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The nerves on her hand were visible. Blue capillaries spread like tributaries of a river starting from the point where her hand was attached to the forearm and spreading across towards her wrinkled fingers. It was her right hand.

The Hand held stories to tell.

It was the hand she had used to steal sonth ke laddoo from where her mother had hid them, as a girl growing up in Ballupur, Dehradun, a town in North India. The hand had quivered while writing love letters to her would be husband at the age of sixteen, sitting in her school compound. She had used the hand to wear a heavy gold necklace, with multiple chains, gifted by her mother-in-law at her wedding. The hand she used to cover her eyes while blowing air into the chullah, while cooking rotis for the entire family,at their ancestral home in Saharanpur, at a time when piped cooking gas did not exist. The hand had held her first son Dinesh, not knowing then that he would suffer from polio and die at the age of sixteen. The hand had cooked her husband’s tiffin, as he left home to fulfill his duty as a guard on a train, during the time the British ruled India. She had clutched the bed-sheet with that hand, from the pain she experienced, every time she gave birth; another three children, two boys and a girl. She had used the hand to pack their luggage, as the family moved from Saharanpur, to Kalyan to Mumbai, one railway quarter to another, as her husband was promoted in his railway job. The hand had bathed her first grandson, her daughter’s son and conducted the pooja at his naming ceremony. The hand had waved goodbye to her elder son as he left from the airport, to Muscat for his first foreign job posting. The hand that cooked all day long in the kitchen and maintained the house, as she oversaw the numerous relatives and guests come and go, some stay for as long as months. The hand she had lifted to bless her daughter-in-law as she bent down to touch her feet, with whom she would share a bitter-sweet relationship in time to come. The hand she used to clutch a walking stick as she developed arthritis in her knees as the years went by. When her younger son died, the hand had wiped tears that seemed to flow as though a dam had broken and there was no possibility of stopping. The hand had wiped the pictures of Lord Ram, Sita and Hanuman, sitting amongst other Gods and Goddesses in her pooja room, everyday. The hand she used to pour water over her tulsi plant in the balcony and made balls of atta to feed the crows in the kitchen window. The hand with which she touched her husband’s feet at the age of ninety, during their last Karvachauth together and prayed for his long life. The hand that was clasped to the other, praying for forgiveness, for any mistakes done, as her husband lay lifeless after a cardiac arrest, dressed in white, about to undertake his last journey.

He held The Hand.

It felt soft weak and lonely. It seemed tired. It had crossed the river of life. It had seen births and deaths. It had sought joy and felt bitterness. It had hurt and had been hurt. Fleeting pleasures, memorable disappointments, never-ending expectations, rigid control, fixed norms, mental illusions, emotional heart breaks, abstract love, highlighted achievements, unmet dreams.  The Hand contained all of it. Memories of a lifetime. Now, not knowing what lay ahead.

He looked at his own hand clasping hers. It had it’s own stories to tell. Life stories. Like any other Human Hand. Yet there was something different between her hand and his. There was an anticipation in his hand. An anticipation of what the future would bring. It was missing in her hand. As though a vital life ingredient that had exhausted its supply. One day perhaps his hand would be like hers. Exhausted. Awaiting the unknown. Soft weak lonely.

For now his hand held hers. Listened to it’s stories. It was not a Hand. It was Life telling its story.


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“Finding a purpose to life is man’s primary motivational force.” writes Dr. Victor E Frankl in his book Man’s Search For Meaning. Dr. Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist endured years of horror in Nazi death camps, by finding something worthwhile to live for.

This article is about meaning.

What role does it play in our lives? Where does it come from? How do we find it? Does it change over time? Do we define it or does it define us?

I have two choices.

Choice one. Explore these questions from a variety of intellectual perspectives.

Choice two. Explore the lives of few people I know, including myself, to see how these questions on meaning and purpose have unfolded in their lives.

The people whose lives I will explore are real people. I know them. However, the dialogues, settings and names are fictional. The idea is to bring forth the meaningful essence of each person, as I have experienced them, not so much to reproduce accurate data.

Let’s hear what they have to say.

The Corporate Achiever

I met Neeta during a work assignment.

I was conducting interviews to understand the organization by meeting a few employees. It was the last interview of a tiring day. As she walked into the room, I noticed her tight fitting black trouser and plain white corporate shirt.  Hair tied in a bun and eyes tired after a long days work. We shook hands and I explained to her that there was no structure for the interview. She could start by sharing about her background and then about her work, colleagues and future aspirations. She picked the glass of water lying on the table, took a sip, and after a pause started sharing.

