Read more below

  • Published 21.12.10

Dharma Kumar was about the most attractive and lively woman I have met in my long life. She also had an unpredictable temper and lost many friends, including me. She died of brain tumour a few years ago. Radha Kumar, one of the three interlocutors exploring the possibilities of bringing peace to Kashmir, is Dharma’s only child.

I am reminded of Dharma whenever I come across the Hindi words, vinay, vineet and vinamr, for ‘humility’. The only Urdu and Punjabi equivalent I can think of are mita hua (self-effaced) and mitaya hoya. Dharma’s favourite story of lopsided humility was about her cousin, Raghavan Iyer, who had been a topper in every examination he took and was elected president of the Oxford University Student Union. He considered canvassing for votes beneath his dignity. His admirers did it for him. As soon as the results were announced, they rushed up to Iyer’s room and broke the good news to him. He was sitting in the lotus pose (padmasana) on the floor with his eyes closed. As they shouted, “Iyer, you have won”, he raised the index finger of his right hand towards the ceiling and exclaimed: “Victory is Thine, O Lord!”

A more amusing story that Dharma used to narrate about Iyer went somewhat as follows. One evening, as he was sitting surrounded by his admirers, one of them asked him, “Iyer you have achieved so much in life, how do you manage to remain so modest?” Iyer replied: “Good question. I have evolved a formula of self-extinction. I sit on the floor every morning and repeat ‘I am not Raghavan Iyer who got a first class first from Madras University; I am not Raghavan Iyer who got a first class first from Oxford University; I am not Raghavan Iyer who was elected president of the Student Union. I am not Raghavan Iyer, the most brilliant philosopher of the East. I am merely a spark of the Divine.”’ In his evening meditations, he went over the same lines with a variation of the last line — instead of “spark of the Divine”, he said, “I am only a vehicle of the Mahatmas.”

We Indians pay, what might be called ‘hand-worship’, to humility. While people in the Western world shake hands when they meet, we join the palms of our hands as if in prayer and say Namastey, Namaskar, Vanakkam or Sat Sri Akal. Likewise, Muslims bow and touch their foreheads with their right hand when they say Salam Valaikum. But in real life, humility is rare. Our favourite topic of conversation is ourselves. Anyone who does that cannot be humble. Politicians cannot afford to be humble because they have to tell everyone that they are better than their rivals to be entrusted with power. The wealthy also cannot be humble. They may cultivate good manners but deep down, there is the arrogance that wealth brings. “They are proud of their humility, proud in that they are not proud,” as Robert Burton wrote in his The Anatomy of Melancholy.

I fancy myself a humble person. One evening, I sought confirmation of my humility from my daughter and granddaughter. I asked them if they all thought that I was humble. My granddaughter, Naina, who is known for her brashness, replied: “You must be joking! You love flattery. All these ladies who send you kebabs, kheer, cakes and flowers, give you enormous pleasure and inflate your ego. And the man who lays it on thick and keeps giving you vintage Scotch, flatters you as if you were a minor prophet.” As if this were not enough, my daughter, Mala, added; “When you are dazzling your audience with your wit, you expect them to say nice things about you. And when they fall silent, you feel bored and ask them to go. How can you call yourself humble?”

They are probably right. Although I do not talk about myself, I think about myself all the time. I have failed in my quest for humility (vinumrata). I always remember what Guru Nanak said:

Haumam deergh rog hai
Daaroo bhee iss mahein

Ego is a foul disease
It is also its cure.