Category Archives: Work and Life

My thoughts on corporate life, work-life balance or the lack thereof and so on.

The Razor’s Edge by W Somerset Maugham

May be it is only my tendency to see philosophy everywhere, but I honestly believe Maugham’s works are the classics they are because of their deep philosophical underpinnings. Their strong plots and Maugham’s masterful storytelling help, but what makes them timeless is the fact that Maugham gives voice to the restlessness of our hearts, and puts in words the stirring uncertainties of our souls. Our questions have always been the same. Where do we come from? What are we doing here? And where are we headed? Quo vadis?

Of all the books of this kind that I have read, and I have read many, The Razor’s Edge takes on the last question most directly. When Larry says, out of the blue, “The dead look so awfully dead.” we get an idea of what his quest, and indeed the inquiry of the book, is going to be.

Larry Darrell is as close to human flawlessness as Maugham ever gets. His cynical disposition always produced vivid characters that were flawed human beings. We are used to snobbishness in Elliott Templeton, fear and hypocrisy in the vicar of Blackstable, self-loathing even in the self-image of Philip Carey, frivolity in Kitty Garstin, undue sternness in Walter Fane, the ludicrous buffoonery of Dirk Stroeve, abysmal cruelty in Charles Strickland, ultimate betrayal in Blanche Stroeve, fatal alcoholism in Sophie, incurable promiscuity in Mildred — an endless parade of gripping characters, everyone of them as far from human perfection as you and me.

But human perfection is what is sought and found in Larry Darrell. He is gentle, compassionate, single-mindedly hardworking, spiritually enlightened, simple and true, and even handsome (although Maugham couldn’t help but bring in some reservations about it). In one word, perfect. So it is only with an infinite amount of vanity that anybody can identify himself with Larry (as I secretly do). And it is a testament to Maugham’s mastery and skill that he could still make such an idealistic character human enough for some people to see themselves in him.

As I plod on with these review posts, I’m beginning to find them a bit useless. I feel that whatever needed to be said was already well said in the books to begin with. And, the books being classics, others have also said much about them. So why bother?

Let me wind up this post, and possibly this review series, with a couple of personal observations. I found it gratifying that Larry finally found enlightenment in my native land of Kerala. Written decades before the hippie exodus for spiritual fulfillment in India, this book is remarkably prescient. And, as a book on what life is all about, and how to live it to its spiritual fullness in our hectic age, The Razor’s Edge is a must read for everybody.

Ambition vs. Greed

Growing up in a place like India, I was told early in life that ambition was a bad thing to have. It had a negative connotation closer to greed than drive in its meaning. I suspect this connotation was rather universal at some point in time. Why else would Mark Anthony harp on Brutus calling Caesar ambitious?

Greed, or its euphemistic twin ambition, probably had some role to play in the pain and suffering of the current financial turmoil and the unfolding economic downturn. But, it is not just the greed of Wall Street. Let’s get real. Jon Steward may poke fun at the twenty something commodity trader earning his thirty million dollar bonus by pushing virtual nothingness around, but nobody complained when they were (or thought they were) making money. Greed is not confined to those who ran fifty billion dollar Ponzi schemes; it is also in those who put their (and other people’s) money in such schemes expecting a too-good-to-be-true rate of returns. They were also made of the sterner stuff.

Let’s be honest about it. We in the financial industry are in the business of making money, for others and for ourselves. We don’t get into this business for philanthropic or spiritual reasons. We get into it because we like the rewards. Because we know that “how to get rich quick” or “how to get even richer” is the easiest sell of all.

We hear a lot about how the CEOs and other fat cats made a lot of money while other normal folks suffered. It is true that the profits were “private” while the losses are public, which is probably why the bailout plan did not get much popular support. But with or without the public support, bailout plan or not, like it or not, the pain is going to be public.

Sure, the CEOs of financial institutions with their private jets and eye-popping bonuses were guilty of ambition, but the fat cats didn’t all work in a bank or a hedge fund. It is the legitimization of greed that fueled this debacle, and nobody is innocent of it.

Sections

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I didn’t “get” Catch-22 the first time I read it. That was some twenty years ago, may be I was too young then. Halfway through my third read a few weeks ago, I suddenly realized – it was a caricature!

Caricatures are visual; or so I thought. Catch-22, however, is a literary caricature, the only one of its kind I have read. Looking for a story line in it that ridicules the blinding craziness of a cruelly crazy world is like looking for anguish in Guernica. It is everywhere and nowhere. Where shall I begin? I guess I will jot down the random impressions I got over my multiple reads.

