Your Life flows in the direction created by the choices you make

There are no right or wrong ways to live your Life. Live it your way. After all, it’s your Life!
What caught my attention over veteran Hindi actor Sadhana’s passing on Christmas day was that she died alone in a hospital in Mahim, Mumbai – losing her battle with an undisclosed ailment. Her close friend and actor Tabassum told The Indian Express’ Sonup Sahadevan that Sadhana, 74, was “very ill and very sad”. Sadhana’s husband R.K.Nayyar had died in 1995 – the couple had no children. Sadhana apparently had no relatives and was also embroiled in a bitter legal case over the house she was living in as a tenant in Khar. Her eyesight in recent years had been affected by hyperthyroidism.
Picture Courtesy: Internet
Now, here was a woman who was the heartthrob of millions in India all through the 1960s and much of the 1970s – her famous films included Mera Saaya (1966), Woh Kaun Thi (1964), Gaban (1966), Mere Mehboob (1963), Ek Musafir Ek Hasina (1962), Hum Dono (1961), Rajkumar (1964), Waqt(1965), and Ek Phool Do Mali (1969). She was considered a style diva and her hairstyle, that was aped by many, was popularly called the ‘Sadhana Cut’.
Did such a memorable icon deserve such a forgettable end? This is one question that some of the people writing, commenting, opinionating on Sadhana’s Life and times, have asked over the last couple of days.
Interesting question. In trying to answer it, we must consider that Life is all about the choices we make. And we must remember that Life’s basic principle is impermanency. Nothing is permanent. What goes up, comes down. What goes down, comes right back up. So, fame, fortune, friends and family – everyone and everything, will, at some point, fade away. The choice to live your Life alone is entirely yours. The choice to perhaps fight a court battle – or whatever – is entirely yours. The choice to be sad is entirely yours. Just as the choice to be among people you know, to not fight a court battle and to be happy is entirely yours!
I am not here pontificating whether Sadhana made the right choices in her Life. I am only saying that her choice to do what she did was purely her own. Just as it is with each of us in the context of our Life’s stories. Osho, the Master, has explained a simple, practical, way of making decisions and choices in Life. He says, when decisions come from your head – from the way you are thinking; emotionally, rationally, whatever – you will often not enjoy the outcome of your decisions. He says you may even suffer from your choices. But when your decisions come from your being, he says, when they come from who you really are, then no matter what the decision is or what outcomes follow, you will be at peace. So, who are we to judge how Sadhana made her decisions, her Life choices? Maybe she was at peace living alone and fighting her court battles, even as she battled failing health. Maybe, if Tabassum’s perspective is brought into focus, she was not. In fact, with Sadhana gone, it does not even matter now.
Even so, there’s a learning here for all of us. Our lives are flowing in the direction created by the choices we have made. And, as I see it, there are no right or wrong choices. A decision is a decision. A choice is a choice. And each choice leads you through an experience that you again learn from. This is how Life flows…and flows….until it ends…possibly when it merges again with the source?

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A lesson in empathy from a national tragedy

