Tuesday, April 30, 2013

What If.. ?

… Raa raa, Raa raa, Raa raa…
Raa raa, Devaadhidevaa, Raa raa, Mahanubhavaa…

My son and I were listening to this keertana of Thyagaraja, BalaKanakaMayaChela. It was Sri Rama Navami. Listening to songs was our way of marking the festival. I found myself engrossed in the words and the music, no, I got lost in them.
What a remarkable choice of words. I'm just a listener, I don't have music knowledge, but still the words stood out (they stand out whenever I hear this song).

Raa raa is a term of affection (a term for calling someone younger or very close to you). This is how Thyagaraja chose to call Rama, while invoking the grace that Rama symbolized for him. Then he addressed Rama as God of Gods, juxtaposed it with the affectionate address of Raa raa and then addressed him as a great, noble person. Why? Why this peculiar order?
(affectionate-call affection affection ---- affectionate-call - praise ---- affectionate-call - praise, set beautifully to Atana Raga)

I think Thyagaraja was interweaving his feelings of love and awe towards a higher meaning, a meaning that was both personal and magnificent at the same time.
The music and the lyrics, that’s what they do, they work their magic on our minds and hearts and before we know, the strains of magic start getting braided, lifting us into the proximity of the higher something that inspired the composer.
But why, why is Rama a symbol of such wonder? Such benevolence? Not just for Thyagaraja but for many?

I believe it is because he had a what if moment in his life where he instinctively chose one of two paths. The ensuing result became history. Err, it became an epic.

Some what if moments in the human story have changed history.
Where one moment, one decision, one event-  in a swift, singular move that slowly, without any fanfare cascaded into other events-  changed the course of a culture for generations or even for millennia. These moments interest me. Previously I have wondered not so much on the what if but more on the how or why- why, what makes a person go this way or that in that moment?
We see this in our personal lives- the what if moments we analyze in retrospect in disbelief. But what if the what if moment became a force in history? There have been many such moments.

Take mythology.

What if Duryodhana, when he went to request Krishna’s help in the upcoming Kurushetra war, decided… when given a choice between choosing Krishna OR the entire Yadava army, chose… in that moment… not the Yadava army, but, Krishna?!
Heh. No Gita would have cause to come about; Mahabharata would have not made any sense. Or would it have?

What if the teenage Rama, when confronted with the sudden shift in reality from being a crowned a prince to the holder of the burden of an old promise of his father to his young wife, a promise that meant an exile for 14 years, BLINKED? What if he said, No way Jose, you've got to be kidding, I ain’t going to the forests. He didn't do that.
Rama’s unhesitating act of grace set his place in the hearts of a people. Of all his choices in his later momentous life- what he did or did not do, this selfless act defined him the most. If he did not choose exile, he would have had a kingdom right away, but there would not have been the Ramayana. 
Of the endless possible consequences of not having this epic, one would have been- no inspiration for Thyagaraja. Would he have composed music? 

Take history.

What if the mighty Asoka decided to not kill his brothers to ascend to the throne? What if he gave up the throne at the outset? Would Buddhism have spread outside India?

What if Buddha gave up his quest for the truth when he found his hitherto buried bodily desires coming back after he started re-taking food? What spark made him decide (against common knowledge and practice at the time) to try to seek nirvana WHILE accepting food?

What if Aurangzeb was crushed by the charging elephant in 1633? (The young Aurangzeb bravely defended himself). Would Dara Shikoh have become Emperor? Would religious tensions and relations have unfolded very differently in the subcontinent? (Aurangazeb’s tyranny had an impact on society and culture).

But it is not easy to speculate in retrospect what would have happened otherwise in any 'what if' moment or event. It is as if things have a flow of their own.

Take Bush-Gore 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court in 2000. Shocking it was. But then, if Bush hadn’t been in power, would Obama, who presented a clear contrast, been able rise as a candidate for President in 2008? Gore didn’t become President and Obama is now President. What if Gore became President? It becomes difficult to guess beyond the immediate consequences.

Every what if moment becomes a weave in our human-story basket. Sitting in our basket as we are, walking around and taking time to feel and touch the weaves on our walls can make our own place and time in the human story seem surreal.

In my personal life, I had an experience that qualifies under the what if’s...

We were in our first rental car, my fiance and I, on our first road trip. We were on Highway 1, a little north of Santa Barbara.

I asked, excitedly, how fast can we go?
How fast do you want to go?
Umm, can we go a... hundred ??

He was 25 years old. The needle slowly rose and hit a hundred. Which our eyes watched in hushed anticipation. Everything was zooming past us, and the speed was exhilarating.

The 2-lane road did not have any traffic but one yellow car waiting at a T misjudged our speed. The driver waited, and then decided to merge. He arrived exactly onto our lane. There was no time to brake and stop. My fiance reflexively went into the other lane, which he saw was free. But another car was coming up; that driver in turn reflexively went into our lane. For a few seconds we both were in opposite lanes before we merged back into our own lanes. The yellow car went on its way.
It was so sudden, so instantaneous, so shocking. What if quick reflexes were not used? Instant death or worse was certain. Not just us, we would have hurt other people.   I was so shocked, so shocked, that to this day I drive below the posted speed limit on any road. I dislike speed.

At times I have wondered what would have happened if we died. Earlier I used to be in shock at the possibility. But now I don’t feel the shock for my own self, though I'm still horrified of what might have happened to others and my role in it.

Over time, over the years, the moments begin to fade away. Over tens or hundreds or thousands of years we forget to relate to the pain of the turns in our human story. They just become points in history. Somehow a turning point seems nothing more than, say,  

 Tomayto – Tomahto!

But what if we go much further back, if the meteor did not strike the Earth and the dinosaurs did not die, the meteor went off by our side, would humans have been able to evolve?  We can come up with many such scenarios.

Sometimes I imagine very intelligent aliens sitting in nice balconies with pretty views pointing out our planet to little very intelligent alien-grandchildren, saying, See that, that nice blue ball, they call it Earth, it holds some lifeforms too.
It seems like they, so far away in time and space, can see things quite differently from us. For them, Dinosaurs – Humans, may be just like, To-may-to ---- To-mah-to. Just a turn, just a flash of lifeforms in the celestial cooking pan!

What if it isn't? It isn't just a flash? What if the path that we're walking on, our tomahto-tomayto laden path takes us to a future, a distant future where WE get to lounge in celestial balconies with spectacular views? Or will that just make us- a flash in a bigger celestial cooking pan?

What if it isn't?
We'll just have to get there to find out. For now at least we get to tend to our tomatoes in our small balconies while listening to music.