“I come from a small town in Gujarat. My father was a school teacher and my mother a housewife. I am the only daughter. I have two brothers, one elder and the other younger. Right since my childhood, I was a go getter. I did well in school and never let anyone take me for granted. It wasn’t easy, since men were always given preferential treatment.

I had a great desire to prove myself. I still do. It is like an aggressive energy driving me forward. For me it meant going to the city, getting a high paying job and being in a senior position of a corporation. Which I did. The first time I came to Mumbai was to study. I joined an Art school, since I was quite creative. However, I was clear that I had to get a corporate job. It is my ambition to be the head of an organization. I took up this job of heading the creative department of a publishing company. I have worked for seven years here, however I realize if I have to grow then I have to be in business development. Selling is at the forefront of any organization and if one has to grow, one needs to be able to get more business. Soon I will move to the sales team.”

“What about your relations with your colleagues and your future plans?” I inquired. “They say I am short tempered. I agree. At times I loose my temper, but then I cannot tolerate mediocrity. If there is a task that needs to be done, then it needs to be done! Sometimes my temper gets me into trouble. I am working on it. However, I do not wish to let go of my aggressive nature. Achieving my goal is essential to who I am. It gives me meaning. Eventually I would like to be the head of an organization. I know I am capable of it. ”

The Musical Banker

I met Naresh during a trek some years back. Our friendship has stood the test of time. We had a lot in common. Both came from urban middle-class families, were qualified chartered accountants and had corporate jobs that did not satisfy us, but were a means for a livelihood.  Naresh is an amiable fellow and makes friends easily. He has a passion for music. Classical music.

We met at a club. He shared that the current financial crisis may cost him his bank job.

“They are laying of people. I do not know what I will do if I lose my job. Probably take a sabbatical for two months. I don’t know if I can afford to do that.” he shared.  “But Naresh, you have been saying that to me for the past three years, and you still have your job.” I interjected, unsure whether I wanted him to lose his job to do something meaningful or retain it for the financial security it gave him.

Yes I do, but you never know. It is just a means to earn a living. I go there do my work and come back. I have been doing more or less similar work for the past seven years. Moving files and shuffling papers.” he says with his trademark humour. “The boss is a pain. But that is how we middle class people make money, pay our EMIs and take care of our families. We do our time over the week so that we can live our lives over the weekends,” he added. “What do you do on weekends?” I questioned.

“I go for my music classes. I have been practising that for the past ten years. My grandmother introduced me to it and I shall always be grateful to her for that. When I sing, I feel closest to God. It is the cornerstone of my life. At times, I attend concerts with my mother. It is a soulful experience.”  “Can’t you do something around music?” the idealist in me inquired.

“Who will pay me for it and what could I do?” he responds “Let us be practical after all the world is maintained by people like us who do 9 to 6 jobs, six days a week. No one is interested in whether you find your job meaningful or not. I do my job and that is the end of it. It is a job after all.”

The Teacher Mother

Lakshmi works as a senior executive in an education company, that has created a successful brand of franchisee schools. She has worked there for the past seventeen years. She started her career in the same company as a pre-school teacher. A chance encounter with the founder, when the company had only begun with a single pre-school.

She has a twenty three year old son Tapan, who is pursuing his graduation studies in Australia.

One pleasant morning, during one of our occasional morning walks, I ask her “What has been most meaningful in your life?” She looks at me, a little surprised at the question, unsure what to say. “I am writing an article on what different people find meaningful in their lives,” I add, hoping to elicit a response. It does.

“My most meaningful experience is of being a mother.” she responds in a voice laced with emotion.

“My son is the most precious to me. Nothing in the world is more valuable to me, than him. When he left for Australia three years back, my world came crashing down. My entire world revolved around him. Suddenly there was this huge emptiness. I could not eat for days. I spiraled into a depression. Thankfully, my friends stood by me. It was the most difficult experience of my life. Letting go of my son. It left me detached and wondering at the play of life. It gives and then it takes away. I just could not make meaning of it. My desire to find some explanation made me join astrology classes. Now I can see things from a larger perspective. Every person has his own destiny. There is not much in our hands beyond a point. That realization brings balance into my life.”

We walk silently for the next few steps.

“What about your work?” I probe further.

