The Ultimate Unknown

Unknown Chasm

The patient lay staring at the ceiling where an ivory colored fan, once pristine but now dirty after decades of soothing tired, dispirited and disinterested mankind,  whirred with a croaking sound, as if complaining about the inordinate workload in a humid, vapid city. The blades of the fan had accumulated dirt only along the inner depression where it connected to the rotating shaft and along the periphery. The rest of the surface area was relatively clean. The patient wondered if this could also be explained by physics and made a mental note to ask his many friends who would come visiting him today, tomorrow or perhaps during the weekend.

He had many such questions listed which felt scientifically challenging at first, but which he would never ask because on second and third thoughts, seemed downright silly or pointless. Questions like why does the skin swell up after a mosquito bite, or if boiling water kills all the germs, would it still be safe to drink the water when it could be teeming with millions of dead germs. Other questions needing a fair amount of research for his non-medical friends such as “How would one perceive the universe if the image falling on our retina was not reversed — would it mean we would see others walking upside down?” had never been satisfactorily composed, and therefore never asked.  And sometimes even meta-physical inquiries like “Do we have free will?” would crop up in his fertile mind, but he would inevitably think better than ask questions that raised the hackles of predominantly blind followers of faith based religions.

Of course, with death not very distant, questions on death and the “Grim Reaper” were never far from his mind. He liked to believe that he was a true Hindu, and though people from today’s day and age had mostly outgrown the concept of Yamaraj and Chitragupta, he still believed in an eternal soul and the merging with the ultimate Brahman at the conclusion of the cycle of births and rebirths. Between bouts of intense pain and nausea, there would be intervals of surprising mental acuity, which he would use to read a number of books on this unknown — from the works of known atheists like Richard Dawkins on one hand to comprehensive summaries of how the great religions of the world look at passing away, on the other. To his surprise, the religions differed a lot in their interpretations of death and afterlife, while atheism, unsurprisingly, said there was no evidence, yet, of an afterlife — Fullstop. It seemed to him, then, that there was no recourse for him other than to believe that what he had imbibed about the Hindu concept of afterlife would come true, and because he had led a pretty humdrum and, while not virtuous, at least an “unsinful” life,  he would be fine.

One thought had been troubling the patient the last few days. After the initial few weeks of absolute frenzy with wailing, flailing, denial, anger and God-why-me? following the sudden unraveling of his colon cancer, he and his family had come to accept the inevitable. The last few weeks spun by at a dizzying pace, filled with more important work such as account nominations, will, tax returns, signatures on blank forms, insurance updates and such activities. What troubled him, though, was the fear that he saw in the eyes of his friends and other visitors who would come to visit him. His close friends were reaching out to him out of genuine love and affection, some apologetic for not having been in touch recently while the majority, and others more awkward and perfunctory than consoling, as if somehow his imminent demise was also a reflection of their own limited time on this earth and they would rather not think about it.  But one common thread ran through all his visitors — each and every one was uncomfortable. No one mentioned death by name, of course,  but the small talk that littered the room seemed ever so farcical. He knew that each one of the visitors understood that this was probably the last meeting that they were going to have with him, that a month from now this hospital bed would have a different terminal patient attached to it and the crow that sits on the window sill at around 4 PM every day would have a different person to gauge, and that all of this was inevitable and there was nothing anyone could do about it — and yet, everyone seemed so ill at ease. He almost felt sorry for them, as if somehow asking them a question that they were not capable of answering. He wondered how he would have reacted if the tables were turned — if he was visiting a friend on his death bed. Would he be tongue-tied too or would he have the courage to say goodbye with words of candor, reassurance and love?

The above is a figment of my imagination — well almost. I have a friend, AK, who I heard is at Stage 4 cancer. AK and I were in school, and then in college together. We thereafter went our separate ways and we would meet, maybe, once a year during our annual summer vacations back home, but as our job, career and itineraries diverged, this grew less and less. However, the popularity of social media put us in touch once again after 30 years and that is how I came to know of his condition. I shall be visiting India later this month and I will take this opportunity to meet him at the hospice where  he currently is. I cannot bear the thought of not saying good bye — and while saying a permanent “au revoir” is hard, not doing so and telling him how fortunate I am to have a friend like him would be a source of regret throughout my life.

