am!
August 17, 2020
My friend, Hemant was very much worried. He confided in me that it was the first time that he was being ‘summoned’ by the school principal of his son.
“What he must have done now? A five-year-old terrorist – that’s what he is.”
“Like father, like son!” I quipped. Needless to say, he was not impressed; and continued to pull his hair.
Next day I enquired about his meeting with the school principal.
“The school principal wanted me to move my son away to a different school. We don’t have room for such children. He said so.”
“What did the little devil do this time?”
“It seems that the teacher was asking each child to narrate what his or her parents did for living. And when his turn came, Rahul told that I was a stripper in a high class night-club. That I dance round and round a pole in…
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“Not another wedding!” Shen groaned. Quick glance around the room confirmed that ‘She who must be obeyed’ was not within the earshot.
Two souls tied together – for ever and forever. Till death does them apart. For next seven lives – together! Hokum, hohum, and hogwash…
Attending one wedding in six months – he could handle. Two weddings in the same month – thorough torture. Meditation and Mantra should help!
“Another wedding reception to attend? Really?” The cynic in Shen screamed. Though he was happily married – forty odd years of ‘almost total’ bliss – he was very, very skeptical and sarcastic about the wedding bells. ‘The wedding bells – the bong of the gong says it all! Death and calamity!”
He had seen the ‘happiest’ couple laughing at the ‘silly disputes’ of others. “We are not LIKE THEM! Never.” And then, within couple of years (in most cases, sooner) – the fire of discontentment smoldered and then erupted. It did not matter what the issue was – whether Minor or Major. Even the act of squeezing the toothpaste from the middle (rather than the end) became a prequel to a baby battle!
Shen remembered recent weddings he had witnessed:
The priest intones in a very serious high-pitched voice; and the rest of the audience (except may be the groom and the bride) pretend not to be bored. The couple does not have to pretend. The expressions say it all. Let’s get this nonsense out of the way; and then be together in peace. But that isn’t the case. The priest has a duty to perform; and the audience wants its money’s worth.
The ceremony over at last; and everyone makes a bee-line for the newly wed couple. Just attending the wedding is not enough. One is dressed up for the occasion; and needs to flaunt the same. Pictures with the couple is the best way to sneak into the album, the Instagram, the Facebook, the Twitter – and the memories – forever!
Not in the distant past, Shen used to avoid the homes of relatives and friends who had a wedding in the recent past. In good old days, out came the fat albums of photographs; and the commentators running commentary on each picture. ‘The one on the right is my sister-in-law’s first cousin’s second husband – he is in USA – you know; and the person next to him is …’ You get the thread? Requesting for a glass of water or whatever, the commentator would rush to kitchen to get it – when surreptitiously, Shen would flip forward about hundred folios or so. And no one would be wiser – except Shen would miss couple of Canadians or South Africans in the family.
With the advent of videos – this strategy proved very difficult. The easy way out was to forget his glasses at home while visiting such families. But not always fool-proof. At few homes, the proud host offered him his own glasses – “they are universal; don’t worry. Use them.” On one occasion, he had terrible migraine for the whole week after using them. And on another – ‘sore-eyes’ syndrome or conjunctivitis. Either from overload of pictures or the videos.
He now preferred the current trend. No bulky albums, videos, or DVDs. Just straight update on the social media. Browsing through the uploads, just click few likes, OMGs and Smileys – and you are done. He was eternally grateful to the advent of social media – at least for this convenience.
Back to the Wedding Venue – as soon as the wedding rites are rightly concluded, the audience stands in the line to deluge the couple with blessings, followed by trickle of gifts; and then the pictures for the social media. This done, the crowd repairs its way to yet another line – much longer than the first – for the buffet lunch or dinner. Gone were the days when in a typical Indian wedding, one would sit down; and people would come and serve. Yet another good thing gone… How he missed marriages and celebrations of the past. And how he hated attending weddings – then or now! Meditation and Mantra should help!
And traditionally, the marriages usually resulted in children. More often, more than one.
