A meditation on Life’s tragedies

The last month hasn’t been one fraught with good news. Come to think of it, the news these days seldom is – but a lot of it is sensationalist stuff, so doesn’t really get you emotionally worked up most of the time.

Truth be told, statistics don’t reveal any significant peaks in the number of tragedies in the month past. The numbers were much the same – and infact India has just had a polio-free year  – so the numbers should be marginally better. Bad news however always affects you by the quality of the event and never the quantity – so the death of a loved one can affect you more than the 300 deaths due to a large scale aircraft crash. It’s not that we are insensitive to the latter, it’s just that we are a lot more sensitive to the former. And the past month saw tragedy played at several “personal” levels (tragedies to a near one and dear one, at the local neighborhood and the death of a star we looked up to), so perhaps the musing is a little more.

I recall our scriptures proclaiming that at our very root, we are most concerned about ourselves (essentially things that have to so something with “me” or things that are “mine”). The self takes on multiple identities – we identify ourselves with our body, our society, our nations, our tribes and our beliefs. This is why when any of these are hurt, we get hurt – we perceive it as an affront to our personal self (extended self maybe, but self neverthless). Eckart Tolle explains this at great length in the his new best seller (The New Earth) – and this is a great framework for seeing what hurts you and why.

Now, a look at the tragedies. The first was the news of death of an infant child of a dear one (actually another friend had also gone through a similar tragedy a couple of years earlier). A couple who are good and true had just had a loss they couldn’t account for. If you believed in a benevolent god, would he give you something precious only to request the favor back so early? And yet, if the event wasn’t attributed to a cosmic someone or something, where could we find solace and an entity to drown our sorrows in? The law of karma would state that it was the infant’s choice, that it was a very advanced “soul” in a little body and therefore had very little karma to work out and hence moved on -and with a lot of gratitude toward its family at that….. even if this true and a satisfying evolutionary explanation, would the parents not feel piqued that the God of justice had triumphed over one of compassion? Ramana Maharishi or some such elevated souls may have reacted differently to such events, for most of us it’s a hard cross to bear.

Closer to home (geographical proximity meaning an “extended physical self”?), we had a gang who specialized in bank heists shot dead. It was far enough (at least a couple of miles) for us to not have heard the so called “encounter” shooting, however the sheer thought that just a few miles away there had played out a strange drama of a heist and a few deaths, leaves a knot in the stomach and an uneasiness in the air. Such tragedy inspires fear and implicit acknowledgement that our neighborhoods are not so safe any more.

The third tragedy was the premature death of a singer – one I had never met – but whose songs have enthralled me for a long, long time. Whitney Houston succumbed to the usual “celebrity” story – excessive substance and alcohol abuse and a very turbulent life. With her death (and Michael Jackson’s in the not too distant past), a small chapter from my childhood somehow to have lost its reality – a cherished scene of the family talking away listening to these legends crooning their hits on radio and tv (specially during the grammy’s) has faded away…

So what next – for my friend and his family, I can and will provide a shoulder to lean on. And I have memories of togetherness that can be cherished. In the second case, there is no real “personal” loss – except that we will bolt the doors a little earlier (!) and advise kids against the twilight talks most of us used to enjoy on the very same streets. And Whitney’s and Michael’s records survive them (actually the only way I knew these legends in the first place) to entertain us.

The sadness therefore is not just from the loss itself, but in the understanding that there is a bit of us that has evaporated with these tragic incidents. We grieve for the part of us that shared a special moment with the person, place or event who suffered the loss – and is now lost as well. It is also an object lesson for us that life does not stand still – she “flows” and does not stop for anyone or anyplace. Let’s take a moment to stop, take a breath and whisper our gratitude to all the great souls who have come our way and appreciate all the events and places we are and have been fortunate to experience. This will make a difference – not perhaps to reality and it’s tragedies – but to our reaction to them and the memories that we are left with when a treasured phase passes us by. To know life is fleeting makes us all more present and caring. Prayers.

I follow Vadivelu..

…as a visitor to Dubai (not in the political world!). One of the blockbuster movies had him visiting Dubai on employment you will recall – I went for business reasons too – to attend an IT conference. His job duties of course were a nature’s calling (do checkout youtube sensation Wilbur sargunaraj’s hilarious tutorials including one on this speciality!), mine of course were to do with software and testing.

