Why being in Chennai, even in such a time, is so beautiful

“Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment” – Mevlana Jalauddin Rumi, 13th Century Persian poet and Sufi mystic    

Chennai continued to amaze – and humble – me with her attitude on the third consecutive day in the aftermath of the worst rains and floods that it has ever seen in a century!
Here are some moments of sheer bewilderment that I experienced as we went around several parts of the city today.
·    The staff at my bank’s branch were mourning the loss of their colleague – he was swept away in the floods on the night of December 2nd. Yet they attended to their customers patiently, diligently. Raji, the customer service officer, informed us that they were working full days this weekend – Saturday (5th December) and Sunday (6th December). I expressed surprise and called the move to work on Sunday historic – in the annals of Indian banking history! She replied, “The calamity is no less historic Sir. We would like to help everyone get on with their lives.” To be sure, this remark was coming from a public-sector bank officer!
·         
     A part of the busy and important TTK Road was cordoned off by residents from K B Dasan Road as they tried to drain the water in their area. They had been water-logged for 5 days – without power and drinking water. Boats were still plying on K B Dasan Road. But even as some of the residents deployed a professional team to pump and drain water into the sewage system, across TTK Road, on C V Raman Road, several others among them regulated the traffic on behalf of the cops. Again nobody honked or complained. There was order, patience and empathy.
·         
   We heard of a friend’s boss’ story from Kotturpuram. He had barely 15 minutes on the morning of December 3rd to collect all important documents, gather his family and leave his home. The water that came gushing in soon after left nothing – repeat nothing – usable; clothes, furniture, home appliances, computers, everything was destroyed! Yet he and his family have chosen to simply move on; they are not grieving what they have lost – which is, practically everything material they owned!!!
·         
     We stopped at a store to see if we could pick up some milk – something that is in extreme short supply in Chennai these past few days. The storekeeper did not overcharge us – unlike what other opportunistic traders were doing – but allowed us only one sachet (half a litre). He requested us to “adjust” because he wanted to ensure that everyone got a little of what was so scare and so much in demand. Even as he was ringing in our check, he was inviting a bunch of volunteers to “pick up whatever they wanted to from his store – free of cost”. The volunteers, I gleaned, were cooking meals for people from a nearby slum whose homes were still flooded. We thanked the storekeeper for being so generous. But he brushed the compliment aside saying, “It is my duty. The least I can do is to support the relief operations to the best of my ability.”
·         
     
     There were rumors flying thick and thin across social media – predicting a horrendous end to Chennai later next week! A young friend, who was rushing off on relief work, had this to say, “Can we do anything to prevent the future from happening the way it must and will happen? Since we can’t, why not just focus on the present than worry about what is still unborn – the future?” Such a spiritual perspective – born right in the throes of an apocalyptical crisis!  
·      
   

Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Internet

    Everywhere we went, people were immersed in relief work. Students, doctors, managers, artists, filmmakers, actors, business leaders, traders, autorickshaw drivers, government employees – everyone is chipping in with whatever they can. Chennai suddenly is a city that is driven with purpose, empathy and compassion. My most enduring image of the day came via Facebook – it showed a Muslim man walking through a Vaishnavite shrine in some part of Chennai; he was there to lend support to a relief camp inside the temple. It’s an image that will stay with me for a long, long time.

·         
My daughter, who’s all of 20, had been saving for months to be at the Bacardi NH 7 Weekender Music Festival in Bangalore this weekend. She had bought her tickets from her student earnings. But she canceled the trip and joined a bunch of people supporting relief work. She told us: “I just can’t take my mind off what’s going on out there. I don’t think I can enjoy the festival when my city and my people are struggling to get drinking water and food.” I teared up hearing of her decision – both as a parent, and as a fellow Chennaiite.
    
Our entire day today, yet again, sums up why being in Chennai, even in such a time, is so beautiful. We are seeing a city that clearly is living up to what Sahir Ludhianvi wrote for Mohammed Rafi to sing, and make immortal, in Hum Dono (Dev Anand, Nanda, Sadhana, directed by Amarjeet/Vijay Anand, music by Jaidev) in 1961.  

