Seeing beyond the Obvious

 T W O

Seeing beyond the Obvious

Behind the smiles, everyone is going through personal struggles we know nothing about.

‘As I have said, the first thing is to be honest with yourself. You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself . . . Great peacemakers are all people of integrity, of honesty, but humility.’

—Nelson Mandela

Have you ever walked into a room where two people have argued? You can immediately sense the stale energy in the room; the silence between them can be deafening. Miscommunication can spark similar tension. When Harry fell silent I found myself wondering: Had I said something wrong? Had I offended him? Insulting someone who has hosted you at their home is one of the most regrettable things one can do. Two minutes passed before I decided to break the deadlock.

  ‘So where did you buy this car?’ I asked trying to change the subject to something more palatable.

   Harry appreciated that I was trying to find common ground and followed suit. He still didn’t feel comfortable sharing with me whatever it was he was thinking. ‘Well, I needed to buy a car after I sold the Mercedes. My wife and I were taking cabs everywhere for the first few weeks. One day when we were visiting some friends in Juhu, the cab stopped at a traffic light directly outside the Lexus showroom. That was when I saw her—sparkling from within the polished glass. It was love at first sight!’ He cheered up at that memory.

   ‘This car seems like your prized possession,’ I replied.

   He nodded repeatedly. ‘There are not many things in the world that can make you happier than a car like this. Look at the detail of the readings on the dashboard, the stitching on the white faux-leather seats, the feel of the steering wheel. In fact, it can do zero to 100 at the same time the Mercedes ca—’. Harry slammed the brakes, our seatbelts tightened, and I saw him firmly gripping the steering wheel. We came to a sudden halt. Carried away by his thoughts he had not realized that the traffic had built up ahead. ‘Sorry about that, I wonder what the problem is,’ he said apologetically, peering ahead.

   ‘No problem,’ I replied. ‘Are you okay?’ I asked, a little startled.

   Harry gazed into the distance trying to see the root of the problem but had no luck. ‘Yes I am okay, but I’m surprised. There is never traffic here!’ he said, sounding disappointed.

   Although things have improved to some extent, Mumbai is still known as India’s ‘crash capital’. It has roughly the same number of cars as London, but more than four times the number of road fatalities. Cars can sometimes be reckless as they zip past red lights and try everything to zigzag through dense traffic jams.

   However, for the moment we were trapped in his Lexus and not going anywhere. I messaged one of my colleagues that I would be late for the meeting. ‘We’re stuck!’ I uttered, trying my best to be heard over the din of cars consistently honking with no results.

   ‘Even in my new car, I’m stuck. It doesn’t matter how fast it can go. I’m stuck!’ Harry’s voice choked up. ‘Why do I feel so STUCK?’ he screamed as he hit the steering wheel of his prized possession. ‘Is it the fault of the people in the cars ahead of me? They caused the traffic? Is it that they didn’t build the roads wide enough? I didn’t build the roads. Or is it my fault?’ his voice trembled. ‘Did I buy the wrong car? Should I have bought a motorbike? Is it too late to buy a motorbike?’ I sensed that something was going on in his life that he wasn’t telling me about. I put my hand on his shoulder. His head dropped, and he placed his hands in his lap. His lip quivered, and he looked away from me, out of the window. In the reflection of the driver’s side window, I saw a few lonely tears leave his sorrowful eyes. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I don’t know what came over me.’

   ‘Don’t be sorry. We can all feel stuck at times. Why do you feel stuck?’ I asked empathetically.

   ‘I’m sure you don’t have time for all of this.’

   ‘I have all the time in the world for you. Firstly because we’re going to be stuck here for a long time, and secondly because you have fed me the best sambar I’ve ever tasted in my life!’

  He chuckled as he dried his eyes with his silk handkerchief. He knew I was trying to lighten his mood. When we comfort someone, it is easy to fall into their sorrowful energy, which can perpetuate their suffering. It’s important that we bring positive, non-judgemental energy into these conversations.

   ‘Where do I start?’

   ‘Wherever you feel comfortable,’ I whispered. ‘I’m listening.’

   He sighed and then began. ‘Only a fool would say that he is not happy while driving a Lexus, but then I guess I am that fool. I have everything that I could have dreamt of, but within myself, I have this sense that something is missing.’ He looked out of his window again as if gazing into the lost past that he was about to reveal to me.

  ‘It started at IIT Bombay. I never wanted to go there in the first place. I never wanted to study engineering, but my parents wouldn’t take no for an answer. They insisted that “engineering is where the money is. If you get into IIT, life will be yours.” If I ever questioned them, they would make me feel guilty by bringing up how much they did for me and how I shouldn’t let them down.’ He paused, as he thought the traffic was moving. It was a false alarm; we were still stuck. He continued, ‘I think my parents were living their ambitions through me. My father was fascinated by the updating software in the textile equipment at his factory. He wanted me to be one of those superheroes at his factory who could come in and solve any technical problem.’

   ‘You may not be a software engineer, but you seem to be doing well now. Aren’t you?’ I pondered. ‘You went to Harvard!’

   ‘Harvard was me rebelling!’ Harry snapped. He took a deep breath, ‘I had to get away from my parents and siblings. I wanted to live my own life, so I escaped to America. I know it seems ludicrous, but I didn’t think about the Harvard MBA programme thoroughly. I just took it without thinking, just to get away. I had a full scholarship. After years of studying the wrong thing, I wanted to live my own life.’

   ‘So was Harvard the solution?’

   ‘Unfortunately, no. I completed the course, but it wasn’t my calling. One great thing was that I did meet Lalita, or Lily, as her friends would call her there. Both of us being South Indians, we instantly connected. Forget this car, that was surely love at first sight! I was also fascinated that she studied medicine and wanted to be a paediatrician. Maybe I was slightly jealous of her at times because it was there that I realized I wanted to do medicine too. But it was too late. I didn’t have the time or the money to study medicine. So I kept it all in, and we returned to India for our marriage.’ It was taking a lot out of him to reveal all of this, but I did not want to interrupt.

   ‘Our marriage is amazing. Well, it started amazingly. Lalita was training to be a doctor for children, and I was headhunted for a job at my current consulting firm. They promised me a six-figure salary, not including my bonus. I’ve come up the ranks rather quickly. But at what cost, I constantly ask myself. The stress and long hours of both our jobs has weakened our relationship. We have little time for each other, let alone time to raise children. The sweet words Lalita briefly spoke to me at our home are rare. She has no idea how cutting her harsh words are to me, which leads to fights and, well, you know, marriage problems. It got so heated the other day that she yelled she wanted to get a divorce,’ he said, looking out of the window again. The sea, which had earlier given us its cooling breeze in his apartment, was now shimmering and sweltering. ‘How can love that started so pure evaporate so quickly? Funnily, despite all this, I’m at a stage where I do not like my work, and I don’t look forward to being at home. But with my status, who will believe that I’m not happy?’

   He certainly was honest, I thought to myself. Our egos are such that admitting our sorrows to someone else comes when we are incredibly humble or when we are in considerable pain. I felt he was a mix of the two. We tend to take everyone at face value, equating what they have on the outside to how they feel on the inside. The paradox of our times is that those who have the most can often be the least satisfied. We have mastered how to look successful, but not how to organize our lives so that we feel successful. These were the thoughts that came to my mind when he was speaking, but I kept them to myself. To me listening to understand is more important than listening to reply. The wheels of the car edged forward a few metres. At least we were on the move.




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  1. External doesn't always measure up with internal. External success doess not obviously render internal happiness


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