Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
A few days ago, while having a casual conversation with a friend she mentioned an earnest desire to write about a school teacher of hers. Obviously, the teacher must have influenced her life in some big way. I racked my brain to dig up any such teacher who had made such an impact on my life but couldn’t think of any – except a brief interaction with our English teacher in the second standard. Our English class was after lunch. When we entered the classroom the teacher would already be there and on the black-board, she would have drawn the contents of the lesson or the poem she was to teach. The result was my love for Wordsworth and poetry in general. Apart from this, I couldn’t think of anyone who influenced me in a big way. Thinking hard I realized anyone or anything can be that teacher in one’s life. It is how you let life influence you and derive lessons from it.
My mother’s brother-in-law was such a teacher. He and my aunt were busy doctors, but every year during the summer vacations they would make sure to take a few days off work and take their two daughters out of town for a break. Since their daughters were my age I would invariably be invited on the trip. Kashmir being a wonderful place in itself, one could pick any place for exploration. It was the best time of our year and we would look forward to this outing. Carefree, we would roam the meadows, climb little hillocks, and tumble down slopes. If there was residual snow somewhere, we would slide down on our rain jackets, using them as sleds. Days were spent in flower picking, collecting twigs for evening bonfires, riding horses, or just idling reading storybooks.
Now, there was a catch.
Uncle was the most adorable person to be with. He would never act like an adult, but more like a friend. Though firm in his commands, he would somehow let us get away with most of our little misdeeds. Except, in the evening, he made sure we wrote a couple of pages on how we spent our day. He would then diligently check what we had written and pointed out mistakes, which we would have to address later. Those days it felt like torture, but in retrospect, I realized he made us look at places and the things there with deliberation and wonder.
We remembered and still remember the places we visited and value our experiences. He taught us to make constructive memories and gave purpose to our being in those places. Also, when I look at things or situations I perceive them in totality and not infractions, providing me a tool to deal with situations in a sagacious manner.
Nature in itself is a wonderful teacher. When I was in Ladakh, the majestic barren mountains all around me taught me to be humble. One feels so insignificant and vulnerable there. The charade one wraps around oneself that we are the doers, movers, and shakers in this world is smashed to bits by the sheer indomitable scale of nature around one. The magnificence of the sea and rivers teaches one to respect what one has, as a single wild move of these teachers can leave one clamoring for dear life itself.
Just last year we all had everything under control. Everyone knew what they wanted and how they could get the maximum out of life. We lived life to the hilt. Eating out was a must, we couldn’t live without going for holidays, home food was not an in-thing. Our children had to do all sorts of extra activities even though they weren’t interested. Parents knew how they had to mold their children’s lives: which coaching classes to attend, which colleges to apply to and what career choices were the best. The kids loved junk food and branded clothing. Nothing was ever satisfactory. More was the password for existence. Cupboards were teaming with clothes one didn’t remember existed, but one new one couldn’t hurt.
Then the unthinkable happened. Like a stealth bomber, the entry of Covid-19.
Puff!! Everything changed. Everyone was not only eating quietly at home but lovingly tackling kitchen instruments to make a meal as if we all were professional chefs. Kids who thought Nimbooz didn’t have a parallel in the world were relishing a simple lemonade without fuss, and also helped to make it as there was no else to make it. The house help without whom we couldn’t operate was no more a part of the household. Members of families actually saw their homes and people who lived in them with interest and wonder.
The stuffed cupboards became redundant as one realized you could live in three or four pairs of pajamas for months. The dream cars, gadgets, even money lost its sheen as everyone was locked indoors and every place outside was in lockdown. The futility of “more” became so evident. Suddenly what we had accumulated also was of no use if we couldn’t live and move freely. The very freedom of movement we so cherished became a luxury. The old and infirm lost the privilege to see the outside world or meet their loved ones. Just seven or eight months of nature’s fury not only changed how we looked at the world, but we adapted to how it could be. Interestingly for the first time in human history, this natural disaster affected the whole world and in almost the same way.
The question is: have we learned a lesson? When life turns around to what we perceived as normal, will we adopt this new minimalistic view to life or go back to our wayward ways? Will our children are independent and self-help at home and outside? Will we give time to our parents and children as we are now or will they become strangers again?
Life is a precious gift, and a lesson was thrust upon us at a time when everything was becoming mechanical and materialistic: we should resolve to take its teachings seriously and make the earth a better place to live in and rejuvenate it for generations to come.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
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