Atonement “will” happen if avoidable choices have been made

All atonement really happens in this lifetime – whether you will it that way or not.
Life really is a series of actions. When you act, you do end up believing that what you are doing is right or acceptable (at least to you!) – which is why you really do whatever you decide to. Now, all that you do may not appeal or be acceptable to others – often times not even to your companion, your friends or your family. It is also possible that what you did was genuinely avoidable. Whether something is right or wrong is a very subjective opinion. So, it’s best to restrict any assessment only to decide if something you did – or are doing – is avoidable or not. When you do something that you could have avoided, the best way forward is to own up, seek forgiveness from those who have been impacted by your choice and move on. You may not always be forgiven. But true atonement begins and ends with you. It really concerns no one else!
This morning’s ‘Times of India’ carries an interview by Shilpa Phadnis and Sujit John with former iGate CEO Phaneesh Murthy. Murthy was sacked from iGate in May this year following an office affair that led to the company’s investor relations head Araceli Roiz to claim that she was pregnant with Murthy’s child. (iGate’s policy does not encourage or support office affairs.)  For Murthy this was the second time in a decade that he was getting involved in a relationship which cost him his job – the first time was in 2002 when he was sacked by his then employer Infosys, when his colleague Reka Maximovitch levelled charges of sexual harassment against him and the company. Talking to Phadnis and John, Murthy admits that he made “a mistake” stepping out of his marriage. He says: The whole thing was very regrettable. The mistake I made was in stepping out of my marriage. I have to work on my relationship at home, and that’s what I’m doing. We will see where that leads and that’s my priority number 1. And that’s the reason I haven’t accepted full-time employment anywhere. …Obviously. I also have a significant amount of guilt. Somebody once told me that self-punishment is worse than any other punishment. That’s what it is. I have to now do whatever I can to make up, and I don’t know whether anything I do will be enough.
I clearly don’t want to judge Murthy’s past actions or his effort now to atone. It appears from reading the rest of the interview that Murthy’s wife Jaya and he live separately now. And that, from what Murthy claims, Jaya is his best friend and is giving him time and space to atone and, hopefully, emerge better from the experience. If Jaya is indeed doing that, it is both the best thing to do, given the circumstances (they have been married for 25 years now and still have a good friendship), and is commendable. To me, personally, the fact that Murthy is being honest – he is speaking about his actions publicly and knows that whatever he is doing may never really help him undo what he has already done – is what really matters.
When someone can come out and say she or he made a mistake or made an avoidable choice – that’s what true atonement is all about. Every action can be justified in hundreds of different ways. But all justifications are invalid in front of the mirror. If you can’t get the face in the mirror to accept your actions, as just and judicious, then nothing else counts. When you recognize that you could have acted more appropriately, wisely, and are willing to own up, then you have earned the right to expunge your guilt. That’s how the journey to atone becomes easier to handle. Most important is to recognize that nothing is really sacred in Life other than how you view yourself. It is human nature to go astray, to make a questionable choice, to do things that hurt or injure others. So, never fall prey to guilt and self-pity, when you do awaken. Instead accept, own up and move on. And even if you haven’t awakened, after making several avoidable choices (just as Murthy made the same choice twice, there are several of us who keep doing the same things again and again and again….!), or after several wake-up calls, remember that sooner than later – you will realize, you will awaken. For, whether you will it or not, you can’t but atone. And all atonement is in this lifetime only!  

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!

Inspire your children to come alive

Give your children the power of choice. Allow them to experiment, fall, fail, learn and decide what they want to do. Don’t let your experiences and your insecurities dictate your children’s career or Life choices.
This morning’s Times of India reports that 769 seats are still vacant in the famed Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) for the current 2013~ academic season. This is unprecedented in the glorious history of the IITs in India. This can mean two things: that the IITs have lost their sheen or that engineering as a field of study is no longer a (forced) preferred option. I would like to assume and believe that the latter is true and that the vacant seats reflect a very teeny-weeny shift in the conventional Indian parental mind-set which has primarily been, for generations, oriented towards driving their children to pursue careers in either engineering or medicine. The Aamir Khan-starrer, Hindi blockbuster, 3 Idiots (2009, Rajkumar Hirani) held a mirror to Indian parents when it showcased Farhan’s (Madhavan) plight: of a brilliant wildlife photographer-to-be who was caught in the rat race to become a mediocre engineer just because his father (Parikshit Sahani) always dreamt of Farhan becoming an engineer! I am not sure if the response to admissions to IITs this year is any reflection of the central, core message of 3 Idiotsbeginning to percolate and causing parents, and their children, to focus on what makes the children come alive than what makes the parents feel secure!

