Why hurry towards an appointment with death?

Don’t rush through Life. Go easy. Go soulfully.

It is another Monday morning. Perhaps a Manic Monday? Meetings. Deadlines. Delays. Mayhem! To not hurry through Life is a skill. It can be learned just as any other. Just look at ourselves. From the time we wake up, to the time we sleep, we are rushed. The way we read our morning papers, the way we bathe, the way we eat, the way we drive, the way we walk, all of it is gripped by a sense of busy-ness that ultimately will lead us to the same point that everyone will arrive at: death!

Why will you want to hurry towards an appointment with death? Well, that’s what we are doing precisely!!

Ask anyone who’s rushing why he or she is in a hurry and you will hear them say: “Well, I am saving time!” Saving time? The irony is, at the end of the day, everyone who’s rushing always complains that there isn’t enough time! Your rushing may help you cover the distance faster but will not enable you to enjoy the scenery. At the end of all the rush, when it is time to depart, you will regret never having lived, never having arrived where you intended to, never having smelled the roses in Life’s garden!

Make 10 simple changes to your routine so that you can live and enjoy this experience of living: 

1.Reduce the number of meetings that you have to have in a day: one big or two small ones is all you can take
2. Arrive at the airport with 2 hours to spare before a flight
3. Eat you meals slower than you normally do relishing each morsel
4. Spend 15 additional minutes with your family each day; when you kiss your spouse and children goodbye, look at them just a wee bit longer. 
5. Take an additional few minutes in the bath thinking not of the day’s schedules but of how rejuvenating bathing is
6. Read one inspiring passage over 30 minutes daily
7. Read it at least once more before you retire for the day
8. When you see Nature in full bloom__a sunrise, sunset or trees swaying in the breeze or birds chirping__pause, admire, soak in, before you proceed
9. Spend 15 minutes daily on Facebook connecting or chatting with childhood friends
10. Be silent for 20 minutes daily.

Spiritual thinker and my Guru Eknath Easwaran says, “Where hurry prevails, there can be no satisfaction for the doer.” So, if you are not happy with the quality of your Life, you now know who is responsible and where to start!

“Faith is the key to live happily!”

