Making kindness less extraordinary


In the privileged days of being a carefree graduate student I picked up an old fraying copy of Aldous Huxley’s beautiful biography from a deliciously sprawling library of books at a family friend’s home in Hyderabad and fell in love with the deeply moving sentences and paragraphs he had written on various occasions to his wife.

One that has stayed with me for the way it resonates with what one encounters in living every day is where he expresses a child-like in-credulousness about why human beings find it so hard to be kind to each other and what it would take to make an everyday kindness, in every interaction, less extraordinary…

The book also left me with a longing for the sort of deep respect, regard and affection he had for his wife, Laura – the kind often found between old friends – and made me believe that nothing short of that was really worth anyone’s while.

Another aspect that left a deep impression on me was a similar quality of calmness and equanimity that he brought to the prospect of someone’s passing. Without once being condescending, he made it seem like it was a transition to another level of consciousness – a passing on rather than a ‘passing away’… a time for extraordinary mindfulness rather than fear; for humility, grace and acceptance than fright, disbelief and revulsion.

Today, after all these years, as I waited my turn to pay my respects to one of the gentlest, wisest, and most affectionate avuncular figures in my cousin’s life I found myself remembering what Huxley said. And I wished as I stood surrounded by the inconsolable sobbing of those close to him, that I could have addressed the sweet, calm, resting face of Uncle C with the form of address that Huxley invokes throughout the book, “Oh nobly born…’

The heartache of a lost friend


What is it that hurts so much when an old friend decides to part ways? Is it that you are aghast that your gift of unconditional affection, loyalty and steadfastness has been refused? Does it come close to a repudiation of your worth? Does his or her unwillingness to continue on a shared path of knowing and closeness make you think you are now essentially unworthy of any sustained meaningful contact with any other fellow human being?

I have spent many hours wondering what it is that I may have done wrong – did my becoming a parent do it? I do remember quite well how another friend and me were puzzled by how dramatically different a third friend of ours had become after becoming a parent. And how in some ways we were hurt for no longer being part of her inner circle in the way we were used to. Until her life changed with the coming of her first child, we were a close threesome who’d find ways to have walks together, coffee together with lots of silly giggling and shared laughs with not much worry about how time flew.

Is the fact that my life is arranged quite carefully now irksome? Is it an irritating sign of an illiberal, unexciting, rather drab life that my friend feels ashamed of being associated with through any extended contact with me? Because it’s true I can no longer step out on a whim and stay out for as long as I want. (It’s another matter that I never did very much before either.) Nor can I agree to meet anybody without thinking through what it would entail and what effects it may have on my immediate family. Especially if my friend decides to invite me to meet him/her when special security arrangements have been made in a part of our city in view of an extraordinary political situation: I would then be thinking of pretty dull stuff — what kind of commercial vehicle on rent will be safe enough to ferry my young daughter and my elderly mum and me to the proposed, undoubtedly hip but not convenient venue of meeting? Will there be access to clean washrooms on the way? Will there be the possibility of buying finger food if the need should arise? How long will the journey take? How much will it cost with waiting time?

Or does my managing various responsibilities seep into my conversations that are then wholly uninspiring and putting off? Should I be focusing instead of having interesting conversations about what books I have recently read; which coffees I have recently tried; whether I am planning to include long leaf tea in my morning breakfast. Or talk about the trendy new craft shops that have sprung up in our vicinity; the organic colours they use; how increasingly planet friendly some of our small businesses are becoming.

Should I be watching more carefully how much time I spend sharing my pride and joy at the hilarious things my little girl does or says including loving things she has to say about my friend; should I try to remember that not everyone is equally fascinated by what the theosophists have to say about the open nature of children; should I be more cautious that the insights I think I have gained about human beings at large as a parent are not somehow relevant unless the person listening to them shares a fundamental love for young ones.

