“Why are you carrying your luggage on your head?” A passenger asked another one on a train.
“Because it’s mine.”
“But the train carries everyone’s luggage, and it’s carrying you, so who do you think you are to carry yours individually?”
I was told this story or drishtant as part of a spiritual discourse at least forty years ago. It has come back to me again in the disturbing times we have found ourselves in. How responsible should we feel at an individual level today, I ask myself. Should we even worry about what is to be done with our loved ones when the axe falls, considering we don’t know what we would do with ourselves.
It seems to me that the present moment puts much pressure on the idea of the individual, and her will and agency. It’s true that our recklessness may contribute to someone else’s misery, but that being said, our anxiety as individual doers of action is much reduced.
Now this might seem like an odd thing to say. But here’s the thing: there is nothing we need to do. In fact the emphasis of the present moment is on not doing; rather than doing. We don’t need to add anything to the resumé, rather, freeze it, and let it breathe quietly. This passivity may make some feel helpless, but it’s also a liberating moment, like the realisation of the passenger that if he is himself a burden on the train, who is he to claim to carry the burden of something or someone else?
We are reminded today of the first principles – we were never meant to be full and absolute individuals but small organisms in a larger network of life. Our shifts may have ramifications on the overall network, but our actions at the moment are best processed as non-actions.
Now this art of life mumbo-jumbo may seem absurd, and worse, apolitical. Who is this we, some of you may ask, and who has the luxury of non-action? These would be fair questions, and we may need to be mindful of striking a balance between that recognition of an unequal society and the uniformity this moment forges across humanity. This uniformity is a reminder of generic we are, how unimportant.
I find the latter soothing these days – knowing we are not operating today as goal-oriented, target-driven individuals in a competitive world. It is quite liberating. It’s almost as if the benchmarks of performance; the confirmations of ego and the fear-of-missing-out (FOMO) have suddenly receded. Were we just meant to stay put then?
This question reminds me of another story that my father told me. This was about a man who takes the horse to a well to drink water. The well had a pulley that made creaking sounds and each time that happened the horse would refuse to drink. My father concluded, “Putta, tik tik bhi halandi, paani bhi piyano aa.”
That Sindhi sentence translates as, child, the creaking sound will continue but the drinking of water cannot stop either. Both are assertions of life, their simultaneity characterises life. Hence our actions must go on against the clamour of mortality; but not with the certitude that they would make any difference, or that we have to do them at all.
Perhaps they need to be done with the philosophical distance of non-action, as gestures that evidence our being in life, but are not life-changing. This strips many things of the immense significance we come to attach to them and, by extension, to ourselves, especially those of us in urban and upper-class and caste homes.
This is also a moment to see what inner resources we have for our times. Is it possible to have them without the conception of organised religion or charlatan spiritualism?
We could perhaps imagine the foundational contexts of our being and see humanity as a constellation of bodies in the world today. The precarity of one body from another certainly varies, and so is therefore our collective responsibility to mitigate that situation.
But recognising the body-ness also reminds us to respect another body. The well-heeled sections of society have appropriate the mind-jobs, leaving the rest for the Dalit, the Hispanic, the coloured. With mind-jobs now in abeyance, are we in a better position to appreciate that we did not inherit better minds, but our circumstances and locations allowed us to use them?
As I end this I am reminded of Narsinh Mehta whom most of you know as the poet of “Vaishnava jana to..” However, in his more powerful poem, “Akhil Brahmand maa”, he talks of life force that is available in different shapes and sizes – ghat ghadiya pachhi namrup jujva but in the end gold is gold – ante to hem nu hem hoye. Dust, more like it.
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