Since early years of the wedded life, Shen loved children; yes he really did. As long as they were far away from him – somewhere in the continent of Africa; South or North Pole! And did not curdle his blood with their blood-thirsty bawling.
He remembered how he used to hate when his drink or dinner with family and friends at a favourite restaurant was interrupted (and ruined) by someone’s misbehaved child raising the hell in otherwise heaven.
“Why can’t they leave the children at home, and let us drink peacefully?”
He knew he couldn’t do anything – and complaining would surely raise more eyebrows (and Saanvi’s temper). As usual, he had to contend himself by gulping down his favourite rum and grump.
However, all this changed once Gyan was born, followed by Anju. The proud parents were too busy with changing times (and diapers) to be worried about visiting their favourite restaurants and pubs. After abstaining for few months, both wanted a change of scene; and off they went to their favourite restaurant.
“The Turning Point” staff welcomed the family (yes, Gyan and Anju too), and fussed over them. They had hardly settled down with starters, when the scuffle broke between the two kids – resulting in the ‘match the cry’ session. Saanvi tried to sooth the small tempers, egos and what not – while Shen continued to sip his rum, nonchalantly, philosophically, stoically. He stared into his glass.
And he meditated: “I do not belong to the group of cacophonous children. I am just a tranquil detached soul, No cries or tears affected me. Total unattached, unaffected.”
Meditation and Mantra should help! And he continued to chant:
All tragedies end with death.
All comedies end with marriage.
And all fun at the restaurants end with children.
Not ‘Four Score and Seven Years ago’ – but definitely more than Two Score and Few Years ago.
During my school days – in Panaji Goa.
One night, Satish and I sat on our favourite bench at Campal ground and listened to the melodious songs being broadcast by Vividh Bharati on the program ‘Chhaya Geet’. And our talk turned to gender bias.
“Every time, the teachers ask the students to write an essay – it’s always on ‘My mother’.” Satish said.
I disagreed. “Mrs. Chico asking us to write few lines on ‘My parents’.”
“She is the exception. Do you recall anyone else?”
I couldn’t, and the discussions drifted slowly to other topics.
It is true. In my sixty plus years, I have noticed importance being heaped on the ‘mother-hood’ – at the neglect of the poor father. No, no – please don’t take me wrong. The importance of mother is unquestionable! Heap as much praise as you can – on mothers – they deserve them, and some more. But don’t, for heaven’s sake, ignore the father. Poor father!
Remember that the ‘daasi’ (servant) – the harbinger of good news – she always runs to the King:
“Sir, the Queen has delivered a baby. You are a proud father of a daughter / son.”
And the King would immediately take out the heavy chain with a diamond pendent – from his neck – and hand it over to the daasi.
“Here, take this gift! Thank you for bearing such good news.”
The daasi is richer; and the King poorer. Today, the chain with a diamond pendent is replaced by wad of notes in the wallet with a chain. The result is the same – Richer Daasi; and Poorer Father.
Fast forward to my professional life in Mumbai:
My second one – she was a difficult child even before her birth. On a rainy August night (that too a Sunday) – a whole three weeks before her ‘scheduled arrival date’ – she decided that being confined to the womb was no good. It was ‘time’ for her to venture into this wicked, wild world. She kicked; and we rushed to the hospital – passing through seemingly impossible hurdles – water-logged roads, unavailable cabs and non-operating local trains. In the end, exhausted, we achieved the goal – reached the hospital. Right into the waiting arms of our Gynecologist – Dr. Naik. One look at the mother, and she proclaimed emergency.
“You – you wait here. We will try to have normal delivery, and if not we will go for C-Section.”
It was few minutes before midnight. Wet, cold, alone, miserable. I searched for a tea-vendor – yearning for a hot cup of tea. Finding none, I settled for half pack of Four Square Cigarettes and a matchbox.
“After all, it’s going to be a long wait; and I was cold. I need to remain awake. I need to welcome our child. And she would never know. Also, in the West – they do distribute and then smoke a cigar or two when a child is born. In East, I could settle down for a slimmer cigarette”. I rationalized, and I puffed up the smoke..
