Whistle-Podu for Chennai and her people!

Sometimes words cannot describe the pristine human spirit at work.    

Photo Courtesy: Internet
As Chennai goes through a disastrous phase of dealing with a calamity of apocalyptical proportions, some of the images and updates that are coming via social media are so heart-warming. People are helping each other – food, clothing and emergency medicines are being arranged. Strangers are chatting each other up. There is so much damage, so much loss, so much gloom with so much water flooding the city – yet the streets are full of inspiring, touching gestures and stories.
Photo Courtesy: Internet
A young man on a two-wheeler offered to take me around the block just so that I could see how we could get some food to an elderly couple. I hear people are sharing their wi-fi passwords freely so that families can be in touch with their loved ones – the telecom network has sputtered to a stop. But internet connectivity, particularly through BSNL, is still on. A neighbor has cooked hot meals for stranded people and is busy going around in a truck distributing it.
My good friends Divya Srinivasan and Koushik Udayashanker have taken it upon themselves to go around comforting animals – street dogs and cats in particular, who are startled, frightened and hungry. And the young team of founders from The Postbox, Nikhil Joseph and Madhuvanthi Senthilkumar, are doing phenomenal networking on social media – connecting people, supplies and relief operations! I can’t find words to describe their compassion.
Vishal & Monika
For our part, last evening we took in a young couple, Monika and Vishal, whose home got flooded. We didn’t know them – we were tagged by a friend, whose friend’s friend knows them! Talk of the power of social media!
A lady with a Karnataka registration plate on her car was told by a gas station attendant this: “We are sorry you are having to experience our city like this. We hope you will be back when our city is on its feet again!”

There are so many, many, many more stories. This is a city of over 6 million people. And there may be that many stories out there today. I have no words to express how I feel just now. But I still have one word for Chennai and its people today! In typical ‘namma’ Chennai lingo: Whistle-Podu! 

Stop complaining, rejoice in the beauty of Life

If you stop complaining, you can see the magic and beauty of Life! 
Having to use auto-rickshaws in Chennai is no easy task. Most auto-rickshaw drivers lack sensitivity. They are rude. They ply only when you agree to pay over the meter. And almost all of them violate every single traffic rule – they break traffic signs and are sure to enter one-ways from the opposite direction! Over a period of time, I have stopped fighting (with) these guys. I greet them with a polite thank you when they stop in response to my call. I begin the conversation saying, “You turn on the meter and I’ll pay you over that amount when I alight at my destination.” As I engage the vehicle for the journey, I do insist that the auto-rickshaw driver goes per my directions and follows all traffic rules – including not speaking on the mobile phone. Nine times out of 10 this approach works. The only time I fail to get an auto-rickshaw driver to buy in is when he is headed in different direction from where I want to go.
This morning, as I flagged down an auto-rickshaw, the driver went past me and stopped in front of a couple who too wanted to engage him. They were within ear-shot of me. I could make out that the driver was haggling with them for a fixed fare as against plying per the meter. The driver refused to take them on board. Instead he backed up and came to me. I went about the conversation the way I normally did. I was calm and firm. The driver agreed to drop me to my destination. And, surprisingly, refused the tip over the metered fare saying, “Saar, I normally get people who refuse to pay me anything extra. Since you started by thanking me and offered to pay me extra, I want to thank you for being nice to me. Please pay me by the meter only.”
This approach has helped me transform not just the way I experience auto-rickshaw drivers. It has also helped me stop complaining about things around me, and in my Life, that I am currently incapable of fixing.
It is so true in India that we have millions of things to complain about. The state of our roads, the power situation, the garbage on the streets, the insensitivity of road-users that compounds our traffic woes, the mosquitoes, the rate of crime, the attitude of law enforcement agencies – these are among the several issues that affect us gravely, and in the face, on a daily basis. And, of course, if you are in Chennai, the auto-rickshaw drivers are sure to leave you irritated and fuming! As I started using auto-rickshaws more frequently, and as I found a way to deal with them efficiently, I found myself complaining less. About everything. I realized that when we have a problem with a situation, we must either fix it – if we can – or simply keep quiet.
Complaining doesn’t help. It only increases our stress levels and makes us bitter with Life. Much of the rage and insensitivity that we see on Indian roads is a result of pent up anger that comes from incessant and unresolved complaining. People who go on complaining about this or that or the other are never at peace. When we are not at peace with our world, and with ourselves, we cannot see the magic and beauty of Life. To be sure, there is beauty in every context or situation in Life that is available for us to see. It is available 24 x 7. Amidst all the ruthlessness we see around us, there is a lot of kindness and compassion which is still there. For all the disrepair that we human beings cause our cities, the sun and the moon and the stars still continue to rise and shower us their grace and brilliance; the birds continue to chirp and make music despite all the cacophony below. But, of course, we will be able to see all this beauty, experience it and rejoice in it, only when we stop complaining.

