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Photo: AP (Photo: AP)
Photo: AP (Photo: AP)

Opinion | The utterances of others can serve as beacons for the future

Inspiration from unforgettable words that suggest how the arc of history can be bent for the better

A decade is a long time in one’s life. But each decade hasn’t left as deep an imprint. The tumult of the 1980s in India, when I grew up from a boy to a young man, was formative. Some of those days seem to be around even now. The 2010s, with their great unravelling of the inevitability of human progress, will similarly be with me till the end of my days. There is no contradiction in saying that during this unravelling, my already blessed life became even more so. The opportunity to do what I do, the experiences that came along, and the people in my life have blessed me doubly. Even as the world has frayed.

Those who have lived through the 2010s will know what to expect in the 2020s. Work ceaselessly for the good and the true, to come true. Impermanent and imperfect, as it will be. So, keep at it. Some of the deepest imprints of the 2010s will be with me in 2020s, to help fare forward, and perhaps fare well, too.

Embossed in my heart are sentences spoken by fellow voyagers offering an essence of their lives. Which, when I compare to mine, leave me astonished by my privileges and their grace under pressure. They live those realities, and that is enough for me to find an anchor in these uncharted times. I have written their words (and stories) before in the past 10 years in this column. Now I write them as beacons for the next 10.

She said: “Yahaan sab kuchh chalne lagtaa hai." Everything works here. Up and down the mountains, and then again, and again, and again, and higher each time. Then across the river on foot. That was as far as you could go in this country. She had no sight for what she didn’t have. And anything she had, she could make it work. Stubs of chalk, waste rusted wire, the lives of hard labour, all were learning tools. Her students loved it and learned. The minor miracles that she created every day for those children were invisible to her; she was “just doing her job".

He said: “Mushkilen ginaane se kum nahin hoti." Problems are not solved by recounting them. He said that with a smile, after cycling 7km in the blazing desert of November, teaching all three subjects to 56 kids across 5 classes, all alone. The blaze in March or July could be imagined by the one in November. The fire of his life was in full blaze all the time, burning down problems that could burn most others out.

She said: “Har koi jogi toh nahin ho saktaa." Not everyone can be a jogi, a term with no single-word equivalent in English. A seeker, monk, and/or warrior for a cause to which an entire life is devoted. Her words ricochet from a lifetime of relentless patriarchy. A jogi she was, breaking chains and dragging others along the way, much like the Bhagirathi on the banks of which I heard this, educating children who had little else. She had borne the cost of being a jogi, which she knew not every kindred spirit could bear. That doesn’t make them smaller, just more worthy of her support. Empathy leads the fire in her.

He said: “Yeh lo aur beti ke paas jao." Take this and go back home to your daughter. He was six, looked like four, poverty having stunted his growth and limited his life. But his generosity was unlimited. From the pocket of his torn shirt, he gave me 5. He could not bear the thousand miles between me and my daughter, and wanted to help. My hoard is full of the generosity of little children.

She said: “Don’t be so sure." That there is a categorical difference between dogs and cats and humans. So, cruelty to animals is just as reprehensible. And much else. The poignant image of Jacob Bronowski, standing ankle deep in slush with the ashes of four million people in Auschwitz, warning against certainty, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken" was conjured from the lockers of my memory. In time, as I lived for a while with six cats, made friends with dogs, and read research studies on animal behaviour, I was not so sure. About much else.

He said: “Kuch toh kariye iss desh ke liye." Do something for this country. Up and up another set of mountains. As far as one could be from any privilege or power. Gently and continually trying to heal every cleavage and fight every act of discrimination, till wherever he could reach. Through his students, whom he was helping grow every day. And in that sparse setting, when the time came, all he asked was for the country—giving me the privilege of his solidarity.

He said: “Pyaar toh karke dekho." Try love. In a jungle clearing so deep that it held the winter mist at noon, he was imploring and challenging. To have empathy, to care, and to love. And to change, through that, first yourself and then others. Even the weary bunch of teachers and officers who were challenged could not remain unmoved. It was an echo of what I heard my father say many years ago, “The heart of the matter is that it is a matter of the heart."

She said: “Kyaa faydaa." What is the point. I wrote about her in my year-end piece for 2019. I thought there was no further room, but it strengthened my belief in being ziddi, stubborn, in the good fight, and for her. Together we can make it matter. Work at it, bit by bit. For the arc of history to bend towards the good and the true in the 2020s. And, in trying, our infinitesimal lives will have more meaning. That is the faydaa.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd

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