As we observe the 16-day period of remembrance of our ancestors in the Hindu calendar, I find myself remembering my own, with great pride and glee. Both sets of grandparents, my parents and their siblings, and the extended family from all four branches has made for a familial fraternity that has taught me through their example, through spoken words and deeds done, what it takes to live a life of respectful and respectable mindfulness.
Nani, my maternal grandmom, and Bua and Phupaji, my paternal aunt and uncle, taught me about the rapidity with which respect multiplies. To earn the respect of others, they taught us kids, we have to give it in plentitude. In respecting others, we build the foundations of trust. These we can cull from, when broken by life in ways that only friendship and family can heal. Through their actions and generosity, Nani, Bua and Phupaji showed us the civilised face of civil society.
My dad, who had diabetes and was taken much too early from us at age 66, never complained about his lot. Even when his pain was at its height, he would remind us that there was always someone in a worse situation, someone else who needed support and care, who needed a smile. He showed us that when you give respect and compassion to others in need, you gain perspective and are able to come to peace with your own situation.
In the life I saw my father live and in how Nana, my maternal grandfather, lived his, I saw the power behind active listening. My father was far more involved in the act, and in return got a lot more traction with people, but both Nana and he left indelible impressions in the mindscape and psyche of all they interacted with. Their genuine concern, their desire to know the other, and their respect for one and all always shone bright and made the most delicate situations easier to handle and richer with the fruits of a successful exchange.
Nana, who died a few months before my father passed, lost the love of his life, my grandmother, while they were living in the US. Theirs was an epic love story, truly a Harlequin romance. Instead of wallowing in his sorrow, Nana packed up, moved back to India, and lived the rest of his days with my parents. He made peace with being single, refusing to give in to despair. He entertained guests, provided for his family and friends, and showed us all through his example that being elderly didn’t mean being feeble or without hope. He lived joyfully and at peace with self and life until his death at age 92.
Dadi, my paternal grandmother, also taught me the importance of being at peace with oneself and with life. Dadi spent the last several years of her life in a wheelchair. One day, her older sister came to visit and said to her, “Come on, it’s time for us both to make plans to be with the Lord.” Dadi replied, “You go make your plans if you want to. I’m going nowhere. I’m very comfortable.”
Dadi had me as her walking stick for all my years of being by her side. This privilege gave me rare access to her and a connection that still shows me paths into my soul, where I find answers for what I am searching for outside of my own world. Dadi wasn’t the most patient person, but she always taught me to be considerate towards others and to be generous to a fault. She would tell me that the best among us look past another’s faults and put themselves into another’s shoes, seeing things from their perspective. She and Papa connected me to the relationship that compassion, kindness, and empathy share with respect and dignity.
When we children would question the behaviour of certain elders around us, they would urge us to appreciate those people in a holistic manner. To show kindness, be empathetic and compassionate toward them. They taught us to appreciate that we are all far from perfect, and so respecting another means to accept them for who they are and show them kindness and acceptance in the face of their poor behavior.
My mother, who embodies goodness that words cannot describe but which her actions always show vividly, taught me all of these things and more. In watching her navigate and rise above the challenges posed by the darkly bleak realities of life, I learned the collegiality of respect and suffering. She taught us kids about seeing the world as an echo chamber where we reaped what we sowed. In teaching us to suffer together, she leveled the playing field of life. She validated the other in our lives and, in doing so, showed us that we are all human, none better than the other.
Mom encouraged us to see and feel positive things about all those who touched our lives, and about life, too. She gave us the language and vocabulary that taught us to treat people in a manner that showed them that we cared about how they felt and who they were. She taught us to understand the worth of the other by respecting them as we would want ourselves to be respected. To her, respecting the other is about valuing the other as an individual with complete humanity as important as our own.
In looking for common ground between us as humans, we find joy in diversity and celebration in plurality of thought, action, and deed. We need only make some effort to listen to another, to spend time with them and be interested in genuinely hearing them out, observing their lives and caring for how they feel and what they are going through, and we will find something in common with that person. Shared experiences, hobbies, interests, values – these and more connect us humans where religion, race, age, and politics can divide and tear us apart.
In remembering the elders who have passed me by, whose lives have blessed me with invaluable lessons that make me the man I am today, and in remembering living relatives and the life lessons they have taught me – I realise the many common traits that bind us humans together despite the diversity we live with and around. We all are born to die, and in that arc of life between birth and death, we share the ability to evolve and grow, change and learn, forgive and forget. Once we grasp this common arc between us, it becomes a joyous and fortuitous starting point for relationships where we proudly and happily serve others and enrich our own souls.