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Heart’s arrears

The Will could well be read as a parchment of the soul
Maharshi Ramana looking up at the white peacock, Madhavan
Maharshi Ramana looking up at the white peacock, Madhavan
Photo archives, Sri Ramanasramam, Tiruvannamalai

Gopalkrishna Gandhi   |   Published 20.06.21, 01:13 AM

“Write your Will.” These three words formed the terse advice given the other day by a financial expert. This was in an article on what those hit by the virus or expecting to be hit should do as priority, and do so fast. He went on to give other suggestions about how bank accounts should be re-organized, with clear “Either or Survivor” options, enabling one’s husband or wife or progeny to operate one’s holdings in case of immobilization. But the primary advice, that of making sure one has written a Will, was the main, overarching and overwhelming suggestion.

Now those who read the dailies are the kind who hold bank accounts. And they have, most of them, written up Wills. Most, I have said, not all. A surprisingly large number have not and they constitute the young, those who have just begun to earn incomes, start savings. They have life and living on their minds, not death and dying. Writing Wills is the last thing on their minds.

Covid-19 has changed that. It has not only made death seem far more real — more within-touching-distance — than ever before in our generation’s memory, but it has also made us see its inevitability, whenever it is to come, more sharply than before. In the current, so-called ‘second wave’, the young seem to have been afflicted more than in the first. And even though they are said to be likely to recover faster than the once-young, their brush with the likelihood of death has made the advice more than valuable. Apart from the young among the earning, saving, tax-deducted-at-source kind of people who are reading this, members of a wider swathe of society also need to give some indication of what they wish to be done with what they own, hold, in terms of tangible assets, things, small objects whether of sentiment or of monetary value but even more about what needs to be done with what they owe, what they need to return, share, hand over, acknowledge, in terms of what Vikram Seth has described, unforgettably, in the concluding lines of his soul-cleansing novel-in-verse, The Golden Gate: “Pay what are your own heart’s arrears./ Now clear your throat and dry those tears.”

Our hearts have arrears, our souls have debts. Are we to leave those sentiments undisclosed, unrepaid, unattended? These are not tax dues that will have to be paid post-mortem or stashes that will have to be apportioned to heirs and successors. These are what each of us, rich or poor, owe to those who have made us what we are, helped us, healed us, made us whole.

And so, while the financial expert was, essentially and only, thinking of that piece of starched stamped paper bearing the signatures of an authorized notary public, I have read in his advice that which he has intended, of course, but also something more, much more, that each one of us, chastened by the virus, needs to ponder and to do — in the time that has been left for us.

The last hours of Socrates have been vividly recorded by Plato in his Dialogues. As the hemlock began to work, we are told Socrates said to Crito, “We owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.” Neurologists would see in this an example of a befuddled brain talking gibberish. Interpretations have been given to Socrates’s words, one of which suggests that the sardonic sage was playing on the word, Asclepius, supposed to be the name of the God of Cures, thereby saying that death is the ultimate cure of all illnesses. I would like to take Socrates’s words literally and think that he was actually talking about a loan that had to be repaid, except that the rooster can be taken to mean any debt, any arrear that is to be attended to. The arrears can be, and very often are, about two simple words or thoughts: ‘sorry’ and ‘thank you’.

A redemptive conversation took place between a great soul and a person who was attending on him. Ramana, the Maharshi of Arunachala in the Tamil town of Tiruvannamalai, had a memorable conversation shortly before he crossed over, with a devoted attendant, Sivananda, who knew no language other than Tamil. To him, the sinking Ramana said ‘thanks’ in English and then translated the word for him into Sanskritized Tamil as santosham meaning ‘happiness’. The significance of Ramana’s translation of the word into santosham is enormous. It has to do with not wanting more.

The then Maharani Sita Devi of Baroda, a socialite fond of the good things in life, of extravagant travel and purchasing, was yet introspective enough to feel the need for the Maharshi’s redemptive healing. She had, in April 1947, gifted to the sage a white peacock. This bird had taken to Ramana and to the ashram as if they were its very own. Ramana named it Madhavan, after a devotee who had died just prior to the peacock’s coming. Madhavan would perch just above the sage’s bed, stride up to him when he was eating, follow him about. Madhavan famously wailed from the roof above where the Maharshi lay dying. Opening his eyes, the Maharshi asked, “Has the peacock been fed?” The late philosopher, Ramchandra Gandhi, has metaphorized Ramana’s words to say, essentially, that even as he had thanked his attendant, from the receiving end, and indicated his happiness, he, in attending to the distressed peacock, stood at the giving end, even at the very end of his time on earth. And in so doing was redeeming also his debt to the Maharani of Baroda who, irrespective of what quotidian historians may have to say of her lifestyle, has forever and ever entered the columns of the spirit by gifting the avian, Madhavan, to Ramana.

The financial expert was not suggesting (nor am I) that death stares at the reader and the writer of the sane advice. And, please, I am not proposing a breathless listing of sorry-s and thank you-s by us! But the fact that we have all, over the last one and a half years, felt death brush past us is not to be denied. And, so, thinking of arrears to be paid is both sound and natural. Socrates’s rooster symbolizes for me material debts, Ramana’s peacock, debts of the soul.

What is owed to individuals by us and to our great and vast provider — the natural environment which we mutilate, remorselessly, everyday — is something to be pondered by us, and restitution attempted betimes.

The emperor, Asoka, lived well beyond the etchings on stone of his anusochana — remorse. His edicts are his Will. And since we have been on the subject of peacocks, it would be only apposite to remind ourselves what he says in his Edict I: In place of “thousands of animals slaughtered for soups in the royal kitchen”, only three lives are henceforth allowed to be killed — “two peacocks and one deer” — a lesson for us in the zoonotic miasma of our current scourge.

Returning and giving, apologizing and atoning, are part of the Will of Wills that each of us may consider drawing up in these life-threatening times, not on parchment paper perhaps but in the covenants, caveats and codicils of our souls.

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