One afternoon, in September 1979, when I was in my 8th Grade at PSBB – KK Nagar branch – Ms.YGP came into our class. PSBB had this practice in those days to read out progress reports publicly. I had been only an average student in the two years I had been at this school; scoring barely 50 % in most subjects except English. My scores in that quarter/term were pathetic; I shuddered as Ms.YGP pointed out, in her booming voice, that I had scored a paltry 6/100 in Geometry! She demanded that my parents meet her.
Within three weeks, I was changing schools.
My parents were living in Gulbarga (Karnataka) then and I was staying with my paternal grandmother, while studying at PSBB – KK Nagar. As they collectively discussed my academic performance, I recall my class teacher telling my parents that perhaps “I was homesick”. Then my parents were taken into Ms.YGP’s room. They emerged from it looking very disturbed. My mother kept maintaining for the longest time that Ms.YGP had ordered that they take me out of ‘her’ school because I was never going to be ‘brilliant’ at academics. This, my mother felt, was a big let down for her and my dad: you see, we didn’t have a strong story to “cover up my academic inefficiencies in a family that prided itself with brilliance in every academic discipline”! And so, I was treated as the ‘black sheep’ and was ridiculed for bringing disrepute to the family!!
It was my first experience with the Big ‘F’ word-label – Failure – being stuck on me.
For the next few years, I carried that trauma within me. Of being expelled from school for poor grades, of being shamed by my own parents for not being ‘good enough’…but interestingly, as I got out of my teens, this trauma turned into anger, ambition and raw aggression. A lot of what I achieved all the way till my late-30s was because of the anger in me over this one event from September 1979 – somehow, everything that followed by way of how I was looked at by my parents had its genesis in this one event!
Resultantly, I worked very hard at whatever I did. I wanted to prove to the world, particularly, to my parents, that I wasn’t a Failure. And, in more ways than one, I did prove myself – at least to me!
But that’s the thing with Success. When you get to that point – “your own peak or summit” – that you have lusted for, toiled for, you feel so shallow, so vain. So, by the time I was 37, my spiritual quest had led me to the practice of observing daily silence periods – mouna. In my early morning reflective, meditative, mouna sessions, I began to realize that had it not been for that expulsion from school in 8th Grade, I would never have been so ‘successful’ – despite my poor academic qualifications. I would not have traveled so widely across the world; I would not have experienced so many people, places or things; I would not have learnt and unlearnt so much! Soon, as I discovered much to my amazement, the anger in me gave way to a deep sense of gratitude for that event of my expulsion, for that label of “Failure” that had been stuck on me.
In 2006, when I was 38+, I read a report in The Hindu that Ms.YGP had turned 80 (in Nov 2005) and that Lakshmi Devnath had written a book on her – ‘A Class Apart’. I bought that book. I read it. And I had my secretary call and fix an appointment with Ms.YGP.
I met Ms.YGP at her home in T.Nagar. It was a beautiful, hour-long conversation we both had.
Here’s what I wrote in my journal that night: “She was so full of Life, cheerful, and exuding positive energy. Radiant, in fact. I wish I had taken a picture of her and me! But am bad at these things. She recognized me when I introduced myself. She had a sharp memory. Knew that CS was my class teacher. Knew that she did not see me pass out in 12th. I didn’t want to remind her that she was partly instrumental for that. Instead, I placed my head at her feet (literally) and sought her forgiveness for carrying so much hatred in me for her for so many years. She placed her hand on my head and blessed me. She said, the work I am doing with Vaani (she had enquired and so I had elaborated) would help a lot of people, all over the world.”
I am not so much into scriptures or religion or shlokas. But one particular verse from the Brahadaranyaka Upanishad always resonates with me:
asato ma sadgamaya
tamaso ma jyotirgamaya
mrtyorma amritam gamaya
om shanti shanti shanti…
I learnt that verse at PSBB – without knowing the meaning then. Today, I have grown up to know its meaning and its relevance. And, thanks to our enduring bankruptcy, (Read more here – Fall Like A Rose Petal – and here) there are times when I do reflect on this verse to instill a sense of surrender and prayer in me. At such times, I often do picture Ms.YGP leading the school assembly on some days…inviting us to recite this verse!
Over the past decade, since my meeting in 2006 at her residence, Vaani and I have met Ms.YGP several times at cultural events in the city. Even when we have not stopped to talk to her, we have always admired her sagacity, her sharp intellect and her zest for Life from a distance.
She surely touched my Life in more ways than one: I learnt the relevance of Failure and Success in Life, and learnt, quickly, of their irrelevance and impermanence too; I learnt of the essence of Life through that verse from the Brahadaranyaka Upanishad; I learnt the value of staying youthful and relevant even when you are old and, important, every time I saw her she reminded me of this unquenchable thirst to stay alive!
Success is not just about getting all what you want. It is about facing Life too.
Last evening, in a reminiscent mood, I played one of my favorite songs on YouTube. It was “Hum Honge Kamyaab” (Girija Kumar Mathur’s Hindi translation of the hymn of the African-American civil liberties movement, “We Shall Overcome”).
Around the time that Vaani and I were courting each other, in the late 1980s, I had this burning desire to be rich (so that we could have a “good” Life) and successful (so that I would have a name and fame). “Hum Honge Kamyaab” was our courtship-theme song – we were faced with so many challenges on the road to getting married, from no money to start our Life together to having to get our parents’ approval. So, Mathur’s translated lyrics made a lot of sense – it inspired us to believe that we would indeed overcome our challenges and some day we would become successful, kamyaab, as the song suggested!
