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Readers Write In #561: Letters to my Alter Ego

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Readers Write In #561: Letters to my Alter Ego

By Jeeva P

Dear Arulmozhivarman,

We have always been like this. We both have been called the greatest pessimists by both people who knew us pretty well and those who haven’t. It sometimes used to sting me like an insult and sometimes used to elate me like a compliment. Both of us were people who were ready to expect and prepare only for the worst outcome of any crucial process or event affecting our lives. Years of such conditioning left us wonderfully immune to impulses that were waiting to explode like a jubilant volcano at the stroke of a great victory, a result that we both nevertheless heartily deserved and never attained, despite our meticulous efforts. To give an example, say the results of a semester examination. I can pretty well vouch for the fact that my efforts for each one of them have all been never even a notch less than what our “super-successful” Vinodhs and Vigneshes had devoted for their attempts, and yet we both were always given results that resembled something like a consolation prize at the end of a reality show.

After one or two occasions, the marks that we got which were strictly average had absolutely no correlation with the engineering knowledge we kind of accumulated. If I am not wrong, had Vignesh and me had sat for an one-mark examination with multiple choice questions like the ones I was used to at Infosys Mysore, I would have at least managed to ‘compete’ with him and that is to give a very ‘conservative assessment’ of my competence. Yet look at the fact, the huge rift we both and Vignesh found ourselves at the end of our grueling four-year engineering courses, a mere certificate of completion of the course at one end and a shimmering university gold medal at the other.

By the end of 2010, when we completed our engineering courses, we both had developed a level of saintly stoicism towards life and I am not still sure exactly how much we benefited on account of that. Even if I didn’t get the tickets for the dates for which I had planned my vacation or even if my lead with whom I had developed a very good rapport within a short span of time was leaving the company allowing me to be ‘lunged at’ by his ruthless successor at a job for which I still think I am not fully suited for, the duration of my sadness or disappointment had never exceeded even ten minutes or so. I usually was quick to recover my poise and whenever my friends, especially women colleagues used to tell me that I was a cheerful guy all the time, no matter how many disappointments or rebukes I had to face at my workplace, I used to feel honestly that I had done nothing special to deserve that compliment. Remaining stoic and staying resigned to whatever providence had in store for us was not something that we were born with. Destiny trained us both for that rigorously and resilience to adversity from our side was as you know, never a choice. 

But as you see, there were some benefits, of course of having developed such a ‘thick skin’ to life. We were kind of always ready and very much anticipative of the worst, that we both had a good number of people who began to trust us with all the stories of their lives. Many of them had wanted people whom they can unravel themselves to and especially in times of crushing adversity they had lost all their judgement and reason and all they needed in those times were exactly people like us who could act as fast-acting sponges that absorbed all their negativity. This was for me a very surprising development at an age when I was fast growing into an adult, the age where I could so easily unburden myself of all the luggage that my childhood had managed to tether me to.

People, mostly, even the most secure ones and the most confident and the most talented ones, at the end of the day needed none but simple, unjudging listeners. I am sure in future we will have CHATGPTs taking care of all of that or something like a ‘companion software’ that we saw in that Joaquin Phoenix movie. I think both of us had that ‘gift’. We both were, for want of a better word, bottomless listeners. You could dump anything into it and remain assured that none of the garbage was going to rebound. This is not a capacity we both developed or worked on. We were born with that and I think that set us apart from the rest of the populace. I have seen ravishing beauties in my office, girls whom we used to think were completely out of our league, on account of our dark complexion and strictly pedestrian, middle-class upbringing, becoming quick friends with me and within weeks pouring almost every insecurity and threat they were being subjected to in the past as well as the present and every time I had to step into ‘a therapy session’ like that, I always had to wrestle between two conflicting emotions. One full of empathy and tenderness for the ‘injured’ little creature that was willing to open itself to me for a at least a modicum of relief and comfort. Another emotion was full of jubilation that, had someone told me even during my college days that in the near future you will be meeting a woman soon of such physical allure that even a two-minute conversation with her would leave you in a tizzy for almost a week, and that she would badly need you to empty herself of all her baggage of insecurities and fears, I surely wouldn’t have believed him even a bit.

That emotional conflict in fact, used to give me a great deal of happiness and satisfaction which I had managed to channel back in ways very beneficial to my ‘client’. You know pretty well that whenever we are thrown into occasions of happiness, rare and precious ones in our lives, we had always willed and managed to repay destiny for its kindness by being super-nice to people around usat those points in time. Just like how Suriya says, whenever man is happy it is difficult for him to do an evil act, in one of our favourite scenes in Sillunu Oru Kadhal, we are all after all faithful slaves of destiny who would repay our master with double the loyalty for even one small, trivial act of kindness from our Master.

But that Master for the last few years has been so unforgiving and ruthless for both of us. And it is both interesting and appalling to note the relationship between our sorrows and the occasions on which they explode out of the soil underneath where we tread upon unsuspectingly. Your father’s death almost roughly coincided with the occasion of your wife getting pregnant, both these discrete events could have easily happened without any potential loss to any of the stakeholders at completely different times but the fact that they both happened hand in hand makes us suspect that there is a hideous pattern beneath all of this. The occasion where my wife came back to my house after giving birth to my beautiful son coincided with the day where my father started giving signs that he was very quickly losing his mind to depression and insanity.

