Monday, August 13, 2007

Oh, to be a Nobody!

More on the subject of less is more which I broached here: I just came across an amusing story by Mulk Raj Anand, ‘The Man Whose Name Did Not Appear in the Census’ (Selected Stories, Penguin Classics, New Delhi, 2006). In it, there’s an illiterate old villager living in perpetual fear of the government as well as creditors knocking on his door. So when there is another unfamiliar knock one night, he refuses to open up. His disgusted wife opens the door to a census officer. But her terrified husband refuses to divulge his name and personal details fearing other repercussions. At that point, the disgruntled official stomps out saying that this man does not exist because his name is missing from the census. Ludicrous though his reasons may seem, the man had the right idea, I daresay. This reminds me of a Tukaram abhanga where he prays to God that he may be granted the boon of being small (or. insignificant). He cites the example of the infinitesimal ant getting a grain or two of sugar to eat. The gargantuan Airawat, the ten-tusked elephant (one of the nine jewels from the churning of the ocean), on the other hand, has to bear the sting of the sharp prod in the hand of his mahout. The bigger they come, the greater their trials and tribulations. His advice is to be humble and insignificant. The original abhanga in Marathi (#744) with a rather crude English rendering can be found here: In the very next verse (#745), the sage again reiterates the same principle, singing the praises of a low profile. A raging flood can uproot the mightiest tree but spares the humble moss, he says. Duck and the mighty wave will pass over your head. Catch the feet of your enemy and his might becomes inoperable. In a later verse (#928), Tukaram suggests that he who is humble before all becomes the abode of the Infinite. He has performed an act of great courage that wins over the Almighty. Water can pass under anything because of its low density. Likewise, the thinner a person’s ego, the better his chances of getting to the heart of the truth. Tukaram undoubtedly was speaking in a spiritual vein. I feel nonetheless that it’s good practical advice about how to survive without making waves. Swim with the tide, in short. Not against it. . Gandhigiri anyone, boys and girls?, & P.S.: By the way, it seems Gandhi translated Tukaram’s Abhangas into Gujarati during one of his sojourns at Pune’s Yerawada Jail.

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