Ravi badly needed a smoke. He flicked the TV remote off, got up from his bed and walked towards the pan shop across the road from his hotel.
Ravi was just a month into his new job, as the Head of Business Development for Emerging Markets division of a start-up based out of Mumbai. He was in a quaint little town called Sangli, over-night journey from Mumbai, where he lived with his wife & ten year old son. He had had a decent day, with some productive meetings and was back to his hotel. He was done with dinner and had made his routine calls back home to chat with his wife and his parents. It was 9 pm. He browsed some channels on TV, got thoroughly bored and dejection hit him.
Four years back, Ravi had started his own business. Two months back, he was bankrupt and in considerable debt. With all his savings gone, he was forced to look for employment again. He had called up his ex-boss who was now the CEO of a start-up and secured this job. But his failure was eating into him.
Firstly, his finances were in a mess. After making some money for the first two years, his business developed cash flow issues. For the next two years, Ravi had to dip into his savings to keep the ship afloat. Now his savings were over. To make ends meet and to service his white elephant – the home loan, he had first sold off his car and then borrowed from his friends. Net-net, he calculated, it would take him another four years to get back to where he was four years back. That hurt.
Secondly, he felt miserable about his failed business. Mid way into his entrepreneurial journey, he was rocking. He had built a steady topline, had expanded to five cities, had built a 50 member strong team and was well on his way towards his dreams. Then he had thrown it away. He had lost focus. He had become arrogant. He got involved in unnecessary ego issues with his partners. Slowly, before he knew it, his business crawled to a stop. By that time, he was waist deep in shit and couldn’t come out of it. He quit. He had learnt a huge lesson – entrepreneurship is not merely a business development journey, it is a personal development journey as well. He failed, because he stopped growing as a person. “I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop. I wish I could undo the damage and do the rights things this time.” he thought ruefully. How much the regret hurt!
Thirdly, he felt disconnected with his family and friends. He had started the business against stiff resistance from all quarters. “It is very risky.” “You know so and so had done something like that and had failed.” “You are just going through a mid-life crisis.” “Don’t do anything silly” - was the universal advice. Now that he was back to employment, Ravi felt he had proved them right. He even resented their attempts to welcome him back to their world. He knew they were genuinely relieved that things were back to normal. Yet he felt embarrassed and maintained an emotional distance from the world.
Ravi was not new to the feeling of being dejected and lost. It seemed as if his whole life was a wave of short, brilliant highs and long, terrible lows. But this time, it seemed particularly bad. Top of his mind was a simple question – had he failed again, or was he a failure? Yes, he badly needed a smoke.
Ravi crossed the road to the pan shop, bought a stick of his brand - Classic Milds, took the hanging lighter in his right hand and struck its roller. No flame. One more strike. No flame. Once more. Same result. Ravi looked into the translucent cylinder of the lighter that should have had the fuel. Nothing in it. Frustrated, he cursed his fate, and was about to ask for a box of matches, when something caught his peripheral vision.
A man wobbled towards him from his right. He grabbed the lighter from Ravi’s hands and struck the roller. Strike. Strike, Strike. Strike, Strike, Strike. No flame. Strike, Strike, Strike, Strike. No flame. Ravi almost felt sorry for him. Strike, Strike, Strike. Strike. Flame on!
The man calmly led the flame to under Ravi’s cigarette. Ravi lit it, took a longish drag and was just about to exhale, when he heard the words clearly - “Try!...Try!...Never give up!” A jolt went through Ravi’s spine. He looked sideways towards the voice.
The man was drunk till his eyes. He was wobbling from side to side. Ravi wondered how he was able to stand straight. His mouth held the half-chewed, half-smoked beedi. His stink combined the drink & the beedi. Unshaved, unkempt, he looked like a tramp. Half of Ravi’s mind wanted to say thanks, turn and bolt. The other half was fixed on his eyes. The eyes were something else. They knew. They had seen. They were wise. They were kind. They said – “I know how you feel”.
Ravi stood fixed on the spot. He wanted to mumble thanks. But no words came out. It was almost as if the act of lighting the cigarette was insignificant. The encounter seemed to mean something much more. With a jerk, the tramp turned around, wobbled a few steps towards the stairs of the adjacent shop and sat down. A second later, he glanced at Ravi again. That did it. Ravi walked towards him and sat at the vacant space on the stair beside him.
For some time, nobody said anything. They dragged their respective joints. They were at peace with the silence. There was no rush to fill the space. Ravi knew some words would be spoken eventually. The tramp also seemed to know.
