Thursday, August 25, 2005


My grandfather passed away in March last year. To a large extent I was expecting it, because he had not been keeping well for a while, and was already ninety years of age. A month before he passed away, he was diagnosed with leukemia. Not surprisingly, when we heard this news, we silently wished for the suffering to end peacefully, as it would have been harrowing to watch a ninety year old man face chemotherapy, and also at a time when his chances even with chemotherapy would have been slim.

My Ajoba was a wonderful man. He lived his life with great calmness, conviction, and strength of character. But he was not a saint, and he need not have been one. He became remarkable though, through his ordinary actions, rendered with extraordinary grit and dedication. He was always cheerful, he had unbounded mental energy and stamina, and indeed, he would put his young grandchildren to shame with his unstinting patience and optimism toward everyday life. Even when he was ninety, if someone suggested that we go for a drive or visit some place, while everyone else would crib or suggest alternatives or deliberate, he would always be the first one to say, "Let's go" in a very simple and matter-of-fact manner. He was present for all family events, big and small, and used to visit our place frequently, coming all the way from Mukund Nagar, even when his knees barely and painfully allowed him to climb up the two floors to our place. He would come, quietly sit and talk, maybe have a bite or two, and then ask someone to get him a rickshaw so that he could go back. It would have seemed that the relatively short time he spent was not always worth the trouble he went to, to come all the way. But that was my Ajoba, who participated in the smallest everyday routine with cheerful enthusiasm. Whenever somebody was not well, or somebody needed to picked up even from the airport in Mumbai, he would eagerly volunteer. For him, it were everyday actions, and not some exalted deeds, that constituted life's big adventure. His was a sobering and moderating presence that taught us all a lot. He inspired us in the most mundane ways, by teaching everyone how to live ordinary life in the best manner possible. He taught us that that's what counts the most.

To my knowledge, my Ajoba did not have any big intellectual interests in art, science, or politics. But he was one of those people, rarely found today and essential for our well-being, for whom life itself was the big interest. More importantly, he was someone, who made other people's interests his own. Whatever the discussion, he used to make himself part of the discussion, most of the times in a silent way, by his mere presence. For him, life was not about intellectual interests, but first and foremost, about human beings. He traveled around the world and watched other cultures and people and wondered at them. His great interest was in knowing what people around him were upto. His satisfaction came in knowing that they were happy and content. If not, he would always try to make them so, many times in the most unassuming way.

Everyone reacts to death in their own, personal way. When I heard about my Ajoba, the next day passed in a strange whirlwind of disorientation for me. I could not think of what to do. Then on a whim, I stepped into the great Library at Emory. The whole of the rest of the day, I spent in randomly wandering through the book stacks, and picking out miscellaneous volumes from the shelves and browsing them. I did this all day; at the end, I felt a certain calm. I realised that in times of turmoil, the warm and reassuring constancy of knowledge can help a lot. My Ajoba was perhaps not as much of a constant as the body of knowledge permanently inscribed in our consciousness, but he was as much of a constant as a human being can be. His quiet presence was like the air that we breathe, many times taken for granted, but of critical value for our sanity and furtherment.

In the Gita, it is said that all of us should do their karma without expecting its fruits. Many times, we look for glorious definitions of this karma, trying to look for it in history, and cite examples of great men who did it. When my Ajoba passed away, I realised that people who truly do their karma may not be that rare after all. My Ajoba was one of them. Regardless of what his karma was, in the end, the simple fact that he did it, validates a millenium of wisdom enumerated in ancient texts. And it's very good that these people are not too rare. In the great chapters of humanity, in times of celebration, in times of war and peril, as well as in 'ordinary' times of peace, it's the common people around us, seemingly ordinary, who do their karma and render themselves extraordinary. Theirs is a mitigating presence, essential for all the rest of us who may have gotten carried away. It's these people, in the most subtle way, that keep the fabric of humanity flowing and continuous, from the most mundane personal level, to the most profound global scale. Like many people, I would like to think my Ajoba was unique. I know he was not, but I can also say that people like that also don't come a dime a dozen.

Brutus's "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft intered with their bones" has become a part of folklore. And it may be true for the big events of history. But on a personal level, I beg to differ. Because of our relentless drive towards all that is good and sane, it is in fact the good people do, that lives after them. Being an agnostic, I don't believe that there is a heaven which grants these men peace, or that they watch over us. I would like to believe that the good which they have done, lives in us. It is we who carry on the torch, and it is our responsibility to ensure that it keeps on living and breathing. And I am sure many of us to recognise and bear that responsibility. That is a good thing.

I was inspired to make this post by a friend's post. My friend recently lost her grandmother. While I deeply share in her sense of loss, I believe she should also constantly feel heartened by her sense of awareness, and by her basic faith in her ability to do good.


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