Thursday, May 28, 2009

Destiny



I have always loved the rainy season. Maybe it is because I spent all my growing up years in Kerala, where it rains incessantly for months when the monsoons come. There too, I remember, I used to sit and watch the rains, sometimes for hours at a stretch. Nature would be at its most beautiful and most powerful, with thunderstorms and torrential rains, the trees would get into wild dances, and I would sit in my veranda and watch it all for hours. The most beautiful thing to watch would be the bamboos, which were everywhere in my village and gave my village its name. They loved the storm taking possession of them, they loved surrendering themselves to the wind. And together, the rainstorm and the bamboos would go into screaming raptures – bending and stretching, quaking and shivering, shrieking and howling, clutching and letting go, every bamboo in each thicket filled with unending throes of ecstasy.

Rains have come to my city too, almost a month before it is due this year. This is probably what the meteorologists call pre-monsoons. It rained all day yesterday, almost non-stop. There were strong winds too – cyclone Aila, they say. When I was coming back from the college where I am part of a team giving a two week summer workshop to a hundred teachers, I noticed on the roadside an auto-rickshaw crushed by a fallen tree.

It was a rather strange sight. The auto-rickshaw was not on the road, but away from it, among the bushes by the roadside. I wondered how it reached there at that moment for the tree to fall exactly on it.

Some people slowed down as they saw the sight, to have a good look at it and to understand what exactly had happened. And others behind them grew impatient and blew horns. They had no time.

Like other impatient drivers, had the driver of this auto-rickshaw too hurried and hooted his horns impatiently on the way to get there exactly at that time? Had he furiously tried to overtake all other vehicles on the way, so that he could reach there exactly at that time? Had he cursed every other driver on the way who stood in his way of getting there exactly then? To be punctual on his appointment with this accident?

Did some power, say destiny, lead him on so that he reached that exact spot at that exact moment? Or was it all mere chance, coincidence?

One of the most moving short stories I have ever read is Stig Dagerman’s To Kill a Child – a very small short story. I remember reading years ago a volume of horror stories collected by Alfred Hitchcock, some of which were chilling in every sense of the word – Stories that Scared Even Me. But I found Dagerman’s story even more chilling. Deeply unsettling, the story makes us think deeply about the mysterious ways in which life suddenly takes new turns, giving us no chance to anticipate anything. Here is the complete short story:

O0O

It’s a peaceful day as sunlight settles onto the fields of the plain. Soon bells will be ringing, because today is Sunday. Between fields of rye, two children have just come upon a footpath that they have never taken before, and in the three villages along the plain, windowpanes glisten in the sun. Men shave before mirrors propped on kitchen tables, women hum as they slice up cinnamon bread for the morning meal, and children sit on kitchen floors, buttoning the fronts of their shirts. This is the pleasant morning of an evil day, because on this day a child will be killed in the third village by a cheerful man. Yet the child still sits on the kitchen floor, buttoning his shirt. And the man who is still shaving talks of the day ahead, of their rowing trip down the creek. And still humming, the woman places the freshly cut bread on a blue plate.

No shadows pass over the kitchen, and yet even now the man who will kill the child stands near a red gas pump in the first village. He’s a cheerful man, looking through the viewfinder of his camera, framing a shot of a small blue car and a young woman who stands beside it, laughing. As the woman laughs and the man snaps the charming picture, the attendant screws their gas cap on tightly. He tells them it looks like a good day for a drive. The woman gets into the car, and the man who will kill the child pulls out his wallet. He tells the attendant they’re driving to the sea. He says when they reach the sea they’ll rent a boat and row far, far out. Through her open window, the woman in the front seat hears his words. She settles back and closes her eyes. And with her eyes closed she sees the sea and the man sitting beside her in a boat. He’s not an evil man, he’s carefree and cheerful. Before he climbs into the car, he stands for a moment in front of the grille, which gleams in the sun, and he enjoys the mixed aroma of gasoline and lilacs. No shadows fall over the car, and its shiny bumper has no dents, nor is it red with blood.

But just as the man in the first village climbs into his car and slams the door shut, and as he is reaching down to pull out the choke, the woman in the third village opens her kitchen cupboard and finds that she has no sugar. The child, who has finished buttoning his shirt and has tied his shoes, kneels on a couch and sees the stream winding between the alders, pictures the black rowboat pulled up into the tall grass of the bank. The man who will lose his child has finished shaving and is just now closing his portable mirror. Coffee cups, cinnamon bread, cream, and flies each have a place on the table. Only the sugar is missing. And so the mother tells her child to run over to the Larssons’ to borrow a little. As the child opens the door, the man calls after him, urging him to hurry, because the boat lies waiting for them on the bank of the creek, and today they will row much, much further than they ever have before. Running through the yard, the child can think of nothing else but the stream and the boat and the fish that jump from the water. And no one whispers to the child that he has only eight minutes to live and that the boat will lie where it is today and for many days to come.