Each time I hear “Hum Honge Kamyaab” my eyes well up. It happened again last evening! I reflected back on those heady times of our courtship and how we had surmounted every odd to get married and raise a family. I also recalled how, in particular, I chased success. And today, when I look at the ruins of what was once a dream (read more here: Fall Like A Rose Petal.), I feel that my entire approach to success, in fact, its very definition has changed dramatically. Success to me today means simply this: the ability to live with the reality that is. Which means, to me, acceptance is success, being happy with whatever we have is success and being content is success. As this thought ran through my mind and as I let “Hum Honge Kamyaab” caress my soul, I smiled to myself. Is this how one evolves in Life? To chase material success, find it, and through a Life-changing, cathartic experience, where every ‘thing’ is taken away from you, discover that all that one thought was success is no longer relevant. Success, I realized yet again last night, was simply about living each moment – the way it arrived and presented itself – well. Nothing else can qualify as success. Nothing else is success.
Surely, “Hum Honge Kamyaab” can still be anyone’s theme song – just as it continues to be mine. When you understand what being kamyaab, successful, really means, you will realize that it is totally unimportant how much wealth or fame you have in Life. What matters eventually is how much of your ‘given, gifted’ Life you have faced – and lived fully! To that extent, Vaani and I can surely say, “Hum Hain Kamyaab”!
Not all of the time you have in this limited-period offer called Life is relatable to money.
Yesterday I met a former employer of mine. He’s a billionaire who has, interestingly, filed for bankruptcy in one of his lines of business. I had worked with him as his EA over 20 years ago. He seemed to have heard of my financial troubles and had reached out to me wanting to understand where I was in Life.
When we met in his palatial sea-facing suite in a prominent five-star hotel, I presented him a copy of my Book, Fall Like A Rose Petal. Browsing through it, he told me that my problems were too small. And, according to him, a lot of my problems endured because I had not “understood how to live my Life”.
He hastened to explain that Life conforms to a simple formula: Life = Time (measured as a lifetime; also that we are a product of the time we go through) and Time = Money (because a majority of the financial transactions and economic models in the world are constructed around this theory); so, logically Life = Money. He theorized, alluded to and concluded that if I understood this formula about Life, I would emerge “successful” instead of being a “failure”.
I smiled back intently at him. I told him he was entitled to his view of Life. But my view of Life remains that we are all a product of the time we go through, so, yes Life = Time; besides, Life is a limited-period offer. But while Time may equal Money in some contexts, but it is not relevant in all cases. For instance if you have to choose between an important business engagement and being at your child’s birthday, and you choose business, then you would have made money alright, but you would have lost a precious moment forever; you would have lost an opportunity to be, to be happy, forever! So, time must be invested judiciously – indeed to earn a living, but, important, to live fully, happily. I reminded my former employer that I was earning a lot of money back then when I was working with him, and on a few occasions I was even following his formula of Life = Money, often skipping important Life milestones for business reasons. But while I made money, I was unhappy living the Life I was. For the record, I had quit working for him when he denied me a two-day break to travel back to India, to Chennai, to celebrate my son’s 6th birthday. I didn’t buy his Life = Money equation then, nor did I buy into it yesterday when he re-propositioned it to me.
The gentleman chided me for my inability to see “reality”. He strongly felt that I must see a psychiatrist. And he wanted me to follow a method, a set of rituals that he had borrowed from a TIME magazine article, to be happy so that I could be successful. I continued smiling at him. He was keen to know why I was so amused. I said I wasn’t amused. I was smiling because I was happy. In fact, I declared: “Sir, I am both happy and successful. So, thanks, but no thanks, for your advice!”
Not one to give up on anyone so easily, he asked me to define happiness and success. I said: “First, I don’t believe there are any methods or mantras to live Life. Happiness is just being in the moment. I am swimming in an ocean of problems Sir, but in the moment that is now, I am with one of the most richest Indians. In the hour that I have spent with you, the rich and famous, the powerful kingmakers and networkers of India have been calling you. But you called me. You offered me your warmth, your compassion, your time and such fine coffee. I am celebrating each moment I am spending with you. Which is why I am smiling all through our conversation. I am deliriously happy. This is how I live my Life from moment to moment, choosing to be happy with what is, in each one of them. So, happiness is to just be – to be immersed in the moment. And true success is to learn to always be happy despite the circumstances.”
Our interesting conversation ended on that note. He of course held on to his view. And wished that I would see his point of view to find happiness with, and in, material and financial success. I merely smiled back at him while I bade my goodbye.
On the Uber ride back home I reflected on the meeting and the learnings it offered with Vaani.
There’s an old Zen saying that goes like this: “You don’t step into the same river twice.” This saying reminds us that Life is ever-flowing. A moment that’s lost is lost forever. So, in every moment, if you make a choice to be happy with what is, with whatever is, you can live your Life without regrets. Surely, as long as you are alive, there will be problems you will encounter in Life. And there will be pain on account of those problems. But you will not suffer when you choose to be happy despite your circumstances. This choice to be happy is a personal one – and you can make that choice when you recognize that Time is not always = Money and that this lifetime is also the opportunity each of us has to make our lives happy, meaningful and memorable – one moment at a time!
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