Random chance is not sufficient to explain random chance.
Jubal Harshaw, Robert A. Heinlein
My brother lives in the USA, and he and I hardly ever communicate electronically, but one day, out of the blue, he forwarded me Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World .“ I smiled as I listened, and nodded and hummed along with it because it is a beautiful song and I hadn’t heard it for years.
A short while later I turned on the TV to watch my favourite nature show and what do I hear? David Attenborough’s show being promoted to the tune and lyrics of “What a Wonderful World”! And, no, I checked, my brother had NOT heard the song on that promo. His remembering and sending me that song had come from some other source altogether. What a wonderful world, indeed, where such chance occurrences can suddenly, unbidden, span years, and the miles between America and India.
My life has been full of projects thought of, and even planned, but never executed. One such frivolous project was that I would keep a detailed and accurate account of coincidences that happened to me or other people (but only ones that I could verify) to see if a pattern emerged that proved them to be more than just chance. I even bought a black notebook in which to record them.
Who hasn’t thought of a song after years and then suddenly heard it sung? Or you think of someone you haven’t thought of for years and then you get a call or hear the name mentioned? Or see a word in a crossword puzzle you’ve never heard of before and then come across it in the book you are reading. I know this works both ways — you didn’t notice the word earlier because you didn’t know it. Once you know it you begin noticing it. But I think we all share that frisson of wonder when we come across a coincidence.
The coincidences don’t have to be big ones – life-altering ones like in Hardy’s novels – just small things that make you blink and think, how did that happen?
I prefer to believe that, even if there is no great Universal Design in which such things make perfect sense, no great, omniscient God in the Machine looking after the fall of every sparrow, there are at least some minor deities who like to meddle in human affairs and create these coincidences.
What started me off thinking about coincidences again (obviously the black notebook project never took off!) was something that happened recently. For the last piece I wrote about Nainital, I was looking for an old picture of my brother and myself as children on the Mall in the 50s. I couldn’t find one but in a stash of my husband’s old black and white photographs I found one of him walking towards Nainital with just two or three other people in the frame. This will do, I thought, it gives the impression of the old days.
Then later when I looked more closely at the photograph, I saw that one of the figures walking away from the camera was a young turbaned boy. At that time there were not many young Sikh boys in Nainital. I looked again. I couldn’t be a hundred percent sure of course, but it seemed to be my brother! The gait was right and the age difference between them was right. At the time the photograph was taken my family and my husband’s family didn’t even know of each other’s existence, so to find them together in one frame and when I was looking for a picture of my brother walking on the Mall was weird!
There is another coincidence concerning our two families. When my mother came to Nainital as a young widow, she went to the Rent Control Office to look at options and she chose Conniston, first as a rental and then later, when we children could afford it, it was bought from the Sah owners. Some years after I was married, my mother was living alone in Conniston, and I needed a place to stay so my husband and I and the children moved in with her. My husband lived in this house for thirty odd years till he died. Now comes the coincidence!
This house was built by my husband’s great-grandfather, the contractor Bacchi Gaur. My mother-in-law was brought to this house as a bride, but found it too big and alien and moved. Soon after they sold the house. Isn’t it strange that of all the houses my mother could have chosen to live in, she chose one of the few built by the ancestor of her future son-in-law, and in which, though it had been sold by his family, he would come to live and die in?
My scientific, rationalist friends and relatives will quote me statistics and data and the probability theory to show that all this is nothing but random chance. But a part of me doesn’t want to be convinced. I prefer to believe that, even if there is no great Universal Design in which such things make perfect sense, no great, omniscient God in the Machine looking after the fall of every sparrow, there are at least some minor deities who like to meddle in human affairs and create these coincidences. I much prefer serendipity to random chance!
The word serendipity means the unexpected occurrence of favourable events by chance. The word was coined by an Englishman in the 18th century and comes from an old Persian story, The Three Princes of Serendip, about three princes from Serendip (an old name for Srilanka) to whom fortunate events kept happening by chance.
I too have two serendipitous anecdotes. Again, they are not of the ’I would have died that day if not for ….’ type that are so common after a plane or bus accident, but are as amazing.
We were on a long train journey and my mother was in indifferent health and unable to eat the train food. She subsisted on fruit and bread and gingernut biscuits. We had run out of biscuits and my older sister got off at a station to look for some. She searched in two or three stalls but couldn’t find any. The train whistle blew and she just grabbed a packet of Marie biscuits and got on to the train. When they opened the packet, the biscuits were not Marie but, believe it or not, gingernuts! My siblings and I are all still alive and can vouch for the truth of this story.
…the glimmer of hope that this world, in which so many awful things happen, is also a wonderful world. We need not only expect the worst
Another similar instance. My son was about three or four years old and unwell. I had to leave him and go into town for some work and promised to bring him back a toy. He liked to race with his dinky toy cars but also loved animals. As I was leaving, he called out, Don’t bring me a car. Bring me an animal toy.
It was quite late by the time I finished my work, and I rushed to the store to get his animal toy. I looked and looked and the shopkeeper looked and looked but there was no suitable animal toy to be had.
I’ll just take that red car, I said, pointing to a small cardboard box that had a red car depicted on it. He can add it to his collection.
When I got home I gave it to my son explaining what had happened, and was relieved that he didn’t make a fuss. Then he opened the box, and what do you think he found? A little yellow, wind-up chicken, which, when you put it on your palm, would hop and peck at it as if it was alive and pecking grain. I can still remember the feeling. He was delighted and instantly named it Chick- Chick. He and the older children loved it and played with it and they all remember the incident to this day, some forty years later.
A mistake in packaging – of course. Just a freak chance – of course. But it brought unexpected happiness to a little sick boy … and, to the rest of us, the glimmer of hope that this world, in which so many awful things happen, is also a wonderful world. We need not only expect the worst — the universe can also give you the gingernuts you need or a Chick-Chick.
I wish I had filled in that black notebook. I wonder how many similar stories I would have gathered. But even though it’s too late for me, perhaps someone else will buy one and start writing?
Art: Abhilasha Kamre
Painting: Finding Moksha, from birth till death
Painting: Deep Blue Ocean
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