Outside my window, there’s a neem tree. Have you ever seen a neem?
There’s sunlight on its leaves now. The way my room is, the sun doesn’t come into it directly. I wish it did. After a few days of rain, you wish for a few hours of sunshine on your skin.
What do we take up in this letter? Let us see. – I think it won’t be more than two to three more letters in this series, actually. By then I should be done. After that, you have the books, and if you want to ask me something in specific, you always can do that as well.
A couple of days back, I woke up in the middle of the night, and then lay awake for a while. There was a power-cut, – parting gift from the cyclone that had passed only hours ago. I couldn’t even read a book, because there was no light. The phone was lying close by. I flipped it open and checked Instagram. I saw you’d shared a few more stories, so I tapped on that. You were speaking on how people should stop obsessing about all the rage coursing through the country and focus on bright things like, say, a bird, or a butterfly flitting in the sun. And that got my brain triggered. I thought of some things I’d want to share with you. You’ll bear with me, I trust.
I think when someone urges me to stop looking at the bad things happening around me, I should stop and consider that proposition very carefully. I have done so. And the older I grow, the more I come to feel that turning my face away is not the answer. Not if I have to be the kind of person I want to be.
When there is widespread suffering in the world, when there is hatred spreading like rot, and people are being burnt by hostility every single day, when there is real torment in the world originating from nothing but human violence and callousness – what does it mean to stay aloof from that and seek personal solace in isolation?
Growing up in India has been a blessing in many ways, and one of the reasons is that I have had the chance to witness suffering, and it has made me human.
Nelson Mandela wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, – ‘I am no more virtuous or self-sacrificing than the next man, but I found that I could not even enjoy the poor and limited freedoms I was allowed when I knew my people were not free. Freedom is indivisible: the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.’
This is what true positivity sounds like. This is what real, infectious, powerful love sounds like.
A true lover of humanity would not seek a cote of peace for themself, far away from the strife and problems of society. It is illusory to find a pocket of personal peace and assure oneself that everything is well. If a physician wants to help a patient, she needs to look at the sick parts; she cannot look at the rest of the body and say, ‘Ah, for the most part you are quite healthy; focus on that and it will all be well.’ – The sick part needs to be looked at, and it needs to be treated. And sometimes that involves blood and pus and it gets dirty and disgusting. But if it is not addressed, it will fester, and one day, it will kill the person.
There are evils in society, and we need to take a stand against them, together. We need to stand shoulder to shoulder and look those evils in the eye. If we cannot do that, then we don’t have enough faith in the light inside us. If we cannot bear to face the darkness, we admit to being just pretenders.
In every age and every land, the best of humanity has always risen to promote positivity on the one hand, and on the other, fight against negativity. Never have they denied the existence of the trials and tribulations of everyday life. Never have they insisted that suffering is something we simply choose, and it is only our mindset that is to blame for all the misfortunes we have. They have not done it, because saying so is the height of indifference. It is supreme callousness, made manifest as wisdom.
Every time I think of this, I end up thinking about the story of Buddha.
Buddha was born a prince. His name was Siddhartha. When he was born, there were prophecies that he would leave everything one day and become an ascetic. The king and the queen, fearful of losing their son, planned to arrange things so that the prophecy never comes true.
They brought up prince Siddhartha with the greatest of care and comfort. He received the best education, and he excelled at it. He could pass his time in the most entertaining and relaxing fashion possible. Anything he wanted was made available to him. He was surrounded by beautiful things on all sides. He did not know what lack was. His heart did not know what disturbance was. He was at peace, and happy.
But time went by and he grew older, and one day, he decided that he had to go out and see the world beyond the palace. He knew that his parents wouldn’t approve, but he was determined to do it anyway. He went out in his chariot, accompanied by the faithful charioteer, Chhandak.
It was a beautiful city. Siddhartha enjoyed the sights, and Chhandak acted as his guide. Things were going well. Then, Siddhartha saw something unusual. There was a man walking down the road. There was something wrong about him. He looked morose and weighed down with something invisible. His body was thin, his skin was grey and wrinkled, his hair was gone. He walked slowly bending over a stick. Siddhartha asked Chhandak, ‘What is wrong with this man? Can’t we help him?’
Chhandak knew that the prince had not grown up in the real world. He said, ‘Prince, we cannot help him. What this man has is called jara, or old age. You cannot solve it, my prince. It comes to us all. We cannot avoid it. No one can be untouched by old age.’
Siddhartha sat back and thought. The chariot went on. But his mind was not on the sights and sounds any more. He was thinking about Chhandak’s words. Can we really not solve it? Is it impossible to escape ‘old age’?
After some time, Siddhartha saw another sight. There was a man lying by the road. There was something wrong about him. He looked drained of energy, and the light had gone out of his eyes. His body was pale and weak, but he did not look white and wrinkled like that other person. He lay on his back, barely able to moan, as people on the street passed him by. Siddhartha asked Chhandak, ‘What is wrong with this man? Can’t we help him?’