As much as Life is unpredictable, Life is also often times a long journey. Many of our experiences and learnings, often from misadventures, direct us towards our destiny. I for one, after being a salesman, a journalist, a strategist, a CEO, a project manager, an executive assistant to a tycoon and a consultant, (in that order), over 17 years, discovered what I wanted to reallydo in Life only when I turned 35. Obviously, I was doing many things after college. I was working my butt off and earning good money. But while each experience I had was exciting, I was still searching for something. There was an incompleteness that I could not describe. It was only when I was faced with a Life-changing crisis that I found out what really gave me joy. That’s when I felt completely at ease and peace with myself and was able to say with certainty and conviction that “this” is what I want to do for and with the rest of my Life. So, the import here is that people, especially children, need to be allowed to make their choices. They must be allowed to experience Life and choose what makes them come alive. The world needs people who are alive, not nerds who have got the grades but whose souls are dead long, long ago. A great musician can heal the world many times over than a mediocre doctor ever can. A fashion designer may pack more precision and creativity into a piece of work than a bad engineer can ever even conceive.

An interview in the same edition of Times of India is worth referring to here. It was with actor Prakash Raj, who lost his 5-year-old son to a freak accident, 9 years ago. Raj, one of India’s most accomplished and famous character actors, had this to say about memories of his son and Life: I can’t forget him, even though I have removed all photographs of his. I am a non-believer and wanted to bury him in my farm. I just go, sit there many times. He is the one who made me realize how helpless I am and how unpredictable Life is and how small it is and how weak you are in front of nature. I love my daughters, but just miss my child, even though it’s been nine years since he died. He was just five when, while flying a kite from a one-feet-high table, he fell on the ground. For a few months after that, he would have fits, after which he died. Nobody could understand what was the reason. His death was more than any other sorrow for me. I don’t take Life for granted anymore and live in the moment.
As it is that crucial time of the year for admissions to colleges, perhaps you are a parent who’s grappling with just the same issue I am sharing here. My unsolicited advice is this: enjoy your children as long as this lifetime lasts. Inspire them to come alive. Ask them what makes them come alive. And give them the freedom to pursue it. Support them in whatever manner you can. More than your money, they need your conviction in them. More than making yourself feel secure about your children’s future, strive to make them more happy by allowing them to do what fills them with joy! Life’s too short. You might as well watch your child being truly happy than watch her or him be unhappy while being financially and professionally, and given the inscrutable nature of Life, vainly, secure!

Anchor within to find your God


An interesting headline in this morning’s Times of India caught my attention. It read: “More Indians have stopped believing in God – Survey”. The London-datelined story reported that the latest Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism found the number of non-believers in India increasing. As against 87 % saying they were religious in the same Survey in 2005, the percentage has fallen to 81 % in 2012. In other words, a drop of 6 % in seven years!  

This got me thinking again about this whole God debate. And I am expressing, sharing, only my personal views here with no disrespect to your views or beliefs.

Is there a God? And if so, why do so many of us, good, honest folks, have to go through tough times? Why do terrible things happen to good people? Why is there so much pain and suffering everywhere? And why do people who employ deceit always get away with it? If God is indeed the epitome of virtue, as all the world’s religions have always been saying all the time, why is God being a silent spectator to all that’s wrong with the world? I am sure you have asked these questions too. But for lack of any evidence that can lead us to the answer, we end up leaning on our conditioning, and cling on to a crutch that we have labeled ‘God’.

Obviously there’s an intelligent energy that powers the Universe. Otherwise we can’t explain creation and the existence of Life in a simple, easy-to-hold manner. But no one’s been able to conclusively prove that that energy is a person. All the world’s religions will of course have us believe only in this ‘God is a person’ theory. I have come to agree with what German philosopher Friedrich Neitzsche (1844~1900) postulated, that, perhaps, man created God (and it possibly was never the other way round!) to control large masses of mankind through religion. This perspective, when reflected upon, will explain why as a species, we are increasingly becoming more divisive and intolerant of each other.

The real question concerning God is not about believing or non-believing. It is about knowing and non-knowing! The English word ‘enthusiasm’ comes from the Greek language. In Greek, ‘en’ means ‘within’ and ‘theos’ means ‘God’. So enthusiasm really means the ability to invoke the ‘God within’. And that’s the knowing I am talking about. Since we are all powered by the same energy source that powers the Universe, it is imminently possible that the God that we so desperately seek outside of us__through religion and through a place of worship__really resides within us. The only way to ‘realize’ that God, to feel that God, to connect with that God, is to be present in the here and now. And live every moment of this gift called Life enthusiastically.

Interestingly, every scripture in the world, champions just this same perspective: that living in the moment__without clinging on to the past or worrying about the future__while being enthusiastic about the Life that you have been given, loving what is, is the only way to experience God. That’s why you see Godliness in a child or in anyone who’s immersed joyfully in her or his work. A child is present. It never lives in the past. Or worries about anything. It plays with the Life it has, engaged in the moment. So do people who lose themselves to their work. Whether it is a musician or a sportsperson or a chef or a surgeon or even a housekeeper __ when the person is immersed wholesomely in the activity, you will see Godliness in that person.

