A pompous friend and the modest billionaire Azim Premji help reinforce a key guiding principle in Vaani and me – that the essence of responsible citizenship lies in trusteeship.
This past week, a friend reached out wanting to visit us to invite us to his daughter’s wedding. We requested him to avoid the formality and support our initiative to save paper. So we asked him to send the Invite over WhatsApp. But the gentleman and his wife insisted on coming home. When they handed over the Invite, printed on hot pink paper with gold letters in a ‘custom-designed’ font, our friend said: “Each invitation card has cost us Rs.1000 and surely WhatsApp would not have done justice to our effort. So, we decided to come personally…that way you can see how elaborately we have planned this wedding…it will be the grandest in our family for a long, long time…!”
Even as he made that statement – both verbally and through physically handing over that expensive invitation card – Vaani and I wondered, if each card cost a whopping Rs.1000, then how big, how fat and how wasteful will the actual wedding itself be?
Although Vaani and I don’t see it that way anymore, I concede that weddings are regarded as a socially relevant and important occasion by most families. But do they really need to be pompous events where everything is about outdoing someone else, showing off how much you have and investing in a vulgar, reckless, display of ego, wealth and status?
Thankfully, some of the younger folks we know are leading a change among their families and peers. A few weddings we have been invited to in the last couple of years have been zero-waste affairs; they were bootstrapped and done tastefully with no pomp, with only very close family and friends in attendance.
We believe weddings, if they must be done at all, must focus on making the experience memorable for everyone present while keeping the event a responsible celebration that emphasizes companionship and Happiness. And when everyone wills it so, weddings can certainly be carefully, meaningfully, curated on lower budgets; the money saved can be put to better use – for the couple to travel and see the world or set up a new home or to support a social cause that is seriously starved of resources.
I know it will be a long way before this view is embraced by the majority. But clearly a Rs.1000-a-piece wedding invitation card is avoidable. Surely, you can create beautiful Invites that can be e-mailed or sent over WhatsApp.
Interestingly, again this past week, we were invited to an event where Azim Premji of Wipro was given the Madras Management Association – Amalgamations Group Business Leadership Award for 2019.
Why does the incredibly simple, modest, Premji even need to be feted with an award? This was the thought uppermost on our mind when we arrived at the event.
But former ICICI Bank Chairman N.Vaghul nailed the reasoning. He said that in a society where values like integrity and trusteeship are almost extinct, where there is a steady decline in responsible conduct of citizenship, the spotlight on Premji’s principled Life can really help showcase the continued relevance of these values. Through telling the story of his Life, of the world-class institutions he has built (in manufacturing, IT and education) and of how much he is giving away (estimated at close to $ 21 billion) to his charity – the Azim Premji Foundation – we are inviting future generations to pause, reflect and, hopefully, embrace his philosophy of trusteeship (which he says is inspired by Mahatma Gandhi).
Vaani and I took away a key learning from Premji’s acceptance speech. He said that there is only so much that a family can consume. The inference clearly is that whatever is available to a family beyond what they require to meet their basic needs may ideally be given away to support someone else’s need to live a dignified Life.
I didn’t miss the irony from the past week as I sat down early this morning to write this Blogpost. The reality of the world – and the times – we live in struck me hard. Surely there are more people around us who believe that making money and showing it all off is the Purpose of Life. They are like our friend who vainly insists that even the invitation card to his daughter’s wedding must announce his wealth and social status. And, sadly, there are fewer people like Premji, who despite all their wealth, remain grounded and are invested in social good. Which is why I agree with Vaghul. Every time a Premji is celebrated, the message of intelligent living, of compassion, of giving, is celebrated. And given the circus of greed and one-upmanship that we see incessantly playing around us, this celebration of responsible citizenship is critical to inspire people; to invite them to consider living fuller, more meaningful, lives.
The idea of responsible citizenship is not about doing charity when you are asked to do it. I am sure most people out there have enough goodness in them to stand up and be counted when they are asked to contribute. So, that’s not the kind of reactive behavior that I am talking about. Responsible citizenship is about trusteeship.
Think of trusteeship like this. You are a trustee of the Life that’s been given to you. And you are a trustee of the planet that you inhabit. So be responsible with how you live and how you use the planet’s resources. Recognize that you need only so much to live and to support your immediate family. Beyond food, clothing, shelter, education, a reasonable healthcare and retirement plan and hi-speed internet connectivity through a smart device, whatever you have, whatever comes your way, give it away. Give, not because you have to give, not because you are asked to give, but give because you want to give. Recognize that just as this human form, this Life, is a gift, every thing, every resource that you acquire in this lifetime, is also given to you. So, be responsible by employing all that you receive for human good, to make the world a better place.
I too will lean on Gandhi to suggest employing a simple principle to make informed, intelligent, decisions when it comes to practising trusteeship (I have tweaked Gandhi’s original thought to make it relatable to our times): “Recall the face of the poorest – economically, emotionally, spiritually – person you have come across and ask yourself if the step you are about to take will benefit this person? Will this person gain from your making this choice? Will it help restore them to a Life of dignity, love and Happiness? If it will, go do what you are planning to do. If it won’t, well, rethink your choice!”
Apply this principle to my friend’s choice to splurge Rs.1000 on that wedding invitation card. Apply it to Premji’s choice to give away $ 21 billion. And apply it to each of your Life choices – from the past, from the present and to those that may come up in the future. And see how beautifully this principle leads you – every single time – to distinguish between want and need; and to do what is right than what appears to be right!
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!
Sometime in April of 1988, soon after Vaani and I had decided to start a Life together, we visited Muttukadu, on ECR, in Chennai. We saw an open top Maruti Gypsy parked near the bridge there. I had barely started working as a sub-Editor, on a salary of Rs.782 per month, at The (New) Indian Express. But I was ambitious. And I loved the way the Gypsy looked. So, I stood next to it, pointed to the car and told Vaani, “Someday, we will buy this car for ourselves!” And she instinctively captured this picture on a Hot Shot (remember that magic device?) camera – perhaps for me to pause and reflect on Life lesson this morning…!