Judgement Risks and Paybacks

co+nut+ink-esplanade4

Picture Source: http://aroimakmak.com/

The other evening, when we were walking near the Esplanade Theaters by the Bay here in Singapore, Akank and I stopped for something to eat. I wanted her to try the Thai coconut ice cream, a scoop of coconut flavored sorbet served in one half of a tender coconut shell, to be eaten along with the young coconut jelly. I had tried it once before and had loved it. They also offer a chilled glass of tender coconut water to go. It was a humid evening and anything cold and thirst quenching seemed like a great snack idea.

As we sat by the Bay enjoying the crystals in the sorbet, I noticed a man looking in the general direction of where we sat. In the twilight, it seemed like he was looking directly at us. He sat there surrounded by two huge plastic bags filled with cans and plastic bottles.  It was obvious that he was a trash collector. He looked about 75 years old not a day younger.  He had no footwear on, wore a shirt that was a few sizes bigger for his frame and he was absentmindedly munching on something. My gaze kept going back to the man. I felt unsettled as I looked at him, savoring the cold sorbet with the plastic spoon in my mouth.  I wondered if he longed for a taste of the cold ice- cream.  Instinctively, I walked back to the kiosk to buy another shell of ice cream.

I offered the ice cream topped with crushed peanuts to the old man and said, “Uncle,this is for you”. With a toothless grin that reached his ears, without speaking a word, he waved both his hands and refused the offer.  I deemed it important to clarify that it was a fresh cup and not the one I was eating. I even showed him the half eaten sorbet in my other hand, but he was absolutely sure that he wanted nothing to do with it, fresh or otherwise.  I imagined that maybe the ice cream was way too cold for him and for some strange old man reason he was refusing it.  I gingerly balanced both the fresh shell and what was left of my melting sorbet and offered him the chilled coconut water to drink.  He waved me away with renewed vigor and pulled out a brown liquid from inside an enormous plastic bag and indicated that he had something to drink.  I was flabbergasted.

What a great lesson

I gave up when I realized that I expected him to accept the ice cream just because I felt charitable, but it had back fired. The fresh sorbet began to melt too.

Before I made the decision to buy the ice cream, I had my daughter’s buy-in and support. Otherwise you can imagine what else I would have had to deal with! She however refused the second helping of ice-cream. At 16, she has better control over her needs and wants related to food than I do. I pondered for a minute if I should eat the refused ice cream and then realized that it will end up being a costly mistake to my weight maintenance goals. I visualized my coach’s disapproving looks and decided that I was going to march ahead to look for someone more deserving. I had to pass by the old man, who flashed me another toothless grin and waved to me as though wishing me luck.

I shortly found a 20 year old Bangladeshi construction worker who was dragging his feet after work towards the pickup truck that would take him home. Unlike the old man, the young man gladly took the ice- cream from me and sat down to finish it. I made small talk with him as he ate and found out that he had been here less than two months. I hoped that he believed that he is in a good place, hard construction work notwithstanding, that sometimes strangers you come across in a new country, can be nice.

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Eulogy for a friend

Rest in peace, Prasad

Rest in peace, Prasad

Goodbye, Prasad.

I am glad I got to speak to you one last time before your time ran out.  It must have been providence then that prompted me to look you up on Facebook, when an email I wrote you bounced back undelivered.

It was on your birthday this year. As was the trend, we always wrote each other just that day of the year. A quick note to check if we were still in the same town, doing the same thing that we were a year back when we had connected on our birthdays.  Some ritual that. Do I regret not writing to you more often? No. It is not like we were old chums.

What were we then? Acquaintances, contacts, a connection, birthday buddies maybe?  It is funny how my mind reels back to a time, many years ago when we first came to meet. I was in Mumbai and in my first job as a head hunter. You, Prasad, were a job seeker with a resume in our databank, an active job seeker at that. You were unhappy in your assignment or maybe you were between jobs.  You came to my work place to meet with me before I set you up for an interview. We had talked briefly before that a couple of times, enough for me to know that you may be the man that the company was looking for. Yet, as was required, I wanted to meet with you to ascertain if my judgment of you was right.

