Saturday, 26 October 2013

5 things that help us see our true selves

In 2008, the spiritual organization I am a part of, issued the annual teaching for the youth titled, "Know Yourself." I figured that's pretty easy; after all I do spend all my time with myself, so to speak. So I was very self assured in the belief that I knew myself very well (and even more sure, that I was awesome.) The fact is that I had been pretending so much, for so long, that I genuinely believed my pretensions to be who I really was. Over the last few years life has showed me how deluded I was and disabused me of all such notions. (Mind you, I still think I am awesome, but in very different ways.) I learned, through observation or experience, that there are a  certain circumstances in life that give us a glimpse of our real selves. Here is my top 5 (in no particular order):

1. Competitive Sports:
All sports, by nature, require that we bare all on the field. While individual sports are a display of will power along with physical prowess, I find team sports are those that teach us most about ourselves. Do we take the responsibility of making up for the shortcomings of our teammates? Can we put in those dives in the field which aren't reflected on the scorecards? Are we unreservedly happy for the success of our teammates even when we aren't doing well ourselves? Are we aware of the effect our attitudes have on our dressing room? These situations do result in some soul searching, and the results surprise us, more often than not.

2. Confinement:
Put people together in a confined space for long enough, and eventually they will get tired of pretending and reveal their true colours. That's why reality shows like Big Boss grab so many eyeballs. While I don't like the system of using a person's private space to earn TRP's, I do find myself watching.  What we do when we are forced to live within four walls, sharing our space, tells us a lot about what were made of. Reading The Diary of a Young Girl was in many ways so much more compelling than a fiction novel.

3. Relationships:
It's all about how we treat people. People who matter to us, particularly those we interact with often, like a daily basis. Because  that familiarity is what makes us take them for granted, and we drop our polite facades and show a glimpse of whats behind the mask. Whether it's how we treat our coworkers or our partners, our actions towards them define us.

4. Tough times:
Points 1., 2., and 3 kind of dovetail into this one. Conflict; be it between the leaders of nations or the wills of individuals; and our thought and actions in times of conflict, lay bare who we truly are. I think that's why training periods are so severe in the armed forces. Because they mould soldiers into people who make the right choices in the worst of times. How many of us can keep our heads, hold our tongues, and stay our hands when our world is crashing down? There is no yes or no answer, we all succeed and fail to varying degrees everyday.

5. Friends:
You know what I mean. The real ones, not those pseudo-social followers. The people who we take for granted and don't need to pretend around and know us best. Ironically, they are also the ones who we tend to push away when they say something we don't like. Chuddy-buddies, schoolmates, parents, life partners, life coaches; they come in many avatars. They aren't afraid to tell us when we are toeing the line or even crossing it. Most people reading this are thinking about a few people like that in their life right now. And if you haven't met them yet, don't go looking. They find you. Can't make them, can't break them, can't buy them. Custom made, every last one of them. They  will show us the mirror when our faces turn ugly.  Then they'll put it down and look us in the eye and say,"doesn't change the fact that I love you."

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Long walk to Freedom : A book review of Nelson Mandela's autobiography

A friend of mine what's-apped(if that's not a real word yet it will be soon) me a few days back, saying "Hey, how come you aren't writing anything nowadays! " And I said hey, that's 'coz I've been reading this huge history book! As you can see from the picture, its more of a  tome than a book. Considering that I only get to read while traveling in the trains, you can understand what took me so long. As my youngest brother said, Nelson Mandela's  'Long walk to freedom' is more like the long 'read' to freedom. 

The few autobiographies I have read tended to start slowly and build up as the protagonist got older. This one however, displayed a clear momentum right from the start. Maybe it was the weight of his persona and reputation bearing down on me; maybe because his recollections are so lucid and well constructed, but within the first hour of reading, I knew this was going to be a great book (and so did my mom and my other brother; and thus ensued a short family competition about who should read it first; which I won.)

A great book it was and is. Mandela has compiled his memoirs with the care that a master craftsman might devote to his work. His strength of character, clear and accurate memory and strong command of the written medium, allow his ideals and his prose to dovetail nicely into a seamless recollection. His writing enthralled me from the first chapter, and stirred in me revolutionary thoughts and ideas I didn't think I was capable of having. For example, it was while reading this book that I took up an initiative to demand more dustbins for the colony I live in (This may be just a coincidence, but then, I don't believe in them).

Mandela describes his upbringing, and how with age and exposure, the injustices the African people suffered slowly became more and more apparent.  The imbalance of power prevalent in South Africa rankled him, and along with many educated African youth of his generation, realised that the wrong that was apartheid must be righted. He wrote of "..the sense power that comes with having right and justice on one's side."

The struggle for equal rights defined him as a man. I was touched by his all consuming commitment, and awed by his logical and open mind. His cool and systematic manner, and professional training as a lawyer, rendered him an able debater and a visionary thinker. It was inspiring to see how holistic and inclusive his ideology always was, always looking for the common ground and while dealing with other people and organisations. His choices led him to sacrifice his time with family, livelihood and eventually, his freedom. After forsaking his legal practice and living the life of an outlaw for a considerable period, he was finally imprisoned, and thus began the darkest years of his life.

The names Nelson Mandela and Robben Island are almost as synonymous as Nelson Mandela and South Africa. Robben Island, the prison where he spent much of his 27 years of incarceration, was supposed to break his spirit, and that of his comrades. But, united with his fellow prisoners, he prevailed. Not only did he prevail, but he continued to oppose the system from within and held the same ideal of equal rights just as high, even though no one on the outside could see. For me, that was the defining moment in this book. To stand strong in the face of oppression while your people and the world are watching requires courage, but to stand just as strong when they cannot see you, requires infinite inner belief. He writes, "The campaign to improve conditions in prison was part of the apartheid struggle. It was, in that sense, all the same; we fought injustice wherever we found it, no matter how large or how small, and we fought injustice to preserve our own humanity."

It was astounding how he held on to not just his own humanity, but also to the belief in the humanity of his oppressors as well. He always asserted, that the oppressive system was the real enemy, and given an opportunity, the goodness in a man would always rise above the chains that bind and blind his heart.

All through this post I have tried my best to reproduce the strengths, solidarity and successes of this man's life. But there are greater pictures of pain, loneliness, and darkness painted through words on the pages of this book. None pained me more than the personal sacrifices that he had to make. Being  a leader and freedom fighter meant it was difficult for him to fulfill the obligations he owed his family. He writes, "In South Africa, a man who tried to fulfill his duty to his people was inevitably ripped from his family and his home and forced to live a life apart, a twilight existence of secrecy and rebellion."

In short, the book is an epic. It cannot be anything else, because the lives that Nelson Mandela, and so many freedom fighters, have lived, are incredible. Simply put, if you are a fan, nay, an admirer of Nelson Mandela, you must own this book. If you are not, you must read this book. There is no way you cannot be one at the end of it.