Ravi knew he had to start the conversation. He wondered where to begin, how much to share, what to expect, what the tramp would think of him and his messy life, whether all this had a point at all. He let out a deep sigh.
“Look back and smile”, muttered the tramp.
“Hmm?” Ravi didn’t get it. “Look back and smile”, repeated the tramp. And went back to his beedi and his world.
Look back? Where? At first, Ravi thought there was actually something behind him. He looked back. There was nothing except the rusted grill of the closed shop. He turned to the tramp. The tramp had not moved a muscle, except the ones necessary for the act of smoking. He looked cool. Ravi, on the other hand, felt like a fool. Did the tramp really mean – “look back into your life?”
For a second, Ravi’s mind revolted. Who the hell was this guy anyway to preach? Who did he think he was? The tramp continued to look ahead and smoke his beedi as if he hadn’t uttered a word, nor had a care on this earth.
Ravi grudgingly realized that he was being unfair. The tramp hadn’t invited him. He had shown neither sympathy nor judgement. It was he who was intruding the tramp’s space. He could walk out of the situation, if he felt offended.
Ravi stood up, walked to the pan shop, bought another cigarette, took the same hanging lighter bereft of fuel, struck the roller and lo! The flame came on. Ravi smiled at the tramp. The tramp simply nodded. Previous positions were taken and silence continued.
Ravi reflected back on his life. How the hell was he supposed to smile? He could easily have laughed at his life. He had screwed up big time enough number of times. But smile? He decided to try.
“What did I lose besides money?” he asked himself.
Ravi sighed again. Wasn’t losing all his money enough? What else did he need to lose?
“What did I gain?” he asked himself. “A lot of horse sense,” he chuckled to himself. Yes, Ravi had indeed learnt a lot.
Ravi knew in his heart that the events that led to his failure and eventual exit from the business were not the result of environment, competition, resources, knowledge or skill. He acknowledged that he was bankrupt today simply because he had no control on a monster that lived within him – his EGO. He realized that he had been feeding that demon within him with its favorite diet - emotions. This lack of control resulted in unnecessary issues with partners, negativity and hence derailment of a nicely growing business. The big lesson he learnt was that all successful people were emotional, but they had firm control on their emotions. As a result, they turned their EGO into an empowering ally, not into a self-defeating demon. It was a powerful lesson to learn, albeit an expensive one. In his next business venture, he knew what not to do. He felt better. He smiled a little. “I should definitely give myself another shot,” he resolved.
Of one thing Ravi was absolutely clear. He knew. He believed. It takes just three years to go from zero to becoming a US dollar millionaire. Just three years. Provided the mindset is right. Provided the basics are set. He had a few great ideas. He could execute them, now with wisdom between his ears. He felt excited.
“But first, I should get my life back on track.” Ravi felt a surge of gratitude when he thought of his current job. He liked his work. He had an opportunity to build another business right from scratch, without having to put in the capital. He had just made one phone call to his ex-boss, who was now the CEO in this start up. He had asked Ravi to meet him the next day, and just like that, offered him the job, with an excellent pay, compensating for the lost years, without a question asked. This job would help him pay back his debts in a few months. Then Ravi would focus all his energy into clearing off his home loan. That would take a few years. Then he could take a year or two in creating another corpus. In five, maximum six years, Ravi would be ready to start again. Man, this was exciting. Just the possibility was exciting. Ravi smiled a little more.
Finally, Ravi thought back about his folks. Though pissed off with his stubborn decision, Ravi’s wife went out of her way to support the family when he was not making money. Now that Ravi was back in the driver’s seat, he felt unbound love and gratitude for her. He felt like hugging his son right now. He muttered a silent “I love you, Mom, Dad”. And thought of all his friends with warmth. May be he should organize a get-together. It has been a long time since he had partied hard.
Ravi smiled fully.
Even in the darkness, his smile lit his face. He felt relaxed. He again felt a surge of gratitude, this time for the tramp besides him. Actually, he seemed less tramp-like as time went by. Ravi looked sideward and smiled at the tramp. The tramp nodded back. It was a kind nod. It seemed to say – I am glad you feel better.
Ravi stood up to get another smoke. He returned with a spare beedi and offered it to his friend, the tramp. The tramp silently took it, pulled a drag, let out the smoke and said softly, “Gratitude is magic.”