You didn’t come across as someone who was aggressive and pushy. You always spoke softly with a familiarity that was endearing. You were the same age as me. That and the fact that you were a south Indian in Mumbai is all that it took for us to bond.  Although you didn’t make the cut at that interview, you took that in your stride.  I asked you if the HR manager looked as good as he sounded on the phone and without missing a beat, you asked me if I know of tall, dark, handsome men. Just when I began to widen my eyes in awe, you said,” He was all of that but tall and handsome”. I laugh out loud even today when I think of that follow up conversation.

Your  easy sense of humor, your laid back ‘ I-am-not-in-a-hurry- to- be- in- my- next- job’ attitude helped me line up a few more interviews that suited your profile and we stayed in touch between 1998 and year 2000. I recall speaking to you about many more job profiles. You didn’t want to jump from the frying pan to the fire, so we waited for the perfect job description.  Meanwhile, you found an interesting assignment with a tele shopping network on your own.  We stayed in touch because I told you that it pays to have a head hunter for a friend.

I relocated from Mumbai to another city a few years after that and we kept in touch on email. I cannot trace all the emails from those years, though I eagerly looked for them in my now unused hotmail account. I had switched to Gmail by then and had sent you an invite to start an account. It was year 2008, by then you had started a business on your own and seemed busy. Your once-a- year email always arrived on my birthday.

Three years later, you asked to connect on Linked In.  You wrote me saying you had forgotten my daughter’s name and blamed it on old age!  You also said something poignant in one of your updates then. You said and I quote “ .. still not done with my struggles yet”. I felt a pang of guilt wash over me. I had moved on to other things and other people and had never once wondered if you were okay and happy.  We promised to connect on Facebook that year but never really found each other there. Years went by.

It wasn’t until May this year I thought of you again. I sent you a birthday wish and the mail bounced back. I finally found you on Facebook. It had been fifteen years since I saw you. You had changed so much. You know of the tall, dark and handsome men we used to talk about? You looked like one of them.

My happiness of finding you again was short lived.  I learnt of your cancer and your Bone Marrow Transplant through the Angels for Prasad community.  When I messaged you on Facebook chat on that day, you replied almost immediately. The same old cheerful Mr. Nice Guy. You shrugged off my questions about your health and asked about me instead.

I am glad I called and spoke with you, Prasad. It may not have meant much to you, but to me, it made a world of difference. I wanted you to know that even though I hadn’t really been in touch, I have always been your well wisher. You told me that life had been good, that you did well in the insurance business; you travelled the world and even came to Singapore.  Maybe if we had stayed in touch, we could have met at Singapore?  Even though that thought saddened me, I was super happy that your career did take off.  Until your cancer was detected, you were a successful and happy man, you said.

Prasad, despite the best intentions of the world around you, you lost your fight to cancer. I wish you had lived longer. I wish I had been able to make that short trip to Mumbai to see you once more.

When I turn older in two weeks, guess whose wish I will miss this year?

Until we meet again…

Maintenance, a path less trodden -Journey to a fitter me.

Image Courtesy- kickboxingdiva.com

Image Courtesy- kickboxingdiva.com

You are familiar with the drill, the rigor, the sequence, the intensity. You know it all. You have reached the desired goal. Your bathroom scales have consistently shown you ten kilos lighter than when you began a few years back. You are happy and positive with the achievement. You know it was possible only because you had set your mind to achieving it. Yeah, you had your coach to help you along the way but in the end it was all YOU. The coach herself said that. So you become smug.

When your coach announces that she will not be able to continue to train you because she has decided to pursue bigger goals, you are supportive. With all the bravado you can muster, you assure her that you won’t fall off the track that you have been laid out. You will continue to make wise food choices, workout regularly (why, you may even commit thrice a week) and keep her posted on your progress. You even joke, ‘God forbid, I need you again!’