Warmth flowed through – and I thought of sitting down. However, everything was locked – except the ‘special room’ where the patient and the baby would settle down. But there were no chairs in the room. Only a bed, a cradle attached to the foot of the bed, and a bed-side cabinet (to keep fruits, cookies, etc. which the visitors would be bringing in, I surmised). I stood the ground – shifting the weight from one foot to the other (so that both the legs shouldn’t get tired at the same time). I remember glancing at the wrist watch every thirty minutes or so – to find that the minute hand had moved only a notch.
After what seemed like several hours, I sat gingerly at the edge of the patient’s bed. Very carefully, so as not to disturb the starched and sterilized bed-sheets. NO SMOKING sign prevented me from taking any more puffs. I tried to remember the names of all gods / goddesses and then relatives and then friends…
A sharp jab on my ribs and a screech “GET OUT OF THE BED. HOW DARE YOU?” startled me from my meditative trance. I jumped out of the bed, and tried to smooth the bed-sheets (and her temper) to the original state (and failed).
“I didn’t mean to fall asleep, I am so sorry.” I used my saccharine tone to pour the sweet chutney on the spicy, sour Bhel.
Ms. Florence Nightingale pushed me aside rudely. “Madam was so much in pain, and delivered the baby after the operation. And here you are sleeping like a ….” she seemed to be at a loss of words, and I butted in:
“Baby – girl, I hope.”
“Yes, very pretty – little Princess, in fact.” I came to know much later that this is standard dialogue taught in the Nursing School of Hard Knocks.
I tentatively touched the portion between my chin and the chest. All I had around my neck was a blessed black thread with a small pendent of Lord Hanuman. Baa had tied it around my neck – to ward off all evils. It had no intrinsic value. Ms Nightingale smiled as she accepted bunch of one hundred rupee notes fresh out of my pocket. All was forgiven and all was forgotten.
“Madam will be wheeled in soon. Let me arrange a chair for you.”
And the father in me – the poorer father in me – waited in anticipation to have the first look of the new born Princess and the Queen. Everything else was forgiven and forgotten.
“So, what do you want for your birthday?”
“What should I get for you?”
“What is it that I should get for you on your birthday – that will make you happy?”
The change in tone, and slight increased volume – meant that the continued silence would be detrimental to the health and harmony of the family, the community, and the environment.
“Anything you wish, dear – whatever gives you the pleasure. I shall accept anything gratefully and gracefully. Only condition is that the giving of the gift should make you happy.”
A frosted breath! A drop of condensation on his beer mug remained suspended and froze. So cold….He shivered.
“My gift to you will give ME happiness?”
“Always – its like this. The gift will give you satisfaction – you did something big for me, and you made me happy. And that in turn would make you happy. And I would be happy, too! In other words….”
Suddenly, he found he was talking to the air. He stared at his mug – beer now warm and flat!
He had done it again. Closed mouth gathers no feet – but he had opened his mouth so wide that in went both the feet to the thighs.
“How to influence friends; and win over your spouse?” He wished Dale Carnegie had written a tome on the subject.
But was it his fault? He traveled down the memory lane, recalling various gifts he had received:
“Belly button lint cleaner”
“Nose and Ear Hair trimmer”
“Shoe Odor eliminator”
And tons of anti-perspirants, colognes, socks, ties and kerchiefs. Only when he had thundered aloud “Do I have a stinking personality?” that the perennial flow of colognes and anti-perspirants stopped.
His children had given up on him: “Dad, you are the most difficult giftee – nothing makes you happy.”
“A day spent together, a family dinner – full of fun, frolic and festivity – like we used to have few centuries ago; or a heavenly breakfast at IHOP. Any of these would make my CENTURY.” But he had held his tongue – knowing it was of no use. There are mountains to climb and valleys to cross – let bygones be shelved!
Ask not what the family gives you – ask what you give to the family.
He compared the gifts he received with those he had given to his beloved. During courtship phase, most of the card shop and chocolate shop owners knew him by his first name; and relied on him for supplying steady flow of funds to their cash box.
The flow continued for a few months after the wedding. Then the questions started.
