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!
In today’s Podcast I share two episodes from my Life, almost two decades apart, to tell us why I believe compassion works.
Listen time: 6:12 minutes
My Vlog today says receiving help and support from people around you is an integral part of the process of Life! There is no shame in receiving. It is a humbling experience.
Viewing time: 2:28 minutes
Be who you are, love – and live – the way you are. Don’t analyze too much.
The other day, after we stepped out of a grocery store on a busy street, a man approached us. He must have been in his 60s. He asked us for some money saying he had not eaten. I did want to give him some money – not that we have any of our own, earned, money – maybe twenty rupees, but I am very wary of doing charity on crowded streets. When you pause to pull out your wallet, a whole bunch of people seeking alms accost you. And then you create a spectacle – whether you donate to each of them or you don’t. Besides, the syndicate that runs this alms-collection operation in Indian cities is controlled by the mafia. So, over time, Vaani and I have set up a simple process. Whenever we want to serve, we cook a meal at home and go round a few blocks feeding random, hungry, strangers in adjacent neighborhoods. And whenever we want to support a cause, we do it online – we support http://www.rasaindia.org or http://www.akshayatrust.org or we choose from a variety of meaningful programs on http://www.truegiftsindia.org.
Interestingly, the same day that the incident I have narrated above happened, a friend, who follows my Blog, pinged me from New York. He asked: “What is that thing that holds us back from doing good…many times I see a helpless person or animal on the street…I can empathize with that person, I feel sad, but I hardly step out and help…we read about this everyday…people see an injured person on the road and walk away…or they see a hungry, homeless, person, on a few stop to help…is it a “why should I care?” feeling or is it something to do with “not wanting to dirty our hands”?”
I am not sure such analysis of human intention is helpful. I fundamentally believe that all of us are do-gooders. We are all compassionate. And all of us want to help. But each one of us has a way to express this compassionate side to us. There are people who are extremely comfortable with taking complete ownership of social causes and driving them – at significant cost to themselves financially and time-wise. There are people who just like to donate to a charity they support. There are others who believe in volunteering and offering their sweat and time to institutions or networks that are leading social change. And then there are those who do whatever they do, sometimes doing all of what I have outlined, alternating between models, mediums and channels, quietly. There are also folks who have taken to serving others, who believe it’s their raison d’etre to work towards uplifting Life and humanity. And, of course, there are some people who don’t wish to get involved in doing anything for others. Surely, it takes all kinds of people to make this world. And I don’t think we must label anyone as good or bad depending on whether they have an expressive, visible, do-good gene in them or not. I don’t advise judging anyone on whether they stopped by to help someone on the street or not. I don’t even want to evaluate my compassion in respect of others – there have been many occasions when I have wanted to do something for someone, but I simply can’t because we ourselves are going through a tough time! So, I believe we must allow each one of us to be human in our own unique ways.
Of course, we can make this world a much better place if each of us did just a wee bit more than what we are doing presently for fellow humans, for other Life around us and for the planet. But let our need and ability to serve, to contribute, come from within. Let us not compare, let us not rate our compassion or that of others. Just being who we are, the way we are, and being at peace ourselves, will make us happier people. And the happier we are, the happier our world will be!
As Vaani and I climb up two steep flights of stairs to get to the Café Coffee Day store, where we are to meet Charukesi Viswanathan, we wonder if we made the right choice with the meeting venue. Charukesi is 78. Will he find the stairway difficult to climb? But in a few minutes the man himself arrived and scampered up the stairs easily, with the energy of a 10-year-old. When we pointed this out to him, he smiled and said that he had spent the previous night on a train’s upper berth returning from Thrissur. “Some of my co-passengers were over 80, and the one who was allotted the upper berth had an arthritic condition. So, I swapped my lower berth with him. It was no problem at all. It is all in the mind,” says Charukesi, gleaming!
That nugget of conversation sums up who Charukesi is. For one, he’s the humble, quiet, unassuming giant – having completed 60 remarkable years as a writer recently! More important though, he is the rare sort of person who is very happy and content with anything, anyone, anywhere. And what he doesn’t like – and that includes people – he avoids completely. “You are happy as long as you choose not to do anything that makes you unhappy,” he says.
Charukesi credits his father, a homeopath, with teaching him two principles that have guided him all his Life: “One is to always do your duty without expecting anything in return and the second is to work – and live – in a fashion in which it doesn’t bind you.” Expectations always bring agony, to live without them is an art and this is the key to happiness. Just as it is to work in a detached manner – doing what you can and leaving the outcome to Life. I guess Charukesi’s Life epitomizes these two principles.
