This one came out of a random, hilarious conversation between my brother/mentor GD and me. Originally, it was something about a strict guru reading a disciple his Miranda rights. We had such a laugh we decided to dedicate an ‘epifunny’ to it. Hope you enjoy it. 🙂
Recently, in my new favorite book ‘A Tale For The Time Being’ by novelist and Zen priest Ruth Ozeki, I came across a little-known and very beautiful Zen custom.
Traditionally, a Japanese, Chinese and Korean Zen Master would write a final poem or haiku when he was about to die. In the death poem or jisei, the essential idea was that at one’s final moment of life, one’s reflection on death could be especially lucid and therefore an important observation about life. The poem was considered a final parting gift to disciples.
Curious, I tracked down some of these poems for myself and thought they were worth sharing:
Breathing in, breathing out,
Moving forward, moving back,
Living, dying, coming, going —
Like two arrows meeting in flight,
In the midst of nothingness
Is the road that goes directly
to my true home.
– Gesshu Soko
Like dew drops
on a lotus leaf
Since time began
the dead alone know peace.
Life is but melting snow.
I pondered Buddha’s teaching
a full four and eighty years.
The gates are all now
locked about me.
No one was ever here –
Who then is he about to die,
and why lament for nothing?
The night is clear,
the moon shines calmly,
the wind in the pines
is like a lyre’s song.
With no ‘I’ and no other
who hears the sound?
– Zoso Royo
Empty handed I entered the world.
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going-
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.
Zen legend has it that a few days before his death, Kozan called his pupils together, ordered them to bury him without ceremony when he died. One morning, after writing this poem, he lay down his brush and died while sitting upright.
As I get older, death feels more relevant. The magical thinking of youth fades – it becomes clearer that death is not an ‘if’ but a ‘when’. And I wonder what would it take to pass over with such clarity and grace… and a tiny grain of true wisdom worth passing on?
I grew up hearing that my father Aabid Surti was a great writer. He had been conferred a National Award for Literature in 1993 so I didn’t doubt it, but his books were mostly written in Hindi or Gujarati languages, neither of which was a fun read for my English-educated self. So it was not until my late thirties that I actually read a book written by him.
The first book I read was an English translation of ‘Sufi – The Invisible Man Of The Underworld’. I remember I kept telling my wife every few pages how marvelous it was, secretly expecting it would go downhill soon after. But the pace didn’t flag right until the final twist at the end. It was an amazing parallel biography of dad’s life with that of an underworld smuggler, both of whom grew up in the same crime-infested section of Bombay in the 1950s. My wife read it next, stopped communicating with the world for a night and day, and emerged another fan. She recommended it to her parents, and so it went on.
Until then, I had only known ‘Sufi’ as the book because of which dad had received death threats from the underworld – at one point forcing us to leave our home indefinitely with just a suitcase of clothes. His books often caused him problems but I always admired dad’s integrity. He bowed down neither to the underworld, nor to political pressures to become a mouthpiece for party agendas. During the Hindi-Muslim riots of 1992, while city Muslims stayed home, he would go alone for a walk down the streets of Bandra during curfew hours and say, ‘Let’s see who dares to kill me in my own city.’ It scared us then – but he was too much of a man to allow someone else to take away his city.
Though he was neither a political nor a religious man, the 1992 Babri mosque incident – where a Hindu political rally developed into a riot involving 150,000 people – and the ensuing riots in which 2000 people were killed, scarred him deeply. He wrote ‘In The Name of Rama’, a scathing indictment of the ruling party inspired by a true incident about a lone Hindu constable who stood at the foot of the mosque to protect it from thousands of Hindu fundamentalists. The book was a fictionalized back story of this character, exploring what is true love and true faith. I read that next and cried through parts of it too.
His honesty created some more humorous problems for him too.
When he wrote ‘The Golf Widow’ which was the diary of his ultimately tragic love affair with his beautiful Japanese art student, my mother was, to put it mildly, not pleased. But the point of the book was not to boast about a boyhood locker-room fantasy. The book is a meditation on growing old and coming to terms with the life we are given.
Unlike some authors who stick to their niche, dad’s writing spanned multiple genres. His 80-odd books covered crime, biography, romance, spy thrillers, humor, children’s books, poetry and even erotica before it was available in shades of grey.
It has been one of my longstanding dreams to make my father’s out-of-print books available in English to a global audience. Despite his national award, I failed to interest local publishers. Currently, publishing in India is in that awkward growth spurt where it is besotted by young ‘Indian-English’ authors writing about teenage love. I hope that will expand, not just for dad’s sake but also for all the brilliant writing that is hidden buried in Indian languages.
Finally I took it upon myself to get it done. My brother and mentor GD readily agreed to don his cape as a super graphic designer to create the fantastic book covers. And thanks to Amazon, I have been able to make them available at a terrifically low price. I am super-excited to share the links for the ebook versions of three of dad’s best books in English for the first time here.
Looking back, I read the first book written by my dad mostly because he was my father. But the second, and the third, and the fourth, I read because I had discovered an author who knew how to spin a great yarn and gently evoke a glowing pearl of meaning hidden inside it.
And I do hope you find some pearls of your own to carry away too.