Do the personal and professional choices I have made seem utterly unworthy of continued association? Should I have been clearer, braver, and spunkier to be currently leading a more unfettered life than the one that my friend thinks I seem to do? Does my ambivalence and willingness to experiment with unforeseen possibilities come through as a sign of cowardice?

Should I be feeling apologetic that my friend is not yet a parent? Could he/she possibly be envious that I am? Does the fact that my little girl adores his/her parents make it hard all round? Should it? Don’t most of us love children who love people?

Or is it just a break that some friends feel the need to take when the differences get all too much and can then there be hope of a return to what an old friend of mine once called the ‘refuge from life’?

Everybody’s loss


And so a life comes to an end. Found fallen on the side of her bed in the morning by her daughter in law who was used to waking many hours after her. Our local GP confirmed there were no injuries and that the cause of death was not the fall.

I didn’t know her much except as one of the less frequent walking partners of my mum’s little gang of mummies/grannies. Everyone knew she had miraculously escaped death after a horrific road accident in the hills that took her husband in a flash. She spent hours in the ICU not knowing he was gone. Having survived showed in the form of huge scars lined across the side of her head, an unsteady gait and labored breathing from earlier but made much worse by the accident.

And yet every time I have had occasion to meet her I have been humbled by her courage, easy smile, warmth and dignity. She never had time for gossip, never inquired why anyone lived the way they did, never interfered in anyone’s business and seemed to think, life isn’t always fair but its alright.

Although I couldn’t join the mourners, I did witness the small religious ceremony that a Sikh priest conducted with great grace in our common courtyard. Everyone who could come down was there and for those few minutes her passing away was everyone’s loss. As the priest’s voice soared blessing her body and her departed spirit, everyone was reminded of our common destiny. How we all one day have to say goodbye and go onward — to wherever it is that we are destined to go.

The languor of summer afternoons


Being able to lounge around in your night clothes on a lazy weekend afternoon with no great plans and no burning ambition to achieve anything of any significance is the kind of life I remember having had in my youth. Often enough what that state of being was usually a precursor to was long bouts of reading — cooped up in a room, with some light in the vicinity switched on, or beside a window through which the unparalleled light of the sun was pouring in.

Unexpectedly, I got the rare privilege of having a considerably large window of time the other day to do exactly that. Not with the same sense of gay abandon I suppose — which is only fair given how much older one has become and given how one must know that time cannot be lived in the exact same way at some other time under other conditions but even so — achingly close and similar to that earlier memory.

And in doing so what I found was how the mind lets you float back so easily to memories from so long ago — the soaring songs a lover once played in a language you once knew as a child which came back to you in snatches, the confusing look of acute concentration on his face that frightened you in its innocence and intensity, the pleading in his eyes as he hoped you would stop giggling from nervousness and just listen quietly in the stillness of a hot Delhi afternoon, in a room too large, too ornate, too filled with carefully placed artifacts to do any justice to the Soprano’s song of loss and longing.

And it makes you think what if you had given in? How different would life have been? Would you have felt a closeness to his river, the Danube? Who knows, really?

And then, another old memory. Of having lost vision suddenly in one eye on my first trip abroad on my own as an adult, walking in thankfulness side by side in the shivering cool breeze by the Thames in February with an old friend, who always had time to meet me when I finished work, who always took me to a new cafe or restaurant with ‘student rates’ to ensure I tucked into some dinner, who always listened openly and fully to whatever it was that I was saying — whose steadfast friendship, affection and love helped me get through my first professional training course while fighting the horrifying possibility of going completely blind.

But also in retrospect now the embarrassingly ungrateful way in which I fell madly in love with his best friend a quiet, reserved Irishman — who took me in, made me for the duration of my stay in his city a part of his inner circle, who spoke to me at length of his family, his ailing mum, his distant, calculating siblings, his father’s painful passing — and then almost just as quickly dropped me off. Leaving me wondering even now what exactly ‘went wrong’ as though one could ever really understand why we feel what we do — whether meeting him at another time may have led to other outcomes — and if what had to happen, had to happen then why at all it did?

