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Shreyas, Preyas and Gregory Roberts' Shantaram

I have just begun reading Gregory David Robert’s recent classic and international bestseller Shantaram.

The Kathopanishad speaks of the twin concepts of shreyas and preyas – shreyas as lasting good and preyas as immediate satisfaction. For the Upanishad, shreyas is the road less travelled and preyas, the widely travelled road. Fools, says the teacher of the Upanishad, choose the path of preyas and wise ones, shreyas.

The Upanishad, of course, is speaking of shreyas and preyas in the ultimate sense, in the spiritual sense. But the concepts are applicable to all situations in life. For instance, since I teach a course in organizational leadership in one of India’s top business schools, I frequently talk about how an organization can go wrong by focusing on immediate satisfaction and forgetting long term good and how it can benefit from never losing sight of shreyas even when occupied with preyas. Reading Shantaram, I came across a beautiful passage, in which the author speaks about shreyas and preyas,, though the terms themselves are unknown to David for all I know.

On arrival in Bombay, Lindsay, the narrator and central character of the book, meets two Canadian tourists during their bus journey from the airport. Guided by a local guide, they take a room in an inexpensive hotel. It is a room with three beds that they share in order to save money. Later, in their room, one of the Canadians says:

““We could’a beat that manager down on the price of this room. It’s costin’ us six bucks for the day. We could’a beat him down to four. It’s not a lotta money, but it’s the way they do things here. You gotta beat these guys down, and barter for everything… You gotta beat ‘em down, man. If you don’t learn that, if you don’t start thinkin’ like that, they’re gonna fuck you over, these people. The Indians in the cities are real mercenary, man. It’s a great country, don’t get me wrong. That’s why we come back here. But they’re different than us. They’re ... hell, they just expect it, that’s all. You gotta beat ‘em down.””
In response, the author reflects:

“He was right about the price of the room, of course. We could’ve saved a dollar or two per day. And haggling is the economical thing to do. Most of the time, it’s the shrewd and amiable way to conduct your business in India.

“But he was wrong, too. The manager, Anand, and I became good friends, in the years that followed. The fact that I trusted him on sight and didn’t haggle, on that first day, that I didn’t try to make a buck out of him, that I worked on an instinct that respected him and was prepared to like him, endeared me to him.

“He told me so, more than once. He knew, as we did, that six of our dollars wasn’t an extravagant price for three foreign men to pay. The owners of the hotel received four dollars per day per room. That was their base line. The dollar or two above that minimum was all Anand and his staff of three room boys shared as their daily wage. The little victories haggled from him by foreign tourists cost Anand his daily bread, and cost them the chance to know him as a friend.”

I believe that is a beautiful lesson in shreyas vs preyas. You save a dollar, but you lose a friend.

I loved Gregory Roberts' final comment on this episode.

“The simple and astonishing truth about India and Indian people is that when you go there, and deal with them, your heart always guides you more wisely than your head. There’s nowhere else in the world where that’s quite so true.”

The problem with most of us is that we believe it is our head we should trust and not our heart; it is our head that is wiser, and smarter, than our heart. The head may be smarter than the heart, but it is rarely wiser than it and whenever there is a conflict, I have learnt that it is our heart that we should be guided by, rather than our head.

Incidentally, speaking from the standpoint of evolution, that part of our brain which we usually refer to as our heart, the seat of our impulses, instincts, feelings, emotions and so on, is much older than what we call our head. Our ‘head’ is the neo-cortex, the last part of our brain to evolve. Our ‘heart’ is situated in our mammalian brain, which is much older than the neo-cortex, and much wiser.


There is another important lesson for all of us who are willing to learn from life, and literature which is a mirror to life, here. A lesson in how we generate trust in people, a lesson in transforming our world.

An old, old Greek tale tells us that Aesop, of the Fables, was standing with his friends at the gates of Athens one day when a traveler from another city reached there. Seeing Aesop and his friends, the traveler greeted them and spoke to them. “Tell me,” said the traveler, “What kind of people live in Athens? Good people you can trust, or…” Aesop looked at the man for a moment or two and then said, “The worst kind! All rogues and criminals.” The man listened to the answer and moved on towards the city, since he had business there which could not be avoided.

Not five minutes had passed when another traveler reached the gates and asked the same question. Again Aesop looked at the man for a moment or so and said, “The best kind! You will find them the most wonderful people in the world.” With a happy smile, the man walked towards the city.

To one man Aesop had said that the people of Athens were the worst kind and to another he had said they were the most beautiful people in the world. And the two answers were given within five minutes of each other. Puzzled, one of his friends asked Aesop why he had done so.

And he said, “The people of our city are neither good nor bad. They are like people everywhere – a mixture of good and bad. But because of his negative disposition, to the first man they would be bad, and again, because of his disposition, to the second man, they would be wonderful people.”

Gregory Roberts observes in Shantaram:

“The fact that I trusted him on sight and didn’t haggle, on that first day, that I didn’t try to make a buck out of him, that I worked on an instinct that respected him and was prepared to like him, endeared me to him.”

Our world is created by us. It is we who make our world what it is to us. It is we who decide whether the world is trustworthy or not. We can transform the world into a wonderful place, or we can make it hell, depending on how we deal with it.



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