Amorous card or the ‘amras’ for lunch?
A bouquet of red roses or a banquet meal?
Lingerie for her or lungi for himself?
A toaster for the Valentine Day; followed by a top-notch vacuum cleaner for her birthday; and then a whole set of Calphalon Cookware Set. And yet he found himself more and more in the dog house than the seventh heaven – which he had hoped.
The vacuum cleaner was his initiative. He wanted to surprise her with something novel. She had hinted that she wanted something new, very shiny and clean and which doesn’t go very fast. The Miele Vacuum Cleaner fitted the bill – it was new (in the market), very shiny, cleaned everything, and went as fast as the operator would take it. His daughter explained to him next day that the mom wanted an automobile! Not the clunker she was driving, but a brand new one!
Pah! Women! How was he to know?
The Calphalon Cookware set on Diwali day – and she immediately banged the pan against the pot so hard – that both had dents. Fortunately, he was away from the pots and pans; and no major damage done.
Back to the realty – he had to think fast. Salvage the situation and mitigate the misery – else a few more nights on the couch. He wondered whether it would be a good investment to buy the most comfortable sofa bed. Shaking his head, he resolved to focus on present crises. Whipping out his smart phone and he fired up the lap-top. Scouring various websites, and prompts – he made online purchases with pick-up delivery at the stores. Having accomplished the difficult task, he almost danced with glee, restrained, and slunk out of the house for picking up the booty.
Returning home, he found the climate still wintry – so straight he went to her:
“Honey, I am so sorry for the horrible mistake I made this morning. I am really, really sorry. Here’s something for you to show that I really care…”
He handed over to her a big pink colour Victoria Secret bag – which contained two gift wrapped packages – one big and one small.
“This doesn’t mean you are off the hook. You don’t know how much you have hurt me. After all the things I do for you, and taking care of YOUR children.” SOB!
She carefully opened the bigger package – saving the wrapping paper for future use. And she giggled – just like the teenager she used to – when he gave her a funny, lovey-dovey card. And then she opened the smaller package. Screaming with joy, she hugged him. She got the most precious gifts. The lovers – in fiction – promise moon and stars to the loved-ones. But her husband – in real life – got something rarer than the moon or the stars or the universe.
“A full package of toilet rolls and bottle of hand sanitizer.”
Everything was forgiven, everything forgotten. And everything, once again, CLEAN!
His siblings called him an ‘emotional fool’.
His friends considered him a ‘strange character’.
His parents had given up on him long ago. The ‘Black Sheep’!
To him, the library was the toy shop. He was excited to enter it, and never wanted to leave it – like a child, in the toy-shop! He could spend hours in the library – browsing through the epitomes to yellow journals; at times reading – cover to cover, often just skimming. He moved with the writer; laughed at times; and shed few silent tears. But reading – he continued.
He did not care about anything – except reading.
He felt the power of the words – the words gave him the wings, the words soothed and suffocated him. He found the laughter and the tears on the same page; and he was astounded by the yetis on Himalayan ranges and ETs on Mars. And wept with joy when the sailors or warriors returned home safe and sound!
Few reads made him think, and speculate as to implications on his own life. One of the books about letters from the mother to her children made him sit up. In this book, the poor mother, instead of giving a gift, wrote love drenched letter to each birthday child. It did not matter whether the reasons were economic or esoteric – the idea appealed to and remained with him.
“One day, one day – when I am old enough – and have children of my own, I shall write to them such loving letters. Each letter will express my feelings; and hopefully, the child will relish receiving this gift, as much as I in giving. One day, one day!”
And the day came few decades later. A family of his own, and the bright children, who were apples of the parents eyes. And just before the twelfth birthday, he wrote a short but powerful letter to his eldest child. An unequivocal expression of love; coupled with pinch of sound advise on entering the ‘teen-age’ life. And rounded with recollection of good times that the child brought into their lives.
Disappointment, if any, on receipt of letter instead of ‘gift’ was well-hidden; and the child expressed the delight – “You made my day, thank you very much dad!”
