Life lessons from a cab ride on Teachers’ Day

There’s so much goodness in our world. We must pause from running the rat race to notice it though!
Picture shot on mobile camera with available light
Kalam in the red circle
Karthikeyan, the Uber cabbie
Yesterday, when we were riding on Uber, we noticed something interesting on the car’s front inner display shelf. There was a picture of former Indian President Abdul Kalam, who died last month, along with miniature statuettes of Shirdi Baba and Ganesha on the shelf. Kalam smiled back at us, waving charismatically, from an acrylic stand – in fact his presence was more prominent than even that of the Gods’ (who normally adorn car/vehicle interiors in India)! We asked our cabbie, Karthikeyan, who was in his early thirties, “Why Kalam?” And Karthikeyan replied, proudly: “He is my teacher that I never met. He taught me the value of muyarchi (hard work/disciplined effort) and naermai(integrity/honesty) through his Life.”
In a dog-eat-dog world, where even the “safe and secure” Uber cab aggregation service has been mired in crime and controversy – with at least two instances of rape by its cabbies being reported from the National Capital Region in the last 12 months, Karthikeyan’s originality and genuineness made a difference. Besides, yesterday was Teacher’s Day. And what better way to be reminded of two values that can never fail us in Life – hard work and honesty – that too through the Life of Kalam, a great teacher himself and an apostle who lived by and practiced those values till his last breath. The other learning is also this – it is said that if your work can inspire even one soul in your lifetime, you would have led a Life of meaning. And Kalam touched so many, many lives. Will you ever find an Indian cabbie sporting any other Indian President’s picture in his or her vehicle?

Our inspiration: we must live our Life in such a way that people will think of us when they want to be reminded of goodness and beauty in the world. Kalam lived this way. Karthikeyan is living his Life this way. Will you too?

Accept your brutal reality – only then can you hope to change it.

However unpalatable the truth may be, once you accept it, you can work on changing it. This applies in all contexts to all of us.
Image Courtesy: Outlook Magazine Website

In a recent issue of Outlook, Tarun Tejpal, founder-editor of Tehelka and a former Managing Editor of Outlook, pays a beautiful tribute to his former boss Vinod Mehta who passed away earlier this month. Tejpal is facing charges of rape in a Goa court filed by a former colleague, a young lady who was also his daughter’s best friend. I have always been a great admirer of Tejpal the writer and the journalist. He was a senior colleague of mine when I was in India Today between 1990 and 1992. So, naturally, I was keen to read what he had to say about another man I greatly admired – who doesn’t? – Vinod Mehta. The tribute was vintage Tejpal – carefully chosen words to describe a man that few people can claim they knew personally and closely; each sentence painting a mental picture of the ‘last great editor’ in the reader’s mind. But what I liked most was Tejpal, with brutal honesty, referring to the six months he spent in prison (in Goa, on account of the rape charges levelled against him). He referred to his incarceration as he would refer to any other aspect of his Life – very matter of fact, ‘you-know-what…it-happened’ type. Now, given the salacious overtone that a rape charge invokes, it is possible that people may rush to conclude that Tejpal is brazen, that he is pig-headed and that he is being cold-blooded in his approach to his Life and the charges he faces. But I see in Tejpal the rare ability to confront and accept a brutal reality – that he is accused of rape; that he has to prove his innocence and until then public and popular sentiment will hold against him; yet his other Life – as a writer, a journalist, a family man, a father, son, husband and brother – must go on. What’s remarkable is that Tejpal, it appears to me, is both ready and willing to face Life squarely and deal with each aspect of it on the merit of the reality that lies in front of him!

To be sure, not many can do that. Most of us, when under pressure in Life, prefer to hide behind the shadows. We are either refusing to accept our realities or even if we accept them, we are unwilling to face people – and Life. When you don’t accept what is, and either keep justifying why things have happened the way they have or keep running away from facing the reality, you suffer. Tejpal teaches us that no matter what, Life has to be faced. In a way, your past actions do cause your realities. Or circumstances, events and people conspire to create them. But no matter how or why things happen to you, unless you accept what has happened as your current, final, non-negotiable, reality, you cannot hope to change it. What comes between you and acceptance is an imagined fear of social judgment, reprisal and ostracism. What- will-people-say almost always clouds the what-can-and-must-I-do-now thinking! The only way to deal with such fears and feelings is to know that no matter who created the mess, the one on whom the mess has arrived alone has to clear it up! And, without doubt, all change, all clearing up, begins with first accepting the mess for what it is.  

