If death is the debt that all men pay, birth is the debt that no man can repay. Our parents give birth to us—without ever bothering to consult us—and shower us with love and affection, teaching us the ways of the world, inculcating values, and sharing their wisdom. In this manner, they place us in a precarious position of forever being in their debt. At least this is what we can expect when we win the parents lottery. Hitting the jackpot in a real lottery gives us a lot of money but winning the parents lottery, we simply go deeper into debt. And our grandparents, uncles, aunts, and elders rush forward to add to this insurmountable debt—so, by the time we come to our senses, we are already on the verge of defaulting on our loan!
My brother Ram and I were incredibly lucky to have been born in our family. We were brought up differently, tailor-made to our special needs. Our diametrically opposite personalities in many ways must have been a nightmare for our parents. My brother has always been the silent, obedient, rules-abiding, and respectful type while I’ve been the boisterous, rebellious, careless, and irreverent sort. In school, Ram was under-confident while I was over-confident. He stuck to his textbooks; I read everything but the textbooks. He, organised and I, haphazard. It is difficult to even fathom the sort of daily struggle my parents would have had to go through dealing with the two of us. I suppose they would have had a far more peaceful parenting time if their sons were both = (hari + ram) ÷ 2!
Amma and Appa both gave us lot of time in our early years. Until I came to college, the five of us (my paternal grandmother, my parents, Ram and I) ate dinner together as a family. Once or twice a week, we watched television together (cricket and movies mostly). We ate out at restaurants once a month on average. Once or twice a year, we went on holidays to historical places, lush-green forests, or temple towns. We visited friends and relatives often and we hosted people regularly. And so, there is little doubt that we were raised well. If, at any point, Ram or I forgot this fact, my father would be quick to remind us of it.
In 2006, I spent a month in the house of my friend Javier Lorca in Temuco, Chile—practically the other end of the world from where India is. I clearly remember the day I arrived in Temuco after a scenic eight-hour bus journey from Santiago. By the time Javier picked me up at the bus station and took me to his house, it was late in the evening and his mother had laid the table. We exchanged pleasantries and went straight to dinner. After we completed our meal and sat down on the sofa in the drawing room, Javier’s mother told me, “Your parents have raised you very well!”
Immediately I blurted out, “But how do you know that? I’ve hardly been here thirty minutes!” She smiled and said, “Because you did not waste a single morsel of food when you ate dinner. That is a sure sign of a good upbringing!” I smiled, thinking about all those times my mother forced me to finish everything on my plate. All her haggling and hustle had been of some use after all.
My parents often stressed on things of value rather than ephemeral details. While my mother would nag me to no end when it came to matters of personal hygiene, health, or even language (let alone using bad language, she would chide me if I uttered a grammatically incorrect sentence or spoke in a rustic dialect of Tamil!) she would not be too hassled about things like the marks I got in school or getting my homework done; she didn’t mind if I overslept or stayed away from attending the wedding of a distant relative.
My father was even less concerned about things like how much I scored in an exam or what I pursued during the vacation but emphasised punctuality, reasoning, understanding fundamentals, clear speech, and being forthright. At the cost of undermining his own authority as father, he encouraged us to speak our mind freely and disagree with him provided our logic was sound.
When friends or relatives visited us, Ram and I were invited to participate in the conversation and there was hardly an occasion when we were put down or sent away for having original (read crazy) ideas. We were taught money management from a young age—my father had opened bank accounts for Ram and me in the early ’90s, when we were schoolchildren. We were given the freedom to pursue whatever we wanted provided we could plead our case sensibly. To this day, any conflict at home is resolved by means of civil dialogue—when there is open discussion between the members of a family, there is hardly any chance of bearing grudges or carrying things in our hearts, unsaid. We agree to disagree on a number of things and there is peace in the homestead.
I realised quite early in my life that I had been extremely fortunate to receive the sort of training I got at home with regard to life skills and values and subsequently, the world-class education I got from my numerous gurus in various disciplines. This realisation was largely responsible for my taking the decision of devoting much of time towards contributing to society rather than chasing after selfish materialistic pursuits. This is yet another hazard of winning the parents lottery—all that we accomplish is also owed to our parents!
Like any other family, we too have had our share of health issues. From the age of five, I have seen death and disease at regular intervals. But the manner in which my parents dealt with these harsh realities of life in a calm, composed, and practical manner instilled a sense of fortitude in me. In late 2008, my father was diagnosed with cancer and in the following months, he completely changed his lifestyle and actually improved his health. In 2014, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. The medication – radiation and chemotherapy – took a toll on her and recovery was painfully slow but she braved it all with aplomb. In 2020, I fell seriously ill with a bout of tuberculosis, which I wriggled out of, thanks to the support of family and friends. In 2021, my paternal grandmother, my parents, and Ram were all diagnosed with covid-19 and they came out of it unscathed.
A few months ago, we learnt that my mother had a tumour on her left femur bone and that it was malignant; her cancer had relapsed. Thanks to her cousin Dr. Mukund’s efforts, in a short time my mother consulted the finest doctors in India and is presently receiving the best possible treatment—although palliative in nature. In addition to her medicines, she has been undergoing regular physiotherapy and has been taking herbal supplements, both of which have proven to be extremely helpful in improving her general health. More importantly, the manner in which she is dealing with her situation every day— being balanced, pragmatic, and methodical—is an inspiration for everyone.
Even the writing of this book has been one of the strategies she has employed to improve her health. Recalling poignant episodes and influential people from one’s past, seeing them all in a somewhat detached manner—almost like watching a movie—and trying to cull out the most valuable learnings from them will prove to be immensely valuable to the next generation. I’m delighted that my mother took time to pen down a short sequel to her earlier memoirs (Sixty Years, Sixty Episodes). Although the persons and events she alludes to in these pages will be largely unknown to many, readers may enjoy them merely as human interest stories. Further, the life lessons that she delineates will, doubtless, benefit all readers.
As a result of the serenity and love exhibited by our parents and grandparents, Ram and I too have been able to cultivate some amount of calmness in the way we deal with life’s realities and some degree of warmth in the way we deal with people. We realised that it is useless to get worked up, complain, become anxious, lose our temper, or feel depressed when faced with a crisis. Rather than fret about the problem, we make a sincere attempt at finding a viable solution.
If even one of my family members had been the type who panics, I doubt if my mother’s recovery post-surgery could have been so smooth.
In a crude sense, we are all ticking time-bombs without anyone ever knowing what the time of detonation will be. Yet, we all continue to live on blissfully avoiding this reality. In fact, it would be impossible to function without this forgetfulness regarding our end. But if we were to bring to our consciousness, every now and then, the truth that
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
and our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
funeral marches to the grave.
[Stanza 4 of A Psalm of Life by H W Longfellow]
We might learn the subtle art of valuing every single moment, living mindfully one day at a time, and as a result, enjoying the rest of our life.
March 17th, 2023 | Ravi 58