Chhandak said, ‘No, Prince, we cannot help him. This man has vyadhi, or disease. He will have to suffer while he has it, until he gets better. You cannot solve it, my prince. Disease comes to us all. We cannot avoid it. Everyone who is alive is susceptible to disease.’
Siddhartha sat back and thought.
And then, he saw another sight. There was a procession coming down the road. There were four men, carrying a cot on their shoulders, and on it lay a man as if asleep, silent and unmoving. Somehow his sight filled Siddhartha with unease. He asked Chhandak, ‘What is wrong with this man? Why does he lie still like that?’
Chhandak said, ‘My prince, this is mrityu, or death. The person will never move again. His life has passed from him. We cannot help him, prince, no one can. This is what happens to us all in the end. Death takes us all.’
Siddhartha sat and thought. His entire world had come down crashing in a few minutes. He did not have peace anymore. He was no more happy.
But on that day Siddhartha had seen a fourth sight. He saw a man dressed in old, faded clothes, walking down the road all by himself. He looked thin, he didn’t look like he had a lot of money either. But strangely, he had no trace of grief or sorrow on his face. In fact, he looked rather peaceful, rather happy. Siddhartha asked Chhandak, ‘Who is this man, Chhandak? He is not young, his hair has grown white, and he has nothing but those old clothes on him and that shabby bag on his shoulder. But he looks like he doesn’t have a care in the world. What is this?’
And then Chhandak smiled and said, ‘Prince, that man is a sādhu, or a sannyasi. He’s an ascetic who has renounced the world. The troubles of this world touch him, but they cannot taint him. He is free.’
Everyone knows what happened next. Siddhartha was not an idle person. I told you he had excelled in everything he set his mind on. Now he set his mind on these new truths. He wanted to solve these unsolvable problems. And in pursuit of this mission, he left home and became an ascetic. Why did he have to do that? – Not because he hated home, or because he hated to live with his family. For him, it was a matter of necessity, not a matter of emotion. He left home and luxury simply because he did not find the answers to his questions there. It is the same reason any researcher leaves her home and goes to the lab every day. Siddhartha went out into the world to seek the solutions to the eternal problems.
And he found them too. No, he did not find magic spells to reverse age, cure sickness, or stop death. I’ll tell you what he found. In Buddhism, these are known as the Four Noble Truths.
- There is dukkha in the world. (Dukkha = suffering, dissatisfaction, pain) It is an innate characteristic of existence in the world.
- Dukkha has samudaya. (Samudaya = origin, arising) There is a cause/origin of this dukkha, which comes because of craving, desire or attachment.
- There can be nirodha of this dukkha. (Nirodha = cessation, ending) The end to this dukkha can be attained by the renouncement or letting go of this craving.
- There is a magga that can lead us to nirodha. (Magga = path) There are the Noble paths, which lead to the renouncement of desire and cessation of dukkha.
And the entire philosophy of Buddhism is based on those four nuggets of truth.
Imagine if Siddhartha had come back from his excursion and thought, ‘Wow, what a stressful day. I need to rid myself of all this low feeling. I think I will take a warm bath and then go and spend some time in the royal garden, and maybe have some upbeat music.’
Thankfully, he did not do that. Instead, he dwelled on it. He kept thinking about it for days. He let the thought of these problems take away his peace and his sleep. Quite voluntarily, he stepped out of his box and embraced the agony that comes to us at the outset of our spiritual journey.
If he hadn’t done that, Elizabeth, we’d not have had a Buddha.
And what need did Christ have to die on the cross, when he had achieved perfect spiritual knowledge and bliss for himself? Instead of mixing with the riff-raff all day and giving them lectures on life and morality, couldn’t he have spent his life in high thinking and contemplation, peacefully vibing with his heavenly Father?
I think we all know this at heart. I think we all realize that bliss is only real when it expands beyond our own coterie and overflows into the world. Ignoring the problems of people who are not fortunate enough to meditate on peace is only glorified callousness. Bob Dylan said, “How many times can a man turn his head, and pretend that he just doesn’t see?”
If that had not been the case, you wouldn’t have been out here trying to help all these athletes in their careers, would you? If that had not been the case, Rhonda Bryne wouldn’t have gone to all that trouble of writing that book. Surely she could have kept her thoughts to herself, and been at peace? Why did she need to take the trouble of proclaiming anything at all? – Why do you feel the need to reach out and help your fellow people?
‘Because it’d earn her money. It’s a business venture,’ – people might say.
I think there were many other ways you could make money if your interests were simply mercenary. You didn’t have to do this. No, you do this because it makes sense to you; because it gives you a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning. That is what drives you to take the trouble.
Remember Bob Marley refusing to stay off the stage even after there were gunmen shooting at him and his family, and actually wounding Bob in the chest and arm? He just said, “The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?” And he went right back on two days later.
I was thinking of all this the other night, lying in my bed. About suffering, about inequality. About all the problems we are fortunately insulated from, at least for now.