Another jolt passed through Ravi’s spine. It is not that Ravi had not heard of the phrase before. It was the source and the nonchalance of it all that shook him. Did he know what he was talking about? The enigmatic tramp seemed to have relapsed into his world. He was savoring the beedi as if it was the last one on earth. For some reason, Ravi decided to take the reticent tramp more seriously.
Ravi drifted back to the innumerable self-help books he had read on Gratitude, and had tried to implement them in his life. He recalled his half a dozen or so frustrating attempts. He sighed at the number of notebooks he had bought to start afresh each time. Every attempt seemed to frustrate him more and more and convince him that he lacked the basic determination required to be consistent. Finally, he had given up, though in his heart he had still believed in the power of Gratitude. “Where was he going wrong? What was he doing wrong?” he had wondered.
Today, sitting beside this unsophisticated tramp, he cracked it. He was doing stuff mechanically, focusing more on the process, to following the book to the letter, giving importance to the note books and stuff, rather than keeping things simple.
He swore to himself that he would practice Gratitude in spirit. He decided that every prayer to God would be a thank you for what he had, not a plea for what he wanted. He decided to stop asking and start giving – giving thanks for all he had received so far, big or small. He would say thanks for every small or big achievement, progress or success and reap divine grace.
He felt, rather than saw, the tramp nod his head beside him. It was almost as if he could listen to Ravi’s thoughts. Ravi felt another surge of emotion for his new friend. He unconsciously put his hand over the tramp’s shoulder. A passerby looked at them in dismay, shook his head and went on his way to tackle his own problems in life.
“Let go”, said the tramp.
For a second, Ravi was taken aback. Was his friend being rude? Then he chuckled. This one had to be another of his loaded messages. And like the rest, it had to be decoded. But first, it was time for another Classic Milds and beedi.
Ravi knew he had difficulty letting go of his past. He hung on to his mistakes and failures and beat himself till his self-esteem cried out. Then Ravi would go into a shell and defend himself. He would explain to himself why certain things happened the way they did. If it was uncomfortable for him to accept responsibility, he would assign blame. This alternating tug-of-war of self-blame and defensiveness would suck the soul out of him.
His relationships sucked. His inner circle would get confused and would often not know how to react. In fact, people who knew him well would often say he was a complicated person. So much so that Ravi made friends fairly easily but had difficulty keeping them.
Yes, he had to learn to let go. But how? Another stick of nicotine and further silence failed to yield a solution. Finally, he looked towards his new found mentor.
In a voice and tone that were completely opposite to Ravi’s internal turmoil, the tramp said, “I is the problem.”
“What is the problem?” Ravi blurted. His cryptic friend repeated, “I”.
Ravi blinked a few times, trying to decipher this new mantra. Then it dawned. Rather, it crashed onto him like a ton of bricks. He kept ogling at his wise neighbor with awe. The tramp turned to Ravi and smiled for the first time. It was a good smile. It seemed to say, “Why do you take yourself so seriously? You were born from this earth and you will go back to this earth. So will I. So will everybody around you. Just relax and chill.”
The message was so simple, yet so profound. Events happen. Circumstances come and go. There are forces of universe that make things happen. Ravi can influence events by sheer will, but there will still be a large play beyond his control.
Humility poured into Ravi. He decided to accept full responsibility of everything that happened in his life, without making the responsibility a burden. He decided to enjoy the journey and all experiences that come his way. He decided not to judge himself ever again. Similarly, he decided not to judge, blame or complain about others. Ravi was suddenly overwhelmed with kindness – towards himself and the others in his life. His eyes filled with tears. The mountain he was carrying melted.
Ravi’s hands automatically folded and he looked at his mentor with respect and gratitude. He said a silent prayer thanking the universe for the chance encounter with this enlightened man. He looked at his watch. It was midnight. Three hours from the time his first cigarette was lit by the tramp, now turned mentor and Guru. He wondered whether his Guru will vanish from his life after this meeting.
By now, Ravi was certain that his Guru could hear him think. He simply waited for the answer.
Of course. It had to be so simple. All answers lie within us. If only we ask. If only we seek. If only we listen. If only we have the courage to follow the path. We can find the divine within.
Ravi stood. By now he was convinced this guy was no ordinary tramp. He couldn’t control himself. He touched his feet. The tramp stood with enormous dignity, smiled, embraced Ravi and turned to leave. Almost as an afterthought, he faced Ravi once again. Ravi waited for another pearl of wisdom. “You smoke a lot”, he said, grinned and disappeared round the corner.
Ravi grinned too, acknowledging that his past was over, his future was welcoming, and his present was his only gift.