The book that precipitated all these old memories did so in part because it was also about young love. It made me remember the exquisitely painful experience of being wrapped up in another person’s life as though there was nothing else really worth living for. And yet, in hindsight, the wonderful thing seems to be that it is all worth it. All the pain, all the anguish, all the suffering. What exactly for I cant quite yet say but worth it, yes, without a doubt.

Gratitude


Lucky to have the leisure to rest. Lucky to have a bed to do it on. Lucky that the heat gives way to a thunderstorm, rain and cool gales. Lucky to have work I love (most of the time). Lucky weekends are truly off. Lucky the body is mostly well. Lucky there is a roof over our heads. Lucky there is food to eat, water to drink, air to breathe, people to love. Lucky to have a laugh often enough. Lucky to have friends who check on me in just the way I want. Lucky that all the grueling long hours spent on work are slowly transforming into greater trust. Lucky to be able to notice the small things. The blade of grass, the sharp-edged hedge, the squirrel darting across, the little myna bird singing a rhythmic, high-pitched song. Lucky to see the day unfold in all its glory. The quiet of the early morning, the steady, unforgiving roar of desert heat at noon, the relative mildness of late evenings, the luxury of conditioned cool air in the night. Lucky to be here. Lucky to be alive.

Resilience


A

Her father fell off his bed in the middle of the night while trying to walk a few steps to drink some water. Her mother, who is as old as he, helped him up, despite being frail and ridiculously smaller-made and lighter than him. Thankfully he got away with just a scrape on his knee, or so we think so far. The couple who have been together for more than 40 years, reassured each other, said sorry they weren’t able to be of more help to one another, returned to bed and tried to sleep.

Their daughter works a full-time, highly coveted, back-breaking job as a news correspondent for a well-regarded national daily nearly 3000 km from them. She is an example of courage, simplicity, integrity and hard-work. She worries constantly about her parents but doesn’t speak much about it knowing she can’t possibly do what a lot of people would ask her to — throw up her job and shift closer to them.

We are close, but we tend to not talk about difficult things as we know we come at them from different ends of the spectrum. And I certainly want to spare her the humiliation of having to listen to gratuitous advice that wouldn’t resonate with who she is and how she deals with difficulties. And yet whenever I think of them, my elderly uncle and beloved aunt, on their own, in a beautiful, spacious villa they have built themselves as a retirement home, I wonder what we could do to make their daily life less difficult.

SM
Twenty-five years after agreeing to an arranged match with a woman who he found out later had intellectual disabilities, SM is a picture of patience, grace, tolerance, and acceptance. I remember seeing him seething with rage early on in his marriage, feeling let down by a matrimonial arrangement not of his doing. Now, with a son in his early 20s, who has grown into a moody, silent, self-conscious young man, SM has left all the anger and bitterness far behind. He focuses instead on providing for his family uncomplainingly, supports his son with all his professional and educational ambitions and does nearly all the work inside and outside the house without batting an eyelid. Having been self-conscious much of his early life for being in his own eyes less charismatic than his two older brothers, he is a new man now: on the ‘wrong side’ of his 50s but with a sparkle in his eyes, a big mop of graying hair, an easy laugh, a welcoming presence, a big heart.

My doctor friend
A medical crisis last year has acquainted us with a group of people we never knew before — including my kind, generous and attentive doctor friend, A. Because she knows us well I am able to mine her for more information and analysis than I am allowed with professional doctors and because we know her, she is careful in what she tells us when she looks at the same file of reports that may have alarmed us in other doctors’ hands. Something she said recently struck me as remarkable: that no matter how bad an investigative report may be and no matter how critical it says the health of a particular organ is, what actually matters more is how the living, moving, talking, feeling human being is– which is why all reports come with a rider – ‘please correlate the findings clinically’.