‘The Happiness Road’ is a weekly Series on this Blog that appears on Sundays where I share my conversations with people while exploring their idea of happiness!
This Sunday we feature the 73-year-old Ghatam maestro, Padma Bhushan and Grammy winner, Vikku Vinayakram!
Photo by Vaani Anand
Vikku Vinayakram’s home in Triplicane in Chennai houses his study-cum-meditation room on the second floor. The room is sparse for most parts. Huge portraits of the seer of Kanchi, the Paramacharya or Maha Periyava, Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Mahaswami (1894 ~ 1994), in different styles, adorn the walls – from posters to paintings to stained glass works.
In the middle of the room, on a colorful rug, a jamakaalam, sits a Ghatam. It is a souvenir that a ghatam-maker gave Vikku. It has Vikku’s face carved out in the clay. He doesn’t prefer talking about that Ghatam though – “The person who made this was over-enthusiastic. Out of affection for him, I have retained this in my study. I had him make another one with Maha Periyava’s image; that one’s in my Poojaroom.”
The Grammy Winning Planet Drum Team
Photo by Vaani Anand
The shelves and cupboard tops, and even some cartons, are full of awards that Vikku has received in his over 60 years as a performing artist. He wants to show Vaani and me his Grammy memento – which he had won in 1991 for playing for American percussionist Mickey Hart’s (who once was part of the band Grateful Dead) Album, Planet Drum; the Award was for the Best World Music Album that year. But Vikku can’t find his Grammy memento among all his other awards. He manages to locate a plaque that all artists who played for Planet Drum have signed on the occasion of winning the Grammy. What Vikku says when his search for the Grammy memento yields no result is deeply spiritual and awakening: Parava illai! It’s okay! It’s here somewhere. For sure. What is important is that I enjoyed myself playing for Mickey Hart and with the other artists. The process of playing the Ghatam, to me, overrides any recognition that I have got.”
Photo Courtesy: Internet
Now, the man who’s saying this is the world’s best Ghatam player. In fact, he’s credited with putting the humble Ghatam on the world music scene. He’s always played with all-time greats in Carnatic music – Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, M.Balamuralikrishna, GNB, Madurai Mani Iyer, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Maharajapuram Santhanam and M.S.Subbalakshmi (not a complete or exhaustive list). And he’s played with many Hindustani music stalwarts too – Hariprasad Chaurasia, Zakir Hussain, Shivkumar Sharma and Amjad Ali Khan (not a complete or exhaustive list). More important, he’s among those first artists from India who were bold enough to experiment playing world fusion music despite a very strong, conservative, classical orientation. In the 1970s, Vikku played with English guitarist John McLaughlin’s Shakti alongside Zakir Hussain (Tabla), L.Shankar (Violin) and Ramnad Raghavan (Mridangam).  And then, of course, came Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum – and the Grammy.
But Vikku is untouched by all this glory. As he sips filter coffee from a davara-tumbler, he nods his head furiously when I suggest to him that he must be very, very content with himself – what with a “lifetime in music and an era in greatness behind him”? “No saar. Your question needs review. The Ghatam has been around from the time of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. It is the only instrument that is made from the earth – one of the five elements, one of the pancha bhoothas. Who am I to take credit for making the Ghatam famous or for all this glory that has come on account it? I am most content playing good music with good people for good people to enjoy and energize themselves. I consider myself to be a postman, a messenger, a mere instrument for music to reach people. How can any instrument take credit for the music?” he asks.
Photo Courtesy: Internet
To understand and celebrate Vikku’s humility better, his story must be told in some detail. Born along with his sister, Seethamani, as a fraternal twin, Vikku’s original name was Ramamani. His father, Harihara Sarma, a Mridangam artist and teacher, was advised by soothsayers that only one of the two children would survive; if both had to survive, one of them had to be given away in adoption. Sarma chose to give Ramamani in adoption to his favorite deity – Lord Vinayaka. And so the name Vinayakram came about! Although Sarma lost one of his fingers in an accident, he taught young Vinayakram to play the Ghatam by giving him beat-based instructions orally. Sarma’s only vision was that Vinayakram play the Ghatam so well that the instrument becomes famous across the world. “My grounding comes from my father’s vision. He did not urge me to play well for money or fame. He always taught me that music and the Ghatam are much bigger than me,” reminisces Vikku.
The big break came when a 22-year-old Vinayakram was “accepted” by M.S.Subbalakshmi’s husband T.Sadasivam to accompany them on a US tour in 1964. Owing to the Indo-Pak war that intervened, the trip was postponed; but it eventually happened in 1966. That was the first time any lead artist was willing to allow the Ghatam as an accompaniment on the world stage. That tour gave Vinayakram a feel of what it means to play music to a global audience. It also gave him his nickname, Vikku, which has since stuck on. “My father’s advice that music is divine, that it does not have boundaries and is not limited by styles and languages, resonated with me so much on that trip. Just the experience of performing with MS Amma was so transformational. Ghatam owes its gratitude to MS Amma for giving it global stature,” he says.
Vikku has been very faithful to his father’s advice. He has always chosen music over anything else in Life. In the mid-70s, when he received an invitation from John McLaughlin to perform with Shakti, he was on the verge of accepting a “permanent” job as an All India Radio (AIR) artist. Choosing the AIR job meant a steady income and job security. Going with Shakti meant short-term financial gains but infinite joy! Vikku chose joy! “I learnt the value of inner peace and joy from MS Amma and ‘Veena’ Balachander. Both of them told me, like my father always did, ‘do only what gives you joy’. I simply followed their advice. Today, when I look back, I am glad I did what I did. I would have never been happy with anything but playing my music, my way,” he explains.
Photo Courtesy: The Hindu/Internet
Isn’t Life as a musician, despite all the highs it offers, pretty unpredictable in a practical sense? The income is not consistent. And then there is age – and the question of staying relevant in an ever-changing world. How does Vikku deal with these factors? His one-word answer is ‘faith’. He says you have to have faith that a higher energy will take care of you. To Vikku, that higher energy has always been the Kanchi Maha Periyava. “His grace is immense. It has guided me thus far and I have implicit faith that it will stay with me forever,” he says. He shares an anecdote to amplify this point. Vikku was recently diagnosed with an eye condition that required a neuro-surgery that would necessitate that he cannot play the Ghatam for at least 18 months. Vikku says he just “could not accept the medical advice that I must not play the Ghatam.” “I went into my Pooja room and prayed to Maha Periyava. I left it to him. Then I went for my final, pre-surgery, tests. And the tests came good! I would not need a surgery, the doctor told me. Now, how do you explain this? Everyone is searching for God. I have seen God in human form – and that is Maha Periyava,” he says.
As we get ready to leave, he adds this simple – yet so profound – perspective: “Nambikai – faith – is key to live happily. With faith comes nimmadhi – inner peace. With inner peace comes anandam – happiness. I have always had total nambikai. So even when worry arises or sadness comes, I invoke my faith. SaarAmma…desires ruin happiness. You can keep on desiring this and that and achieving this and that. As long as you are on this vicious cycle you will always be unhappy. Take Life as it comes, with whatever it brings! Drop your desires and all you will be left with is anandambrahmanandam. Happiness – total bliss!”