Catch-22 includes one damning indictment on the laissez-faire, enterprise-loving, free market, capitalistic philosophy. It is in the form of the amiable, but ultimately heartless, Milo Minderbinder. With inconceivable pricing tactics, Milo’s enterprise makes money for his syndicate in which everybody has a share. What is good for the syndicate, therefore, has to be good for everybody, and we should be willing to suffer minor inconveniences like eating Egyptian cotton. During their purchasing trips, Yossarian and Dunbar have to put up with terrible working conditions, while Milo, mayor to countless towns and a deputy Shaw to Iran, enjoys all creature comforts and finer things in life. But, fret not, everybody has a share!

It is hard to miss the parallels between Milo and the CEOs of modern corporations, begging for public bailouts while holding on to their private jets. But Heller’s uncanny insights assume really troubling proportions when Milo privatizes international politics and wars for everybody’s good. If you have read The Confessions of an Economic Hitman, you would be worried that the warped exaggerations of Heller are still well within the realm of reality. The icing on the cake comes when someone actually demands his share — Milo gives him a worthless piece of paper, with all pomp and ceremony! Remind you of your Lehman minibonds? Life indeed is stranger than fiction.

But Milo’s exploits are but a minor side story in Catch-22. The major part of it is about crazy Yossarian’s insanity, which is about the only thing that makes sense in a world gone mad with war and greed and delusions of futile glory.

Yossarian’s comical, yet poignant dilemmas put the incongruities of life in an unbearably sharp focus for us. Why is it crazy to try to stay alive? Where is the glory in dying for some cause when death is the end of everything, including the cause and the glory?

Along with Yossarian, Heller parades a veritable army of characters so lifelike that you immediately see them among your friends and family, and even in yourself. Take, for instance, the Chaplin’s metaphysical musings, Appleby’s flawless athleticism, Orr’s dexterity, Colonel Cathcart’s feathers and black-eyes, General Peckam’s prolix prose, Doc Daneeka’s selfishness, Aarfy’s refusal to hear, Nately’s whore, Luciana’s love, Nurse Duckett’s body, the 107 year old Italian’s obnoxious words of wisdom, Major Major’s shyness, Major — de Caverley’s armyness — each a masterpiece in itself!

On second thought, I feel that this book is too big a chef d’oervre for me to attempt to review. All I can do is to recommend that you read it — at least twice. And leave you with my take-away from this under-rated epic.

Life itself is the ultimate catch 22, inescapable and water-tight in every possible way imaginable. The only way to make sense of life is to understand death. And the only way to understand death is to stop living. Don’t you feel like letting out a respectful whistle like Yossarian at this simple beauty of this catch of life? I do!

Geeks

I have been doing a bit of geeky stuff lately — writing WordPress plugins. Okay, it is because I’m suffering from a terrible writer’s block.

You see, I’m supposed to be working on my next book. I foolishly promised a couple of chapters of The Principles of Quantitative Development to my commissioning editor at John Wiley & Sons within a month; now I find myself writing everything other than those darned chapters! Including plugins. Coming to think of it, writing those chapters wouldn’t be any less geeky, would it?

That made me wonder… We all started off as geeks, didn’t we? No use denying it. Remember how our teachers loved us, and the sexy cheerleaders, well, didn’t? Later in life, due to exigencies of circumstances, we may have tried to lose our techie halo and simulate a managerial posture. But, in our moments of panic, we go back to our geek roots. At least, I do.

You think you don’t? Well, check out these geek jokes. If you find them funny, chances are your roots are not too different from mine.

Heisenberg was driving down the highway when he was pulled over for speeding. The officer says, “Do you know how fast you were going?” Heisenberg says, “No, but I do know where I am!”

Two Hydrogen atoms walk into a bar. One says, “I’ve lost my electron!” The other says, “Are you sure?” The first replies, “Yes, I’m positive…”

Geek Pickup Lines:

  • Tell me of this thing you humans call [dramatic pause] love.
  • If you turn me down now, I will become more drunk than you can possibly imagine.
  • They don’t call me Bones because I’m a doctor.
  • Your name is Leslie? Look, I can spell your name on my calculator!
  • What’s a nice girl like you doing in a wretched hive of scum and villainy like this?
  • You must be Windows 95 because you got me so unstable.
  • My ‘up-time’ is better than BSD.
  • I can tell by your emoticons that you’re looking for some company.
  • Is that an iPod mini in your pocket or are you just happy to see me.
  • Want to see my Red Hat?
  • If you won’t let me buy you a drink, at least let me fix your laptop.
  • You had me at “Hello World.”
  • Mind if I run a sniffer to see if your ports are open?
  • You make me want to upgrade my Tivo.
  • By looking at you I can tell you’re 36-25-36, which by the way are all perfect squares.
  • Jedi Mind Trick: “This is the geek you’re looking for.” [Waves hand]
  • You can put a Trojan on my Hard Drive anytime.
  • Have you ever Googled yourself?
  • How about we do a little peer-to-peer saliva swapping?
  • With my IQ and your body we could begin a race of genetic superchildren to conquer the earth.
  • What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this when there’s a Farscape marathon on right now on the Sci Fi channel.
  • I’m attracted to you so strongly, scientists will have to develop a fifth fundamental force.