Even so, possibly God’s existence will continue to be debated forever. But no one will deny that there’s Godliness in all creation __ including in you! We don’t experience this Godliness all the time because instead of anchoring in the God within we make bad spaghetti of this beautiful, even if inscrutable, Life by preferring to be held hostage by the concept of an external God!

As Mirza Ghalib (1797~1869), the legendary Urdu poet wrote memorably: “Sharaab Peene De Masjid Mein Baith Kar…Ya Woh Jagah Bata Jahan Khuda Nahin!” It means, “Allow alcohol in a place of worship or show me a place where God isn’t present!”

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!

           

Lesson in Acceptance and Bliss from Afzal Guru



Just as it is in the English language that A precedes B, so it is in Life that Acceptance precedes Bliss!

Bliss has been marketed, over the centuries that human civilization has been around, as something that has to be pursued, sought for and found. In reality though Bliss is always available, 24×7, provided you are tuned in. Tuning in simply requires Acceptance of what is and not wishing what could be or should be or fearing what would be. Unfortunately, a large mass of humanity is wedded to what could be, should be and would be, and never really relates to what is. Therefore, Bliss is projected as something that is difficult to attain and something that has to be worked hard for! Resultantly, Bliss has a bit of a lousy reputation. To most people I guess it is like the Indian Chartered Accountancy exams, critical to appear for and useful in one’s career, but difficult to prepare for and almost impossible to clear in the first few attempts!

Since most of us are logically driven, let’s take a simple example. 2+2 = 4. This is what we have been taught. And this is what we have understood it to be. Also, what we eventually learned and found to be true too. Now, we accept that 2+2 CAN ONLY be 4. So, this Acceptance delivers us Bliss in that context. It is that simple. Just imagine how vexed you will be if you had worried about what 2+2 could be or should be or would be. Isn’t even that thought preposterous and unnerving? Think of someone trying to prove to the world that 2+2 could be 5 or should be 5 or would be 5! Now, think similarly of a situation in any other context of your Life. You get it? Focus on what is. Accept it. You will experience Bliss__then and there__in a nano-second.

Afzal Guru
Over the last couple of days I have learned a very important lesson from Afzal Guru, who was convicted in 2002 by a special Prevention of Terrorism Act court in the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 and was hanged in Tihar Jail on Saturday, February 9th. Even before I share what I learned let me clarify that I am not opinionating on his actions, or the judgments of the various Indian courts including the Honorable Supreme Court, or on the President of India’s rejection of his mercy petition on February 3rdthis year, or the secrecy with which his execution was carried out. I am also not opinionating here in favor of or against capital punishment. I am here to share with you what I believe I have learned from Afzal Guru’s last day in Life. My learnings are based on what I have pieced together from media reports. The Hindu’s Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar, in his detailed account, quotes a jail official as saying that Guru was the most ‘calm and composed’ of all the 10 prisoners, he (the official) has seen in his career, who have been walked to the gallows at Tihar. Guru apparently talked of the similarities between Islam and Hinduism__having been well versed with both the Holy Quran and the four Vedas. In his last hour, an official described (to The Hindu) Guru as being ‘joyful’, greeting each of the jail staff by their first names and saying ‘al vida’ (good bye in Urdu) to the executioner, looking him in his eyes, before the black cloth was drawn over him! Importantly, reports The Hindu, “Another difference between Afzal and others who were executed for terrorist crimes terrorists, the official said, was that while almost all others had made religious or political cries before being hanged, Afzal just walked the last 100 steps from his cell to the gallows as he normally would and went away wishing those around him.” Today’s Times of India quotes a jail source, sharing broadly the content of the personal letter that Guru wrote to his wife Tabassum, who lives in Sopore in Kashmir: “It was an extremely personal letter where he told his wife to take care of their son and not agonize over his death. In very gently worded language, he said that she should remain strong for their son and not give in to despair. As ever, Guru was calm and dignified in his parting words.”

My learnings:

  1. Right or wrong, whether you are committing it or whether you are being subjected to it, has NO relevance in the realm of what is. It is only what it is, AS it is!
  2. Only Acceptance of what is, irrespective of who caused it, can heave you up from the abyss of suffering and deliver to the altar of bliss!

There can be several arguments in favor of Guru and against him. Contesting his execution and celebrating it. Mourning the lack of human decency in the manner in which his execution was carried out with no intimation to his family; to saying his family too deserved to experience the pain that his purported actions caused to people affected by them. But I am inviting you to rise above all that. A simple question needs consideration. How many of us will have the ability to be detached from our worldly moorings when death comes calling, especially when we KNOW that the end is upon us? Guru’s ability to have accepted his reality__again, I repeat, irrespective of any judgment of his deserving of it or otherwise__led him to his bliss which the jail authorities saw as his being ‘joyful, calm and composed’!

So live with and love what is. Don’t try to avoid it or resist it. Open your eyes and see your reality. Accept it with humility, compassion and love __ irrespective of who is responsible for this reality. The moment you Accept your reality, you will be, and in, Bliss!