“It is harder to be kind than clever.”
Of all the quotable quotes that I have read in the past decade or so since I started reading non-fiction, this has to be near the top. I think it is especially pertinent in the modern era of active social media platforms. The comforts of online anonymity have increasingly given people the (wrongful) license to be snarky, hurtful and sometimes, downright nasty. Of course, even outside of online interactions, we have all been at the receiving end or sometimes, the giving end of unkind words or behaviors. But as I see and observe those increasingly rare acts of kindness, small or large, I do feel compelled to shine some spotlight on acts and words that have made a tremendous impact on me. In some instances, I have not been part of the interaction but I may have seen or heard about it. I have also tried to stay out of some deeply personal stuff because…well it’s too personal, you see! With those disclaimers out of the way, here are six acts of thoughtfulness, in no particular order.
-- My grandfather worked for a bank for close to 40 years. His job paid him decent, if unspectacular money. My Mom was his first child. When my Aunt was born 11 years later, my grandpa’s best friend visited his house to see the baby. But before he left, he offered some advice to my grandpa - that to raise two daughters, he would be able to do so more comfortably if he had some supplemental income. He urged my grandfather to invest some of his savings to start a small-scale industry. (My grandpa heeded his advice.) What I thought was incredibly touching was how my grandpa’s friend not only wanted to partake in his friend’s happiness but also took the time to think through a future for him and his family. That he went beyond surface-level affection was what the depth of their relationship was all about.
-- My fifth standard Maths teacher Ms. Sundaravalli Subramaniam was not amused when I started sobbing. I had scored 55/100 in my half-yearly exam in a subject that I loved dearly. I couldn’t believe that I had made a royal mess of the paper. In my school (in India), one had to score at or above 60% in every test and exam during a year to get what was called the “Merit Card.” By ‘virtue’ of my score, I had lost my chance for that year. She did not console me with any sweet words. Rather she admonished me for being playful and not focusing enough. She added that just because I ‘lost’ the merit card should not detract attention from my efforts for the annual exam. During the next three months, she took extra care to ensure that I was well-prepared for the final exam. At times, I was reminded in a ‘friendly’ (!) manner that I shouldn’t be letting Maths…err…history repeat itself! So, I had written the (final) Maths exam. A few days later, when I was in the exam hall for another exam, she dropped in and casually asked the invigilator, “Where is Ram Murali?” In front of the entire class, she said, “You have done beautifully well in your Maths exam.” What it did to my morale – do I need to tell you?!
-- A few years ago, during a health crisis, I had to take a few days off work without any notice. I had sent the briefest of e-mails to my manager about this unplanned break. Within minutes, she wrote back to me, asking me to not worry about work. That was nice. But what, to me, was even more special was when she promptly sent a note to the rest of my team as well as the internal stakeholders of our group to not send me any e-mails until she said otherwise. That all requests intended for me had to be routed to her until further notice. I came back to work to a rather surprisingly sparse inbox. She had essentially backed up her words with swift, concrete action. Her brand of empathy-dipped sweetness is something that I humbly salute, especially for how rare it is.
-- My mother had lost her only sibling, my Aunt Shoba, in October 2016. She had come back from India (she lives in the US) after arguably her most painful trip – my Dad was still back in India. Upon my Mom’s arrival, one of her close friends hugged her and said, “Please consider me your sister.” This may sound dramatic or cinematic to you – it sounded like soothing music to my Mom’s ears. She had been feeling completely distraught and bereft post the untimely death of her kid sister. And for a friend to assure her that while her loss was irreplaceable that she was going to help her fight the vacuum, was love of the deepest kind – of the giving sort. My Mom's friend realized that the magnitude of the void left by the departed is at its maximum immediately afterwards. And by giving her the gift of time, she did her part to fill that lacuna at least partially. It was not mere words – to this day, my Mother’s friend has stuck to the spirit of the promise she made in 2016.
-- In the Hindu tradition, it is custom to not celebrate festivals for a year following the passing on of a loved one. Amidst all the fireworks during Diwali of 2016, my grandma’s house was dark in more ways than one. I had texted our family friend Director Vasanth to call on my grandmother since my parents and I had returned to US by then and she was by herself. A few minutes later, he responded – “I already did.” Even before my request, he had gone to her place. My grandma was visibly touched by his words to her– “I can understand how you must be feeling. Of course, you would not feel like celebrating. But please prepare a dish that Shoba liked to eat.” Not only did he give her a way of concretizing her grief but he understood that age-old traditions could sometimes come in the way of engaging in meaningful ways of coping.
-- I sincerely believe that meaningful friendships with people of the opposite gender can go a long way towards helping us refine ourselves and make us more well-rounded as a person. There are needs, concerns, perspectives, vulnerabilities, strengths that a friend of the opposite gender can open our eyes to, if we are willing to look. I have known this particular friend since my undergrad years in Memphis. We have seen each other through highs, lows, immense joy, intense grief. Over the years, she has given me a lot of well-meaning advice that fell into the 'she didn't have to but she did' category. On one of my trips to Memphis, during a chat over coffee, she looked at me intently for a few seconds. She said, "I am so glad that you look healthy now. The last time I saw you, you looked so gaunt that I was worried that you were going through a health issue." I was so touched by her almost-maternal attitude as a friend. I have received my share of mean-spirited comments on my looks, girth, etc. as a youngster. So, for someone to focus on my health as opposed to cosmetic stuff was very poignant. She, as with my grandpa's friend and my Mom's buddy, continues to show me that deeper the emotional foundation, the stronger the bond.
I could go on to write about many more people who have touched me and my near and dear with their genuineness and depth of character. For now, I will simply say that I am blessed. Truly blessed.
PS: The "kind than clever" quote is attributed to Jeff Bezos. I didn’t mention his name at the outset given the mess that he has created for himself in recent times - I thought it would be distracting to put his name at the start of the article! Well, the words still ring true even if the person behind them has done quite a bit to discredit himself.