As we stepped on to the street to find transport to take us home, Chennai was getting flooded by a torrential downpour. I wasn’t worried that we were not going to find a way to get back – Chennai’s notorious for public transport failing when it rains heavily! I was thinking of what kind of an evolved man he must be who doesn’t really agonize that he can’t find his Grammy Award memento! To be sure, Vikku lives the philosophy of a desire-less state that he spoke about. And that’s why he’s so simple, grounded, happy and at peace with himself. Undoubtedly, he’s a rockstar in his own right, but one who’s obsessed only with his music, and never with the trappings that rockstardom brings along with it – the Grammy included! 

On why do ‘bad’ things happen to ‘good’ folks?

‘Good’, ‘Bad’, ‘Right’, ‘Wrong’ … all these are societal labels. In reality, Life simply boils down to events and choices.
Something happens to you. It is an event. How you react or respond to that event is your choice. Period. When events meet or exceed your expectations, you label them good. If they don’t, you label them bad. If a choice you made delivers the outcome you expect, you call it good. And if it does not, you call it a bad choice! Simple.
Last evening, over some exotic Moroccan Mint tea, someone who had heard of our story and my Book asked me how could a ‘talented’ couple like Vaani and me be put through such a ‘trial’ by Life? This is a question that we are often asked. And I don’t have a very elaborate answer. The one I have is this…

Talent. Trial. Time. These are three things that we always obsess about. We think we are talented so we must be successful. We believe because we are good folks, Life should not try us! And we always want to be having the time of our lives – the way we want it! To be sure, talent and trial have no correlation. Often, we wonder why should we be tried in Life when we are talented, intelligent and ethical? Why should ‘bad’ things happen to ‘good’ folks? We must remember that talent is what we are endowed with; that includes the ability to deal with all kinds of trials and tribulations in Life! Trials are what we are and will be faced with. Both talent and trials are Life’s ways of making us who we must eventually be. And time is the eternal healer. Time is the catalyst. Time eventually makes us complete. When it is time to be tried, we will be. And when it is time to be toasted, we will be! So, if we give up the expectation that talented folks must not be tried, and learn to flow with time, we will never agonize in Life! We will be blissful!

Last night, as I caught Yash Chopra’s 1965-classic Waqt (Time) on TV, this iconic song played on aptly. The lead lyrics are aage bhi jaane na tu, pichhe bhi jaane na tu, jo bhi hai, bas yahi ek pal hai…meaning that you don’t know the future, you can’t do anything about the past, all you have is this moment, the now, to live in! So, peel off those labels. Don’t obsess over whether your choices are right or wrong. Just be happy you made one! Just be – live – in the moment. For there is no right or wrong, good or bad. Your Life, at the end the day, is all about choices you make in response to the events that happen to you!