In uncontrollable situations, practise patience

Cultivate patience – especially in situations where you have no control over what’s going on!
Two evenings ago, I was riding in an auto-rickshaw through rush hour traffic. We got stuck in a massive traffic jam that last over 30 minutes. The heat and humidity was maddening. People were impatient in their vehicles and kept honking in vain, adding to the chaos. Not a vehicle budged. The fumes from the exhaust of the vehicles made the already sweltering heat even more difficult to bear. In such times, I have learnt to focus my attention on something other than what causes me concern or what remains out of my control. So, I kept chatting with my wife or checking cricket scores on my phone or simply watched my breathing. A couple of times that my mind strayed to complain about the heat, din and mess we found ourselves in, I brought it back to attend on my breathing. Not everyone around was so forgiving. People were complaining, honking or were trying to elbow other vehicles in the hope that some vehicle ahead would make way and we could move.
Chennai moves a Heart: Picture Courtesy/Times of India
The next morning’s papers had this moving story on how Chennai halted traffic that evening to save a Life! In a beautiful example of precision and coordination between surgeons of two hospitals and the city traffic police, a medical team transported a heart from the Government General Hospital near Chennai Central to Fortis Malar Hospitals in Adayar, about 12 kms away, in less than 14 minutes by creating a “green corridor” – that is, red-light free access. For those unfamiliar with Chennai, it’s important to know that the road connecting the two hospitals is a key arterial road, usually carrying heavy traffic. That the police, doctors and the people of Chennai (unwittingly) cooperated to free up that arterial road, which lead the other roads feeding it getting choked and me and my wife getting into the traffic jam we were caught in, for saving a Life is obviously a great feat.
When I reflected on the background to that insane traffic jam we were stuck in, I realized how insignificant our 30-minute wait really was. And I sure all those who honked and complained, fretted and fumed, may have felt that way too.

This reflection led to a reiteration of a learning I have had. There will be times when people, events, situations, will be beyond your control. Trying to control that which is uncontrollable is a sure prescription for anxiety and stress. What can you do if you are stuck in a traffic jam and nothing’s moving – actually, when nothing’s movable? What can you do if you miss a flight? What can you do if you have lost your home keys and are locked out for the night? What can you do when you can’t do something about a thing, person, event or situation? Instead of boiling over, focus on your breathing. Use the event or situation as an opportunity to practise patience. When you are patient with someone or a situation, you are peaceful. When you are at peace, you are happy. It is as simple as that! Try practising patience in a stress-filled, pressure-cooker situation the next time you encounter one. Believe me, you will feel lighter and more cheerful! 

“I am 17 short of a century”

Someone has wisely remarked: “How old would you be if you did not know how old you are?”

Today is my father-in-law’s 83rd birthday! He’s been telling everyone who’s been calling to wish him: “Today is the 17th and I am 17 short of a century!” There’s a rare zest in his voice. To me, he is equanimity personified. He goes about his daily schedules – peacefully, undeterred, unperturbed with his surroundings. People call on him to seek his blessings or advice or sometimes just to chat up. He greets all of them with warmth and affection – he has never once been grumpy that he has been disturbed. He loves to watch the Indian cricket team and Chennai Super Kings play – and win! The only times I have seen him flustered, that too momentarily, is when the “boys” throw away their wickets or give away too many runs!! It is not that he doesn’t have age-related health complications. He has. For reasons of protecting his privacy, I will refrain from detailing those. But he has never once complained. Over these years, it has been as if, his physical condition and his spiritual state have happily co-existed – for they have never been in conflict with each other. It has been over 12 years since he lost his wife (my mother-in-law). While I know he misses her greatly, I also know he always feels her presence. It is a beautiful spirit of companionship, I believe, he nurtures within himself which makes him deal with worldly feelings like ‘loneliness’ and ‘boredom’ very spiritually. Truly, he never fails to amaze me with his wit and disciplined lifestyle!

My dad too, at 75, is a very inspiring man. A chronic diabetic, he simply manages to set his age, and his condition’s complications, aside and keeps moving on. An accomplished singer himself, he coaches young children in the art of Carnatic music – keeping himself busy and active all the time. He often tells me that he is grateful for this “bonus” Life and for being able to move around rather than be confined to a bed. Recently he regaled a full house in his condominium – singing hits of legendary Tamil actor-singer Chandrababu on karaoke for the New Year celebration! He has this phenomenal ability, thanks to his music and his prayer routine, to always rise above the fractured fabric of a very complicated family situation. I may have found him often stirred by circumstances, but never once shaken.

