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The Physics of Karma

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June 2004
The Physics of Karma

The Physics of Karma

By Jayant Kamicheril

My cousin Thoma had hanged himself from the alphonsa mango tree in their backyard, the one on which we had built our treetop hut. My brother had called from India early in the morning with the grisly news; he knew we were close, having grown up like twin brothers. After recovering from initial shock I pried what drove him to the rope, deserting his wife and daughters.

"Everyone is blaming the wife," came his cryptic reply. In our parochial village, unlike in Shakespearean hamlets, it is not the good, but it's the evil that the men do, is interred with their bones, leaving the widow to carry the burden of shame.

"But wasn't she a hard working good woman?" I asked, lagging half a day behind in the Midwest. "The real reason was money. He owed more than he could pay-up in his life time."

"But why did he need so much? How much did he owe?" I asked with a pang of guilt. "He had to borrow heavily for his daughters' dowries. I would guess he owed around three lakh rupees."

Converted to the mighty U.S. currency that would have been around six thousand dollars, about the amount we spent for our recent Hawaiian trip. But then that was our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and it was nearly ten years since we had taken a decent vacation. Like most immigrants I have an imbedded defense lawyer, inserted like a pacemaker, to quickly nip any pricking of my village conscience. Thoma's letter, written in hand, on a twenty-cent bleached blue aerogramme seeking help had arrived auspiciously a week before we took off for Honolulu. After sleeping over my na�ve aches of the mind for a couple of nights, pondering on the domestic correctness of my timing, I gingerly brought the topic at our pillow talk. With her persuasive reasoning, my practical-half, reintroduced me to the age-old uncharitable proverb: charity begins at home. But then there was an even older adage, which I subsequently succumbed to ? a man convinced against his will, will remain of the same opinion still.

My wife worked in the pathology department of our local hospital and saw everything in black and white, whereas I dwelled in the gray penumbra. In my eyes right and wrong made it into Einstein's list of goodies that suffered from relativity. I did have my share of sleepless nights, but then homo-sapiens are built to adapt, which I did, although not fully erectus.

After the phone call from India, weighed down by the few morals that still lingered somewhere in me, I went to our living room where my wife kept our family bible. I closed my eyes to open a page at random ? something our pastor had taught us to resort to during perplexing times. My eyes were opened to Mathew Chapter 19, Verse 24: "I say it again ? it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God."

Oops, it seemed like one of those days even the normally resourceful disciples could not cough up a soothing parable. When I was about to cast my net again to seek a tad user-friendly missive from the holy book, the phone rang.

"Oh aunty Seema!" I exclaimed into Graham Bell's invention. I was relieved to share the depressing news with a close relative. Without much ado, I blurted out the sad news, as Thoma was her nephew. Aunty Seema had run away from her abusive husband in our macho village, and thus was a self made single mother. With a Nazi hunter's zeal, she had gone after every iota of opportunity in this mosaic land of immigrants, and had brought up her children to be success machines. Bringing up two boys in a permissive culture, but without sparing the rod, her sensitive lining had worn out thin through the years, leaving her with the diplomatic subtlety of a rhino with hemorrhoids.

"Thank God. He should have done the rope-trick long back. He had turned into a drunkard and was shamelessly borrowing from left and right. He even asked my children for money, after all the ill he talked about me when I left the village. Imagine the cheek of the rascal."

When her bile finally ran dry, aunty Seema switched to her favorite subject without any prompting ? how her kids, my affluent cousins who rarely called me, were faring. "Mohan is doing very well. He has already set apart half a million each for his three kids."

As aunty Seema rambled on about stockpiling of stinking wealth, my mental receptors switched over to another wavelength. I was reminded of something my father had taught us as kids. Our father was a tolerant, soft-spoken soul, who read voraciously about different religions. He told us that the ancient Hindu scriptures, the Upanishads, explained the core of all-evil to be the difference in wealth. To level the playing field, the religious pundits came up with too simplistic a solution ? to convince the rich that donating to the temples would allow their sins to be cleansed, winning them easy passage to the pearly gates. It worked, but not to the extent of bringing them back to the same footing. Besides, most of the alms did not always make it to the bottom of the penury pyramid.

I mused at how lopsided fate could get when it came to spreading the moola ? one cousin tucks away a few million for a rainy day while a less fortunate relative, stuck in a spiritually rich continent, hangs for want of a few grand. A convoluted sense of shadenfreude, what my professor once articulately described as "the sneaky feeling of glee at your neighbor's setbacks," descended on me, recalling the word according to Mathew. I felt better and so decided to relish the moment by doing my Houdini act that I practiced on telemarketers. "Aunty, I have an incoming call that I really need to take, I'll call you later."