What Makes 100%?

What does it mean to give MORE than 100%? Ever wonder about those people who say they are giving more than 100%? We have all been to those meetings where someone wants you to give over 100%. How about achieving 103%? What makes up 100% in life? Here’s a little mathematical formula that might help you answer these questions:

If:

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z are represented as:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26

then H-A-R-D-W-O-R-K = 8+1+18+4+23+15+18+11 = 98%

and K-N-O-W-L-E-D-G-E = 11+14+15+23+12+5+4+7+5 = 96%

but A-T-T-I-T-U-D-E = 1+20+20+9+20+21+4+5 = 100%

and B-U-L-L-S-H-I-T = 2+21+12+12+19+8+9+20 = 103%

but look how far ass kissing will take you.

A-S-S-K-I-S-S-I-N-G = 1+19+19+11+9+19+19+9+14+7 = 118%

So, one can conclude with mathematical certainty that While Hard work and Knowledge will get you close, and Attitude will get you there, it’s the Bullshit and Ass kissing that will put you over the top.

Terror and Tragedy in Mumbai

Lo Hwei Yen was gunned down in Mumbai a few days ago. She flew there from Singapore for a one day visit, and walked innocently into a death trap that was set in motion probably months ago. My heart goes out her family members. I can understand their pain because of my own recent personal bereavement, although nobody can probably understand their sense of unfairness of it all. As we bury our loved ones and mourn the fallen heroes, we have to ask ourselves, what is the right response to terrorism?

My ideas, as usual, are a bit off the beaten track. And on this emotional topic, I may get a bit of flak for them. But if we are to wipe out the scourge of terrorism, we have to defend ourselves, not only with fast guns and superior fire power, but also with knowledge. Why would anybody want to kill us so badly that they are willing to die trying?

Terrorism is one of those strange debacles where all our responses are wrong. A naive response this attack would be one of revenge. If they bring down our skyscrapers, we bomb them back to stone ages; if they kill one of ours, we kill ten of theirs and so on. But that response is exactly what the terrorist wants. One of the strategic objectives of terrorism is to polarize the population so much that they have a steady supply of new recruits. Does that mean that doing nothing would be the right response? I don’t think so. If there is a middle ground here, I just cannot see it.

Another approach to wage an information war, aided by torture and terror from our side. Remember Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay? And extraordinary rendition? Clearly not the right way to go, any decent human being would agree. Every terrorist tortured is a hundred reborn. Every innocent tortured is potentially a thousand new terrorists. But what is the alternative? Ask a few gentlemanly questions and appeal to the terrorist’s better nature? Again, is there a balanced middle ground here?

Gandhiji would have said, “Let them come, let them kill as many as they want. We won’t resist. When they get tired of killing, we would have beaten them.” The old man is my hero, but is it the right response? It may be. If any and every move I make is only going to make my enemy stronger, I’d better stay put. But if I were to stand still like a sitting duck, my enemy doesn’t have to be strong at all.

When the terrorists seek their own death and reprisals on their kins, when they seek to sabotage peace processes, do we act dumb and play right into their hands by doing exactly what they want us to? Viewed in this light, the reactions to this attack from India and Pakistan disappoint me.

War on terror is not a war on its foot soldiers, who are merely stupid saps who got brainwashed or blackmailed into committing horrific meyhem. It is not even a war on its generals or figureheads, when chopping off one head only engenders another one in some other unknown place. This war is a war of ideologies. And it can be won only with a superior ideology. Do we have one?

A French Eulogy

[This is going to be my last post of a personal kind, I promise. This French eulogy was an email from my friend Stephane, talking about my father who was quite fond of him.

Stephane, a published writer and a true artist, puts his feelings in beautiful and kind words. Some day I will translate them and append the English version as well. It is hard to do so right now, but the difficulty is not all linguistic.]

Manoj,

Nous sommes très tristes d’apprendre le départ de ton père. Il était pour nous aussi un père, un modèle de gentillesse, d’intégrité et de générosité. Sa discrétion, sa capacité à s’adapter à toutes les choses bizarres de notre époque, son sens de l’humour et surtout son sens des responsabilités sont des enseignements que nous garderons de lui et que nous espérons transmettre à notre enfant.