I am sure you have such inspiring icons in your family as well. If we observe them carefully, there is a lot we can learn from them.

First, is the art of forgetting your age.  I guess the ability to treat age as a mere number, a data point, helps immensely in learning to continue to live a full Life. Second, I feel, in your own unique way, learning to be detached from “worldliness” helps. This simply means that you must accept the impermanence of everything – including your own Life. Next, if you can drop all expectations from everyone around you, you can be blissful. Always, expectations that people – children and grandchildren – must be this way or that surely brings agony. After all, people have their own lives to lead. So letting them be and you too simply being is a great way to creating a peaceful ecosystem. Then, realizing that the idea, that happiness must be pursued is a myth, is a great eye-opener. When you realize that you are the happiness you seek, Life becomes simple, no matter what situation you are in. And finally, learning to respect the body as the temple that houses your God, your soul – and therefore treating both the body and the soul with dignity is the clincher, the Killer App, that delivers inner peace unto you!

So, the next time you have a painful joint or an aching muscle, the next time you catch yourself hopelessly worrying or woefully lonely, the next time you think you cannot plough on in Life, spare a thought for the senior citizen in your immediate family or circle of influence – the one who continues to live Life fully despite the odds! You will then immediately awaken to the futility of your crib. If you are smart and intelligent, which you indeed are, you will quickly expunge your wasted feelings and step up – to keep playing on, until the last ball is bowled!   

Sitting on a pedestal or mourning in self-pity – both are in vain

Through victory or defeat, stay unmoved.
Two interesting perspectives, and learnings, came up after the recently-concluded World Chess Championship in Chennai, where Magnus Carslen, 23, became the new World Chess Champion, defeating Viswanathan Anand, 43.
After the emphatic win, Carlsen spoke of Anand to The Times of India’s Susan Ninan: “Although he’s an all-time great player, his results lately have not been too good and he’ll need some time to readjust to be able to come back. In this match I showed him in a way that although he’s taught me many things in the past, it’s probably now my turn to teach him. So, it’s safe to say I’ve surpassed him now.” I was not surprised to see Carlsen’s statement or his conceit. It’s his age, I told myself, to think and express himself that way.
This morning, I read what Anand told The Times of India’s Chidanand Rajghatta, in response to a question if Anand really believes Carlsen can teach him: “I wasn’t expecting him to be gracious, so fair enough. The winner can say anything when he wins… so I guess we will just have to swallow it for now.” Considered as one of the greatest chess players of all time, and given his equanimity, it was but expected of Anand to be accepting and graceful.
I can relate to both these attitudes.
I once had the misplaced brashness of Carlsen – when I was his age! In those times, I used to imagine that you needed to display your aggression, that you needed to be “seen” as a doer – that, only through such visibility, you could build a reputation as “someone to reckon with”. As I became more and more successful, I vainly believed that “I” was causing all that success. I remember, as a young, firebrand, civic journalist, I was mandated by my mentor and boss, “Master” C.P.Seshadri to run a weekly column in The Indian Express’ Chennai (then Madras) edition. My stories reported the lack of amenities in the suburbs of the city. The nature of coverage, and the newspaper’s reach, made the column and me very popular. I began to assume that I was all-important and, therefore, over time grew irreverent. Now, I was on the editorial team in the paper and so, was technically not liable to report stories. The head of the reporting team was a very senior journalist called Rmt.Sambandam – his experience was my age at that time! Sambandam was a stalwart in Chennai media and everyone in our paper, and among competition, looked up to him. But I remained irreverent and did not greet him or even acknowledge his presence when I saw him in the hallway or when we rode in an elevator together. Somewhere in my mind, I had developed this holier-than-thou feeling – that made me believe that I was delivering stories that Sambandam’s team was “incapable” of reporting. Years passed. I went my way in Life. I built my career in the media. And then I quit the media world to join the corporate sector. Eventually, after almost a decade of work experience behind me, I went on to set up my own consulting practice. Sambandam, in this time, grew within the Indian Express Group. And eventually went on to edit the Group’s Tamil paper Dinamani. I was not aware of this development though. So, I was dazed when, one afternoon, when I landed up at the Dinamani office, to meet someone “senior” to seek some information I needed, I was ushered into Sambandam’s room!!
Sambandam greeted me with a beaming smile!
“AVIS! My boy! How are you?” he exclaimed.
I tried to mutter a reply but I could not. I had never expected him to be there. I quickly recalled, in a flash, the innumerable times that I had looked away from the man. I wondered what he may be thinking of me. To be sure, over those years, I had sobered down and had realized that to behave haughtily was petty. But I could not undo what I had already done. Especially with Sambandam. And here I was, in front of him, and I did not know what to say or where to begin.
Sambandam made things easy as he humbled me. He said: “It’s grrrrreeeeaatttt to see you. You know after you left us, I often used to wonder where you were. I would occasionally make enquiries and would be delighted to hear that you have grown in your career and are doing very well. You had to. You are one of the finest journalists I have known and are also one of the most ethical and hardworking people in your generation.”
I was speechless. With my raw ambition, as a rookie journalist, I had run roughshod over this man and his team. Not that it affected them. But I imagined, vainly, that it had! Here I was being feted by the man himself. It was both humbling and embarrassing. In fact, I was ashamed of my past conduct. In that brief meeting Sambandam, unwittingly, taught me “how vain it was to sit on a pedestal”.
That’s perhaps why I related to Anand’s sagacity, in response to Carlsen’s bombastic claim,  when I read his interview this morning.
I have learned from Life that “Victory” and “Defeat” are labels that we pin on events that happen in our lives. When you understand and examine Life deeply these labels have no consequence. You and I are mere specks on this vast cosmic landscape. We neither engineer our successes nor do we cause our failures. We keep on acting, doing what’s within our control and what we think is right. Sometimes, these actions lead to results that meet or exceed our expectations – we call these results our successes. At times, our actions backfire and intended results are not achieved – we call these moments our failures. That’s simply it. There is no need, therefore, to sit on a pedestal when we succeed or mourn in self-pity when we fail. Being unmoved in either situation is an intelligent choice. Irrespective of what others may say or think, this is a choice that can surely guarantee your inner peace!