Then for the first few weeks you give yourself a ‘well deserved break’. You are mentally relieved that you don’t have to wake early to make it to the workout; you find more time to do other things.  You snooze that extra hour, meet a friend for coffee, watch a movie and spend some ‘catch up’ time on whats-app and social networks.  You pamper yourself and boy it feels good.  When your family and friends look at you with envy and say that you look younger, fitter and agile for your age, you tell them that all it needed was consistent effort.

Then the schools close and the family decides to go on a vacation.  You convince yourself that you will get back to your workout schedules when you are back from the holiday. Your vacation was going to be ‘active’ anyway. How much damage can it do to stay off exercise for a few more weeks?

All too soon, four months have passed by.  You are yet to restart your workout. You get used to not setting aside time for exercise, not thrice, but even once a week. Who has the time? There is always so much to do. Then one morning you decide to check if the batteries in the digital weighing machine still work. You cannot believe your eyes when the numbers soar up to 3 kilos plus than how much you weighed just a few weeks back. It definitely must be a faulty battery?

Soon afterward, your coach reaches out with a cheerful ‘Hey what’s up! Want to catch up for lunch?’ It is the beacon of light you were hoping to see to shake you up from your disinclination for activity. You are both relieved and guilty at the same time. You agree to meet with enthusiasm. You look for the most flattering outfit you have in your wardrobe to make you look the same as you did four months back.  Who are you fooling?  One look at you and her eyes take in all the details. She is too kind to point out and tell you to your face that under that entire pretense that you are in control, she knows just how much you are spilling out. Yeah that is right. That is exactly what I got told.

Anybody who has been on an exercise regimen under the watchful eyes of a coach or a trainer will agree with me.  When we decide to continue to walk the path of maintenance independently, we often fail. What is it about working out alone that is scary or boring that we just don’t seem to even want to attempt it? Does that mean you are addicted to your coach? Wasn’t it ‘all your doing’ that you achieved what you did? Then what stops you now?

I am not the first person who has felt this way. All the people I have known during my years with my coach have either fallen off the track or continued working out with other trainers. Even though I have managed to include other forms of exercise (yoga, for example) and continue to walk the daily 5km, when it comes to weight training, I am just not enthusiastic about doing it on my own.

If you are someone who is an exception to the rule and have managed to stick to the discipline of working out no matter who is watching, then tell me how you do it! But, if you are like me and many of us who are slack and need a coach or trainer to keep us engaged, engrossed and disciplined about exercise, then come on, we have to form a group and fight it!

Either way, write to me.

This is in continuation of the series of blog posts that I had written two years back in March 2013 that you will find on this blog. The link to the first of the posts of the 8-part blog titled ‘ Journey to a fitter me’ is here.

Lessons from The Bhagawad Gita: Am I a Seeker?

This week we discussed three verses from Karma Yoga that talked about what differentiates a Seeker.

My key takeaways from this week’s lesson:

sadrsam cestate svasyahprakrter jnanavan api
prakrtim yanti bhutani , nigrahah kim karisyati

1)As I embark on this journey of understanding the lessons in the Bhagawad Gita, I constantly remind myself that just being knowledgeable about Karma Yoga does not make me a Karma yogi. I have to walk the path, abide by the teachings and apply what I have learnt to reach a state of sthitapragya (steady intellect). I know the journey is long and arduous. What matters is that I have begun the journey. Therefore I am a Seeker.

2) I understand and appreciate the fact that even though I may succeed in grasping the essence of the Gita, my natural instincts of thought, will still interfere in the way I view behave and deal with people. I have to consciously put to practice, the learning. I dare not call myself a Seeker, if I blame all my actions on my natural instincts of the mind.

