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About Love and Duty

For the longest time I thought that my grandparents’ generation was devoid of emotion. They went about their lives in a stoic fashion, seeming to be consumed by mundane matters. On the other hand, I, back then, with my raging hormones, was someone who had only just discovered the tempestuous world of adults (Madame Bovary, Scarlett O’ Hara, Anna Karenina) and was shocked at what I perceived as their coldness. I wrote a personal diary (inconsistently) which contained emotional gibberish and hers (consistent for decades) held household accounts. Besides, I never heard my grandmother sing or pirouette. She once mentioned her appreciation for Sehgal and I laughed because our music industry had not yet remixed old songs. I must have seemed like an alien, glued to a Sony Walkman (listening to Madonna and Cyndi Lauper) but she let me be. Our worlds co-existed without colliding, each maintaining the boundary; hers of non-interference and mine of respect.

My grandparents must have had the occasional political debate but they lived in young India and were mostly all Congress supporters so there was hardly any dissent. Their beloved country was Independent (finally) and that kept them happy. In fact, I didn’t hear them lament over the past either. They had truly left it behind. Their life, somehow, unlike ours, was not ripe with existential angst. They regarded their existence, although less luxurious and more difficult than ours, as a gift. And I don’t care what they say these days about the issues we face but the golden past is a fallacy. Nothing has ever been easy for anyone. They lived through famine, world wars and slavery. We have to live through climate change, over-population and inflation. Social evils have always plagued society and everything just transforms into something new, keeping the same equation of good and bad. Besides, they didn’t get to laugh over memes every few minutes. They had to stand in a queue outside the theatre, quell their concern over spending their time and money on a ticket and laugh into their handkerchiefs at Charlie Chaplin.

Even so, they didn’t fall into moody despair over a wedding invitation. They actually looked forward to it. At my age, unlike me, my grandmother didn’t mull over a blow dry appointment and scroll through You tube for makeup videos. She wore the same few saris, the same pearl lines and the same smile through all social interactions. My grandparents never once asked the house help to lie about their whereabouts if the landline rang at an inconvenient time. They were always present for everyone who reached out to them. People could walk into their homes, eat at their table and wake them up in the middle of the night. That was what community was for. It was their role in the world. To be there for other people. Like other people would undoubtedly be there for them. And being there for someone didn’t mean nodding in agreement as they trash talked someone who had pissed them off. Of course, gossip and squabbles have ensued at all times but they were resigned to the fragile fabric of society and didn’t stretch the subject too far. The absence of text messages greatly helped maintain this restrain.

Moreover, they never discussed personal feelings so I was foolish enough to believe that they didn’t have any. Sometimes, a frost formed between my grandparents, until duty called in the form of their family or friends and it dissipated without leaving a mark. As they didn’t strive for change, they didn’t go out in the world seeking it. After all they were addicted to routine. They woke up at the same time every day, followed a stringent household budget and hardly ever indulged themselves. I didn’t see my grandmother digging into a packet of wafers in the middle of the day or wear tights the next day to burn the extra calories at the gym. Yet, she was healthy and lived till a ripe old age, (never saying no to kheer, samosa, puri) without a display of gluttony. Desserts were to be eaten on special occasions and clothes to be bought when needed. I wonder what it must be like to be content with the same attire day in and day out without waking up one day and aspiring for an image makeover because of a 30 second reel on Instagram.

I could not understand their duty-bound lives. Hence, I decided that my life would be based on love and passion. Most of us had begun to believe that our worlds were held aloft by emotions so we put drama into everything. We were free to love, free to complain, free to fight and free to hold vociferous opinions on everything under the sun. Over the decades, I became the person who drank decaf coffee with almond milk, ate avocado on multigrain bread and took selfies with my friends. Whereas my grandparents, long gone by then, had been tied to tradition, I had opted instead to follow modern trends. Not recognizing this irony, I continued to advocate love as the fulcrum of the universe. Except for one flaw. Now, I had begun to feel too much. Everything set me off. Instead of sweeping it all under the carpet like my grandparents’ generation, I plodded through the mess. It didn’t always work to my advantage because some situations and people cannot be changed, and if at all, only time and persistence can turn them around. Everything doesn’t get better by the explosive venting of feelings. Sometimes, it just gets worse. I discovered that the spaces in our heart can only be filled with attachment to duty and not over involvement with the object of our attachment.

I began to recollect my grandmother’s silence, resilience and air of dispassion. Picking decaf over caffeine and left wing over right wing and love over duty were only a few ways to assert my individuality. My character could be better defined by staying strong through a crisis, handling my finances efficiently and remaining loyal to the values I was raised with. And yes, I’m aware that their era was not perfect, either. Yet we took their frugality and turned it into frivolity. We took their rigidity and turned it into fluidity, so much so that now we’re looking for structure. We disliked their willingness to compromise in relationships and decided to turn it into complication. We went from one extreme to another. We forgot to segregate love and passion from duty and work because we had fallen into a self-indulgent pattern of behaviour. It has taken me decades to fully comprehend the message in the Gita, one that my grandparents’ generation had put into practice. Duty comes before love and you have a duty to carry out towards everything and everyone, including yourself. If you constantly act only out of love, you are seeking the result of your actions because you expect it to be reciprocated and appreciated. If you act with the intention of performing your duty, you don’t expect anything in return because it is a duty you have undertaken and doing it well is all that matters. Most importantly, I, who thought I was free to love, realized that loving something or someone binds you to them and them to you. Performing your duty well sets everyone free.

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