Good, Bad, Beautiful, Ugly … this is the Only Life you have

People often have this question: Why do ‘bad’ things happen to ‘good’ people? And, with some exceptions, they always also ask: And why do ‘good’ things happen to ‘bad’ people?
The questions themselves need review. What is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is subjective. What you may see as the right thing to do may be wrong from another’s point of view. And what you see as wrong, may seem perfectly right to  someone else. I believe that these questions arise because of the ego being active in each of us. For instance, you are ethical, sincere and diligent. Yet, when you don’t get a promotion or a raise, your ego incites you to question the situation. It implores you to see someone else who has managed to get that raise as one who is ‘inferior’ to you on the work ethic scale. This is how this journey of demanding fair-play from Life pans out. To be sure, it did not begin at the workplace. It began at home, in school, when parents or family pointed out to you that ‘Life has not been fair to you’. Over the years, you have only been led by your ego to continue to view Life this way.
Pause and reflect a bit. Did you ask to be born? This Life was “given” to you, wasn’t it? And at the time of birth did Life make you any promises? Did it say your Life will be this way or that? Since there were no guarantees offered, no assurances given, where’s the intelligence in craving for them? The truth is Life keeps on happening. Life sees all its creations as equal. It does not choose its “targets” for “tough examinations” per income or social strata. Life does not see anything as good or bad. Ethics, or the lack of it, make no sense to Life. Whatever Life delivers at your door, you have no choice but to accept it. Your suffering begins only when you refuse or resist the Life that is happening to you!
Religion and the scriptures talk of the Law of Karma. I agree with Osho that this is but a way to ‘console’ ourselves as humanity. The Law of Karma is no scientific law, like say the Law of Gravitation. A ball thrown up in the air__whether in Chennai or Kabul or New York or Sao Paulo or Kyoto or Wellington or Kota Kinabalu or Colombo__will come down. We can argue and verify the Law of Gravitation – it can be examined. But when the Law of Karma says that we will bear the consequences of our actions in a future birth or we are bearing the consequences of our actions, from a past birth, in this one, I am not sure we can verify or examine the case being made. Who has seen an earlier Life or can be sure to experience another one in the future? In my humble opinion (in no manner do I seek to rubbish the Karmic Theory), and in the limited context of my Life experience – this is the ONE and ONLY Life we have. This is it.

Each of the events in our Life have happened because they simply had to happen. There’s no merit in qualifying and further analyzing if we deserve what we are getting or are given. Don’t label anyone or anything or any event as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Don’t compare. Don’t ask why. Life’s happening to you 24/7. Just watch it happen. You don’t like what’s happening to you, learn to accept it. You like what’s happening to you, learn to be grateful for it. The only way to live Life is to liveit happily, for what it is!

Excuse me, do you have a moment please…?