He hated academics, so he never acquired a formal college degree. Yet he has been a writer for 60 years and has worked with Pfizer, the pharma major, for close to 40 years – rising from being a sales assistant to branch manager – and has taught himself to appreciate Carnatic music. His articles on musicians, artistes and their performances, are greatly valued both by readers and publications. We ask him what is the secret of his longevity and relevance in a very crowded, ‘me-too’ space – writing. “I enjoy learning. I don’t see myself as someone who knows everything. In my Pfizer days I have attended workshops on practically everything from housekeeping to production management to quality. I have attended several programs for writers. And when I took to music, I taught myself to appreciate it attending every concert around me. So, I just keep learning,” informs Charukesi.
Interestingly, while Charukesi is his nickname, and it is also a very popular Carnatic raga, the story goes that he did not choose the name for himself. One of his friends suggested the name to him and he adopted it. But even as he did that he didn’t know that it was also a famous raga or that he would one day be known for his music reviews. “Honestly, I still don’t know who recommended my name to The Hindu. One day, many years ago, I got a call from the desk at the paper asking me if I could review a kutcheri for them. I accepted…and that’s how the journey began. I don’t think I have done anything great…it just happened,” avers Charukesi. He is not being modest for effect, I know that he means every word of what he says. At the felicitation ceremony, some weeks ago, where the who’s who of Chennai’s literary circles flocked to celebrate him for completing 60 years as a writer, Charukesi sat very, very uncomfortably on the dais. When I asked him why he was so uneasy, he said that he hated the spotlight. “Only politicians like to hear praise about themselves; only they love ponnadais and felicitations. I am not a politician. I am just an ordinary writer.”
Yet, he is no ordinary writer. He has been writing for 60 years. He has written both in English and Tamizh. And he has more than 65 titles to his credit. He is the go-to translator for every major publication and author – from Sudha Murthy to Devdutt Patnaik – who want to see their work in Tamizh.
In such an extra-ordinary Life, there are bound to have been lows. How did he handle them, I ask him. “Oh! There have been lows,” he confesses. One was when he lost his older brother to tubercolosis in 1961. And the other time was in 1997 when his younger brother passed away in a road accident. “I found it very difficult to deal with pain the first time. I suffered a lot. The second time too, I thought I could not handle it. I even considered quitting my job at Pfizer. But the then chairman of the company, S.V.Pillai, who was visiting my branch, sat down with me and asked me to immerse myself in my work to take my mind off the tragedy. That advice really helped me cope. It was through that catharsis that I learnt that Life must be faced; we must take Life as it comes.” At work too, over a career spanning four decades with one company, Charukesi has had to face tough circumstances. In one instance, one of his close colleagues protested when Charukesi was awarded a double increment in salary and promotion, for the third consecutive time. When the politicking got unbearable, Charukesi wrote to the management of Pfizer asking for his reward and promotion to be revoked. “I simply did not want someone’s actions and words to make me unhappy. I thought if this person would be happier if I did not get the raise, let me make him happy,” explains Charukesi. The management of Pfizer and his detractor were surprised with Charukesi’s rather unique response. But through some candid conversations the matter was settled, with the colleague realizing his mistake and the management insisting that Charukesi accept his just reward. “It was through this experience that I learnt the value of never allowing anyone or anything to ruin your happiness,” says Charukesi.
Spending time with Charukesi is like taking a crash course in humility. Here’s a man, a colossus, who towers over the bi-lingual writing scene in Tamil Nadu. Yet he is so unassuming. He wanted to know how Twitter works. And as we explained that to him, he listened intently, with a twinkle in his eyes, like the way a child would try to understand a new gizmo or hear a new story. He started writing as a hobby in 1956, for Kannan magazine from the Kalaimagal stable, and got paid a princely sum, then, of Rs.5/-. He still writes today but gives away his income from royalties to support causes from education to healthcare. “I don’t want to talk about my philosophy of giving. I do it because it makes Life better for someone, somewhere. It makes them happy,” says Charukesi brushing aside all suggestions that he’s benevolent.
We ask him for his advice to today’s generation – who seem to be leading very complicated and stressed out lives despite technology having made Life so simple: “Expectations for what-must-be are high and satisfaction for what-is is low. It must be the other way round. Then people will lead fuller, happier lives.”
As we say goodbye to Charukesi and head back home, I admire the simplicity of the man and the beauty of his being. Yet I can’t but help celebrate his father who taught his son the value of being happy and content early on in Life. A lesson, because it was well taken, has helped Charukesi be who he is today!