Are you going to a house or are you coming home?

If you want to come to a home at the end of each day, in your family, never mince words.
The idea of a family as a warm, fuzzy place, a.k.a home, often times clouds our thinking when it comes to having honest conversations. In our endeavour to be nice to our kin, we end up being fake. Resultantly, the basic premise on which the institution of the family is founded suffers.
A family is a group of people. So are those whom you find on the street. So what distinguishes a family from a street crowd? A family is where you must ideally have people who are willing to be available to support each other. A family is where people will not, again ideally, judge each other. A family is where, ideally, you can speak your mind. But most families have stopped being supportive or are as fractious as any other ordinary group of people. Why? Simply because people in such families have stopped being honest. A ‘loving’ family is somehow (mis)understood by people as a place where people are ‘nice’ to each other. True love is not about being nice alone – it is about being caring, compassionate and candid.
The compostion of a family is really as plain vanilla as any group of inviduals. The word individual means ‘single’ or ‘separate’. Now, how can we expect these ‘separate’ people to come together and bond? Surely a blood relationship cannot help just because it is a common denominator that binds or connects all those who are separate. Bonding really happens when people understand each other. And understanding thrives only in an honest environment.
Building and sustaining that honest environment is everyone’s responsibility. A great family is one where everyone can speak their mind and be sure that they will be understood and not interpreted. Nurturing this spirit of being there for each other and belonging is a continuous process. There can be no room for pretention here. People must have the freedom to choose what they want to do, and do it the way they want to do it, yet, at the same time, they must be responsible enough to revisit their choices, making adjustments and alterations, should the family’s needs require them to do so.
If you want to build a great family, make sure the first brick you lay is that of ‘honesty’. Encourage open sharing, empower people to make mistakes, champion being there for each other and expunge the phrase ‘I-told-you-so’. We all set out to build careers and bank balances. Most often we get both right! If we spent a fraction of that time on building our families right, we will find greater peace within us and in our personal space. At the end of the day, that’s what matters – are you going back to your house or are you coming home!?

When you are fully aware, you need not suffer anyone, anymore


There are some people in whose presence we feel extremely uncomfortable. Something in the way they conduct themselves puts you off. And at another level you do recognize that you are made very differently and there can be no chemistry at all between both of you. So, every time you have to meet this person, you go into a agonizing dilemma. You are thinking of ways and means to avoid the encounter. You make excuses. And when you can’t avoid anymore, you suffer deeply in this person’s presence. Your physical discomfort morphs into awkwardness and eventually into unhappiness.

I have been through such experiences too. And at many times I have had the urge to tell the person, whom I loathed meeting, what I felt deeply about her or him. But social niceties, the intricacies of the relationship between us, would force me to not express myself frankly. Even so, suppressing what your true feelings are always leads you to more unhappiness and grief.

I used to have a neighbor who is very, very wealthy. He simply loved to talk about his wealth. He talked about his cars. His yachts. His vacation homes. His businesses and how much profits he had made from recent projects __ giving details brazenly of which politician or bureaucrat he had bribed. And he talked endlessly. He would accost me in the elevator, in the parking lot or even, at times, invite himself over into my living room to launch off into his completely unwelcome self-expositions. There was no way I could escape his tyranny because he simply had no sensitivity. He didn’t bother about another’s time, space or privacy. For several months I suffered. It came to a point when I would dread bumping into this neighbor and so I would be very wary of even stepping out of my apartment. I would rush out or in so that he did not see me. It was a stupid way of living in my own house. But there seemed no other way! I could have perhaps told him off. Or had a showdown with him and put him in his place but then he was a neighbor and nobody wants to spar with a neighbor. So, I simply kept suffering.