By now, the greatest wonder on earth had kicked in, along with my imported Bru coffee. In the Indian epic of Mahabharata, the eldest of the five pandava brothers is about to be killed by a dragon, but is given a chance to save his life. All he has to do is correctly answer the question, "What is the greatest wonder in the world?" He goes on to save his skin with the right answer, "People around us die; we know we could be the next, yet we continue pursuing our transient pleasures, oblivious of this morbid truth.

My childhood neurons of growing up with Thoma surfaced ? how we used to gawk at the local colors during the church festivals, having a whale of a time in the flooded rivers, getting drunk on fresh toddy he stole from aunty Seema's coconut palms. Brimming with adolescent ideological fervor, we would eagerly soak in every word of the fiery speeches delivered by the communist young Turks. They fervently warned us about the ills of bourgeoisie consumerism. Then all of a sudden the first stage of our life ended. Carefree Brahmacharya was over, now it was matrimony time. My father had experimented with different ideologies and had finally come to embrace the mother of all isms ? pragmatism. He arranged my marriage to a registered nurse in America. I still remember Thoma's first reaction, "So you are stooping to husbandry?"

I am still not sure if his words were said with genuine concern for me or it came from a sudden stab of jealousy. But I did become a house-hubby. In the initial years, I did the household chores as well as cooking, unlike any of my forefathers. I swallowed my pride and took comfort in Alvin Toffler ? change or perish. Later, a diploma in computer programming helped me ride the dot-com wave. Soon, we were hurtling through the material world ? wooden floors, toilet paper with sceneries, electric toothbrush and other socialistically embarrassing gizmos.

Meanwhile, cousin Thoma accelerated on his road to perdition. The road map of kismet etched on his palm was sadly different from mine. He married a science teacher who taught at the local convent school. Thoma loyally stuck with the government run spice mill in spite of frequent union strikes. Then the economy of the state heated up, fuelled by petro-dollars flowing in from the hardworking thousands that had left their families to moil for oil in the Gulf countries. That's when the evil of consumerism, which the communist leaders had cried wolf about, actually hit the state. The adept politicians, by then sufficiently marinated in the real world, resorted to corruption and survived the onslaught of inflation, thus bringing to pass the words of George Clemenceau:

A man below thirty and not a communist has no heart.

A man above thirty and a communist has no head.

Thoma, the headless idealist, clung to Utopian hopes with his red heart, and like many other die-hard sons-of-the-soil, stubbornly refused to replant to greener pastures. He suffered the same fate as the rice plants ignored to be re-planted from their crowded nursery beds ? dry and wither. Cheap Indian brandy became the easy escape, making the poor losers sink further into their quagmire, while the alcohol and lotto companies thrived.

My nostalgic memories tugged at the few un-capitalistic spoilsports that still survived in my gray matter, like some sticky wickets. I decided to escape into my soul-cleansing mode: washing dishes. This is when most of my lofty thoughts come bubbling up. Simple things bothered me. Why is luck spread so unevenly? Like Maria in Sound of Music, Thoma and I did the same share of "something good" in our miserable childhoods. But only mine led to gold. Why only me?

I had begun to use Salman Rushdie's expression ? a god shaped hole inside me ? to describe my unfulfilled passion to seek the meaning of all this Maya. To plug that gap, I had been trying different filler materials, and the latest was Bhagavad-Gita. My copy of Gita was tucked away in the basement, among the old newspaper pile ? my wife did not want any competition to the Bible, lest the kids get confused. I surfed through some of the Sanskrit stanzas and their English translations. A four liner stopped me short.

The scene is northern India. The period is around three thousand years before the Christian era. It's the D-Day of the Kurukshetra war, where the jealous king is poised to go into battle against his cousins, the good band of the five Pandava brothers. Quixotically, Lord Krishna, the seventh incarnation of God is with the underdogs ? the Pandava brothers. Arjuna, the expert archer brother, has suddenly panicked, and has moral butterflies floating in his guts, like me.

Arjuna confronts Lord Krishna, "How can I kill my uncles, my teachers, my Gurus? The one's who taught me the art of archery. And the elders whom I have respected all my life. Just because by a quirk of fate they landed on the king's side?"

The dark bodied Krishna allows Arjuna a fleeting glimpse into the cosmic relevance of karma by narrating the Gita. Although I did not fully grasp the four lines, the more I read it, my Rushdie hole felt less void. Like one does with aged wine, I tried to imbibe the vintage lines once again, slowly swishing it around my spiritual palate, savoring the celestial richness, and like Arjuna, feeling empowered, realizing what to do next time I receive a hand written aerogramme.

"You have a right to your action,

But never to the fruits of your action.

Act for the action's sake,

But do not be attached to inaction."


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