“When I began I was extremely passionate about what I did. I taught toddlers in pre-school. Since the organization was just beginning I did all kinds of work – clerical, marketing, training, curriculum development, even being a school principal. There is no department I have not worked in. I did not mind working late. As the company grew, we began to corporatize systems. I was moved to central office as an executive. My interaction with schools was restricted in my new role. That killed my passion. All that was meaningful for me, was taken away by my new role. The irony was that I had a better designation and a bigger salary, yet the fulfilment I got from my work diminished. It became a job. It is funny when I look back, the organization that gave me meaning, also took it away when we became successful.”

“What keeps you going then?” I ask

“I still like my work, but the passion of those initial years is missing. Once I am able to fulfill my financial responsibilities, I would like to work with underprivileged children in a non-profit organization. Not for money, just for the joy of it. That would give me new meaning.”

The Urban Seeker

This is about my journey of finding meaning and purpose in life.

Different things have been important to me at different times of my life. Yet if there is one thread that ran through all my past experiences, it was to find my calling. To be able to do work that would quench my thirst for self-expression. Interestingly that journey began after my education, when I started working.

“I have met many people who are doing things that they are not meant to be doing, yet I haven’t  come across anyone who is as divorced from his natural self and the work one does, as you are” said a friend to me once.  At that time I was working as management accountant, in the finance department of a multinational company.  She was right. I did not like my work one bit. I have no interest or aptitude for numbers, which people find hard to believe considering I qualified as a chartered accountant. I attribute it to a cocktail of poor awareness, fear of being a failure and desire for social recognition. I could further attribute it to a poor education system that rewards learning by rote, parenting that defines success by social parameters or my destiny. Having said that, yet if I were to look at it from a larger perspective, everything had its place, time and reason. What did not make sense earlier, made sense later. The fact remains all that I have learnt is from unlearning all that I had learnt, like peeling layer after layer to uncover my natural self.  Perhaps it is essential to lose yourself, before you can find yourself.

It was not an easy process though. I remember the time when I quit my high paying job, with the hope of becoming a corporate trainer. I thought then, if I had to work with people that was the only way to go about it. I remember the vulnerability of not having a job for a few months. I remember going back again to the security of a job, out of the fear of not being able to support myself. I remember the immense boredom of it, yet not knowing or having the guts to try again, after having failed once. I remember moving from finance to human resources, something unheard of. I remember the dissatisfaction and failure at being a trainer, simply because I did not believe in it and could not modulate my voice to engage my audience. And, I remember clearly sitting one day with my head in my hands, with every cell in my body crying out for self-expression, yet not knowing what it was, that I was meant to do.

The work I do now is not only an expression of who I am, it is a culmination of a long journey in finding meaning. There is no path I can point to and say it got me here. Yet one thing stands out. All that I did, that was not organic to me, dropped off one after another. Borrowed causes I call them. Every  new turn, even though scary at that instance, got me closer to what I was meant to do. What finally remained was truly mine.

There are various labels to what I do now. Organization development consultant, management consultant, human resource trainer, facilitator, coach or change catalyst. Yet the truth is all I am doing is being myself. Just as writing this article does not make me a writer. It is simply a means of self-expression. In hindsight, the journey was not of finding my calling; the journey was of finding my-self.

It feels like coming home.


I am unsure how these stories answer the questions on meaning and purpose in your life.

Perhaps there are no absolute answers. Each individual has to find his own answers. And his own meaning. Often the questions and meanings keep changing. What used to be the answers once, get converted into questions later.

Dr. Frankl would sometimes ask his patients. “Why do you not commit suicide?” From their answers he could find a guide line for their therapy: in one’s life there is love for one’s children to tie to; in another life, a talent to be used; in a third perhaps only lingering memories worth preserving. These slender threads weaved meaning into people’s lives and gave them a reason to live. What gave them meaning, gave them life.

As Nietzsche, the German philosopher says “He who has a why to live can bear with any how.”


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While running on the treadmill, I noticed a woman, who had newly joined the gym, at the adjoining machine. She was middle aged and perhaps never been to a gym before. As the instructor got her started at a very slow pace, she strongly gripped the metallic handlebars in front of her. Interestingly her daughter who had accompanied her, saw her slow movement. After a while, she encouraged her mother to increase the pace and let go of the handlebars, as she was hardly exerting herself. The woman shook her head, uncertain of herself. It was evident that she felt she would be swept away by the pace of the treadmill if she let go, have a fall and injure herself.

As I watched the drama unfold on the treadmill, it occurred to me as the perfect analogy for how we live our life.