Nous avons beaucoup aimé le texte que tu as écrit sur ton blog. La perte de quelqu’un de si proche nous renvoie aux mêmes questions de l’existence. Qu’est-ce que la conscience? Comment évolue-t elle avant la naissance et après la mort? Combien y a t-il de consciences possibles dans l’univers? La multiplicité de la conscience totale, la faculté d’éveil de chaque conscience, la faculté d’incarnation d’une simple conscience dans le vivant, végétal, animal ou humain… Tout ceci est surement une illusion, mais aussi un mystère que les mots de notre langage ne font qu’effleurer et survoler. De cette illusion reste la tristesse, profonde et bien “réelle”. Ce que tu as écrit sur la tristesse me fait penser à un poète (ou un bouddhiste?) qui évoquait l’espoir et le désespoir comme d’une frontière symétrique à dépasser afin d’atteindre le principe créateur des deux oppositions. Ce principe, il l’a nommé l’inespoir, un mot étrange qui n’existe pas car il contient deux opposés à la fois. Ainsi, je pense souvent à ce mot quand je regarde les étoiles la nuit, ou quand je regarde ma fille en train de dormir paisiblement. Je trouve notre univers d’une beauté totale, évidente, inexprimable. Puis je réalise que tout est éphémère, ma fille, ceux que j’aime, moi, et même les galaxies. Pire, je réalise que cet univers, c’est une scène de sacrifice où “tout mange”, puis “est mangé”, des plus petits atomes aux plus grandes galaxies. À ce moment, je trouve l’univers très cruel. À la fin, il me manque un mot, un mot qui pourrait exprimer à la fois la beauté et la cruauté de l’univers. Ce mot n’existe pas mais en Inde, j’ai appris qu’on définissait ce qui est divin par ceci : “là où les contraires coexistent”. Encore une fois, l’Inde, terre divine, me guide dans mes pensées. Est-ce que c’est vraiment un début de réponse? Je pense que ton père y répond par son sourire bienveillant.

Nous pensons beaucoup à vous. Nous vous embrassons tous très fort.

Stéphane (Vassanty et Suhasini)

PS: It was difficult for me to reply in English. Sorry… If this letter is too complex to read or to translate in English, just tell me. I’ll do my best to translate it!

Manoj Thulasidas a écrit :
Bonjour, mon cher ami!

How are you? Hope we can meet again some time soon.

I have bad news. My father passed away a week ago. I am in India taking care of the last rites of passage. Will be heading back to Singapore soon.

During these sad days, I had occasion to think and talk about you many times. Do you remember my father’s photo that you took about ten years ago during Anita’s rice feeding ceremony? It was that photo that we used for newspaper announcements and other places (like my sad blog entry). You captured the quiet dignity we so admired and respected in him. He himself had chosen that photo for these purposes. Merci, mon ami.

– grosses bises,
– Kavita, me and the little ones.

Death of a Parent

Dad
My father passed away early this morning. For the past three months, he was fighting a heart failure. But he really had little chance because many systems in his body had started failing. He was 76.

I seek comfort in the fact that his memories live on. His love and care, and his patience with my silly, childhood questions will all live on, not merely in my memories, hopefully in my actions as well.

Perhaps even the expressions on his face will live on for longer than I think.

Dad and NeilDeath is as much a part of life as birth. Anything that has a beginning has an end. So why do we grieve?

We do because death stands a bit outside our worldly knowledge, beyond where our logic and rationality apply. So the philosophical knowledge of the naturalness of death does not always erase the pain.

But where does the pain come from? It is one of those questions with no certain answers, and I have only my guesses to offer. When we were little babies, our parents (or those who played the parents’ role) stood between us and our certain death. Our infant mind perhaps assimilated, before logic and and rationality, that our parents will always stand face-to-face with our own end — distant perhaps, but dead certain. With the removal of this protective force field, the infant in us probably dies. A parent’s death is perhaps the final end of our innocence.

Dad and NeilKnowing the origin of pain is little help in easing it. My trick to handle it is to look for patterns and symmetries where none exists — like any true physicist. Death is just birth played backwards. One is sad, the other is happy. Perfect symmetry. Birth and life are just coalescence of star dust into conscious beings; and death the necessary disintegration back into star dust. From dust to dust… Compared to the innumerable deaths (and births) that happen all around us in this world every single second, one death is really nothing. Patterns of many to one and back to countless many.