मैं जिन्दगी का साथ निभाता चला गया
हर फ़िक्र को धुंएँ में उडाता चला गया

बरबादीयों का सोग़ मनाना फिजूल था
बरबादीयों का जश्न मनाता चला गया

जो मिल गया उसी को मुकद्दर समझ लिया
जो खो गया मैं उस को भुलाता चला गया

गम और खुशी में फर्क ना महसूस हो जहा
मैं दिल को उस मकाम पे लाता चला गया

मैं जिन्दगी का साथ निभाता चला गया
हर फ़िक्र को धुंएँ में उडाता चला गया

Chennai, like Sahir Ludhianvi’s poem, has infinite depth. It has soul. And so it knows how to preserve and persevere.
This is what I have learnt from Chennai over the past few days. As citizens who are ‘earning a living’ we are perhaps cold, business-like and, well, even clever. But as a people who are coping with an enormous crisis, who are picking up the threads of our material Life, we are every bit human! And that’s why we will never quite cease to amaze ourselves!

Advertisements

“That my singing has made so many people happy makes me happy.”

 ‘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 features a beautiful conversation that Vaani and I had with one of India’s most talented and loved singers – S.P.Balasubrahmanyam (simply SPB or Balu Sir to many)!!
What do you do when you meet – finally meet – the man, listening to whose voice you have grown up? A voice that has stirred the most aesthetic, spiritual and romantic emotions in you – every single time that you have heard it?
Well if you are Vaani, you just let go, you melt and dissolve in the magic and beauty of the moment, and you tear up. “I can’t believe this is true….that I am in your presence,” gushed Vaani while shaking SPB’s hands, even as he welcomed us warming into his tastefully done up living room.
I was more reflective. I found a sliver of time between the hellos, welcomes and thank-yous that we exchanged, to let “Manram Vantha Thendrallukku, Manjam Vara Nenjam Ilayo”  from Mouna Ragam (1986, Mani Ratnam, Ilayaraja, Vaali) seep through my inner consciousness. It is my absolute, all-time favorite SPB number. And I sent a prayer in gratitude to the Universe, to Life, for creating and nurturing this man, so that his exceptional voice could light up our lives!
SPB: Picture Courtesy – The Hindu/Internet
69-year-old SPB will start his 50th year in playback singing on 15thDecember this year – he made his debut in 1966 with a Telugu song in the film Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna. So I ask him the most logical question: Does he feel happy, accomplished…?
He beams his famous, big, adorable smile. He then leans forward and says, “Yes!!! 49 years is a long time. But let me tell you truthfully, I did not come into this industry with any goal. I had no idea. Nor any ideals. I had then thought that I will not last beyond a couple of songs. But I have survived here, somehow pulled along…you can say! So, I often reflect on these past years with a sense of immense gratitude; I am grateful to the Almighty for giving my lifetime a sense of purpose. That my singing has made so many people happy makes me happy. I feel I am blessed.”
SPB adds that he is also grateful for his father’s native wisdom. When he had approached his father, soon after testing the waters in playback singing, not sure if this would be the right career to earn a living, asking if he should go back to leaning on his training in engineering, his father only told him “not to ride two horses at the same time”. “His advice was suggestive, not directive. I chose singing because it made me happy while engineering did not give me that sense of joy. I taught myself to sing better and continue to learn to sing better with every new song and every new music composer I work with. I sing both for my inner joy and to earn a living. It is so humbling when people come to me and tell me that they feel I have sung a song especially for them. Hearing this makes me fulfilled and happy,” explains SPB.
Vaani suggests that he is being very modest, referring to his confession that he is an “untrained singer who is still learning”. “Amma,” he clarifies, “I have only one qualification. I know what I don’t know. I am very happy when I am able to deliver what my captain, the music director, wants out of me. The day I can’t do that, I will quit singing.”
SPB: Picture Courtesy – The Hindu/Internet
That’s an exacting standard to live by for anyone. But here’s a man who’s lived by it for half a century – for almost as long as Vaani and I have been on this planet – and is still singing at his peak. How does he do it? What’s the secret of his longevity in the business and of his continued relevance across at least three generations? “I start each day with a simple question – how can I enjoy myself today? I don’t worry and I don’t entertain any insecurities. I work hard when I am I asked to sing. And when I am not singing, I am living my Life fully – hanging out, having fun!” he reveals.
