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A friend in the airport

I had to ask, “Doesn’t that sound a little colourless, dispassionate?”

Manish Nandy | New Delhi |

I rushed to the airport only to find that my flight was delayed. I settled down for a long wait in the lounge.

Scarcely a minute later there was a tap on my shoulder. An older man in a pinstriped suit, a sharp nose supporting heavy glasses, stood behind me.
“Looks like we are in for a long wait. Care for a cup of coffee?”

An invitation from a total stranger was a double-edged sword. Could be an insufferable bore who goes on about his business problems. Could also be good company and help pass the time in diverting conversation. I took the chance.

A coffee shop was close by. Hardik introduced himself.

“I see from your face that you don’t recognize me,” Hardik said, and, before I could apologize, added, “I don’t expect you to. You had spoken at a conference in Singapore some years ago, and I had a brief chat with you afterward.”
As I frowned, trying to recall the talk, he remarked, “It was all about anticipating the future and developing a strategy.”

I had the blurriest recollection and I said, “I was a more optimistic person then. I am afraid I am less so now.”

He laughed, “So are we all. Don’t forget I have lived much longer than you.”
I said, in all honesty, “Clearly, those years have weighed very lightly on you.”
“And I will tell you why,” he responded, thoughtfully and mysteriously, “I have weighed, tried to weigh, lightly on the world.”

That hooked me. How does one weigh lightly on the world? I asked him.

I added, “Everybody wants to be happy, at least peaceful. If you do that by weighing lightly, we would all like to know how. How did you do it?”

Hardik smiled, “I had examples close at hand, contrary examples. My mother was very religious, very offended by what everybody was doing all the time to violate her religious principles. My father was a scholar, whose judgments about the foolishness of what people in the society were doing were severe. They weighed heavily on the world. They were hard-boiled critics. They saw few silver linings.”

“How did you react to that?”

“I saw them weighed down by their beliefs. It was not a happy prospect, and I wondered what alternatives existed. That is what led to my interest in studying the future and my attendance at your talk. Can we develop a strategy to get out of the present mess?

“Most people quickly embrace a convenient solution. They just take it from their parents or their community or their country. For many, it is a heavenly god, for which there is not the slightest evidence. For many others, it is their country or their government, which can do no wrong, except that it does all the time. For others, it is a dogma of some kind, liberalism or communism, that will emancipate us, except that it always places new shackles on us.”

Hardik sipped his coffee and continued.

“The other option a huge number choose is to burrow into a small groove of private life, with at best a few friends or relations, and ignore the world. This is the lightness of being Milan Kundera talked about. I found it unbearable. I didn’t like the idea of floating over the world, like a bird, watching and not bothering.

“I wanted to both care and not care. I wanted to care for the things that touched me. I loved the sea; I wanted to be near it whenever I could. I loved reggae music; I listened to it. I also wanted to care for things beyond me. I supported poor students who needed help. When flood affected two villages that I knew, I volunteered as a helper and worked hard at it. But I didn’t want to be enmeshed in political campaigns; the mutual hate turned me off. Religious fervor, when it included loathing of other faiths, I found hateful.”

I had to ask, “Doesn’t that sound a little colourless, dispassionate?”

“Maybe. Remember what Yeats warned: while the best lack all conviction, ‘the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ I have tried not to lose all conviction, but avoid the passion of causes and campaigns. I have tried to weigh lightly on the world, by living quietly, cultivating friends, contributing to communities, helping the people whom I meet on the way.”

I knew I was not like Hardik. But I liked his special view of life. I lifted my cup of coffee and said, “Hardik, my friend, I am glad I am on your way.”

The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]