We are all little droplets of consciousness, so small that we are nothing. Yet, part of something so big that we are everything. Here is a pattern I was trying to find — materially made up of the same stuff that the universe is made of, we return to the dust we are. So too spiritually, mere droplets merge with an unknowable ocean.

Going still further, all consciousness, spirituality, star dust and everything — these are all mere illusory constructs that my mind, my brain (which are again nothing but illusions) creates for me. So is this grief and pain. The illusions will cease one day. Perhaps the universe and stars will cease to exist when this little droplet of knowledge merges with the anonymous ocean of everything. The pain and grief also will cease. In time.

Sony World Band Radio

I recently bought a Sony World Band Radio receiver. It is a beautiful machine with some twenty frequency bands and all kinds of locks and tricks to latch on to distant radio stations. I bought it for my father, who is fond of listening to his radio late into the night.

Two days after I bought the radio, my father suffered a severe heart failure. A congestive heart failure (CHF) is not to be confused with a heart attack. The symptoms of a CHF are deceptively similar to an asthma attack, which can be doubly treacherous if the patient already has respiratory troubles because the early care may get directed to the lungs while the troubled heart may be ignored. So I thought I would discuss the symptoms here in the hope that it will help those with aging family members who may otherwise misidentify a potential CHF. Much more information is available on the Internet; try Googling “congestive heart failure.”

For asthma patients, a danger sign of a heart failure is persistent breathing difficulty despite inhalation medication. Watch out for breathing trouble that increases when they lie down, and subsides when they sit up. They may have consequent sleeplessness. If they show the symptoms of water retention (swelling in lower limps or neck, unexpected sudden weight gain etc.), and if they have other risk factors (hypertension, irregular heart beat), please do not wait, rush to the hospital.

The prognosis for CHF is not good. It is a chronic condition, progressive and terminal. In other words, it is not something we catch like the flu and get better soon. Depending on the stage the patient is, we have to worry about the quality of life, palliative care or even end of life care. Once a heart has started failing, it is difficult to reverse the progression of the onslaught. There are no easy solutions, no silver bullets. What we can concentrate on, really, is the quality of their life. And the grace and dignity with which they leave it. For most of them, it is their last act. Let’s make it a good one.

By my father’s bedside now, listening to the Sony, with all these sad thoughts in my head, I remember my first taste of real winter in the fall of 1987 in Syracuse. I was listening to the weatherman of the local radio station (was it WSYR?). While lamenting the temperatures going south, he observed, rather philosophically, “C’mon, we all know there’s only one way the temperatures can go.” Yes, we know that there is only one way things can go from here. But we still mourn the passing of a summer full of sunshine and blue skies.

The Sony radio plays on, impervious to these doleful musings, with young happy voices dishing out songs and jokes for the benefit of a new generation of yuppie commuters full of gusto and eagerness to conquer a world. Little do they know — it was all conquered many times over during the summers of yester years with the same gusto and passion. The old vanguards step aside willingly and make room for the children of new summers.

The new generation has different tastes. They hum to different iTunes on their iPods. This beautiful radio receiver, with most of it seventeen odd short wave bands now silent, is probably the last of its kind. The music and jokes of the next generation have changed. Their hair-do and styles have changed. But the new campaigners charge in with the same dreams of glory as the ones before them. Theirs is the same gusto. Same passion.

Perhaps nothing and nobody really passes on. We all leave behind a little bit of ourselves, tiny echoes of our conquests, memories in those dear to us, and miniscule additions to the mythos that will live on. Like teardrops in the rain.

Choices and Remorse

Remorse is the flipside of choice, and nostalgia the inevitable consequence of any relocation. I should know; I have relocated far too many times in my life — nothing comes for free.

In the sea of unsmiling faces trying to avoid eye-contact every morning, I miss the unexpected joy of a friendly face. Anonymity the price exacted and familiarity a willing sacrifice.

Searching for myself in the glaring lights of these metropolises, I miss the Milky Way and the stars hiding behind the artificial brightness of the skylines. Creature comforts at the expense of inner peace.

In the crystal clear waters at the postcard beaches of Cassis to Bintan to Phuket, I miss the angry waves of the choppy Arabian Sea and the boiling ferrous red beaches. The quest for a promised land at the cost of a paradise lost.

As my powerful sports sedan purrs away from the pack with near contemptuous ease, I miss my old Raleigh bicycle. Rich possession over simple pride.

While sipping the perfect wine matched to the incredibly minuscule helpings of incomprehensible delicacies, I miss a half-tea at Tarams and a mutton omelet at Indian Coffee House, and the friendship around it. Sophistication over small pleasures.