The strength of the mind
Twenty five years ago, my father’s cardiologist gave him an ultimatum, ‘quit smoking now or else…’ It had an electrifying impact. He stopped cigarettes overnight, moved to cigars and then pipes and one fine day just gave it all up. Several cups of coffee became a replacement and a crutch but it was incredible how he made up his mind to give up a habit that was part of his entire adult life. Ten years before his passing, cardiologists who examined him would deliberately not tell him how wasted his heart and lungs were. He used to try to ask one of them, one of the sternest, and most competent of his time, how many years he had left, and the doctor would just wave him and the question away and say ‘Mr. R please focus on living. The rest is up to the Heavens above.’

After his passing a decade ago, doctors we have known for years and some in the family told us slowly that they were incredulous how he managed as long as he did. One said that ‘for all we think we know as practitioners of medicine, we still don’t know enough about the mind or the will and its effect on health’.

The other day I nearly passed out when a kind, alternative medicine practitioner took a look at my mother’s reports and said two of her vital organs were on the cusp of an emergency. She asked my mother for symptoms typically associated with her condition and instructed her firmly to not keep the slightest sign of unease to herself because that would just further complicate intervention and treatment.

On our way back home, I kept mulling over the wide divergence between what the doctor suspected my mum should feel, and what she says she does and the only explanation I can think of is the very same force that explained my father’s life – the strength of her mind or will or consciousness. My mother is able to look and be and do what she does because she is not self-pitying, not afraid and not self-indulgent. And yet it was useful to have a person of authority tell her gently and persuasively that she owed it to herself to take things more slowly, allow herself more and more frequent periods of rest and to keep herself away as far as possible from undue stress, worry and anxiety.

Grace
I wish of course that we were all younger. And I wish my mum had nothing at all to worry about. But contrary to the ideas that one has had as a teenager and as a young adult about the undesirability of difficulty, it seems to me that it is exactly when life becomes crushingly difficult and nearly hopeless that we are compelled to whip out of her deepest being our latent resources of strength, adaptability and resilience.

Being driven to the point of despair seems to suddenly bring into focus all the precious love and care that is here – now – and one is overcome with wonder for how much a human being does and is willing to do for another and left with a sense of gratitude and indebtedness for being elected to be in their gracious, giving presence.

The magic books can do


When its late in the night to call up a friend to rant about a cussed, difficult day, and equally late to wake up those at home who would have a sympathetic ear to lend, I have found unexpected comfort in reading. Not anything that professes to help, but any thoughtful, sincere piece of fiction or non-fiction, by nearly anyone, on nearly anything!

The other night I went through three pieces by three different authors on three quite unrelated things. One by Amitav Ghosh (http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?239275) on the deep influence of his stay in Egypt in his 20s on all his subsequent writing; another an excerpt of a new book about Gandhi’s last day and a third a short piece by a widely regarded spiritual leader whom I’ve usually felt no affinity with.

By the time I was halfway through the first piece, I was already feeling better, less bogged down by the various complaints I had had about the day and the part I had played in making it insufferable. And it wasn’t only a sense of distancing from the acute unease I was feeling about nearly everything that had transpired but a kind of illumination on the experience itself.

Ghosh’s piece made me marvel at how self-reflective and thoughtful his younger 24 year old self was in having decided to lose himself in a new but culturally familiar country for the reasons he mentions; the book excerpt made me think of how liberating it is to consider death the way Gandhi seemed to have as a final, celebratory release and ‘return’ and the short piece by the guru made me think of how nearly everyone who has committed herself to a life of mindful reflection has something vital to say to those of us toiling away in samsara.

And yet none of this discounts the intense feeling of defeat and loss that can engulf us some days — triggered by in hindsight some of the most banal complaints against the world. But picking up something to read on such days does something special — it pats down big feelings and puts them in place without a trace of condescension and reassures us the way good friends do that this too shall pass.