Silence, Self and Surrender

Live in total surrender and you will live happily ever after!
Yesterday, a well-meaning friend suggested that we try a new form of Vaastu that helps release positive energy in a living space. His point: Vaani and I badly need that positive energy to bounce back in our Life and business. While I don’t deny that we need to bounce back in business, we can’t quite relate, anymore, to any of the methods that are on offer. Not that we didn’t try them before. We did. We wore rings and stones on our fingers, we tried foo dogs and laughing Buddhas and fountains and gem trees, we tried “freeing” up the north-east corner of our home and almost every method that’s available in the public domain. To be sure, we still consult astrology and use it like a dashboard. Even so, with due respect to all the sciences that promise “better living”, I can, through my own personal experience, learnt that the only science that works for intelligent living is the science of silence, Self and surrender.
Simply, when you embrace silence, you understand your true nature, your true Self, and through that understanding you learn to let go and surrender to Life.
I have come to realize that this is the best way to live. Don’t protest any situation. Don’t berate yourself. Don’t be angry, guilty, fearful or anxious. Just accept what is, work to your best ability on changing what is if you don’t like it, and surrender to Life’s ways, to its flow. This is a discipline – like a fitness regimen or a diet or a manufacturing process. You learn to perfect it over time. And you start by being silent for a certain period of time daily – usually 20 minutes is a good start for beginners. Slowly increase it to an hour. During your silence period, you remain silent; don’t try to silence the environment, you remain silent! With diligent practice of daily silence periods, you will awaken to this truth that your trying to control your Life is meaningless drama. You will know that whatever is happening to you is beyond your control and is happening in spite of you and never because of you. Then you will realize that total surrender – saranagatias the scriptures teach us – is what intelligent living is all about!  

Surrender does not mean inaction. It only means that you act knowing that the outcome is not in your control. Not in your hands. So you act, to the best of your ability, and leave the outcome to Life – accepting whatever is! Then you are forever soaking in positivity. You are always happy no matter what circumstances you are placed in. You don’t need any crutches – Vaastu, Feng Shui, superstitions, astrology, gemology – to live. To live well, to live happily, you only need to be silent for some time daily, you will then know who you really are and will realize the value of total surrender!

No matter what, it is still a very kind and compassionate world!

Every once in a while, people will remind you that they care. And that compassion still thrives in this cold, seemingly hostile, inhuman world.
Last evening, Chennai had a non-stop torrential downpour for six hours. This was already a city that was struggling to return to normalcy after last week’s floods – caused by an aggressive North-East monsoon. What’s worse, two things that Chennai and Chennaites don’t know how handle are rain and traffic. So, the whole city choked and crawled taking, on an average, 4 hours to move less than 1 km. This, even as it mercilessly pelted from the skies!
Photo Courtesy: Times Of India/Internet
We had miraculously found ourselves a cab. And had decided to brave – our decision was made much ahead of the rain intensifying – it to attend a bhajan at a friend’s place to celebrate Swami Sathya Sai Baba’s 90thbirthday. This is an annual affair and is a spiritual fellowship that Vaani and I rarely miss. Understandably, we were also stuck in the traffic and rain. As our cab moved a millimeter at a time, we noticed hapless people returning from work, drenched, waiting at bus-stops for buses that probably would never have come last evening. Several people decided to walk, wading through knee-deep, and rising, water. The traffic cops were resilient and were trying to be helpful, despite being soaked under their rain gear, in a literally helpless situation. Everyone was patient though. Not too many people honked with frustration – something that strangely is a practice that we Indians revel in, when we are stuck in traffic snarls.
Between looking out the window, chatting occasionally with Vaani and listening to some great Bollywood numbers on Fever 91.9 FM, that the cabbie was kind enough to play, I was checking Facebook – often aimlessly.
That’s when this status from a young friend Joe popped up. Right now on the road, I’ve taken two people into my car. In case any of you have an SUV or any other car capable of wading through knee-deep water in Chennai at this point, now is the time. Go help. ‪#‎helpchennai I thought this was an awesome and inspiring gesture! It touched me.
It took us over 2 hours to cross a 700m distance to reach our destination. Our friend Kumar, and his father Ram, had made elaborate arrangements for the post-bhajan prasad (actually a full dinner spread including steaming idlis, hot sambar, bissibelebath and curd rice) to be served. Several people who were expected at the bhajan that evening could not make it. But several people, passing by, hearing of hot food being served, trooped in. They were welcomed with opens arm and fed personally by Kumar, Ram and their family. I just marveled at the spirit of service that thrived in the moment.
A lady who had also made it to the bhajanvenue in an Ola, could not find one to get back home. We discovered she lived in our neighborhood. We offered to drop her back home. It was actually not a drive on the way back; our cab seemed more like a motorized boat and the roads looked like over-flowing canals. We got back home close to midnight and as we went to bed, Vaani and I were both content that, in our own small way, we had been useful.
As I scroll through my Facebook Page and catch up on FM and newspaper updates, I just see how many, many people have come together, stepping out of their comfort zones, to help those who need some warmth, some care and love. All this leaves me feeling human, feeling good.
This is no appeal. I don’t wish to preach. I just make an observation. No matter what we see on TV or read in the papers (#Paris, #Mali, #intolerance, #Beef, #Muzaffarpur, #awardwapsi and such), it is still a very kind, compassionate world out there. The truth is we too can see its magic and beauty – if only we pause to look up from all our ‘busy-ness’! This observation, I believe, is the best way to amplify Swami’s Life’s message: “Love All, Serve All!”

