Once you reach middle age, I think most people who are financially secure start thinking about legacy. Human legacy can take many shades ranging from the creation of a nation or a company to changing the world through invention or idea. There are some like Vinoba Bhave or Mother Teresa whose lives—to paraphrase Gandhi—are their legacy.
Immortalized: The Missionaries of Charity carries on Mother Teresa’s legacy. AFP
What about the rest of us who lead meaningful, even wonderful, lives but have neither the desire nor perhaps the stomach for politics, entrepreneurship or the life of a starving artist or single-minded scientist? Perhaps then, the notion of legacy needs to be re-examined. Sure, it can be something concrete that exists long after you are gone. But as countless teachers (the good ones, anyway) prove every day, a legacy can also involve touching minds and hearts. To distil the idea to its simplest possible element, I would argue that you don’t even have to be a teacher to leave behind a legacy: You could be a homemaker like Prabha auntie.
Prabha auntie was my neighbour in Chennai. When I was in college, I used to drop into her home. We would talk; she would tell me things. A Sanskrit scholar, she told me (in vivid and suspenseful detail) the story of Nachiketa who asked Yama, the Hindu lord of death, about the afterlife. A musician and dancer, she told me that the simplest way to recognize Raga Saramati was to sing Mokshamu galada and see if it matched with the composition I was listening to. In other words, she didn’t talk down to me because I was 16. She shared her ideas and thoughts; took my questions and answered them without condescension. Although she may think it inconsequential (she lives in New Jersey now with her son), my affection and regard for her is one of her legacies.
I want to do the same. So nowadays when my children’s friends knock on my door, I catch hold of them and try to influence. This is tricky, for children are great bullshit detectors. They will know in an instant if you are being nice to them simply because their parents are around; or in my case, to propagate my agenda. To engage with children, to teach them things, to influence them so that you leave behind a memory, if not a legacy, requires that hardest of traits: sincerity. Some measure of affection won’t hurt either but that’s easy to come by given that kids—and dogs—naturally arouse this emotion.
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It helps if you can align your interests with what educators call “learning moments”. In my building, a man called Maclean plays hockey with the kids. I don’t think he does it so that he can influence them, although that is bound to happen. Most dads who coach, whether it is soccer or hockey, do so because they are fathers but also because they simply like the game.
Age is important too. When I look back on my childhood, I recall that before the age of, say, 12, all I cared about was food. Which auntie cooked the best snacks in the neighbourhood and more important, was she generous with her bounty of goodies? That was the most popular auntie in the colony; the one whose house kids thronged to. To influence kids with the legacy motive in mind requires that they be teenagers at least; before that, you can gain a seat in their hearts simply by bribing them with chocolates.
Once they hit 10, ideas supersede the stomach. Or so I hoped.
I formulated a strategy. Most of my interactions with Prabha auntie happened as a matter of course. It wasn’t as if I asked vital questions about life and death, thus prodding her to wax eloquent about the Upanishads. Most probably, I had just mumbled something like, “Hello, Auntie, what are you up to these days?” Rather than answer my question perfunctorily, Auntie’s gift to me was to take the question seriously. I decided to take the same approach.
Every evening, the kids in my building gravitate towards my apartment because we have a puppy. One evening, I lay in wait. As always, seven kids walked in with bright hellos.
“Hi auntie, how is life?” asked Rita (not her real name).
I took a deep breath. “Life is good, Rita,” I replied and something in my serious tone made the kids stop and stare at me. “But you know, kids, I am not thinking about life. I am thinking about the afterlife. About legacy.”
“What is legacy?” yelled my seven-year-old.
“Legacy is what you leave behind after you die,” I replied.
“Hopefully nothing,” said my 12-year-old with a dangerous glint in her eye.
Rohit opened his mouth. “Yes, Rohit,” I said sagely. “I know you are interested in legacy even if my daughter isn’t. Now, there are many types of legacy. You can write War and Peace; or win a Nobel prize; invent a drug or an NGO or a company. You can even create a band like Coldplay and create the wonderful Viva la Vida. Now tell me, Rohit, what type of legacy would you like to leave behind?”
“Actually, auntie, I just wanted a glass of water,” the boy said.
My chest collapsed. This wasn’t going as planned. Time for a change in strategy. “Water? Why only water? Have some cookies, kids,” I said.
They all immediately sat down around our dining table. My smile was that of the Big Bad Wolf.
Shoba Narayan has a ready supply of snacks and stories that she inflicts on every kid who knocks on her door. She hopes that it will be her legacy.
Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org