As we grow older, it is good to make a mental list of those who directed us and lifted us
Sometimes it takes a death to understand a moment is lost. I had a lifetime to thank Supriyo Chaudhuri and now he is gone. I had 30 years to tell him how I felt and I couldn't find the time. Now I can only pause and reflect on a man who filled me with gratefulness.
Supriyo was not famous and he was not my friend. Not a musical legend who taught me or a relative who offered me a job. Not a stopper of bullies or the giver of a scholarship. But he changed my life gently. Metaphorically held my shaking hand for a few days. Turned me around and sent me out to face life.
Did anyone ever do that for you? Put a figurative hand on your shoulder? Reassured you that life wasn't to be feared? Wrote a letter on your behalf? Listened to your distress? Just gave you time?
People, it is said, build their lives with their own effort, much like the statue I discovered on the Internet called the Self-Made Man. It is by a sculptor named Bobbie Carlyle and it depicts a man chiselling himself out of rock. It is a depiction full of assurance and perseverance, but I am not him. I am made by more than my self; I am bits put together by others and parts assembled, an amalgamation of gifts from strangers and advice from family. People made me. People like Supriyo.
When I was 22, my first job was with a magazine in Mumbai. One day, after 15 months of admitted averageness, my editor summoned me, callously tossed my story towards me and suggested that I try another profession. There it was. Concise cruelty. Dismissal in a single line. Not that I wasn't good enough for the magazine but for journalism itself.
Now, so many years later, when experience has been worn and perspective found, those words cut less. Life is a bit like walking down a train corridor, every now and then you stagger a bit and then re-find your balance.
Back then, I hadn't found mine, I was commencing my working life, raw and dreamy, with John Steinbeck in my head even if my prose was still as rough as the only whisky I could afford. Can't write was an emasculation, it was failing before I had properly started.
So I drank too much and slept too little, applied for journalism jobs and got turned down, tried my hand at advertising and flunked every test. At 22, I was good at nothing, embarrassed, scared, and did what the lost do: ran home to my parents in Kolkata.
I have a father I can tell anything to, but in this case, he appreciated that fatherhood sometimes gets in the way of understanding a child. So he sent me to Supriyo, his younger colleague, both whose work required a familiarity with social psychology.
Supriyo smoked and he counselled me as I spoke of feeling like an untied, drifting boat. I can no longer remember his precise words but I can hear the gentleness of his tone and softness of his voice. He was a listener who made me want to talk. We spoke of life and obstacles and gratitude for what we have and he restored my confidence and helped dissolve most of my fears. As I continued my life as a journalist, others opened doors, but for a brief while, Supriyo was the voice of comfort in a young man's head.
When I heard of his passing some weeks ago, a thought struck me: As we get older, perhaps we should pause occasionally for a reckoning. Just compute a life, weigh it, make a mental list of those who directed us and lifted us, and acknowledge that we're not the solitary creatures we sometimes think we are but bonded to others. Maybe to that lady with the piano upstairs who let you play. To the coach who pointed your talent in the right direction. To the person who read every draft of your manuscript.
Surely everyone has such stories, and I ask my friends and they search their memories. One writes of a woman who comforts her when she was lost. Sexually abused at six, unable to speak about it for 10 years, my friend meets this woman, twice her age, to whom she feels she can say anything, who repairs her, who unlocks her guilt by letting her understand it's not her fault.
Another friend, Ron, now 50 and an eager trekker, recalls an older schoolmate who helped her overcome her childhood fear on narrowing mountain paths with the simplest of gestures: extending a hand to hold. That she remembers this 35 years later speaks of its significance.
A third, Sharda, tells me of two lady schoolteachers who rescued her when she fainted while riding her cycle one Delhi morning and lay on the earth unconscious and bleeding. They stored her cycle at a nearby florist, called the last number she had spoken to on her phone, took her in a car to hospital, waited for her father, handed over her phone and quietly vanished.
In a world leaning towards division and suspicion, it's actually joyous to sit and listen to these stories, for there is a radiance to them and a reminder of what we're capable of. As another friend, Kavita, wrote to me: "I feel the need to begin keeping a reflective diary even if just to remind myself of how immensely grateful I ought to be, the many whom I need to thank."
But, perhaps of course, it's human nature not to look back and remember and pick up a phone and thank someone for an act of decency. As a species, we're more familiar with regret. But once in a while, at least, we should give thanks. Just call an old violin coach. Just write a note to a pal who lent you money when your mother was ill.
Because in doing so, we appreciate that our lives are shaped by others and we acknowledge our fortune for not everyone receives kindness. By reaching into the better parts of our nature and finding gratitude, we fend off a selfishness that infects modern societies.
People need to know but mostly, we leave it till too late. The woman who helped my friend in the mountains died in childbirth. The teachers who took my friend to hospital never left their names. And now Supriyo is gone and my regret is powerful and only one avenue remained: I found his son's address and sent him an e-mail. Of course he knows who his father was. But now he knows a little more about what his father did. He helped mend me.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 19, 2017, with the headline 'Pause, to say thanks to the ones who shaped you'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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