Go with the flow of Life – resisting it is pointless!

The most evident truth about Life is that it simply goes on! And you and I are like the ‘musafir’ (voyager) in the opening song of Parichay (1972, Gulzar)…we have to just keep walking…‘bas chalte jaana’…!
This is the big message I picked up watching Masaan(2015, Neeraj Ghaywan) the other day. It is the most thought-provoking, poignant film I have seen in a long, long time. It deals with a young lady coming to terms with the death of her boyfriend when the police raids their room in which they are making love. A parallel story deals with a young boy, from a lower caste (his family burns corpses at the riverside crematorium), aspiring to woo, court and marry an upper caste girl. The girl is willing but soon dies in a bus tragedy along with her entire family. The boy struggles initially to reconcile with his loss – he ends up having to cremate her body! But eventually he manages to move on. Both story arcs converge as the film ends, with the young lady meeting the young boy on a boat and together they ride onward…
Set in Benares, Masaan has been winning acclaim on the international film festival circuit. And has earned praise from critics and viewers alike.
Vicky Kaushal as Deepak in ‘Masaan’
Picture Courtesy: Internet
To me, however, Masaan portrays the ever-flowing nature of Life. The young lady has to handle her guilt, her grief, over a choice she and her boyfriend made. Her father has to live with the ignominy of her choice. Together they have to face a corrupt cop and raise a ransom amount for the charges against the lady to be dropped. She tries to seek closure by going over to apologize to her boyfriend’s family, but they don’t want her apology; they ask her to get out! In the parallel story, the young boy has his father’s support to quit the corpse-burner tradition and profession. He has his girlfriend’s assurance that she is willing to even run away – should the families disapprove – with him provided he gets himself a job. He’s almost certain of getting that job when she dies. He has to deal with his demons. His depression almost ruins his career prospects and he’s on the verge of being a corpse-burner all his Life. But he realizes that unless he moves on, he will only be trapped ‘where he is’ and remain depressed. A state that will serve no purpose, he reasons. So, with great difficulty, he picks up the threads of his Life and lands himself a job. As both the young lady and the boy move on, they meet each other…
Indeed, there are no pauses in Life. It simply goes on. As long as you are alive, you have to keep walking, you have to keep going with the flow. You may not like whatever is happening to you. But you have to face it, you have to live through it. When you hate whatever is, you will suffer. Here’s the nub: you can’t prevent Life from happening to you. But you have the choice not to resist Life. And nothing, nothing really, is the end of the road, until you are alive, until you die. Period.
I talk from experience. On December 31st 2007, when I sat with Vaani in our bedroom and surveyed our Life, it seemed impossible to go on. We had just Rs.2000/- left with us in Life. And we had over a million dollars in debt. And no work. Yet, almost 8 years on, we have survived and lasted to tell our story. We still don’t have enough work – not even enough to cover our living expenses – and our debt remains unpaid. But we move on…living each day, working hard, facing our realities – court cases, police complaints, cashlessness at some times and very frustrating material scarcity at others – and believing that all this too shall pass.

There is no other way to live Life. It is what it is. You have to accept what is, keep working on what you want it to be and, in the process, exercise your choice to simply be, well, happy with whatever is. It is when you don’t live Life with this clarity and understanding that Life is miserable. Go on, go with the flow of Life. After all, there’s isn’t any point in refusing to flow it!