I wonder what he thinks of lying on the hospice bed. Is his body racked by so much pain that a quick release would seem a blessing or can he still gaze out of the window and think happy thoughts? Thoughts, perhaps, about his parents, marriage, birth of children, vacations with loved ones, career growth, or the idyllic childhood with friends and siblings that many of us who grew up in non-descriptive small towns seem to have. Does he still have enough strength in him to recall what a fantastic footballer he was? Can he visualize the Krishnachura tree in full bloom under which we would have our lunch on school days and which was a constant source of amazement for him? Does he care that he was, or rather, is, the vice president of a Fortune 500 company? Will he be coherent or even able to recognize me?

If he is feeling like small talk maybe this will be a good time for me to confess that the letter purportedly written by Parvati to him was actually written by me (at the instigation of others, absolutely, oh yes), using Parvati’s school letterhead. Maybe this will also be a good time to solve the existential dilemma that wracked our class of 1977 — which was the better movie: Sholay or Magnificient Seven. Or perhaps I will just show up, and if he is not feeling like talking, just be there. One can have meaningful conversations without a word being spoken.

APJ Abdul Kalam — my humble pranams

Mumbai: A condolence meeting for the late former president Dr APJ Abdul Kalam organised by the South Indian Education Society at the Shanmukhananda Hall in Mumbai on Aug 1, 2015. (Photo: IANS)
Mumbai: A condolence meeting for the late former president Dr APJ Abdul Kalam organised by the South Indian Education Society at the Shanmukhananda Hall in Mumbai on Aug 1, 2015. (Photo: IANS)

For the past one week India has been paying homage to APJ Abdul Kalam, perhaps one of our greatest Presidents, along with Dr S Radhakrishnan. These two stalwarts, and to some extent Dr Rajendra Prasad, elevated the Presidency to a much higher pedestal than just political. And in an age when Presidents are chosen depending on one’s political survival in the “cesspool of politics”, as Amitabh Bachchan once famously described the Indian parliamentary system,  APJ Abdul Kalam is the only President in recent memory who restored the glory of Rashtrapati Bhavan to one that illuminated the past heritage and projected a shining future of a young nation in equal measure. And this was not done on the basis of modernizing a 340 room mansion, built on a 130 hectare Presidential Estate, and boasting of being the largest residence of a Head of State in the World. Instead, Rashtrapati Bhavan once again became a beacon of light, hope and aspiration for 1.2 billion people because it hosted a President who was a “reluctant politician”: an engineer, space scientist, science administrator, teacher, mentor, and a public servant. He was truly a People’s President who resided in the hearts of all of us across the entire spectrum of political affiliations, race, gender, wealth and religion.

Hundreds of anecdotes and news reports on different facets of his life, or various incidents that illuminate his personality have been highlighted in the media. What compelled me to write this blog was, however, a short post on today’s site detailing the material possessions of Abdul Kalam: a wrist watch, six shirts, four trousers, three suits and a pair of shoes. He did not own any property, not even “essential life-accessories” like fridge, TV, car or air conditioner. And this was a man who ultimately rose to become President of the Republic of India. It goes to show his passion in life though that he did have 2,500 books.

How much material possession is enough in today’s world? How can one distinguish between need and greed? Even in today’s corporate culture, where one is expected to be “suitably dressed”, where does one draw the line? One would presume that Abdul Kalam was suitably dressed on all the official occasions during his Presidency, even if he owned an average of only three suits at any one time and just one pair of shoes. Although, if one were to assume that as President, the sartorial decisions would be the Government’s and not personally made by him, the question that haunts me, as I stare at my wardrobe, is how much does one need to be happy?

We live in a world where packaging is important. We are conditioned to believe one needs to dress for success. There is pressure everywhere — pressure to look good, pressure to go up in life, pressure to compete and win, pressure to ensure that our responsibilities are well taken care of, pressure to build wealth, and pressure, perhaps, even to flaunt success. And if we achieve all, or some, of these, it is supposed to make us happy. Various reports tell us that there is a “Happiness Hormone” that is released by the brain when one buys new stuff, though it fades away rather quickly. I am sure there is some truth in all of that — money, security and smiles are somehow intricately linked — but that is surely not the end all and be all.

In a society where appearances are the topmost priority, how can one be the proverbial duck which swims in the water and yet does not get wet? How can one function in today’s world and yet remain unaffected by it? How does one downsize from Rashtrapati Bhavan to a house with no AC or fridge with nary a hint of displeasure or discomfort? I do not have the answer but I suspect it has a lot to do with one’s confidence in one’s self worth and the value that one brings to the world.