3) Despite my conscious efforts of referencing the lessons from the Gita to go about my life, if I fail and continue to blame my nature for the way I deal with things, people and situations around me, then I will give myself time to evolve. I will accept that I am not ready for higher learning. I am reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

4) I know and understand that I cannot choose to be a Seeker on a few days of the week or only when it suits me. I will consciously allow the teachings of the Gita to interfere with my nature and learn to channel my train of thought to be worthy of being called a Seeker.

indriyasyendriyasyarthe, raga-dvesau vyavasthitau
tayor na vasam agacchet, tau hy asya paripanthinau

5) The fact I like a certain person, food, or activity has nothing to do with how fabulous the person, the food or activity is. Similarly, my dislike of a person, food or activity has nothing to do with how terrible the person food or activity is.  Any attachment or aversion I feel is decided by how I have filed the information in my mind as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, how my mind perceives the external stimuli. My buddhi (intellect) is ultimately responsible for how I deal with external stimuli (person, food or activity)

6) As a Seeker, I am expected to be in control of my buddhi. When my buddhi is in control, then my natural instincts stop controlling how I perceive external stimuli and allows me to experience the stimuli without judging them as good or bad. As a Seeker, I have to learn to be less caught up in my own drama. I have to unlearn to be a happy victim of my life.

sreyan sva-dharmo vigunah, para-dharmat svanusthitat
sva-dharme nidhanam sreyah, para-dharmo bhayavahah

7) I choose to be at peace with who I am instead of yearning to be like someone else. My personality (Svabhava) is the external manifestation of my predetermined inborn nature (Svadharma). Just to please someone, if I place a constraint on my natural inclinations and alter my personality to be someone else that I am naturally not, then the pretence only hurts and does not keep me happy in the long term.

8) My personality does not depend on where I was born or to whom, which religion I belong to or what caste. It largely is the result of my thoughts, shaped by my past. To be at peace with the choices I make, I should act according to my thoughts, however imperfect or flawed they are. I have to let my true nature make the choices and not force myself to follow the choices someone else makes for me – even though the alternate choices may be the right or a better choice. By doing that, I help purge my way of thinking, and that alone will let me adapt to a newer way of thought.

Lessons from The Bhagawad Gita: On Faith

Brahmacharini Vishakaji simplified the teachings from two related verses from Karma-yoga this week.  Both the verses urged us to reflect on how our faith and belief affect our behaviors and actions. When you believe something to be true, without needing proof, then you begin to understand the teachings from the Bhagawad Gita, said Brahmacharini Vishakaji.

My key learning from this week:

ye me matam idam nityam ,anutisthanti manavah
sraddhavanto ‘nasuyanto , mucyante te ‘pi karmabhih

1) When I believe that something is true, it becomes my faith. I don’t have to question the truths in the scriptures just because I am educated, or possess a scientific bent of mind. I have to remember that a mere understanding of the text is not enough to experience the truth.  I have to live by the teachings, walk the talk, to really gain from the lessons in the Gita.

2) Spiritual truth is like a fine cut diamond. Just like how a diamond has many facets and therefore looks different when looked at from different angles, religious faith reveals only one part of the whole truth when looked at from one facet alone. Followers of a religion invest their faith in one facet of the truth alone. This is the reason why we are not able to appreciate the truth from the perspective of another religion.

3) We evaluate and judge everything around us using cognitive reasoning. We always look for evidence and proof, use our gross intellect (Theekshana buddhi) and that is why faith eludes us.  Faith is a virtue of the subtle intellect ( Sookshma buddhi) .  l have to learn to tame and temper my intellect to allow the subtle intellect  grasp the essence of the teachings, without critical evaluation of the texts.

ye tv etad abhyasuyanto, nanutisthanti me matam
sarva-jnana-vimudhams tan, viddhi nastan acetasah

4) Unlike mathematical reasoning, where you have to have a hypothesis, arguments and conclusions, faith is a form of truth that does not need any evidence,  proof or argument. Brahmacharini Vishakaji could draw an analogy from one of William Wordsworth’s poems who said – ‘Sweet is the lore which Nature brings; our meddling intellect misshapes the beauteous forms of things:–   We murder to dissect.’

5) Swami Chinmayananda observed that only poetry can capture the truth , not science. He meant Tagore’s description of faith as a “bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark”.  The fact that birds sing at day break just before dawn is proof that they have the faith that the Sun will soon be out. They don’t use intellect or cognition like we humans do to judge if it is soon going to be day.