Empathize, above all, with everyone. Even if you can’t help them in any other way, simply empathize.
This day, 23 years ago, Rajiv Gandhi, India’s former Prime Minister was assassinated in Sri Perumbudur, near Chennai. I was working as India Today’s state correspondent then.
A set of quirky circumstances that evening kept me away from proceeding to Sri Perumbudur, where then Tamil Nadu Congress heavyweight Vazhapadi Ramamurthi had agreed to let me meet Rajiv personally for a quick interview on the party’s poll prospects in the state (India was readying for elections to the Lok Sabha at that time). I heard of the assassination at 10.40 PM through a friend in The Indian Express, who called my landline at home. I called my editor Aroon Purie soon after and he did not make any bones about the fact that I had “blown a perfect first person account” of such a “huge story”. Journalists and media people are pretty much that way – news and story are above all else. Aroon and Rajiv were classmates from The Doon School, Dehradun – and they were also very close friends. But, despite his personal loss, Aroon focused on getting the best coverage of the assassination for India Today.
“I want you to salvage the story now. Get me every detail. Why and how did the security lapse happen? Who is responsible for this? What does the local state administration have to say? Get to the bottom of the plot – we must have the most exclusive coverage,” thundered Aroon over the phone, as I took down notes at an STD phone booth on Sardar Patel Road, near IIT, Chennai. (Please note: there were no mobile phones at that time and the landline at my residence did not have direct national dialling facility!). Rioting (by miscreants, in the garb of protesting against the assassination) had begun in the city as I navigated through much of it on my dilapidated Vijay Super scooter gathering information through the night.
The Rajiv Assassination Cover
I had promised to call Aroon every other hour. And I did. On the call, around 3 AM, he told me that he had withdrawn the magazine’s edition (India Today was a fortnightly then) which had gone to print and said the assassination story will now run on the cover. He told me that he had information that Sonia Gandhi was coming to Chennai in a special Indian Air Force (IAF) aircraft with Priyanka to claim Rajiv’s body. “I want you on that plane come what may. Take pictures. I need the most exclusive coverage of this national tragedy in our mazagine,” he instructed me.
I didn’t then know where to begin. Get on a plane? Carrying Rajiv Gandhi’s body? With Sonia and Priyanka Gandhi? That too, an IAF plane? I was in my night clothes – pyjamasand kurta – I had no money on me other than a couple of hundred rupees.
I headed straight to the Raj Bhavan and met the then Governor, Bhishma Narain Singh. Journalists have both the instincts and the privileges to gate crash anywhere, anytime. I convinced him that he must help me get on that plane. I also got details of all the intelligence reports he had of the assassination. Governor Singh did not promise anything but asked me to show up at the airport at 5 AM. I managed to connect with our staff photographer, Shyam Tekwani, and we both reached the airport and talked our way through the heavy security cordon. Governor Singh, seeing us, talked to a senior IAF official. And much to the surprise – and angst – of other journalists gathered there, on the tarmac at the old Meenambakkam airport, the IAF officer waved to me and Shyam to go onboard.
We boarded the plane soon after Sonia and Priyanka did. As I entered the cabin, I noticed Sonia fasten her seat belt. She looked up at me, through the dark glasses she was wearing. I am sure she must have been surprised to see someone in night clothes! But she looked away, lost in her grief. Mid-way through the flight, Shyam peeped through the curtains that separated the area where Sonia and Priyanka were seated, and where Rajiv’s coffin was fastened to the floor of the plane, from our side of the aircraft. There were only three more passengers with us – then Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Janardhan Reddy, the Gandhi family confidante R.K.Dhawan and an IAF doctor. I peeped over Shyam’s shoulder as he took pictures. Sonia had been sedated (the IAF doctor told me this) but Priyanka was sprawled on Rajiv’s coffin, which was draped in the national flag, and was crying inconsolably. Shyam took many, many pictures. No one stopped him. The tragedy was too big to think of anything else, I guess.
When we met in Aroon Purie’s office in Connaught Place, New Delhi, for an edit meeting later that afternoon (May 22nd), we gathered that Sonia had got wind of us being on that plane. She had also been told about Shyam taking all those pictures by R.K.Dhawan. It appeared that she had called Aroon personally and asked him not to publish those pictures or write details of that plane journey. I surmised that those pictures would now not be carried in the magazine.
I must admit I was upset. I was hardly 23 then. This was the BIG STORY of my Life. Being on a plane, carrying a former Prime Minister’s assassinated body, where no other journalist in India could even think of being was indeed big. And it now appeared that we were not going to run that story on the Gandhis’ moment of personal grief or carry those exclusive pictures?
Aroon read my mind perhaps. He simply said, “Above all else, let’s empathize with a wife who has lost her best friend and husband, and with the two children who have lost a father.”
I cannot claim I truly understood the value of being empathetic immediately, at that moment. But over the years, that perspective shared by Aroon, has helped me empathize better with people in difficult situations. All of us are so caught up with our work, and our worlds, we have no time to pause and think of how others are feeling. About what we are doing to them or about what they are going through. Someone’s gain is always someone’s loss. In some form or the other. And sometimes, it’s difficult to even imagine the grief of someone who has lost something valuable, unless you have been through a similar situation yourself. Learning to empathize with others is however something that can be developed over time and with experience.
Words cannot ever express empathy. But actions – a hug, a simple holding of hands, a moment taken to pause and be with that person – can. To be sure, being loving and compassionate takes a lot of doing. But being empathetic just requires being there and making an effort to understand someone’s pain and suffering. Maybe, someone needs your empathy just now?

Life Lessons I learned from Khushwant Singh

There are few people who have lived Life on their own terms, who have been brutally honest about themselves, as they have been of others, and who will live on through their Life’s message. Khushwant Singh was one of them.