SPB wears his Life on his sleeve. He is disarmingly honest and humble: “I am not a perfect human being. I am just another human being. I had a smoking habit which I gave up some time ago. I am a social drinker. I have never been prudent with my finances – until recently I even had commitments to fulfil. Just because I am a singer, just because I have a public profile, I can’t be a hypocrite. Nor can I be a sanyasi. I don’t want to. I am happy being who I am. And I have no problem with people knowing who I am.”
I am keen to know how SPB remains anchored, grounded – anyone with a Padma Bhushan, 6 National Awards and several Filmfare Awards, with 40,000 songs and with such devotion from an ever-growing fan following can get carried away, right? “I was inspired to take up singing by listening to Mohd. Rafi; I have worked for composers like K.V.Mahadevan, M.S.Viswanathan, Laxmikant Pyarelal, Naushad, O.P.Nayyar, Panchamda, Ilayaraja and A.R.Rahman; I have sung alongside greats like S.Janaki, P.Susheela, Lata Mangeshkar and so many, many more accomplished artistes…how can anyone have an ego if your career has evolved among such legends? In front of them I am a nobody. If I am a  somebody it is because of them, their love, their support and encouragement,” he says, playing down my question.
SPB counts the following among some of his Life’s greatest moments:
·      Touching Mohd.Rafi’s feet, in a break between takes, during a recording at Prasad studios: “I was recording in the neighboring studio and rushed to try and see him. There was a break in his schedule. I went up to him and touched his feet. He look at me and asked ‘Aap Kaun Hain?’…I was too timid to introduce myself although I was an established singer by then. I said, ‘It doesn’t matter’. Truly, to me, in his presence, who I was really didn’t matter. I smiled gratefully and quickly left the studio.”
·       Having O.P.Nayyar over for breakfast at his Kodambakkam home in Chennai: “O.P Sir told me that he never goes to anyone’s house. But he promised to come home provided we served him vadai and sambar. After breakfast, he stayed on…soon he was composing music with me and we spent a couple of hours just singing and making music…isn’t that experience priceless?”
·     Featuring in Naushad’s biography, “Naushadnama: The Life and Music of Naushad” (Raju Bharatan, Hay House, 2013): “Naushad loved me for delivering an 8+-minute song in a single take for Teri Payal Mere Geet (1993, Rehman Naushad, Govinda, Meenakshi Seshadri). In his biography, I feature in one para where he talks about me being ‘the most hard-working and professional singer’ he has ever worked with. He lauds me for being ‘self-trained’. To me, that compliment is equal to getting the Bharat Ratna.”
·       Knowing R.D.Burman as a friend and as a composer: “I was coming back to Sea Rock Hotel late one evening, after a full day’s recording in Mumbai. As I was entering the hotel, I heard Pancham’s voice call out ‘Balu’. I turned to find him sitting on a ledge outside in the dark. Pancham was out of work in those days and playfully chided me for not calling him when I came into Mumbai. He then pulled out a bottle of Black Label whiskey…we went up to my room and we made music even as we drank. I am blessed to have had his friendship and love in my Life.”
SPB: Picture Courtesy – The Hindu/Internet
He’s played many professional roles in his Life: singer, composer, actor, producer, voice-over artist, TV show host…which of these does he love doing the most? “Undoubtedly it is singing that I love. Music is my sacred, divine, Life source. It has given me everything. It has given me work and it has given me the strength to work. It is what makes me happy every single day,” he avers. So, how did he then allow surgeries – twice – for polyps on his vocal cords; didn’t he feel insecure, didn’t he fear losing his precious voice? “Everyone from my family to friends to even Lataji (Mangeshkar) advised me against having ‘metal interface with my vocal cords’. But I decided to go ahead. You have to do what you have to in Life. Honestly, I never felt fearful of the procedure. I just reconciled to the fact that at the end of the surgeries I would either have my voice or I wouldn’t have it. Fortunately, I had my voice intact and within a few days of the last surgery I was back to doing my riyaaz.”  
My takeaway from the conversation we had with SPB is this – do what you love doing, do it very well, live in the moment, enjoy each day, fear nothing, worry about nothing and you will be happy all your Life. I guess that’s too simple a way – in a single line – to summarize the Life and work of a man whose voice has stirred and enriched our souls for 49 years! But that’s really who SPB is. Simple, professional, humble, gifted, and above all, blessed.