I flew Air India, our maharaja’s airline. A friend of mine often wonders why the crew of this great airline all look a touch old – “were they born this way, or do they work with the other airlines and then join the Maharaja upon retirement?” – he wonders. I don’t know the answer, the crew on my flight were certainly not senile, on the contrary they were pretty courteous, served good food and were very knowledgeable. They forgot to dim the cabin lights and the plane did seem a touch ancient – but I’ll take that over juvenile pilots with fake certificates anyday! AI, you have my vote.

On landing, the first thing that strikes you is the Dubai shopping experience. Where most airports encourage shopping, out here it’s a retail mall which also encourages air porting! Visa on arrival (more on that later), no emigration forms to fill in and more shops and festivals than you can find in an Indian Temple town imply your senses are in overdrive almost from the word go.

I was an outlier here however. My visa (informed a smart guy at Terminal 1 arrivals) was for some reason in Terminal 3 (so I had arrived but my visa hadn’t yet, so much for “visa on arrival”). Said he – “You can await for your sponsor to help out (meaning spend the night in the airport as it was already midnight) or find your way to Terminal 3, pick up the visa and trudge back again”. This I did, and spent a good 1.5 hrs – would have been more if a very helpful airport staff hadn’t helped me with navigation at every corner. Dubai airport – your gold and goods are easy to find – need more help with the airport navigation signposts though – especially for folks like me who are very bad at directions. Finally they gave me a visa, I gave them an eye scan – and walked through the green channel 3 hours after landing and found myself a smart taxicab (they all are).

The drive to the hotel was pleasant, the weather a revelation. It’s pretty windy out here in Dubai and wind cheaters are certainly a good idea. We drove into Media One, a prominent hotel in the Media City. The hotel staff were efficient and super friendly – as seem the norm here. I asked them if I could get some good coffee, and they said “yep, and free wifi and a minibar and an awesome bath tub”. Awesome bathtub?

The hotel is indeed exquisitely designed – reminded me of the designs I had been awed by during a visit to the Nordics (I think it’s called minimalist or something). Beiges were used to great effect, light sensors ensured where I went there light “dawned” (and made me feel like a messiah) and the bath tub (there we go again!) – man did they engineer this one. It has a very soft leather headrest (you can wallow in hot water for hours here reading a good book), the tap is one of those you’ll need to use sleuthing skills to find but does its job wonderfully. Somehow, in the space equivalent of an average city apartment living room, they had fitted in a double bed, full bath, enough wardrobes to accommodate a Bollywood film’s requirements, a flat tv, lots of mirrors, a desk, two lounge chairs, a tea table…and a breath taking view. Not to forget that bathtub…

An mid afternoon stroll through the streets revealed people dining on streetside tables – many enjoying a post lunch smoke (often pulling on colorful hookas). Shaded eat outs, a very cosmopolitan crowd, the many serene and proud Arabian landlords – the city does look contented and prosperous.

The conference was at one of the Jumeriah properties, a property that looked authenticly steeped in the local culture. Treading on the lush carpets, one half expected to be meeting Shah Jahan or Akbar in the lunch room. And when you least expected it, modernity hit you – escalators, state of the art speakers and aesthetic lighting are all weaved in seamlessly – so you can ejoy the ambience with all the comforts of a modern business traveller. A great setting for a great conference meet.

The way back to the airport saw us cruising past skyscrapers and then some more. The ones you’ll see in Dubai will certainly rival any in Manhattan. For those not convinced, please note that Burj Khaleefa is the tallest building in the world (though you can only do calisthenics on it if you happen to be named Tom Cruise). We had a quick peek at a few more biggies – the Dubai Mall (the website states its the world’s largest shopping and entertainment destination) and the largest dancing fountain (the fountain dances to a haunting tune making you philsophically wonder which one was adapted to which – did the music or the dance come first?). One thing that’s sure to leave you dazed is the way modernity and tradition intertwine here – you have a Mughal hotel resting comfortably amdist European looking neighbours, desert winds coexisting with manicured lawns, local costumes with hummers….

And then we drove back to the airport. Rushed through passport control (you will be treated like royalty if you have the right tickets in this country!) and back into the shopping mall that also airports. Good food (thanks Maharaba lounge!) and a few “shopping for dates” sessions later, trudged back to the boarding gate. History followed I had arrived, my plane hadnt – Air India as always was dependably late. There was a saving grace – the flight was running half empty so got some royal treatment (And I mean of the good kind here) and reached home with the dawn – and settled down to some good filter coffee and some soothing south indian political news from our stiff-collared newspaper “The Hindu”. And no, I do not follow anyone (including vadivelu on the political front!….)