It isn’t far to the Larssons’. It’s only across the road. And just as the child is crossing that road, the small blue car is speeding through the second village. It’s a tiny village, with humble red houses and newly awakened people who sit in their kitchens with raised coffee cups. They look out over their hedges and see the car rush past, a large cloud of dust rising behind it. The car moves fast, and from behind the steering wheel, the man catches glimpses of apple trees and newly tarred telephone poles slipping past like gray shadows. Summer breathes through their open windows, and as they rush out of the second village their car hugs the road, riding safely, surely, in the middle. They are alone on this road – so far. It’s a peaceful thing, to drive completely alone on a broad road. And as they move out onto the open plain, that feeling of peace settles deeper. The man is strong and contented, and with his right elbow he can feel the woman’s body. He’s not a bad man. He’s in a hurry to get to the sea. He wouldn’t hurt even the simplest creature, and yet, still, he will soon kill a child. As they rush on toward the third village, the woman again shuts her eyes, pretending those eyes will not open again until they can look on the sea. In time with the car’s gentle swaying, she dreams about the calm, lapping tide, the peaceful, mirrored surface of the sea.

Because life is constructed in such a merciless fashion, even one minute before a cheerful man kills a child he can still feel entirely at ease, and only one minute before a woman screams out in horror she can close her eyes and dream of the sea, and during the last minute of that child’s life his parents can sit in a kitchen waiting for sugar, talking casually about the child’s white teeth and the rowing trip they have planned, and that child himself can close a gate and begin to cross a road, holding in his right hand a few cubes of sugar wrapped up in white paper, and for the whole of that minute he can see nothing but a clear stream with big fish and a wide-bottomed boat with silent oars.

Afterward, everything is too late. Afterward, there is a blue car stopped sideways in the road, and a screaming woman takes her hand from her mouth, and it’s dark with blood. Afterward, a man opens a car door and tries to stand on his legs, even though he has a pit of horror within him. Afterward, a few sugar cubes are strewn meaninglessly about in the blood and gravel, and a child lies motionless on its stomach, its face pressed heavily against the road. Afterward, two pale people, who have not yet had their coffee, come running through a gate to see a sight in the road they will never forget. Because it’s not true that time heals all wounds. Time does not heal the wounds of a killed child, and it heals very poorly the pain of a mother who forgot to buy sugar and who sent her child across the road to borrow some. And it heals just as poorly the anguish of a once-cheerful man who has killed a child.

Because the man who has killed a child does not go to the sea. The man who has killed a child drives home slowly, in silence. And beside him sits a mute woman with a bandaged hand. And as they drive back through the villages, they do not see even one friendly face—all shadows, everywhere, are very dark. And when they part, it is in the deepest silence. And the man who has killed a child knows that this silence is his enemy, and that he will need years of his life to conquer it by crying out that it wasn’t his fault. But he also knows that this is a lie. And in the fitful dreams of his nights he will try instead to gain back just a single minute of his life, to somehow make that single minute different.

But life is so merciless to the man who has killed a child that everything afterward is too late.

O0O

Did it all l happen because it was destined to happen? Was it all inevitable, unavoidable, unalterable? Is there something called destiny that is inviolable? Is nothing then in our hands?

Step by step, small events lead up to the spine-chilling final event. Every event innocent in itself, and giving us no clue to what is to come like lightning and strike us in a moment, when we least expect it.

Speaking of my all-time my favourite work of literature, the Mahabharata, was the epic war there destined? Was it destiny that made Draupadi burst out in wild laughter as she watched Duryodhana mistake still water for solid floor and fall into it as he took the first step to walk across it? That abandoned laughter is in many ways uncharacteristic of the very dignified Draupadi. Was it destiny that made her abandon her dignity to the lightness of the moment? Her laughter definitely was one of the reasons that led to her humiliation later in the dice hall and that humiliation was again definitely one of the reasons that made the war inevitable.

Throughout the Ramayana, Sita has the greatest respect for her brother-in-law Lakshmana and Lakshmana’s feelings for her are more reverent than those for a sister-in-law – it is as though Sita is his mother. That is how his mother Sumitra had asked him to look at Sita as they were leaving for the jungle, and that is how he has looked at her throughout their stay in the jungle. Sita knows this. And yet when she asks him to go after Rama who has gone after the golden deer and he refuses, fearing for her safety and in the sure knowledge that no harm can come to Rama, she shockingly accuses him of lusting after her and waiting for Rama to die so that he can have her. Was it destiny working through Sita that made her say such unutterable things in those sad moments?

Or was it all matters of chance, resulting from what we are as human beings?