That’s when I read this story about Swami Vivekananda. Just before his famous trip to the USA and his iconic speech in Chicago, Vivekananda visited Jaipur on the Maharaja’s invitation. The Maharaja gave Vivekananda a grand reception that was worthy of a king. There was a public procession…flowers, lights and the royal works. In the main court, the durbar, of the King, an elaborate dance performance by the leading courtesan, a devadaasi, of the King was organized. When the performance was about to begin, and Vivekananda came to know that the dancer was a prostitute, he rushed up to his room and locked himself up. He refused to come out. He was afraid the prostitute’s presence would corrupt his moral pledge to be celibate. He was even angry with the King for having the audacity to invite a prostitute in a Swami’s presence. The King came up to the room and profusely apologized. But declined to send the prostitute away because his value systems prevented him from sending anyone away from his court. He said he could not insult or humiliate a guest in his court, even if she was a prostitute. The prostitute, when she heard of what was going on and delaying the start of her performance, was very hurt initially. She had heard a lot about Swami Vivekananda’s brilliance and had considered it her privilege to be dancing in his presence. She then took a momentous decision to begin her performance without either the King or his important guest being in the Court. She sang as she danced. The song is very beautiful. The song goes – “I know that I am not worthy of you, but you could have been a little more compassionate. I am dirt on the road – that I know. But you need not be so antagonistic to me. I am a nobody – ignorant, a sinner. But you are a saint – why are you afraid of me?” As the song wafted through the palace corridors and reached the young Swami Vivekananda’s ears, something happened to him. He confessed later that he was defeated by the prostitute. He came out of his room. And he watched the whole performance in the court. That night, he wrote in his diary: “A new revelation has been given to me by the divine. I was afraid… must have been some lust within me. That’s why I was afraid. But the woman defeated me completely, and I have never seen such a pure soul. Her tears were so innocent and the singing and the dancing were so holy…. Sitting near her, for the first time, I became aware that it is not a question who is there outside, it is a question of what is.” Surely, with that experience Vivekananda transcended to a new level of consciousness. He became fully aware.

Reading this story, I awakened too. I realized that in the context of either my bombastic neighbor or in some other key relationships, where there was a complete absence of chemistry, wherever I was struggling, I needed to look deeper. I needed to look at what isthan who is there outside. What is behind the exterior, behind the packaging is the same beautiful cosmic energy that powers each of the Universe’s creations. The diversity is in the packaging. The shapes, the sizes, the colors, the bells, the whistles, the bows and ribbons, mislead us. We develop a distaste for and suffer people, or even start hating their very presence, without focusing on what is in them. My awakening led me to learn to tell people, like my neighbor, politely that such intrusions and self-expositions were not welcome anymore. I did this with complete equanimity__no agitation, no hesitation, no fear, no pride__and honesty. And ever since I told him that, he stopped behaving in that manner with me. In another relationship, I simply told the person that the chemistry between us doesn’t work. Period. Even so, I have learned to appreciate people just as I appreciate myself. I still struggle sometimes missing ‘what is’ for the packaging, but my awareness does a great job playing the role of a reminder service. It quickly reminds me to go beyond the outside, the exterior, the packaging, every single time. With this awareness there is no more suffering, no more unhappiness, in anybody’s presence!


Be honest, be upfront, and you will be peaceful!


In every relationship, exercise your right to be honest about how you feel. Have open, transparent conversations. Set the contours of the relationship. State what’s done and what’s not done. Spell out what works for you and what doesn’t. You will then ensure peace for yourself and for the other party at all times.  

Yesterday, my 18-year-old daughter returned at midnight from a friend’s birthday party. As I opened the door to let her in, her phone rang. I was curious when she didn’t want to take the call. I told her it was fine for her to answer the call because I was anyway going to sleep and she could speak to whoever it was in private. She said she didn’t want to take that call because it was her friend’s mother calling to check on where she (the friend) was. So, I too asked where that friend was. My daughter explained that her friend had had one drink too many and had to be dropped off at another friend’s place for the night because she was scared of going home and facing her parents, who apparently did not approve of her drinking at all.

I completely empathized with the distraught parent trying to ensure if her child was safe. Yet I could not help but wonder why things come to such a pass between parents and their young adult children.  