The first rains of the North-East monsoon drench Chennai as we leave his home. On our ride back in an Uber, an FM station plays a rare SPB number, the title song Ninaithale Innikkum, from K.Balachander’s 1979 movie of the same name (M.S.Viswanathan, Kannadasan). I think of the 90-minutes we had just spent with SPB and I exclaim to Vaani, “How serendipitous!” This is one memory which, when we think back at any time in the future, will be among our most precious ones – “Ninaithale Innikkum”!   

All pain is a call for action

There’s great power we can derive from pain in our lives.
Pain is initially always a gentle reminder that all’s not well. That it’s time for us to take immediate, cognitive action. It is like driving on a highway and your car’s dashboard indicates that you are low on gas. If you ignore that alert and keep driving past gas stations in the hope that you will ‘pull it off’, you have chosen to risk it and may spend  a considerable amount of quality time organizing to fetch fuel by either flagging down vehicles passing by or trudging up to the nearest gas station on foot! The moral is simple: Only when it is continuously overlooked or neglected, does any pain become unbearable or lead to suffering. However, when we heed the early warnings that pain gives us, we can draw great transformational benefits from it without having to experience any suffering.
The first step is to feel the pain, which is to be awake and aware. Next is to go to its cause, the root. Third is take steps to eradicate the cause of pain or alter the causative factors. So, in effect, all pain is a call for action. Yet we miss this opportunity to leverage pain because we view pain as a source of debilitation and not as a liberating, empowering force. This applies to pain from a physical dimension (an injury or a troublesome body-ache), from an emotional angle (a heartbreak in a relationship) or on a spiritual plane (as sorrow and the resultant seeking of happiness). The Buddha taught that pain can be a catalyst for transformation, an empowering agent. It may also be pertinent to reflect on the wisdom of the legendary lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri who invited us to consider sorrow (the commonest avatar of pain) as an ally in this song from Dosti (1964, Satyen Bose, Lakshmikant Pyarelal, Mohd. Rafi). Watch the video here
Embrace your pain. Draw power from it!

Let Go = non-reasoning, non-analyzing, non-questioning!

Fighting Life, by resisting whatever is happening to you, is a zero-sum game. Every which way, you stand to lose. But the human mind, led by ego, wants you to believe that you can and must do something in a Life situation. So it will goad you to fight. To resist what’s happening to you. And there, through such resistance, you invite misery unto yourself.
Let’s understand this better. There are only two kinds of problems. One set of problems are those that you can solve – either on your own or through a third party resource, expending money or through other means. The other set of problems are the ones that are, humanly, unsolvable. Only Life has to solve them over time. When you are faced with the second set of problems, the best thing to do is to let go! When you let go, your problem may still be there. But it won’t torment you. It will not cause you any misery. You become miserable only when you attempt doing something that you are incapable of doing. For instance, if a mechanical engineer encounters a water pump problem in his apartment, he may find a solution to fix it over time. But if the same engineer attempts to sing like Mohd.Rafi__especially when he doesn’t have a natural talent for music__he will suffer trying to wonder why is he unsuccessful and why people are laughing at him!
Life’s problems are not a punishment for those who have to face them. Religion has made us believe that our problems are a manifestation of past sins and only when we atone for them will we find relief. This kind of reasoning leads people to feel guilty about a past that they don’t even remember and makes them fear Life. So, some of them, foolishly resort to suicide as a means of giving up on Life. Let’s get this straight – Life has no agenda to victimize either you or me. Human beings do things. Life simply happens. These are the only to realities. When you can’t solve a Life problem by doing something about it, let go and enter the realm of allowing Life to happen to you – in total acceptance and humility! Just let it happen. Let go of your desire to control, to solve, to do.
So, when you find that your doing something about a situation is of no use, simply flow with Life. Float like a piece of wood does on a river. Don’t worry where Life is taking you, why is it taking you wherever it is going, and when will this journey end. This does not mean inaction. The choice of allowing yourself to ‘float’ is significant action in itself! Don’t, however, analyze and form opinions about outcomes and possibilities. Don’t reason what consequences will follow an outcome – if you end up here, this is what will happen or if you end up there, this is what it means. Let Go = non-reasoning, non analyzing, non-questioning! Let Go means living spontaneously!
Living in ‘Let Go’ mode is not difficult. It is intelligent living. Because you are doing the most intelligent thing AFTER trying to apply your intelligence at solving the problem or Life situation. When you live in a ‘Let Go’ you will live with your problem, your Life situation – but you will live in peace, in bliss.