Thursday, March 15, 2012

No End to Surprises

(Originally written for a column in Page Seven magazine. I have made some changes here.)

You might have heard this famous line from The Philadelphia Story, that Katharine Hepburn's character says: "The best time to make up your mind about people is never." Intellectually, I have always known it to be true, but I have also always gone ahead and made up my mind about people anyway.

The last place I expected that to be challenged was on the crazy roads of Chennai. But then why should I have made up my mind about what could happen on Chennai roads!

I have had this ongoing battle with autorickshaw drivers for years now. I know many of you think it is perfectly reasonable to be so. But the sad fact is that after a while it stops being about right and wrong, and it becomes a great source of negativity and anger. At some point, I started using my interactions with the autowallahs as moments full of possibilities for spiritual growth. My reasoning was that if I could manage to not get angry, not shout at them and not create a scene, if I could bargain calmly and, actually, wish them well, I might become a better person. I have been doing this with some success, but I have always judged them a priori, and my expectation of them has been a set one: they are here to rob me!

One gentleman challenged me on this recently. When he asked me for what I thought was the most reasonable fare, I was pleasantly surprised, but I also grew wary. I thought, "Hmm. He doesn't know the distance. He is going to start off an argument once we get there." My fangs started emerging, so I sat back and meditated and tried to bring to the fore my so-called best self. Also, I checked with him if he had change for a larger bill/ note, and he said he did.

When we arrived at the destination, to my great surprise, he did not ask for more. Nor did look sheepish and discontented. But he looked in his pockets for change and could not find it. My alarms went off: "Aha! He is going to say he does not have change!" And he said, "I don't seem to have the change I thought I did. Sorry." My best self, that had just started to peep out, went right back in, and my fangs came out again. "What do you mean you don't have the change? It is late, the shops are closed. We could have stopped at a petrol station....."

He was completely unperturbed, and said, "Sir, don't get upset. It is not so bad. Don't worry. We will drive to the end of the road. There are some shops there that are open late. I will get you the change and drop you back here." He did not have even the slightest urge to entertain my drama. I have never seen such calmness, respect and peace on anyone's face on the roads of Chennai. I cannot distill the brilliance of the moment here, but I can say that he definitely awakened something in me. I bow down to this teacher and his lesson.

The second instance was even more stunning, since it happened at the infamous Jayanthi signal in Thiruvanmiyur, where the idea of "every man for himself" gets lived out in the most basic and vehement sense. Intrepid pedestrians run across the intersection trying not to get run over by the buses turning in from the East Coast Road, rubbing shoulders with the giant volvo buses that belong to big IT establishments on the Old Mahabalipuram Road. People on motorbikes get sandwiched between the regular autorickshaws as well as the share ones, both of which have this killer ability to take sharp 90 degree turns.

One evening, in the middle of such madness, I was sitting in an autorickshaw, pretending to be the calm center of it all. That's when it happened. A taxi driver leaned out his window and addressed a motorbike rider in front of him, "Friend, can you move a little please? I turn left here." Everyone in the vicinity looked at him like he was the Buddha himself come down to show that civility was possible even at the Thiruvanmiyur signal in the evenings.

Well, there seems to be no end to surprises in this world! I am glad I had these reminders not to make up my mind, not to live in a "furnished soul," to borrow e e cummings' brilliant phrase. Others give me the benefit of the doubt all the time. The least I could do is to the pass the kindness forward!


Vasundhara said...

Very sweet! Yes, people do pleasantly surprise us when we least expect it. Thanks for sharing, Ani!
Love, -Vasu

Lakshmi said...

How very true. We expect teachers to be sitting under Bodhi trees or these days in large conference rooms.. one just has to put on the head of a student.. teachers are everywhere. It is true that when the student is ready, the teacher appears.
Thanks for sharing.

Vrinda said...

Nice! :-) I believe it's the Chennai sun that gets most people all worked up during the day.

Sangeetha Sriram said...


Gurunathan.K said...

Gud one :)

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