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Que Sera Sera

The Indian Express - November 11, 2012

Where would one go shopping for strength of the human spirit?

The late Ramesh Balsekar was a sought-after spiritual guru who I met by accident (though he would aver that nothing is by accident - it was all meant to happen). My former boss gave me a pile of Balsekar's books to read and suggested that I put aside my scepticism and meet him at least once. Since the boss usually did a good job of broadening my education, be it exploring the seamier side of Paris or learning not to agonise after sounding idiotic in a television sound bite, I went.

Balsekar was past 80, an ex-banker with elfin humour. He was not fussed about people calling him "Ramesh", told jokes and stories, and exhorted me to come for his morning satsang sessions which were filled with foreigners seeking spiritual bliss. "Come, it's the best entertainment in town," he said, in all seriousness. And so it was, laced with wisdom that made you wince as it exposed hapless human behaviour, or radical ideas that made you think, "What am I doing here, smoking this dope?"

I often argued with him about his beliefs and he would say with calm authority, "I can see a PowerPoint chart in your head. An arrow leads A to B, and B to C. You think that if A happens, then B will happen and then C will happen. Suppose for a moment we reverse the arrows and consider the possibility that if C was meant to happen, then B had to happen and that's why A happened?" He believed that if something was meant to happen, it would, because our lives followed a script written by the Source. I absorbed the idea finally, and got teased a lot by friends. Initially, I tried to reason it out with them. But now I just direct them to a movie called Sliding Doors, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. The movie takes place in two parallel universes. In one, she arrives on the platform just as the train doors shut and she misses the train. In the other, she manages to go through the doors and gets home to find her boyfriend in bed with another woman. Each scene leads to a different life, events and outcomes. Whenever I have asked friends and clients what the "sliding doors" in their life or their business have been, they always "get" the idea.

One day, a lady came to Balsekar's satsang. She said during Diwali recently, she found herself keeping aloof from all the celebrations. "Do you think I am getting depressed or detached?" she asked. His reply had me rolling with laughter but I had goosebumps all the same. "If I tell you that you are getting depressed," he said, "you will go to a doctor, take medicines and feel unhappy. If I tell you that you are getting detached, you will celebrate your climb up the spiritual ladder. But may I tell you, madam," he added, going in for the guru-kill, "in either case, your condition is exactly the same."

I was reminded of this story when my mother's equanimity was briefly disrupted after a visit from the census enumeration lady. "You live all alone in this big house?" the enumerator asked. "You don't have any children, I suppose," she concluded. My mother said she had two. "Oh," the lady said knowingly, "you don't get along with them, then?" My mother dismissed her with an acerbic, "And all this is written in your questionnaire?" But for a while, the perception of her life was transformed from one of happy independence, living in a city of her choice with an active social life, full control of the TV remote, playing online scrabble at whim, to an image of "poor, lonely thing, children in another city, somehow passing her time."

One day, the same person who sent me off to Balsekar, took my daughter and me to meet Gregory David Roberts, the author of the spellbinding book Shantaram. While there was a debate on how autobiographical the novel was, we knew that Roberts was once a drug addict, sentenced to 19 years imprisonment in Australia for robberies. Two years later, he escaped from a maximum-security prison in broad daylight, and was on the run for the next 10 years. He was eventually captured in Germany, extradited to Australia and served out the rest of his rigorous prison sentence. He said that he almost escaped prison again but decided to finish his sentence. Thinking about his "then" and "now" amazing life journey — now a best-selling author, comfortably living in a swish south Mumbai apartment, about to make a movie with Johnny Depp, being paid an arm and a leg for talks - I asked him whether he believed in destiny. He said he believed in the power of the human spirit. I told Balsekar the story, and asked him what he thought of it. He flattened me with his one-liner, "Ask him in which shop did he buy the strength of his human spirit."