6) I understand the essence of Avidhya-Kama-Karma . When I am spiritually ignorant, my desires lead me to perform thoughtless actions. When I am spiritually awakened, it is possible to be free of desires and be at meditative peace.

7) I must be willing to do things for the others (Lokasangraha) and not merely for myself. When I work to make others happy or their lives easier, then I live by the teachings of the Gita.  Despite my intellectual understanding of the teachings of the Gita, if I cannot help but find faults in the teachings, it is impossible to live by the principles that the Gita extols.

Death- The last enemy

mailHave you ever woken up to bad news?  If you have then you will be able to empathize with me and the hundreds of people who did the morning after Diwali.

A few mornings back, or specifically the morning after Diwali, as was habitual, I accessed my inbox on my phone.  I was scrolling through the messages in my inbox as I fixed myself a cup of coffee to start my day. Technology makes sure we hear what is up with the World even before we open the newspaper or fire up our computers.

I stopped short at an email that bore the subject- Bad news.

The sender of the message was a colleague from work. In the fraction of a second before I tapped that message to read the content, my mind raced with the possibilities of what could it be about. I had just returned from a week at ‘work’.  All had been well when I left.  The message had opened by then.

The first line of the email said it all. It revealed that the bad news I was just about to read was going to be shocking. I could feel the pit of my stomach cave in. I dismissed the feeling and read on further.  The mail was written in short sentences of five words each. And the third line revealed the shocking bad news. My team member had lost both her parents in a tragic road accident.

I had to sit down to make sense of the news. How was it possible? Didn’t she tell me just the other day that they were coming over to spend Diwali with her?

The email outlined the scanty details that my colleague had on him at that time and that was enough to tell me that the accident had indeed been tragic. They were run over by a speeding vehicle as they were crossing the road, it said. I had to shut my eyes close to stop the world around me from spinning.

“My ma says that I don’t feed the baby enough. If only she knew how much my two year old eats! When she is here the next week, I will hand over my daughter and ask her to take care of her”, her laugh rang in my ears.

The email further detailed how the parents were headed to the younger daughter’s house. She was going to be a mother soon and they wanted to prepare for the valaikaapu function the following week.

I am planning to ask them to move in with me, Arthi. It will be so much easier then both for them and me. We are looking to move into a two storied house soon”, she had said determinedly.

And now they were both gone. Just like that, while crossing the road, because a speeding car that was not able to avoid hitting them, had hit them and caused head injuries that had killed them.

The rest of the day is a hazy memory. I was listlessly floating about, imagining what was happening in her world every minute. I was unable to function. I was filled with a sense of remorse and intense helplessness.  I hoped that she had said a loving goodbye to them when they left her that day. What was the last conversation they had had? Was she regretting that she had not said something she had planned to tell them? The whole day I stayed preoccupied with what might have been and what shouldn’t have happened.

I felt restless as the day progressed, and worse as the details of their accident trickled in. They were hit by a car while they turned around hearing the cry of a handicapped blind man across the road.

Could it be any worse?

I hate conveying condolence messages. I am bad at it. There is no right thing to say to someone who has lost a loved one or in this case, two; loving parents who had been killed in a tragic road accident.

I had to let her know that I had heard; that I knew she was broken hearted, not once but twice over. I had to send her my thoughts, love, prayers and strength. I had to remind her to eat, to be sane, to not fall sick. I had to remind her to be strong.

It has been only 3 days since the incident. My thoughts are with her, hoping that she will allow time to heal the wretched wounds from the nasty blow life has dealt her, that she finds answers to the questions she has.

For now I want to sit quietly next to her, sharing her grief, just being there if that can lessen the pain.

Hang in there, Kuppu.

The case of the mystery wedding invite

A few weeks back, in our mail was this ornate maroon and gold envelope that contained an invite to a wedding reception at a prestigious hotel in town. No one we knew was planning to host a wedding reception in Singapore and so even before we opened the envelope, we wondered if we had missed making a note of it. We read the names of the groom and bride to see if it triggered a forgotten memory. The names looked unfamiliar but then again, that was not unsettling. We flipped the invite over and found in neat print the name of the hosts, with details of their contacts. The host names were unfamiliar too. So the case of the mysterious invite just grew curiouser and curiouser.