This continued for the other child – and then onwards each year for both of them. There was no set formula for the letter, no rules as to which topics to be included or excluded – everything went in, and the contents of the heart poured out! The reaction from the child varied – and one day:
“I loved your letter – and I shall cherish it forever. It brought tears but the ending was hilarious!”
This was the culmination of his happiness. He had reached the place he wanted to… Make his children laugh and cry.
And he doubled his efforts – now including various occasions (besides birthdays) to the personal letters. Festive occasions, Christmas and New Year (combined) and sometimes ‘Just no-occasion” letter or two. He cared not for publishing or readers and readership / followership. His family was his audience; and he continued to bask in their adulations.
Then the problems hit him – hard and fast – one after another; taking almost his life and breath away. He winced with physical and mental anguish; and he couldn’t be positive in his thinking – much less in writing.
“What should I write for my child’s birthday? I have no positive thoughts. All I see is black; and I don’t want to write about it.”
A piece of paper containing his signature at the bottom right corner was received with equal enthusiasm.
“Dad, thanks for the cheque – it’s one of the first coming from you!”
And it hurt –Hurt – unlike white blinding flashes in the brain. Wincing – not because of stabs of pains in the abdomen, he gulped.
“All my efforts for NIL?” He speculated.
For subsequent birthday, he made a valiant effort, and jotted down few original and profound thoughts, mixed with right amount of humour and advise. He signed off “Dad” at the bottom right side of the letter; “Dad” and not his name – like he had done on the cheque folio.
“Brilliant, I love it; and I will always cherish / treasure it!”
He got the much anticipated input. But he felt the roar a bit tepid.
He skipped the Christmas and the New Year. And waited for the outcry.
“What? No special letter for me? How come? What’s happening?”
There was none. Nor on the first missed birthday in a dozen years.
Firing up his old laptop, he re-read the first letter written to the child on twelfth birthday. And he laughed; and he cried.
He cared no more.
A four year old child was asked whether he could read and write.
“I can write, but I can’t read” was the answer.
“Write something”. The child purses his lips, and with deep concentration, scribbles on the blank paper. Totally undecipherable.
“What have you written?”
“I told you – I can write, but I can’t read – so you read what I have written!”
This Christmas, Shen bought books as gifts for the family members. Not because he liked to read, but because he loved to write. And he didn’t want to be the child who could write, but not read. Reading is peaceful, and joyous. Just like the spirit of Christmas. Right?
Books are the best friends. He got this from the right source. His father. He emphasized this fact over and over. The best company, the friend who senses your moods and does the custom tailoring. “If you are in a foul mood, pick up P. G. Wodehouse; and if you are not feeling sleepy, pick up Homer’s Iliad!” was the sound advice.
“Why do you read the same book again, and again?” Saanvi, the wife quizzed him.
“Because I liked the book and the style and the plot; and many other reasons. Do I ask you why do you talk to your friends almost every day? You share the same jokes and stories and news (he did not use the word ‘gossip’). Books are my friends. Every time I read (even if it’s the same book), I find something relishing, refreshing and reinvigorating. I talk to my books, and they talk back to me…”
He realized he was talking to empty space, as Saanvi left in a huff. She is the person who read his love notes (sent about forty years ago) again, and again.
“Jonathan Livingstone, the seagull? Lovely. I read this book about 35 years ago – remember? We were fans of Richard Bach – and we read all his books that time?”
He was happy that she remembered.
“But do you remember the contents of the book? It was such a long time ago. Hence I brought this book to you – I remember you loved the philosophy, prose and the pictures in the book. Together we had memorized parts of the book. Do you remember?”
He remembered one of the favourite quotes both of them had memorized; and was about to recite it.
How much more there is now to living! Instead of our drab slogging forth and back to the fishing boats, there’s reason to life! We can lift ourselves out of ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill. We can be free! We can learn to fly!
“Are you trying to force me to read the book again?”
Suddenly, there was chill in the air – despite the gas fireplace throwing out the warmth everywhere. His plan to replace the word ‘fly’ with ‘read’ to amuse her – flew away.