We are born vulnerable in an uncertain world. Whether we are prepared for it or not, life’s treadmill keeps moving. Often the pace is quite overwhelming and frightening. We look for certainty and security by holding on to the handlebars of an educational qualification, a job, a marriage, a family. We make great effort to follow the moral and religious codes prescribed by society. Trying our best to be a good person – son, daughter, husband, wife, father, mother, friend or citizen. Hoping to be in the good books of all concerned. Believing that this will provide enough financial and emotional security against the uncertainty of life. And yet, in spite of so many anchors and endeavors to secure ourselves, life sweeps us of our feet. There is fear of a relationship breaking up, of losing a job, of children leaving home, of old parents dying, of unexpected illnesses – essentially the treadmill of life moving faster than our capacity to run with its pace.  And, the other side of the coin is, if life’s treadmill moves at a slow same pace, we suffer a sense of emptiness and meaninglessness, with nothing to challenge us. Either way we suffer.

What then is the solution?

Probably the solution lies in being solution-less. We want a certain answer, theory or direction of how to live. Hoping that will secure us. Perhaps that is at the core of all the insecurity we experience. We are always looking for answers and anchors outside of us – books, gurus, parents, philosophies, power, position, money, codes of conduct – and yet it does not rid us of our misery and anxiety. On the contrary, it magnifies our suffering. We cannot match up to the ideal society or we ourselves have set for us. Our current reality is far away from the ideal image of ourselves, of how we wish our life to be. There is always a desire to be more successful and achieve more in all areas of our life – material or spiritual. Our lives are ruled by, what “should be”, what “could be” or what “should have been” or “could have been”. There is never an acceptance of What Is.

No, this article is not about living in the moment or harnessing the power of now, recommended in many books as a panacea to overcome human distress. This article is about exploring what stops us from letting go of the handlebars and embracing whatever life brings – pleasure or suffering.

“Suffering is an ingrained part of existence” declared the Buddha 2500 years ago. The sight of an old man, an ailing person, a corpse and an ascetic moved him to find the way out of human suffering. Not that we need a Buddha to validate human suffering. We all have suffered at some point or the other. Loneliness, emptiness and rejection contribute to greater suffering in the contemporary world, than they ever did during Buddha’s times. Just as the Buddha did, we too seek a way out of suffering in our own unique ways. After all, whole of life is a pursuit for happiness and completion. Whether one stays in the thick of things and pursues worldly success or chooses to opt out and seek moksha – an imagined state of eternal bliss. The pursuit remains the same. Fulfillment of a desired goal in the future.

What would happen if we stopped pursuing anything?

Would we become vegetables? Would there be anything to live for? How would we know how to direct our lives? Who will pay the bills? How will we survive? Is it even possible? Isn’t it normal to desire pleasure? Isn’t it natural to avoid suffering?

The whole idea of not wanting is so alien to us, that it immediately brings about much resistance and questions. The idea of “becoming something” and “achieving something” is so culturally ingrained in our system, that we do not know of any other way of living. Perhaps there is something for humans to learn from nature. Nothing in nature is trying to become, it simply moves according to its own unique intrinsic nature. Of course, it can be pointed out, that other than humans no other beings have the freedom of choice, of exerting their will power and the capacity to think.

Choice, will power and thinking are all synonyms of the same activity.

What if I were to tell you, choice is an illusion. As illusionary as the person who thinks he chooses. Neither truly exist.

I wonder what would be the answer to the following questions, if one were to avoid falling back on our conditioning that there is a God, everything happens due to the law of karma or some planetary configuration. If one were to drop for a moment, whatever our special brand of religion, culture or philosophy has taught us. The You that I refer to in these questions is, whatever you think of yourself as a separate independent identity.

Where was the “you” before you were born? Did the “you” choose you to be born? Did the “you” choose where you would be born? Did the “you” choose your genetic coding? Does the “you” regulate your inner body functions? Did the “you” arrange for life giving forces of food, water, and sunlight so that you may survive ? Where does the “you” disappear when you are asleep?

The existential answer to all these questions is a simple unknowing Silence. It is foolish to trivialize life by using borrowed concepts to explain it. Life Simply Is. Existence Is. The only thing that cannot be disputed is that I Am. I Exist.

Yet we choose to overlook this simple fact of our existence and live in an abstract world of theories, philosophies, knowledge, check-lists, plans, images, assumptions, beliefs – passed on to us from the past. Is it possible to drop all of it? Yes, absolutely all of it and live. Simply Live!