I really like the rain. And I like it even better when it’s a thunderstorm. That night it was a 12-hour power cut, and I was worried about all the stuff in the fridge and my phone’s battery running out, so I wasn’t perfectly at ease, but it was still pleasant. I’d have liked to take a stroll outside in the street, in the dark.
Then I started to think about the places which were actually struck by the cyclone. Where I live is just on the fringe – and even then we had 120 kmph winds here; there were broken branches on the street in front of my apartment. So, how much worse was the state where the storm had actually hit? Homes must have been broken, houses must have been blown down, roofs carried away. People must have lost everything they had, all their savings, all their means of livelihood. People must have lost lives. And here I was, enjoying the windy night, thinking about enjoying the storm? – How do I reconcile myself to me?
The night outside my window was indeed romantic. The wind rustled in the trees. I could see the tall pines swaying in the park across the block, their heads visible against the pale night sky. The clouds were rolling on overhead. And then I thought, why can’t this be true as well?
Why can’t I acknowledge both the destruction over there, and the tranquillity over here? The two are simultaneous, equally true. Can’t I feel pained by one and calmed by the other at the same time?
The night said I can. And in there, was the answer.
This is a wide world, and suffering exists here alongside joy. And often, it is the same wind that bears both on its back. One person’s blessing is another one’s curse, and sometimes we don’t even know whether we should celebrate what we are going through or regret it… but that is the design of life. There’s no flaw here. We have to take all of it.
I will never turn my face away from suffering. But if there is a song in my heart while I put my shoulder to that wheel, I will not hold it back.
Think of the song ‘We Shall Overcome.’ A song forged in suffering, yet one that sings of hope. Every fibre of that song aches with the pain of bondage, and yet it also aches with the longing for freedom. Do me a favour. Go and read this poem by Maya Angelou. Often, I find myself going back to this poem. I will be going back to it a hundred times more.
There’s a sea out there somewhere, and by it, there’s a boat waiting.
I have a friend, who’s really a brother, in all practicality. He’s my junior from school. When he was in college, there was a girl in his batch named Mita Das. Here I cannot tell you the story with all its details; I’ll just give you the outline.
Mita had married a man she’d been in a relationship with for some time. On 10th October 2016, sometime around midnight, Mita was murdered by her husband and his family. The death was reported as a suicide by the in-laws, even though it was clearly a murder. Here the law and justice systems are thoroughly corrupt; the officers dance to the tune of money and power. Mita came from a poor family; they did not have the resources to fight the rich in-laws. The killers were going scott-free.
A few of Mita’s batchmates, including my friend, came together and formed a resistance against this. They put the case on social media, arranged for lawyers, took the pleas to offices of power. After days of harrowing endeavour, the law agreed to conduct an investigation. – But that was merely the beginning. This case is not resolved yet. Mita’s killers haven’t yet been brought to justice.
Other things have happened, though. Mita’s elder brother, Khokon Das, known to us as Khokon-da. Khokon-da works as an assistant at a retail store. That doesn’t make much money; as I told you, they are a poor family. Anyway, a few years back, Khokon-da had gathered his savings, and with some help from his friends and colleagues, created a fund to give aid to homeless people in the neighbourhood. They were able to buy clothes for thirty women who lived with their families on the streets near Ballyganj train station. Later that year, in winter, they made another effort and managed to buy and distribute fifty blankets and fifty food-packets among the local homeless people. The fund was soon made into something permanent; they called their group Mita Foundation, in memory of Khokon-da’s sister.
About fifteen days back, from 16-20 May, my home state West Bengal was ravaged by the cyclone Amphan. There was an estimated property loss of US$13.2 billion. About ninety people were killed, countless homes and small businesses were lost. There’s no telling how badly the birds and animals have been hit. We saw a photograph of a tiger killed by the storm in the jungles of the Sunderbans. The Sunderbans are mangrove forests; it took the brunt of the hit. Thousands of locals lost entire neighbourhoods to the cyclone. The national media ignored the disaster (political reasons), and it fell to social media to spread the word and ask for help.
There’s a small reading group we have here at the docks; it has some fourteen members, young sailors all. When they heard of the disaster from me, they decided to put together a relief fund and send the sum to Mita Foundation. They’d heard of Mita Foundation from me.
So they raised the money themselves. Some of these salty people are amateur artists. They made paintings and sold them to friends, family, anyone interested. They sold it for fifty, hundred rupees apiece. By 31st May, they had collected ₹6100. Then one of them transferred the amount to Mita Foundation’s bank account, in the name of their reading group (they didn’t mention any individual details.)
Later I spoke to one of my brothers, asking him whether the Foundation had received it. He said yes. Khokon-da, Mita’s brother, was weeping when he heard about the group and their gift. He sent a small message for them, with his blessings and gratitude. I had to translate the message from Bangla to English before passing it on to the kids.
You see, this is where I seek the Promised Land in this world… and this is where I find it. That’s my final answer – compassion… fiery, uninhibited compassion.
St. John used to say – “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me will baptize you with fire.”
* * *
Let’s pause here, what do you say? I’ll write my next letter very soon. Take care. 🌻