A principal reason is that while almost each household does have its own dos and don’ts framework, honest conversations are not normally had. It is fine for a parent to not encourage or allow a teenager to drink. But it is also important for the parent to understand that the child may not necessarily follow that advice or diktat__whatever. In such a scenario, perhaps a good expectation to set would be to ensure that communication doesn’t break down between them. Imagine the plight of the mother, wondering all night about what’s happening to her daughter? Imagine the showdown that will have ensued in the morning when the daughter got back home. So much acrimony and anxiety could have been avoided if both parent and child understood the contours of their relationship. From a parent point of view: That we don’t support drinking and yet be sure that this expectation may well not be met. But breakdown in communication, being unreachable, not messaging back when pinged, is simply non-negotiable. From a teen/young adult point of view: Communication is non-negotiable but a bit of adventure, as long as it doesn’t turn reckless (like drinking and driving, doping and such), is always fine! Especially in the context of a parent-child relationship, one honest conversation may never be enough. You may need to have them several times often reminding each other that there’s equal opportunity to share, to converse, to resolve and to agree!

Even as I was thinking about this episode I read an interview that Times of Indiahad carried this morning with the young Hindi movie star, Aditi Rao Hydari. Aditi’s parents separated when she was just two. Her father is a close friend of our family. So, we know a bit of their story. I was both impressed and happy to see Aditi, now 26, having evolved into a fine, mature person. She did admit to Times of India that she had had a difficult relationship with her father. She said her father, who is in the last stages of lung cancer, recently wrote her an email sharing all that he wanted to. She said she had written back saying she did not want to hear either his story or her mother’s. And that she preferred they all focused on the present and what they had of and for each other. She said she did care for her father having overcome the initial phase of turmoil and uniqueness of their relationship. Now, that’s what an honest conversation is all about. Where you say what you feel__so that you continue to be in peace!

Obviously, honesty doesn’t apply in a parent-sibling context alone. In any relationship, the slightest whiff of dishonesty, and this does not mean breach of trust or betrayal alone, when you refuse to say or share what you feel, can be destructive. If you really seek to be peaceful, and badly want it, you must invoke it in your relationships by always expressing yourself honestly. By always saying what you feel about someone or something without worrying about either circumstance or consequence.

We have become dishonest with each other because it is a lot more convenient. Dishonesty often helps keep the external environment peaceful. But is that pretentious peace more important than what you (want to) feel within yourself?

A young manager reached out to me recently asking for advice on how to handle his two bosses who were at war with each other, playing ping pong with him, his career and his emotions. He said he was afraid to red-flag either of them lest he be thrown out of his job. I asked him what he would do if job was guaranteed. He replied saying he would have spoken his mind, appealing to the two bosses to be considerate to him and his career, and recommending a working arrangement where everyone won. I advised him to simply carry out that plan saying that if he did lose his job then probably that wasn’t right place to be in, in any case! He, of course, hesitated. But eventually, after thinking through my advice for over a month, he executed the plan. Last week he called up to say, his honest conversation with his two bosses__one an Indonesian and the other a Spaniard__worked wonders. And they were now working in complete harmony with both bosses giving him more empowerment and responsibilities!

We often sacrifice our inner peace on the redoubtable altar of dignity, etiquette and decorum because we fear imaginary consequences. The truth is that those consequences are never going to ensue because no one likes being dishonest. Simple. Dishonesty often gets practiced though because it is easy. It is easy for the parent to dictate that the child shall not drink. It is difficult for the parent to see that the child, in spite of the diktat, may well drink. It is easy for the child to avoidthe parent’s calls. It is going to be difficult, in fact scary, to pick up the phone and say that I have had a drink and so the best thing for me to do is to stay over at a friend’s. It may have been easy for Aditi to tell her dad, who is sinking, that it was fine for things to have happened the way they did between him and her mother. But she would have been dishonest__principally, with herself. So she chose to be upfront and said let’s focus on what we have left with us. It may have been difficult doing that but she did that for her own inner peace. The young manager did not find peace the easy way, allowing himself to be played ping-pong with! He found it only when he exorcised his demons and confronted his bosses!

Dishonesty and honesty, always deliver this logical outcomes, when practiced. This is true of any context, in anybody’s Life. Examine your own relationships. Wherever you find your inner peace being compromised, be sure that you are not being honest enough. To become peaceful, simply be honest, be upfront!