A lot of people have told me that we are all adults having crossed the age of thirty and our parents are very much living the last few pages of their lives and that we must learn to reconcile our ‘puerile’ consciousness with this unsavoury fact. We both know that this is a fact and having been ‘pessimists’ for so long in our lives, we have to a very good extent wired ourselves to unfortunate events arising out of our parents’ naturally failing health. But there are two specific details that these people consciously or unconsciously remain blind to- the suddenness of these events- one, your father passing away all of a sudden especially when he was reported to be doing so well until almost a week back and two, the excruciating complexity that accompanies these unfortunate events. The death of the father of a person who is in his thirties is probably a very natural one, I agree. But what if that father had and has continued to remain something like a fountainhead for the nuclear family not financially but emotionally, remaining the prime mover of the family’s daily affairs even if he had retired professionally a year or so before. What if the son did not have enough time to adjust and prepare his mind for the ‘coronation’ for having to head the family, all of a sudden? What if the son had treated his father like a banyan tree that offered shade and clarity and warmth whenever he felt exhausted and frustrated with life? Just like how Mike arrives to save Jimmy in Better Call Saul in the episode Bagman when he is walking all alone in the desert with loads of money, I alone know the fact that your father was such a man who would not mind allowing his son to face his own difficulties, to make his own mistakes but when the adversity that besieged his son would reach a level that would endanger his life and cripple his senses ultimately, he would make himself instantly available to his son like how Sivaji as Lord Shiva used to manifest in places we least expect him to, to save his devotees from a life-threatening danger, in old AP Nagarajan movies.

Recently I read a book on Trees written by Peter Wollhebeen where he narrates the story of trees that develop plenty of leaves in the summer to maximize photosynthesis in the presence of the sun during summer, then slowly decide to shed their leaves not because it is autumn but in preparation for a snow-heavy winter. In winter, the presence of leaves is a burden for the tree since it doesn’t have enough sunshine for photosynthesis and leaves without photosynthesis is a baggage for the tree and the tree might not have enough energy to sustain the leaves. Also the presence of leaf-heavy branches might lead to snow getting accumulated at the top which might even affect the balance of the standing tree leading ultimately to its fall during blizzards. What I am trying to say here is, between the summer which leads to the birth and emergence of so many leaves and the arrival of the winter which leads to the skeletalizing of the tree, there is a period during which the tree is allowed to prepare for it, the autumn. The tree mentally and logically prepares to become leafless and when the worst part of the year arrives, the tree is very much ready to face it.

But for people like us, or for persons like you and me to whom fathers remained something like leaves to a tree, our Master, the destiny was not ready to offer a period of preparation during which we could have primed ourselves for difficult, blizzard-filled, leafless lives. The summer was until then warm, nutrient-rich and life-giving. The very next day to our shock, it was snow and winter everywhere, why?

And coming to my case, my father could have passed away all of a sudden like what happened in your case. Or he could have left our house for some other life. What happened to my father was even worse, he became insane, slowly and steadily. Just imagine, we had a brother like Manickam in Baasha for almost three decades. If he had died one fine day all of a sudden due to an accident, there could have been ways we could have dealt with it. But what if Manickam had grown insane? What if a warm, avuncular lecture from him on how to deal with debts and difficulties had turned into a spell of crying and an outpouring of inexplicable grief? Can we, as Rajni fans, bear to see him turning insane that too in a warm, masala film like Baasha? That is what happened to me whenever I used to see that my father was crying for no reason at all inside his washroom. He one day called me after finishing his daily walk and asked me to take a ride to the nearby Butcher shop to note down what was written on the name board. I was shocked and asked him why. He told me if I didn’t do that for him, he would not be able to sleep that night.

Just fifteen months before this incident, my father had retired from a government service with great honours from both his colleagues and fellow trade unionists.More than fifty people had gathered and his contribution to the office as a bureaucrat and to the Trade Union as a senior member of its think-tank was recalled by each and everyone for more than two hours. He was someone, for all his flaws and weaknesses, my hero and life-source.

Both of us having prided ourselves on our ability to remain thick-skinned to adversity and misfortune for so many years were faced with a new challenge now. Our skills were thoroughly tested. Our capacities were pushed to the limit. And needless to say, we both broke down. And let me add here the fact that there was a pattern to all these difficulties. Both these tragedies happened at times when great things were about to happen in our lives. You were becoming an ‘expecting’ father. My wife had already given birth to a beautiful, little kid. People could say easily, even now that we should have gathered strength from the good things that happened to us and should have stood up bravely to these adversities. But what happened to both of us was the opposite. The negativity that shrouded us on the occasion of these tragedies did not leave us at all. Even when I tried to lift my little one with both my hands to plant a kiss on his bald, little forehead, the shadow of my father’s tragedy didn’t leave my mind at all. Your father is fast-becoming a mentally challenged person and you here are trying to start your new life with flying colours. What kind of son are you?

Hope I will continue writing to you like this.


Jeeva P

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