Watching National Geographic on large screens in all its HD glory, I miss the black and white contact prints from my dad’s old Agfa Click III. Technological perfection over emotional content.

And while writing this blog following as many rules of an alien grammar as I can remember, I mourn for the forgotten words of a mother tongue. Communication skills garnered at the cost of a language once owned.

It is not that I would have chosen differently if I had a chance do it all over again. It is the necessity of choice that is cruel. I wish I could choose everything, that I could live all possible lives, and experience all the agonies and all the ecstasies. I know it is silly, but I wish I never had to make a choice.

And the Wind Whispered…

[This post is my translation of an excellent short story by one of the most gifted storytellers of our time, O.V.Vijayan. The translation from Malayalam is a feeble effort, because such distant translations are not merely between languages, but cultures. The untranslatable expressions are marked with asterisks. Enjoy!]

Reached Kanjikad from Palghat by Coimbatore street. From there on, it was unpaved dirt road to the mountains. Even the rough taxi Jeep found that hard to take. This was Theyunni’s second trip here in the last ten years and he had no complaints about the roughness now.

“Ditch ahead”, Driver said, glancing at the dirt road in front.

“If you want to stop here, it’s okay”, Theyunni offered, “I can walk.”

It’s about two miles from here. Accustomed as he was to the comfort of limousine rides between airports and star hotels, the prospect of the hard hike did not discourage Theyunni.

“Nah. We’ll go slow, sit tight.”

“Okay.”

The Jeep carefully negotiated the winding mountain road. Theyunni glanced at the wild valley as if for the first time. The sunshine cooled by the hillside, the east winds tunnelled through the mountain passes and roaring towards Palghat…

“The trees are all gone, aren’t they, Driver?”, Theyunni observed.

“All downed. Was forests here till about five years ago. Elephants used to come down.”

Yes, last time when he was here, there were huge trees on either side. Trees he didn’t know the names of. There were crickets all around carrying on with their shrill orchestra. Theyunni recalled that journey. He was coming back to Bombay after a European trip and his wife was at the airport. She said, “There is a letter from home, looks like *Brother’s handwriting.”

“Wonder what is happening. Didn’t you open it, Phoebe?”

“You know I don’t open your letters.”

When the car was moving towards Juhu, Theyunni stole a glance at Phoebe’s face behind the wheel. Like a flawless marble sculpture with golden hair dancing in the wind. It was against her culture to open her husband’s letters. There were many things in her culture that attracted him — her confident courage in kissing him in that garden few years ago, proclaiming, “I love you”. If the relationship were to turn sour in the years to come, the honesty and integrity that would make her say, “I do not love you any more, we have to get divorced”. These were the challenges that inspired him. He remembered the journey home to tell *Father that he was in love with Phoebe, his fellow-student at Stanford. Father did not say anything against it, just smiled his sweet, thoughtful smile. It was *Mother — “We had Devaki’s horoscope looked at…”

Devaki was a distant relative. The daughter of some in-land farmer. Hiding his contempt for horoscopes, Theyunni comforted Mother, “That is not much, Mother. We didn’t give our word.”

Nobody said anything for a while. Then Mother said, “Isn’t understanding as big as word? It’s like Devaki has married you in her heart.”

“It’s the boy’s decision, Madhavi,” Father said, “Why do you want to say this and that?”

Mother withdrew herself, “I didn’t say anything…”

“Don’t worry about Mother’s complaints, Kutta. So, do you like this Phoebe?”

Theyunni was a little embarrassed, “Yes.”

“Will an American girl like to live in this old family house of ours, Kutta?”, Mother inquired.

“Why wouldn’t she?”

Father said, “It’s not as though they are going to come live here, is it?”

“So Father and Son have decided that as well,” Mother said, “that they don’t want to live here?”

“Wherever we live, we’ll come here first, Mother.”

Theyunni saw Mother’s eyes well up. After blessing Phoebe and wishing Devaki well in her life, Mother said, “I won’t ask you to change your mind. But, will you look after Father, Kutta?”

“Of course.”

“You remember how he used to be? His body is getting old…”

Father intervened again with his smile, “Madhavi, why do you say such things and make him unhappy? Don’t pay any attention to her, Kutta.”

Even during the novelty of his love, Theyunni could feel *Devaki’s true meaning in his *rustic heart — the farmer bride who would sweep the floor and light the evening lamp. Mother said, “There was only one thing on my mind — your sister-in-law is not able-bodied. If it had been Devaki, there was a hope that she would look after your father in his old age…”

Theyunni didn’t say anything then. Even in the later years, he couldn’t say anything about that. Phoebe, who never opened her husband’s letters, drove skillfully through the streets of Juhu. When Father fell sick years after the marriage, Phoebe advised, “Your little town is actually a village. Why don’t we take him to a good hospital in a city? We can easily afford that.”