Live as though we are already complete, just as we are. Not seeking something to better us. Live as though spontaneous self-expression is our birthright. Not seeking the right conditions to do so. Live as though our feelings are the only authority of our reality in the moment. Not seeking anyone’s permission to feel our natural self – no matter how wild, evil and impure it may seem. Live as though life is made of many colours of love, hate, joy, sadness, lust, care, jealousy, compassion and all these colours belong to us. Not seeking to become white by hiding the black. Living as though life is a river and we are simply flowing with our destiny. Not seeking to live in the illusion of controlling the flow of life. Living with full abandon, sucking the juice of every living moment – be it joy or suffering. Not seeking to make second-hand meaning of our experiences or understand life.

We suffer for self-expression, as much as we suffer for choosing not to express. We suffer being lonely all by ourselves, just as we suffer being lonely in a crowd. We suffer being in a meaningless job or a relationship, as much as breaking away from it. If suffer we must, then why not suffer for something that gives us life. That takes us closer to our natural intrinsic self.

Finally, two sentences that sum up everything.

Let go of the handlebars.

Give life a chance!

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“You tell me what to do?” she said.

I looked out of the large sliding windows and noticed the morning sea go about its business of creating waves. The water merged with the mangroves acting as a green bridge between the concrete promenade and the sea. A boundary indicating the end of nature and the start of civilization.

We sat in a sea facing apartment. It was where she had grown. Her parent’s home. This very room where we sat, had bunker beds where she and her two sisters had spent their childhood. She had occupied the top bunker. So, she told me.

“My elder sister never liked me. She thinks we are adopted children. We have had terrible fights. Terrible.” She emphasized. That word heavy with difficult memories.  “I always did what my parents told me. I was a good daughter. Whenever, I didn’t  know what to do, I prayed to God. I recited the Gurbani – a holy Sikh chant. And, I got an answer in some form or the other. Once, while going to school, I forgot to take money and had to buy a bus ticket. I chanted and found a 25 paise coin on the railing. I always got an answer in some form or the other. ”

I nodded. It was fascinating to hear her talk. Watching her story unspool before my eyes. She felt I could help her. At cross-roads in her marriage. With two small daughters. She did not know what to do.

“He says my contribution to our marriage is zero. He doesn’t understand my contribution as a mother….” she trailed, as she reached for a tissue to wipe her tears. Unable to contain the hurt of being unacknowledged for her contribution. “He doesn’t understand what I say. He does not believe in self-growth or change. He is now filing for divorce. I don’t know whether the marriage will last or not.” She picks another tissue.

I gaze out. The sun’s rays reflected on the waters, creating a sparkle in the sea. Like a piece of jewellery tossed on the bobbing waves. Few people walk on the promenade. The afternoon heat claiming its space, keeping people away.

“What have you thought about it?” I ask.

“I have two close friends. One says I should know my rights as a wife and go to a lawyer. Which I did. The other friend says that I should not even think of leaving the marriage. What example will I be setting for my children? Which is what I would like to do. Yet it is difficult. Very difficult!” she explains her dilemma.

“But you know what! I think there is a pattern between my relationships. Between me-and-my-sister and me-and-my-husband. I think there is something common in both. I don’t know what it is. I am hoping you can help me. Perhaps the answer lies in that pattern.”

I looked at her for a while. Searching for a response.

“Where is your inner compass?” the question emerged, catching even me by surprise.

“How do you navigate yourself? How do you make choices?” A chain of questions, one linked to another. “At the moment I see you being guided by forces outside of you – parents, friends, books, God – each telling you how to live your life, pulling you apart fragmenting you. Where is your inner compass?” I repeated.

“I don’t think I have one. How do I build it?” she asked.

I wondered. Can it be built or is it lost. Buried under layers and layers of conditioning. Under the mountains of expectations, we build for others and ourselves. Does a plant need to be told that it needs sunlight and rich soil to grow? Does the sea need to find its natural tidal rhythms? Does a baby need a timetable to announce its hunger? We are born with a natural primitive instinct that knows. It knows what nurtures us and what doesn’t. Our feelings broadcast the messages from our soul, if we care to listen. The inner compass knows our calling. Our natural gifts. And where we belong. It is perhaps our only true guide in the ever-changing contours of the world. We do not need to build it. It is there ticking, under the mental sand dunes of social dos and don’ts, should and should nots. All we need to do is dig, dig, dig…and find it.

“What do you wish to create?” I gave her the shovel to dig.

She noted that question in her small diary. “That is something I need to think of?” The question seemed to find its roots in her. Perhaps the digging had started.

Meanwhile the sea outside continued its shimmering game with the sun.

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