Arabian literature and Persian literature are full of stories about unalterable destiny. The Arabian Nights, for instance, tells several such stories, including that of prince Ajib [Agib], told by the third kalandar [calandar] in which the young son of a merchant comes and lives in a secret underground house in an uninhabited island in the middle of the ocean to avoid death that has been predicted to happen on a particular day at the hands of a particular man, Ajib. And destiny brings Ajib from his faraway kingdom through a shipwreck and other adventures to be with the youth in his underground hiding to deal him with his death exactly on the appointed day.

A Persian story tells us of the servant of a rich man who rode all day on the fastest horse, thinking he is avoiding death but was in fact running towards it. Here is the story as retold by Somerset Maugham, whose title for the story is Appointment in Samarra.

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.

The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

There are many versions of the story, each slightly different, but all of them telling more or less the same thing. Here is one more.

A certain rich merchant was walking through the market place of Baghdad when, standing across the street, he suddenly saw the figure of Death, beckoning him. The terrified man ran home, mounted his fastest horse, and raced five hundred miles to Samara. Later that night, there was a knock at the door. When the man answered it, there stood Death.

"Why did you beckon me in the market place of Baghdad today?" asked the man. "I did not beckon you." replied Death. "I was merely surprised to see you, for I knew that tonight, we had an appointment in Samara.

Popular Indian literature too has several such stories. Many years ago I was in Uttar Kashi in the Himalayas, conducting a meditation camp there. There was a group of some forty men and women with me, mostly officers of Tata Steel [TISCO then, Tata Iron and Steel Company] and Tata Motors [TELCO then, Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company]. While we were there, I took some of the group for a satsang with a mahatma there, a very sweet, elderly monk and a great scholar, and he narrated this story to us.

Once a bus was travelling from Rishikesh to Uttarakashi and on the way at some place a young man boarded the bus. From the moment the young man got in, accidents started taking place. Once a tire went flat, another time the bus got stuck in lose mud, and a third time it went out of control and narrowly escaped from plunging into a gorge. Everyone was frightened and everyone began saying it was all because of the young man – he is an evil omen, an apshakun. Finally the bus reached a ramshackle bridge which looked like it would collapse any moment. The river beneath the bridge was deep and narrow, scary to look at. And all the passengers in one voice protested against the young man – they wanted him to get down from the bus. They would then cross the bridge by bus, and he can walk across it and join them on the other side. The driver and the conductor of the bus sided with the passengers and the youth reluctantly agreed. He got down and the bus moved on, as he stood and watched. The bus was now in the middle of the bridge, and suddenly there were loud cracks. To the horror of the young man watching from this side, all on a sudden the bridge broke into two and the bus plunged into the depths of the river, taking the driver, the conductor and all the passengers with it.

Was it destiny saving the young man and taking all the others to their death? Or is it all just chance?

I love to believe with the Mahabharata that it is the impotent ones that worship destiny – daivam klībā upāsate. And yet at times life makes me wonder – isn’t there a powerful force called destiny? Wasn’t it destiny that led that auto rickshaw driver reach that exact spot exactly at the moment when that tree was uprooted? Wasn’t it destiny that killed the young child? Wasn’t it destiny that saved the young man and killed all the others in the bus?

Or was it? Couldn’t it all have been mere chance? [I am ignoring Appointment at Samarra here because it is a teaching story told to tell us that death is inevitable.]

Even Dagerman’s story, To Kill a Child – couldn’t it be explained as mere chance? Pure coincidence?

The newspapers carried the sad story of a young girl and her brother during the recent terror strike at Mumbai. As I remember, the girl was studying in Bombay and felt lonely and asked her brother to come over from Kolkata. A terrorist bullet killed the brother, leaving the girl unharmed. Was it destiny that made the young girl invite her brother to Mumbai, or was it pure chance, just her homesickness.

I once watched a child being run over by a bus. Right before my eyes. A little girl of around six years of age. Her school was on one side of the road and her home, on the other side, about a minute’s distance by walk. As the bell rang ending the school, the child picked up her books and ran straight to her home. And on came the bus, running over her. I can still see before my eyes the little girl falling, the front wheel of the large bus climbing over her small body as the driver desperately tried to apply the break. For full half a minute, the entire weight of the bus was on her, and then the wheel climbed back from her, leaving her dead.

What made the little girl run on that day, when she could have easily reached home in one minute? Just the urgency every child feels to reach home? Or destiny?

Not ten meters away from where the little girl was killed, I had once seen a young man lying dead, his body bathed in blood. The bus stop was five-six seconds away, but the young man wouldn’t wait. Unwilling to wait, he had jumped down from the fast moving bus.

What made him decide to make that jump? The impetuosity of youth? Or destiny?

Both the youth and the little girl were my distant cousins.

By the way, Stig Dagerman, who wrote To Kill a Child, met with his own death on 4th November, 1954. He committed suicide.

O0O

The image shows Seyella, Santharian Goddess of Destiny and Time. Santharia is an online community, engaged in developing a mythical world as JRR Tolkien did.

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