And so, Sir, my humble pranams to you for showing us the way and leading by example. For making each one of us believe that “Yes, we can”, if we put our mind to it. For caring little about pomp and glory and for even thinking that one can live out one’s life without a four wheeled transport to call one’s own. For noticing the often invisible common man in the most wonderful of ways, as evidenced by your thanking a jawan for remaining standing on guard duty throughout your two hour drive from a local airport to IIM Shillong (incidentally, your last public engagement) and for proving that teaching is indeed the noblest of all professions. After all, on being asked what you would like to be remembered as, you had replied “Teacher”.

Hello world!


And so, finally, I have decided to take the plunge — of writing my first blog — and let it be all out there in the whole wide world for everyone to see and comment upon.

How does it feel, someone might ask. Very scary!!

  • As scary as taking the first dip in the cold cold waters of the fast flowing Ganges at Rishikesh in the chilly winter months.
  • As scary as entering the examination hall, knowing fully well that Chapter 9, which you had skipped revising, was part of the syllabus and would surely have questions adding up to perhaps 50% of the total.
  • As scary as being on the stage for the first (and you know in your heart of hearts that it is going to be the last) time with a Sukumar Ray poem that is all of three paragraphs long and all that you remember now is that the poem is somehow related to a duck and a porcupine.

Or perhaps even scarier.

I do not know how the idea of writing a blog entered my mind. Maybe the fact that technology today provides a relatively easy platform to publish whatever one wants to write with virtually no financial barriers to entry. Or it could be a latent desire to test if there is anything remotely connected to a writer in me. Perhaps it is the silent encouragement from a friend of mine who has ventured into short stories and novels and is doing an amazingly good job.

Writing in itself is not too difficult — at least not gob-smackingly difficult if the readership is limited to you. Penning an entry in one’s diary, for example. You know that you can pour your heart’s emotions on that white page in whatever way you want, grammatical and logical errors notwithstanding, and the page will ring absolutely honest and true, as charming as the pealing of church bells on a crisp winter morning in the town square, whether you read your entry the next day, month, year or indeed, at the end of your life. Writing in such cases is easy enough. What makes it difficult, grueling almost, is when you write and the entire world can read and comment upon it. I have seen a few videos uploaded onto You Tube by people in all sincerity, and the kind of scathing comments that some of them have attracted. These musical lovers would surely think long and hard before venturing to upload a few more examples of their musical aspirations, I presume.

On the other hand, it may not be as frightening as it seems at first — and that is because of the nature of technology today. Even though anyone can read your blog, it is not in the same league as public speaking, which, to quite a few, is akin to standing on a pulpit and getting ready to be pelted with rotten tomatoes and past-expiry-dated eggs which the local garbage dump had refused to accept. At least here, in the case of blogs, one can hide behind a veiled profile, and any pummeling by the general reader, if any, could be deftly deflected by the wall of anonymity. This is very reassuring and reassurance is what I need the most at this critical juncture. The feeling of bungee jumping without checking if the rope is securely shackled to a strong base seem to be slowly going away and I can breathe again!

There are probably hundreds of thousands of regular bloggers who have not graduated beyond a couple of posts with readership limited to close family members and friends, and who, gratuitously perhaps, sing paeans about the “hidden talent” of the blogger in question and how it now needs to be showcased to the world. Maybe mine will meet the same fate. I hope not, and I will strive not to fail, but strangely, the prospect of readers limited to family and friends seems quite comforting today. So slowly, tentatively, I will dip my feet in the raging waters and hope not to loose my footing immediately.

With that resolved, I need to decide on what to write about. I have no clue at all! I do not fancy myself as an expert in anything that has not already been dissected, discussed and explained to the nth level of granularity in innumerable papers, books and articles. My reading interests span from fiction (short stories, novels and mystery), and science fiction through to history, science, and politics. It is glaringly obvious that my writings will belie categorization. And it best remain that way. Perhaps a bit of this and that – a bit of fiction with a dash of nostalgia and a pinch of travelogue. A kind of mishmash of events experienced and emotions recalled in tranquility. Of expectations from the future. And of everything in between.

I am myself surprised at my audacity — I ring out loudly and confidently with a “Hello World”.  Welcome to my secret little garden. Let me tell you a little story….