Then began a round of deliberations; Could it be the second cousin of your mother’s sister in law? Or is it the nephew of your uncle’s son in law on his mother’s side? See, that is the problem with us Indians. When there is a wedding being planned in the family, we plan it on a macro scale. We don’t miss inviting all distant cousins and their extended families and include the people we meet at family weddings even if they are not remotely related to any distant cousin of ours. At the European wedding I attended last November, the hosts had invited the immediate family and a few friends. They knew that the church in Amsterdam could take only 100 guests. So they drew up their list of invitees and made sure everyone RSVP’d their attendance. On the day of the wedding there was no scope for additional guests accidentally showing up at the door of the church. But I am digressing, back to the mystery invite.

The envelope carrying the ornate invite was encased in a see through plastic envelope that had our address stuck on it. What the envelope or the names lacked in familiarity, the address sticker more than made up for it. On one end of the sticker that had our printed address, was a familiar registration number. That is when it flashed on us that our names have been randomly picked from the address book of a religious community we were members of. It baffled me that someone could include us in the list of invitees to a personal event like a wedding, without even having met us.

So I imagined the scene on the evening of the reception.  To suit the occasion, so we would have turned out in proper attire. As we entered, we would unsurely beam and nod at everyone at the hall, wondering who the host was and when we would be stopped on our tracks to be welcomed. And everyone else would be nursing wine glasses, looking content and happy. And then someone would tap us on the shoulder and ask if we had lost our way. Shudder! It was like a bad dream.

Anyway, we decided to rip the envelope open to check the contents of the invite and found two invites enclosed; one for the wedding in Chennai at a very fashionable address and then one for the reception the following week at Singapore. I have to confess, that I am a grammar and spell check Nazi when it comes to wedding invites irrespective of their caste, creed or colour. Have you noticed errors which are almost certain in the many invites that are printed?  A classic one being, Mr and Mrs XYZ cordially invite you to the wedding of our son or daughter and the versions of spellings for occasion, marriage, auspicious, cordially… and the list goes on.  Who can stop chuckling at some of the foot notes that some invites carry. (With best compliments from nearest and dearest, anyone?) So I eagerly scanned the card to see if this family had proof read the invite before it went to print. I froze when I reached the end of the invite. It said in italics, No boxed gifts please.

No boxed gifts please!

No boxed gifts please!

Whoa.

That was a first. Wait. Did they mean don’t carry anything boxed because they would anyway throw the boxes away? Or did they mean bring cash or cheque only? Maybe the couple had two of everything they wanted to set up home and did not want a replica of all things they already possessed? Maybe they wanted to give away the cash to a charity they supported? Maybe the newlyweds were relocating to a new country and it would be cumbersome to lug them boxed gifts along to the new place. Those italicised words jumped at me and triggered so many thoughts in the few minutes that I spent looking at them over and over again.

I wish we had more couples who could voice what they needed to start their lives that could make a thoughtful wedding gift. Most establishments offer vouchers and gift coupons and that should be easy. The European wedding hosts pointed to an online store that had a list of things the couple wanted for their new home. The guests had to log in and choose what they wanted to gift from that list. Why couldn’t these guys opt for something as simple?

Anyway back to the mystery invitation card. A few days after we had received the card, the host called up on the phone to confirm if we had received the invite. It was awkward to cheerfully thank him for the invite but the job had to be done. I was restless and decided to call the lady of the house to let her know that we were uncomfortable attending the reception since we had never met them and we didn’t know the family. When I called to speak to her, she was quick to apologize that our address was chosen by mistake and was meant for a namesake family friend of theirs.

A wave of relief rushed through me when I realized that all the deliberations, the analysis of the fairness of it all were such a wasted exercise. Just as I was beginning to thank her for clarifying, she asked me about us, what we did and how long we had been in Singapore. At the end of that conversation she said,”Since you anyway have the invite, why don’t you attend the wedding reception?!”