When small is big

The tiniest desires may contain the largest impersonal aspirations

By Gopalkrishna Gandhi
  • Published 18.02.18

We live in hope and with disappointments. Most of these are big, deep. They affect our being. But there is something else we depend on, feel glad for. This is the small happiness, the tiny fulfilment that comes from certain things coming right, certain wishes being realized. These can be called in Tamil chinna chinna asai - 'small, small desires'. The description comes from the opening words of Vairamuthu's transporting song by that name sung by Minmini to A.R. Rahman's music for the film, Roja. It has been done into " Chhoti si asha" and sung again by Minmini. Readers, if unfamiliar with the song, may watch and hear it on YouTube. The Tamil original has good subtitles.

Though titled 'small', the song's theme is about both small and not-so-small, in fact, very large desires and dreams such as, for instance, rounding the globe.

Life is full of these desires and dreams. But, as one grows from old to older, the scale of satisfactions miniaturizes and in its very tininess, becomes deeply fulfilling.

For instance, it is a chinna but very real asai now to look for and actually find something such as, a volume where I had last left it on my shelf of books, a pencil with its lead tip sharp and in place, not sunk into its stub, a sticky tape with its cellophane edge positioned handily on the serrated blade, not rolled back un-findably in the smoothness of the ring.

Small, simple desires grow on one with time. The batter of a dosai turning from white to brown and then to a golden orb with its fiery rim becoming a disc of crispy yeast mimics the furnaces of Creation. It is most satisfying seeing it brought to your ageing table. Chocolate lava glazing and then soaking a scoop of vanilla ice cream is a child's 'thing' and yet stirs somnolent images of Arctic transactions. To see Scotland's amber spirit slide down three cubes of coy ice, is to watch in that glass a cosmic sifting. Something in the observer revels in these nothings.

An auto with a seat that is not grimy, an Uber or Ola driven by a man whose ear is not holding a cellphone to his shoulder, an ATM which is clean and functional, a 'Gents' which is not about staring into a gutka gob, give a sense of "peace on earth and good will amongst men". They help one stay away from hyper-tension.

Objects and places apart, it is a quiet relief and a great satisfaction to find simple intangibles bringing minor nirvanas. Like remembering the name of a person, long out of touch, who suddenly surfaces from nowhere; like finding the seat next to mine on a Shatabdi or on a flight, vacant - for reading, writing or ruminating bliss; like finding on YouTube a song or speech that I am looking for without being told, just when I am expecting to hit gold, that I must first subscribe to an eternal membership of some portal or 'site'.

Rereading Atal Bihari Vajpayee's stunning obituary speech on Nehru, C.V. Raman on "Why is the sky blue?", Salim Ali on Maulana Azad's description of birds in his prison cell, is a 'small thing' but a big joy. Hearing Ustad Vilayat Khan render a Tilak Kamod, Vidvan T.M. Krishna sing a Manji, the choir from Kalimpong's Dr Graham's Homes sing "Silent night, Holy night", the Beatles "Ticket to ride" or Joan Baez "Love is just a four-letter word" is to be in a wedge of heaven.

Sometimes, the joy is tinged with tears. To watch, even if for the hundredth time, in Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali, Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee) do a namaskar to the Fates as Harihar (Kanu Banerjee) leaves the village, is to hear the stars sob. To see Balasarasvati render " Krishna nee begane baro" is, in Blake's words, to see the stars "[throw] down their spears". There is in those chinna chinna moments a plangent happiness.

Chinna chinna asais are basically about daydreams, wish-plumes that vanish no sooner than they have risen. And they can go beyond dosais, ice cream and songs. They remain 'small' because they are personal. But they are, within that smallness, about things beyond oneself. I can recount ten of my asais.

One. Pope Francis will be invited by Gandhi organizations to visit India on the 150th anniversary of Gandhi's birth, 2019, just as Martin Luther King Jr was, on the 90th birth anniversary, in 1959. We need to have amidst us, even for a brief while, one who is there for the victims of war, dictatorship and monopoly, for the immigrant being pushed back, the juvenile offender, the abused child, the man about to be hanged, shot or injected with the serums of death. We need to have amidst us, awhile, a man of his "scorching love" - a Gandhi phrase.

Two. The Dalai Lama will, on Republic Day, 2019, be conferred the Bharat Ratna with the ceremony happening in Rashtrapati Bhavan's Durbar Hall, watched over by the great 5th-century statue of the Buddha at its centre. That year - 2019 - will mark the 60th anniversary of his arrival in India, seeking and finding sanctuary - a blessing for both.

Three. Aung San Suu Kyi will stun the world by stepping down from her office of first state counsellor of Myanmar owning, as a Buddhist and a Nobel peace laureate, responsibility for what is happening to the Rohingyas. Her political leadership will retrieve, then, the moral sheen of Shwedagon great Pagoda.

Four. Queen Elizabeth II will, amid world acclaim, relinquish her sceptre and crown, saying she feels she has given to the destiny that raised her to the throne all that she as a human being can possibly give and that she now seeks from the same destiny the chance to be just, simply, a very chinna chinna wife, mother, grandmother, great grandmother, friend and author of a small but sublime and best-selling memoir: A Windsor Remembers.

Five. On Jacob Zuma's demission from office, Cyril Ramaphosa will not only retrieve South Africa's lost stature but, as the leader of a country that nudges the crumbling Antarctica, show the world the way forward in mitigating climate change.

Six. Philippine's president, Rodrigo Duterte, being tried now by the International Criminal Court, be handed the verdict that history reserves for those like him.

Seven. Pakistan will realize the un-wisdom and unethicality of hanging Kulbhushan Jadhav and return him, ba-izzat, to India under canons of international law.

Eight. India, which has not ratified the 1984 United Nations Convention Against Torture, will decide to leave the company of a handful of countries like Bahamas, Brunei, Comoros, San Tome and Sudan and join the rest of the world in ratifying that enactment as a human rights desideratum.

Nine. The people of Kashmir will see an end to violence, suspicion and terror, turning that Vale of Tears into a Haven of Hope for the subcontinent.

Ten. India's democratic instincts will be at their sharpest and most impactful in the months ahead, to challenge anything that impinges on free thought and expression, fair and fearless elections.

'Merely' aspirational these ten chinna chinna asais may be, but then who can live without aspirations?