What Father needed was nearness and touch to die peacefully. Theyunni came home alone with those and saw him off. Mother also died in the old family house. Phoebe was back at Stanford then. She sent a formal condolence telegram. *Devaki‘s meaning again filled his mind.

In Juhu, Theyunni read Brother’s letter. “I’m not doing too well, Kutta. Just to let you know. I won’t ask you to take time off your busy schedule and come by these forests. Just think of me, same effect as seeing. Didn’t even let Sreekumar know. I was worried that he might get anxious and take a trip — not easy to come here from Cambridge, is it? If only your sister-in-law had been alive… Weaknesses of an old heart…”

The Jeep continued it’s laborious journey negotiating an occasional ditch and gutter.

“Sorry about the trouble, Driver,” Theyunni tried to comfort the driver.

“Nah, just doing my job.”

Must be another mile from here. It was after his wife’s death that Brother decided to resign from service and move to the high lands. Theyunni vehemently opposed that decision. “Why are you moving to this god-forsaken land in Palghat among leopards and wild boars? Moreover, you could be in service for another 10 years. Even after retiring, you know that a nuclear physicist can do so many things…”

Brother’s reply came, “There are debts that one owes — to one’s country, one’s community, one’s family. I feel that I have repaid my dues to the best of my ability. There are some other obligations that I have to take care of. That’s is why I’m seeking refuge in these valleys.”

Brother never mentioned what those obligations were. Theyunni didn’t inquire either.

The soft-spoken Brother took a decision only after much reasoning; it was not easy to make him go back on them. Later, Brother wrote about his camp-site: about four miles off the road, there were fertile lands lying just outside the woods. Brother built a house there, among coconut palms, vegetables, mango trees… Dirt walls, wooden ceiling and roofs of clay tiles. It was at some distance from anywhere. However, there was a farmer, Ponnuswami, living in a hut nearby. Brother could ask Ponnuswami for help if needed. Apart from that, he was quite alone in that valley. Theyunni could not figure out the meaning of that penance and forgot about it. Years went by. But when Phoebe handed over that unopened letter, he suddenly felt that he should go there in a hurry.

“Well, Phoebe, I’ll go and see what’s going on.”

“What is the name of that place? Kanjikad, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Brother had invited me to go and see the mountains.”

“Yes, I remember.”

“Must be a perfect place for get-away vacation. But it’s dangerous to get sick there. Why don’t you bring him here? We could have him treated at Jeslock or something.”

Phoebe was repeating her suggestion on treatments. Theyunni remembered the last time the suggestion was offered and it made him uneasy.

“We can’t get inside his mind, Phoebe. I’ll go there and see.”

That was how Theyunni came here for the first time, ten years ago. Not only was he anxious about Brother’s health and solitary life, he also wanted to give Brother a piece of his mind about the untimely penance. When he took a taxi from Coimbatore airport to go to Kanjikad, his mind was filled with impatience and hard feelings towards Brother. The driver got discouraged by the sight of ditches and gutters in the dirt road. It didn’t take too much to provoke Theyunni.

“I could break the axile if I drove up this way,” complained the driver who was Tamil.

“How much does this stupid car of yours cost?”

“Sorry Sir, didn’t mean to…”

“If your car breaks, let it break. I’ll give you what it costs. Drive.”

When he got off the car, Theyunni saw Brother taking a walk in the field — looking bright and healthy.

“Why did you come all this way, Kutta?”, Brother commented on the advisability of the trip.

“You can say that. Living in the forests, writing letters about getting sick, how could I ignore it?”

“Come in.” Brother took him inside the house.

Theyunni looked around and found everything unsatisfactory. “Why do you punish yourself like this?”

“Do I look as though this is punishment?”

Nobody said anything for a while. Then Theyunni inquired, “Who treated you while you were ill?”

“Teat?! Nobody!”

“What am I supposed to say about that?”

Brother smiled, “You don’t get it, do you, Kutta?”

“What do you do for food?”

“I have asked Ponnuswami’s wife to show up. To cook something for you. Me, this is all I eat.”

He pointed to the husks of two young coconuts in the basket. “That was breakfast. Two more for dinner.”

“That is you diet?!”

“Not just diet, medicine as well!”

When it got dark, Theyunni wanted to know, “Brother, what if some thieves show up?”

Brother laughed heartily, “Four white *mundu, four cotton shawls, two towels and some clay pots. That’s all this house holds. The thief is quite peaceful by nature, it’s our avarice that makes him do this and that!”

