Every year for a few days or a few weeks Arjun comes home to Hyderabad his hometown. He visits his parents, he visits his english teacher from school and spends the rest of his time thinking, contemplating. There is never much for him to do in Hyderabad. Until a couple of years ago Arjun would come from Delhi, where he worked. Now he lives in "Amrika", as his mother proudly tells her neighbours. He has come home for a vacation.
"But what is the purpose of life?", he wondered, "what is it? Why is it that man comes to this world, lives this life which has nothing new to offer, the same rituals, the same shopping centers to which he felt he would make endless trips to buy new clothes, new shoes...." Alas! He felt he was damned, cursed to go round and round in a merry-go-round.
Arjun thought of his father who sat in front of the television, remote in hand, mindlessly going through all the channels. He remembered a movie he had seen, he couldn't remember when, in which there were some really old people in an old age home . They were watching an action movie about the WWII. To what purpose? They were old, ready to die. What could be the satisfaction of watching an action movie and why were they doing it? Why were they not meditating, why were they not moving towards Moksha or salvation? Why were they not?
The question seemed to fill his mind. He laughed as he remembered his mother telling him, "This is the purpose of life, to just believe in action and to do the action. I have no time for emptiness as my life is full of action...". "Action indeed!", he thought, the act of cooking, the act of cleaning, the act of taking care of her aged mother. He felt sad.
Is there a God? "Obviously not", came the answer from within! For why do we need a God? To what purpose? There is no God. A happy light hearted memory came to him, of Rishad from the primary school. Rishad who perhaps now lives in San Francisco. Rishad who never bothered to meet him when he had landed in America, the same Rishad who sent him postcards from Bombay. How he had missed him, how he had envied Rishad who seemed to be taller and handsome...but this was all years ago when he was ten, perhaps eleven...Rishad who used to discuss philosopy at ten and who told him, on their school bus, that he thought of God as some kind of a "force" that ran everything in the universe.
Now here he was with his universe, the universe of a physicist stripped of its Gods and mythologies. The bare universe challenging him to fathom its secrets. There was no "force".
For a long time Arjun carried a faith, a belief that there existed many lives, that one is born again and again. It just seemed so romantic to imagine that he had once lived a different life perhaps that of an animal, a dog. But then one day a thought struck him. If there is no God, how can there be a spirit, a soul, how can there be rebirth. "For what is my claim to a spirit or to rebirth?", he questioned himself. "Merely the fact that I feel that I have a conscience?" But what if all this is simply just matter...just matter that must decay.
There is no conscience. There is a mind that can think but no conscience. There is no soul. Because there is no conscience there is no soul, no spirit. For if there is a spirit, how many spirits are there? Or are they all one spirit? Perhaps", he felt, "man yearns to be eternal; in spirituality he hopes to find eternity".
"Is this eternity, an eternity of time?" The physicist came questioning again....
Mrs. Sarkari, his english teacher, laughed as she heard him talk like this. She was so much like his mother. "Arjun", she said lovingly, "I think you are thinking too much! So how is everything in America?" So she did not want the emptiness to be brought out. Arjun felt shattered.
"America is fine Ma'am, it is full of people who live, live mindlessly as far as I am concerned. They will not share their food with you!" That is all that matters to me, the fact that when they eat they eat by themselves. Those Americans! Atleast in India we have hospitality, we have sharing. We share our food. Americans live for themselves and they are proud of it.
"I met some Americans who did not like the way they lived. They sought other cultures, they sought other lifestyles. In the end though, deep down they were just what they had been brought up as: Americans!!"
As he said all this Arjun felt a sense of elation, a pride in being an Indian. Something told him though that this pride is false, that Indians and their culture have their own problems. Indians are not selfless. Indians are not living for others, they live for themselves too.
But he did not want to contradict himself in front of his Ma'am. She had started talking. She was talking about many things about people she knew in America and how they were when they came here to India, she was talking about her colleagues, their children. Suddenly she was surrounded by them, she was in Calcutta, New Delhi, Boston, Chicago...all at the same time and they he found himself talking too, about his sister, his sister who lives in Chicago. His other sister Rakhi who lives in Boston. Suddenly the world seemed brighter for him.
Brighter? Yes, brighter! Brighter, because he lived in America away from India, away from Hyderabad, away from all the miseries that India had to offer. His parents were proud that he lived in America. His parents were proud that their daughter was working hard to get her medical license in America.
But he was not proud. He did not care about living in America. Moreover he wondered if his sister would have been better off serving the needy in India. As a doctor she should serve the needy. The socialist in him hated the fact that medical care cost money and that his sister should be part of the system in America.
"Healthcare in the U.S. is awful Ma'am...."
The bus ride back home was fine. The cool breeze brought memories of his school, of younger years. The same five kilometer route from school to home but it had changed so much. He had taken the same route to school for several years, in auto rickshaws, in buses, on his beloved bicycle. He felt worried. Where are the middle class Indians? Why are they not in the bus? He looked out of the window and they all seemed to be in their flashy cars. He realised he wasn't in a flashy car. The thought troubled him a little but then he quickly felt safe in the bus. Atleast in the bus I am not responsible for any accidents, I will not get beat up. In India if you get involved in an accident you are harrassed by goondas, you are beaten up on the street, you are surrounded by a mob of angry poor people who want your money. In America....
Ah! America! So America is a heaven after all, inspite of the poor healthcare system, inspite of their capitalist ideology. America is fine, his cosy little escape from reality that confronts him everyday has he wakes up, that confronts him everday as anxiety seeps into him. So what if they don't share their food, so what if they don't invite you to their house for a meal, so what?
It all seemed so very convenient to live in America, to be able to turn on the tap and have water running down....what did he care if America was using more resources in the world than anybody else? He did not care! He was a middle class Indian with middle class values. All he wants is his success, his food, his sleep and comfort. He is a mercenary! A traitor not of his country not of his values: he is a traitor to his soul, a soul that he now thinks does not even exist for perhaps he has smothered "it" so!
Babaji came to his mind as he got off the bus. Babaji who spoke like a corporate guru of the spiritual industry. Babaji, a friend, whom he had known from the years at the IIT. He broke into spontaneous laugther; it was hard to not be amused by thoughts of this friend, by his words, by his very personality. As he walked the familiar dark lane to his home he became careful as the same lane served the purpose of a urinal, a thrash area. There was a strong stench of thrash everywhere, of urine and he knew he had to walk carefully for in the dark there was always the possibility of stepping on latrine. And now Babaji's words came to him: "Meditation is the key to everything. As you meditate you begin to understand yourself. And even as you understand yourself you do not seek or question, you merely observe."
As he opened the gate to his house, Arjun felt relaxed in the company of his friend's words. He would eat now and then meditate and then his troubled, confused mind would settle. Until next time when the emptiness would pervade again.