(A short story for a long lament.)
I have stepped out to get some ilaneer (tender coconut water). On the bench by the vendor’s cart, sits a very despondent man. I think that maybe he is thirsty but the ilaneer is too expensive so I ask the vendor to give him one, my treat. The vendor shakes his head. “He has been like this for a long time. He won’t speak. He won’t buy a coconut. He just sits there, spreading gloom and sorrow around my cart.”
I wonder what great grief fills this sad man. I take the second coconut in my hand, sit next to him and say, “Brother, take a sip and tell me what ails you.”
He sits silent and immobile and then, maybe sensing my determination to stay, lifts his head to look at me. In his eyes, I see the troubles of the world. Sick people, hungry people, old people all alone, children left orphaned. His eyes fill my heart with an immeasurable sorrow too.
I persist, “Tell me what ails you.”
“Can you not see?” he asks. “Is your heart made of stone?”
“See what?” I ask, full of pop psychology wisdom about making him articulate his feelings. Again, I extend the coconut towards him. He smiles and takes it from me as if to please me, saying, “This compassion you show to me, can you not find it in your heart for what you see in the world?”
I still do not understand. I see him, the vendor, the coconuts, the beach around us and the sea. What does he think I see? I look in his eyes, which carry the world in them, and say, “What do you want me to see?”
They fill with tears now. “Willfully blind. It is more important to you that I see YOU as compassionate than that you should let yourself live and act with empathy and compassion, that you should actually see.”
“Brother, tell me who you are, where you are from and why you grieve so.”
“I am Rama of Ayodhya. I have lived in your heart since time immemorial but you still do not recognize me? Humans are quite amazing!” A flash of temper and irony on that beautiful, serene face full of sorrow.
And then, “Oh my god.” He chuckles, “So you say! But have you learnt nothing from me and my life?”
“You seem to remember me as a martial hero. But think about what in my stories fills your heart with love and what fills you with doubt, and you will understand what makes me sad today.”
Rama looking at the moon in a plate of water. Rama as a diligent student. Rama’s bond with his family, especially his brothers. Rama lifting the bow and marrying Sita. Rama trying to please his stepmother. Rama’s gentleness with the people of Ayodhya. Rama and Sita living in harmony with the creatures of the forest. Rama’s friendships. Rama’s yearning to learn. Rama’s willingness to give appreciation. Rama’s insistence of giving refuge. Rama’s sense of right and wrong. Things we love.
Things that make us question his perfection. His absolute sense of right and wrong, valuing abstract norms above fairness and justice. His treating Sita as an instrument of his adherence to external standards. His departure from absolute standards to expedient ones in the killing of Vali. His summary justice for perceived transgressions that kept him from seeing Shambuka as human.
I look into Rama’s eyes again and past the surging spring of tears, I see this world and what we have made of it with our choices. Choices that implicitly or explicitly label some as less than human, less than worthy and simply existing as instrumental to our own goals. I look away. I cannot look him in the eyes any more.
“Guilt is useless,” he tells me. “Find compassion, find empathy and then put them to work.”
I still cannot face him. I am slowly crumbling inside.
The vendor observes. “Useless fellow! Everyday he sits here, looking sad, and then when someone sits down to talk to him, he makes them also cry. With two people weeping mournfully near my stall, how can I sell anything? Useless fellow!”
Rama smiles. “I agree I am useless,” he says. “If you ignore the few things I am useful for and focus on the truly useless aspects of my presence—where I was born, where I walked, what I ate—then my existence has been a waste.”
“I don’t need a memorial to my birthplace and palace because if I live, it is in your heart and conscience. And if I do not live there and animate those, I do not deserve all this fuss. If you have learnt from me to ignore the pain of your fellow humans, to deny the destruction of this beautiful world and to indulge in bricks-and-mortar vanity projects and ritual mumbo-jumbo, then you have learnt nothing from me. The temple, the ritual—none of this pleases this Rama.”
“Show me you have a heart. Show me your priorities are correct. Show me that you can listen to the truth and learn from those who are wise. Show me that you are secure enough for others to be free. Show me that your attachment to power is not stronger than your attachment to humanity. Then my existence will be meaningful.”
I find my voice. “But Rama, have you seen the temple design? Do you know that people are already arriving for the ceremony that marks the beginning of the construction? Do you know how spectacular and special it is going to be?”
I see cold fury in Rama’s beautiful eyes. “Is that so? Well, be there, be happy. I will not be there.”
“But it’s your temple. You have to be there.”
“You have understood nothing. I will not be where there is no compassion, no love, no dharma.”
“Where will you be?”
“I will be in Kashmir. I will be in Palestine. I will be in Syria. I will be in the homes of villagers struggling with hunger and debt. I will be with those who cannot access the temples I value—schools, hospitals, langars. I will be in the sleepless nights of the workers who came home, but have no work and do not know where to go next. I will be holding the hands of old people who are alone, wondering when this pandemic will end. I will watch over women who do not sleep, fearful of rape. I will be playing with children who find the little pockets of joy in the middle of a time when adult worries seem endless. I will be in the jails where the disease reinforces the will of the state to silence dissenters. I will be everywhere there is war, suffering and injustice. If you spare a thought everyday for my people, I will be in your heart. But I will not be at the ritual or the site in Ayodhya. Know this for sure.”
The sun has set. In the darkness, I can see just his luminous eyes, full of tears that blur the world as he has shown it to me. I take those compassionate eyes into my heart and I leave.