“No dear, never. I wouldn’t dream of putting any pressure on you. You are already having so much stress – at work and home. No, never. By the way, did Gyan call today?”
He handled the situation deftly, and the ire was deflected from him to Gyan.
The BOOK remained on Saanvi’s to read pile by the television set. Lost in the large heap of newspaper clippings, magazines and other books. One fine morning, Shen removed the BOOK quietly from the pile; and put it on the pedestal bookshelf in his office. Nobody noticed, nobody cared – not even Jonathan Livingstone, the seagull.
Opening the book at random, he found yet another quote:
He smiled embittered – for him every gift had a problem!
January 19, 2019
“Smooth Seas do not make skillful sailors” – an African Proverb.
Forty years ago, I entered the realm of professional accounting – not so chubby cheeks, but with a dimpled chin, rosy lips; and very much wet behind the ears. Affluence and opulence – here I come. Short-lived euphoria! I was a proud recipient of stately stipend of Rs. 30 per month – for thirty-five hours of work (in theory – actual hours at least sixty) per week, (that time, a cup of tea cost Rs 1).
“Be happy that you are getting paid at least something. In my time, we had to pay to do the course. Just like you pay to take the degree courses.” My boss consoled me. And my learning began.
I wish I could tell that being articled clerk was all fun and joy. It wasn’t. We had a popular story going – the king’s favourite elephant was very sick and dying. The best veterinarians in the world concluded that the only way to save the elephant was to make it cry – without resorting to physical torture. The king announced an enormous award to any person who could do so. Attracted by the lavish prize, many people tried to make the elephant cry. Nothing worked. The king doubled the reward. Still no luck. The elephant was about to die. Much to the amusement of all people, a geek took up the challenge of saving the elephant. Going to the elephant’s left ear, he murmured something. The elephant shook its head. Then he went to its right ear and uttered a few more words – and the elephant started crying. The elephant was cured; the geek got the prize. The king requested the geek to share what he told the elephant.
“In the left ear, I told the elephant that I am pursuing my career in Chartered Accountancy.” The elephant was shocked.
“In the right ear, I confessed that I am still an articled clerk – when the elephant felt so bad about my status that he broke down and started crying!”
Even after forty years, the learning continues.
Being born in a ‘business’ family, I always dreamt of having my own accounting practice; where I would pay more than double the prescribed rate of stipend; and never tell my articled clerks that they were lucky… It would be many years before that stage would come; but it did.
Giving up the high-income public practice in India, my family made Vancouver our new home. In the first few years of settling down, I wondered about the sanity of the decision. Compared to my professional life in Canada, the status of articled clerks in India seemed glamorous. However, slowly, slowly – the life improved; and I settled down to the mundane existence – comfortable with the bi-weekly salary being credited to our bank account. One day, I shall have my own practice in Canada – one day! However, the dream seemed distant and impractical. Till one day!
Till one day – when I was just let go (a milder word for ‘sacked’). “Fired at fifty” lit another type of fire under me. And another public practice firm was born!
Running a successful public practice in Canada should not be any different than running one in India. As usual, I was proved wrong. That was more than a decade ago. The challenges and the learning continue to date.
A weathered veteran mentored me on running a successful practice. “Zen – you have to master the Zen to be successful in your career.” So far, I had encountered Zen in meditation, but Zen in accounting? And learning continued.
While handling difficult clients or unsuspecting auditors, I learnt to apply Harry Truman’s dictum “If you can’t convince them, confuse them!” Information overload is the keyword.
For initial interviews with the prospective clients, instead of using the check-list, I learnt to ask meaningful questions and elicit the information to help me gauge the potential.
“When you sit in your car, do you first buckle up or start the car, and then when the car is moving, you buckle up? Or you don’t buckle up till you have driven a few meters?”
“How many parking tickets do you get every year?”
“How many speeding tickets did you get last year?”
“Do you like to eat better or live better?”
Answers to the questions like above allow me to assess the client and her risk tolerance level. And the learning continues.
Compared to public practice, you could call porcupine back smooth as silk. But then, smooth seas do not make skillful sailors – or successful accountants in public practice!