If you can help – always help. Don’t think. Just help.

Most of us lead such busy lives that we don’t even have time for ourselves. So, we don’t pause to reflect on the challenges people around us are faced with. Perhaps, there is less trust in humanity at one level – so not many want to come forth and offer help. Or, maybe, people don’t have enough time anymore. Or, often times, we don’t even realize that someone around us needs help.

An incident in Chennai on Monday, that has been reported extensively by the media here, holds up a mirror to all of us who are “too busy” to even look up from our own lives’ schedules, forget helping someone.

A 46-year-old man, Augustine, walking by the Adayar river with his wife and two children, suddenly flung his nine-year-old daughter Roshni into the river. He then tried to snatch his seven-year-old son, Joshua, from his wife, Rani, in an attempt to throw the boy too into the river. When a shocked Rani resisted his efforts, Augustine jumped into the river. It was rush hour on a Monday morning. Several people driving past on the bridge pulled up and peeped over the railing, wanting to, as it so often happens in India, “catch the action”. But none came forward to help. It would have been another typical Indian roadside story of apathy in the face of a tragedy, had it not been for Dinesh Babu, a 23-year-old, marketing executive, on the way to work. Unmindful of the depth and treacherous nature of the river, or of his limited knowledge of swimming, Babu jumped into the river and managed to lift Roshni above the water, over his shoulder. Seeing him struggle with the girl, another passer-by, Saravanan, 26, dived into the river. Saravanan knew swimming and he managed to escort both Babu and Roshni to the bank of the river in some time. Augustine however was not found for all of Monday. His body was recovered from the river on Tuesday.

Babu’s braveheart act not only calls for an applause but also begs reflection and introspection by each of us. Ask yourself:    
  •        What would you have done in such a situation?
  •       How can you be more sensitive to the needs of people around you?
  •       Whenever you can’t help personally, do you consider mobilizing help?
Each situation that requires helping someone may not be fraught with as much urgency and risk as in Roshni’s case. But the key point to ponder over is do we even considering helping? Or are we so caught up, indifferent and self-obsessed, with our own lives that we miss even noticing that someone needs our help?

My family and I continue to be blessed by the kindness and compassion of people, often even unknown folks, who have walked into our lives and have helped us – spontaneously, selflessly. I can vouch for how much of a difference it makes when you realize that someone, somewhere cares. So, if it is possible, do pause to look up, and around you, from your busy Life – someone can possibly do with a wee bit of what you have in plenty, if only you care to offer it to them! PS – most often that resource can even be time, and not necessarily money or something in kind!

Just move on….

An intelligent response to Life is to move on, no matter what happens to you. It is when you cling on to what’s been taken away from you that you grieve and suffer.
Ajit Singh: “Diplomats must just move on!”
Pic: Hindu Business  Line
Last evening, we were at a dinner to bid farewell to the Consul General of Singapore Ajit Singh and his wonderful wife Balveer. Singh is moving to Mumbai after a 7-year stint in Chennai. As the evening progressed, a farewell toast was raised to the couple and Singh was invited to share his sentiments on his experience in Chennai and on this move. He spoke simply, from the heart, thanking all his friends, well-wishers, acquaintances, and the people of Chennai for having been so warm and caring to him and his wife. And then he said something very profound: “I am moving on to another city but carrying Chennai in my heart as I do. A diplomat must simply move on.”
Of course, Singh’s point was made from a professional point of view – diplomats like him, working with the foreign service of any country, are quite used to, and are always prepared, to move at a moment’s notice. Ask them, and they will say, that’s how their lives work.
But look at it differently. From a spiritual point of view. Isn’t that how (anyone’s) Life works? Diplomats find it easier to move on because they know it’s a part of their job, their career. We suffer dealing with change because we don’t have the attitude to move on. We don’t believe that moving on is an integral part of living itself! We are clinging on, often with our feet nailed to the ground, asking questions of Life when things that we don’t want and we didn’t expect happen to us:
1.     Why me?
2.     Why do I have to adjust, change, adapt, accommodate?
3.     Is there no way to restore status quo?
4.     Why are people doing this to me?
5.     Why is Life so unfair?

These and more questions may well be logical. And you may perhaps be justified in asking them. But you will soon discover that it is pointless to ask them. For, there are no answers in Life – there are only experiences. Whatever happens, you can only experience something. If it’s good, you say, “Wow! Aha!” and if it’s not what you want, you say, “Damn! Aiyyo!” Either way, soak in what’s happening to you, carry some of it in your heart as Ajit advises, and simply move on….If there’s something like Life’s simplest learning ever that you want to pick up – this is it!