Bill Watterson, I find, is a rare human being. He created the modern classic ‘Calvin & Hobbes‘ but fought bitterly against licensing and merchandising his characters, sacrificing millions of dollars. He changed the way syndicated cartoons are published in newspapers but stayed away from the media spotlight himself. When ‘Calvin & Hobbes’ was at its peak, he quit the comic strip and settled into a reclusive life in his home town. As an artist who has lived our modern dichotomy between creativity and commercial cleverness, his sane advice is invaluable for young artists and creators. In this rare public appearance, a commencement speech at his alma mater Kenyon College in 1990, he spoke about finding your voice, selling your soul and living a fulfilled life. Excerpts:
SOME THOUGHTS ON THE REAL WORLD BY ONE WHO GLIMPSED IT AND FLED
Bill Watterson, Kenyon College, May 1990
[…] So, what’s it like in the real world? Well, the food is better, but beyond that, I don’t recommend it.
[…] Like many people, I found that what I was chasing wasn’t what I caught. I’ve wanted to be a cartoonist since I was old enough to read cartoons, and I never really thought about cartoons as being a business. It never occurred to me that a comic strip I created would be at the mercy of a bloodsucking corporate parasite called a syndicate, and that I’d be faced with countless ethical decisions masquerading as simple business decisions.
To make a business decision, you don’t need much philosophy; all you need is greed, and maybe a little knowledge of how the game works.
As my comic strip became popular, the pressure to capitalize on that popularity increased to the point where I was spending almost as much time screaming at executives as drawing. Cartoon merchandising is a $12 billion dollar a year industry and the syndicate understandably wanted a piece of that pie. But the more I thought about what they wanted to do with my creation, the more inconsistent it seemed with the reasons I draw cartoons.
Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules and rewards.
The so-called “opportunity” I faced would have meant giving up my individual voice for that of a money-grubbing corporation. It would have meant my purpose in writing was to sell things, not say things. My pride in craft would be sacrificed to the efficiency of mass production and the work of assistants. Authorship would become committee decision. Creativity would become work for pay. Art would turn into commerce. In short, money was supposed to supply all the meaning I’d need.
What the syndicate wanted to do, in other words, was turn my comic strip into everything calculated, empty and robotic that I hated about my old job. They would turn my characters into television hucksters and T-shirt sloganeers and deprive me of characters that actually expressed my own thoughts.
On those terms, I found the offer easy to refuse. Unfortunately, the syndicate also found my refusal easy to refuse, and we’ve been fighting for over three years now. Such is American business, I guess, where the desire for obscene profit mutes any discussion of conscience.
You will find your own ethical dilemmas in all parts of your lives, both personal and professional. We all have different desires and needs, but if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled. Sooner or later, we are all asked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about. We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are. Think about what you want out of this life, and recognize that there are many kinds of success.
Many of you will be going on to law school, business school, medical school, or other graduate work, and you can expect the kind of starting salary that, with luck, will allow you to pay off your own tuition debts within your own lifetime.
But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.
Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential — as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.
You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.
To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.
To read the PDF text version to this post, click here.
Many, many years ago, I had created a cartoon character called Shah Rock for my friend, actor Shah Rukh Khan. Someday, we both hoped, we could do a live action + animation movie starring Shah Rukh and Shah Rock.
Over the years, I have updated Shah Rock in the many movie avatars of Shah Rukh. Here’s the latest – for his film “Chennai Express” which is set to get the biggest opening of all time.
My son is at an age when he creates the rules of whatever games he plays. And still gets that the point of every game is to have fun. So if he dashes into a wall in an online game, he claps with glee. Collecting the maximum widgets doesn’t make sense to him yet. He is just as happy prancing around aimlessly.
As he grows up, he will be taught that every game has a purpose. And rules. And only one correct end goal. He will feel sad when he doesn’t reach that end. And frustrated when he feels he’s not good enough. He will get stressed playing the same game. He may begin to feel that if he hasn’t completed or mastered something, it was a waste of time.
Gradually, as he becomes an adult, he will completely forget that the rules came afterwards. Not just in his play – which will become serious and competitive – but in life too. He will forget that the bottomline of the game of life, too, is to have fun. He will believe that collecting the maximum widgets called ‘money’ is the only correct point of this game.
He will buy into the rules: that you can only be happy once you can be described as successful or rich or have a perfect body; or that you can’t live ecstatically until you find the perfect partner or perfect enlightenment. He may add rules, limitations and conclusions around his creativity that don’t allow him to be spontaneous and original. He may even lock himself down with judgments about what he can wear, what he can eat and how he should live in order to not ‘fail’ at life.
But maybe, someday, his own child will come running, squealing with joy towards him across the grass… and tumble. And then laugh with wild joy and do it again because falling is so much fun! And hopefully, that day, my son will remember that it is only a grown-up rule that falling down is bad.
And, in fact, that rules in life are actually arbitrary. The solid realities that bind us are enforced by thoughts and concepts that we have breathed life into. He will realize he can still choose any rule… but he doesn’t have to! And he may join his son in laughing because he will instantly feel freer than he has felt in many years. He will have fun once again in that moment when he is playing the game like he did as a child — without someone else’s rules.
Picture courtesy Vishal Punjabi @ The Wedding Filmer