After dinner, they laid down to sleep — on the floor, on sleeping mats. For Theyunni, it was the first time in a long while without the air conditioner. The winds roared outside the house. Through the mountain passes, like the loud waves in an uptide.

“Kutta”

“Yes, Brother?”

“You hear that?”

“The winds, right?”

“Yes, but to you hear them?”

“Yes, I do. Why do you ask?”

Brother was silent for a while in the darkness. Then he said, “No, you don’t hear them.”

It was with the same dissatisfaction at Brother’s life in the wilderness that Theyunni went back to Bombay. Brother said, seeing him off, “It was a mistake, Kutta. A weakness. Felt like writing to you when I was ill; I won’t bother you like this again. There aren’t any illnesses that these valleys can’t cure. And if there are, do humans have medicines for them?”

Now, it was ten years after those words that Theyunni was coming back. Phoebe was not with him any more. She showed her natural honesty and told him that the love between them had dried out. Theyunni did not fly from Bombay. He took the train to Palghat along with numerous other people. Like in his childhood, in second class. Two day journey. Hills and woods and rivers and villages slowly went by in the window as the train ambled towards Palghat. The old family house was no longer there. So he rested in a hotel and set out for Kanjikad the next morning. His gruffiness during the last journey ten years ago had disappeared now. Theyunni felt that his peacefulness was spreading to the fellow passengers and even the landscapes.

The Jeep driver also was friendliness personified.

“Hard trip, isn’t it, Driver?”

“Nah, we are quite used to these. A little worried about your trouble, that is all.”

Brother’s fences and steps appeared at a distance.

“Over there, Driver.”

“Isolated house, isn’t it, Sir?”

“Yes.”

Ponnuswami was waiting by the house. He stepped down to welcome Theyunni. They looked at each other; Ponnuswami wiped his tears.

“He had asked me not to telegram, that is why I wrote a letter instead.” Ponnuswami said, “I am sorry.”

“Not at all, you were respecting Brother’s wishes. I understand.”

Ponnuswami walked over to the backyard. There was a small plot where a Thulasi plant was beginning to take root. Ash remnants of the pyre around it.

“This is it,” Ponnuswami said. “The bones were dropped in the Peroor river. If there are some other rituals you want to do… But,…”

“Yes, Ponnuswami?”

“He said that no rituals were necessary. That he had uprooted the rituals. I am not educated, just thought that he was talking about some sacred state.”

“That must be what he meant.”

“Is Sreekumar coming up?”

“I had telephoned him from Bombay. He is not coming. He had told me one thing — that this land and house are for you.”

Ponnuswami had gone beyond such earthly things. “He also had told me the same thing; I didn’t want to tell you. But, I don’t need any of this. You or Sreekumar could sell these…”

“Brother’s wishes, Ponnuswami. We must respect them.”

“Well, if you insist.”

“How many children do you have?”

“Four.”

“Well, this will be a good place for them to grow up in.”

Ponnuswami bowed once again, “If you ever want to come back and live here, my family and I will get out of here for you.”

“That won’t be necessary, Ponnuswami.”

I don’t deserve to live here, Theyunni said to himself. They got back into the house.

“You take rest. I will get you a young coconut from the fields.”

“The driver is waiting in the Jeep outside. Ask him to come inside and have something to drink.”

When Ponnuswami brought the young coconuts, Theyunni said, “You can go home now, if you like. I’m fine.”

Ponnuswami left. Theyunni said to the driver. “Do you think you can stay here overnight?”

The driver expressed his disagreement through silence.

“Didn’t plan that way when we set out,” Theyunni said. “This is Brother’s house. I came here because he died, couldn’t get here before.”

The driver turned attentive. Theyunni continued, “Feel like sleeping here for a night.”

The driver’s disagreement melted away silently. “I can stay.”

“I can pay you whatever you want for staying.”

“That won’t be necessary.”

Time turned red and went down on the hilltops. Theyunni went inside and went through Brother’s wooden box. Three white mundu’s, laundered, three cotton shawls and two towels. Theyunni’s sadness dripped into them. When he went to bed, he was not sad any more, a kind of gratified grief. A fulfillment of love and traditions. He slept with the childhood dreams of fairy tales. Late in the night, he woke up. He listened to the music of the winds. After this night, it would be the trip back to the city. Theyunni could feel Brother’s kindness in the winds. The winds muttered the unknown *Manthras that marked the end of that kindness and life, some *distant baby voices… A night full of sacred whispers, this was the *justification of lifetime.

Theyunni listened to the whispers and slept, awaiting the morning.