I know there are far too many obits, tributes and memoirs out there celebrating the grand ‘ol man of India – his Life and his times. One more from me may hardly seem to matter and it may even appear to be an overkill. But let me share what I have learned from him.
Khushwant Singh
Picture Courtesy: Internet
26 years back, my wife and I met Khushwant Singh. My wife lived in New Delhi at that time and we were to marry the following year. I was visiting her on a vacation. We had some time to kill one afternoon. We looked up the phone directory (well, there was once a time we all depended on that big, fat book!) and called Khushwant Singh’s home. He answered the phone himself. I introduced myself as a journalist from ‘The Indian Express’, Madras, and I asked if I could interview him for our weekend magazine. He gave me an appointment the next day. So my wife and I landed up at his Sujan Singh Park residence. He answered the door himself, was very cordial and offered us ‘chai’(it was around 4 pm in the afternoon, so Scotch was out of the question I guess). Although he may not have been expecting someone with me, he was extremely nice to my wife. When he heard that we were engaged to be married he said, “Companionship is very important in Life. Be happy with each other’s presence and be there for each other.”He must have been 73 or so. And I was just getting to be 21. That advice, unsolicited though it was, has stayed with me, and with my wife, all these years, and has served us both very, very well. That’s the first Life lesson I learned from Khushwant Singh – and wasn’t I blessed to have learned it live, directly from him?
It was a good interview he gave me – he spoke about writing, shared his own views on the writer’s block and about journalism in India. He was very down-to-earth, dressed in home clothes with an unkempt turban on his head. Honestly, I was too overawed to be in his home, in front of him, that none of what he said really mattered to me then. I was keen on staying on for as long as we could because I wanted bragging rights that we spent so much time at Khushwant Singh’s home. So I kept on asking him questions. He soon got bored. But he did not hide his feelings or drop hints suggesting that we must now leave. He simply came to the point. “I am afraid you are taking more than the hour I had set aside for this interview. You have to excuse me. You will have to leave now,” he said in the most honest way anyone can say such a thing to visitors without sounding rude. We quickly apologized, packed up and left. That was the second lesson I learned from him – Be direct, in-the-face and truthful about whatever you feel. He surely lived his Life that way, but for young 20-something me, it was a big learning. I did not put this learning into practice effectively until about a decade ago. But ever since I have started being in-the-face and speaking my mind to people, I have been a lot more at peace with myself.
My interview with him appeared in The Indian Express’ Weekend section in Madras in a few weeks after our meeting. I sent him a clipping of the piece with a note thanking him and apologizing for our poor etiquette that afternoon. I didn’t expect him to reply. But he did. He thanked me for the clipping. He said that he enjoyed meeting me and my wife. He wished us both a wonderful married Life. It was a simple, short note. But there was a warmth and blessing in it. That was the third lesson I learned from Khushwant Singh – Take time to respond to whoever reaches out to you, no matter who they are. I treasure this lesson and live it every single day of my Life. I was not surprised, therefore, this morning when I read his son Rahul Singh’s tribute “My father Khushwant” in The Times of India where he says, “Above all, he was a great communicator. As the Kipling poem goes, my father could walk with the kings and yet had the common touch.”
Much fanfare has been made about how Khushwant Singh wanted his epitaph to read: Here lies one who spared neither man nor God; Waste not your tears on him, he was a sod; Writing nasty things he regarded as great fun; Thank the Lord he is dead, this son of a gun.” But typical to the man, not too many people have known (even I would not have known had it not been for former India cricket captain Bishen Singh Bedi’s passing mention in his piece in The Hinduthis morning) that as per his will, Khushwant Singh’s eyes were donated before he was cremated yesterday. Through this compassionate wish of his, I learned yet another significant lesson from Khushwant Singh, albeit through his passing – Always, be useful!
What a way to live and what a way to go. If we can imbibe the spirit of his Life’s message, we will all live happier – and peaceful – lives!  

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!

Because the truth involves you

About 25 years ago, when I used to work for The Indian Express, the newspaper had a tagline – ‘Because the truth involves us all’. Those were the days when Arun Shourie, the paper’s firebrand editor and his boss, the irrepressible Ramnath Goenka, were taking on the then Government  on the Bofors scandal exposing the corruption and rot within. That positioning statement then meant to me, as a young, impressionable journalist, that one had to take on the establishment and bring the truth, with honest reportage, no matter what.
Over the years, I have carried this spirit in me, though I have mellowed down, or matured perhaps, to understand and appreciate that while the truth does not need to be advertised, it surely needs to be always, and surely, spoken at the right time, with the right person, at the right place!
As long as you know it is the truth, always speak it. Because the truth can and must never be hidden. And because the truth involves you! But the most baffling thing about humankind is that we find it very easy to lie, to cover up, to say what immediately comforts us and the listener, than to speak the truth. Having spoken what’s easy, what came easy, the ideal situation must be to not suffer any more. Yet, most of the time, the person who has chosen NOT to speak the truth, grieves and suffers. This is what is most tragic.
Let’s say you have a tyrant for a boss. And you wish you could tell him what he was doing was wrong. Instead you keep praising him or approving of all his nonsensical behavior because you feel it is easier to pamper him than provide him with constructive feedback. Now, as long as you are living peacefully having deceived yourself and falsely pumped up the boss’ ego, there will really be no problem. But if you continue to feel miserable because you have been saying what you don’t believe in, then you have a problem. And the only solution then is to speak the truth about your boss, to him!
Contrary to most opinions, the truth is always respected. Both by the one saying it and by the one listening to it. But always say it to the one who is directly concerned with the truth. If you don’t, and choose to speak to a third party, you are actually promoting gossip. That’s when you are vitiating the atmosphere. For you, and for the person to whom you intend to speak the truth. Truth does not require any crutches. It can stand on its own. And you too can say it without any fear. But you believe just the opposite is true, in any relationship, because YOU don’t want to be the person saying it. You prefer that someone else bell the cat. Or that a kid, than you, tell that the emperor is wearing no clothes! That’s fantastic. If you are comfortable being someone who continues to thrive while pleasing everyone around, that’s just fine. Then, why are you grieving? Please don’t. If you are grieving over the state of any of your affairs, and if the people connected with your Life, need to be shaken awake, then throw the truth at them. Let them deal with it than you suffer with it! That’s the way to intelligent living. That’s the way to inner peace.