MahaMementoMori: Fables Beyond COVID’s Warning Wall – A monthly series that gently reminds us to remember what life would be like if we succumbed to a pandemic. While settings shift from India to America, and characters change as well, each story explores the vital nature of relationships in life and death.
The dazzling teacher was resplendent in a Banarasi sari her great-grandmother embroidered with golden zari. She dutifully performed my puja, unconsciously aware of all the rituals that had been passed down through generations of women in her family, passed down like the aerial roots of a centuries-old banyan. The dazzled consultant called the teacher his KT-wife because he shamelessly stole (he called it Knowledge Transfer) her classroom ideas like multiple intelligences and sold them to his clients. He began the pre-pandemic Diwali season by washing gold and silver coins in milk and water, oblivious of the chaos to come.
In her clear and clean voice the teacher prayerfully performed my arti:
Om Jai Lakshmi Mata, Maiya Jai Lakshmi Mata.
Tumko Nis Din Sevat, Maiyaji Ko Nis Din Sevat.
Har Vishnu Vidhata, Om Jai Lakshmi Mata.
Ignorant of the Sanskrit, the consultant cheerfully hummed along. Early in their decades-old marriage, he had asked his wife the meaning of this arti. She patiently explained that it was an invocation to me, Goddess Lakshmi. She then translated the first shloka word-for-word:
Glory To You, O Mother, Glory To You, Mother Lakshmi.
Shiva, Vishnu, And Brahma Worship You Day And Night.
Every year on Dhanteras, the first night of Diwali, his eyes would shine more brightly than the coins he polished. Without fail, he teased his wife saying, “Well, if you and the Big Three – Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva – worship Lakshmi every day, the least I can do is pray to her this one night of the year.” Then he would continue burnishing his precious metals. She didn’t see the humor in making fun of their Gods, but her annoyed tone only encouraged his nonsense.
Throughout the rest of each year, at the local temple, he paid perfunctory obeisance to me, the Goddess of Wealth, before moving on to deeper dialogue with Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge. The other Gods and Goddesses thought he valued the acquisition of knowledge over the acquisition of wealth. I knew better because I had once heard his wife chide him about being “like a schoolboy who studies only so that he can be rewarded with a higher allowance for his straight-A report card.” I discerned his childlike avarice and hypothesized that he was a cheapskate who lived to monetize knowledge.
This pandemic year, sensing it could be the consultant’s last Diwali, I asked him, “Why are you so cheap? You have so much abundance: a loving wife, sweet children, extended family, thoughtful friends, prestigious university appointments, recurring revenue from clients, published books, and good health to date. Perhaps you could share your bounty more generously.”
“Oh, Lakshmi-ji, I am not cheap. I am frugal. Why do you care whether I donate a penny or a pound of pennies? It should only matter that I do not come to you empty-handed. I have achieved all that I have through my careful ways.” He paused for effect and self-deprecatingly deadpanned, “The only thing I’m not frugal about is telling people how frugal I am. Although I was born a Brahmin, I have the heart of a Baniya. If I could mint money selling air or marketing shade, I would do it in a New York minute.”
With pity in my heart, I responded, “Did you know that the British named the Banyan tree after all the Baniya traders who sought shade under India’s National Tree? Imagine the billions of people who have benefited from this family of fig trees. That family includes the sacred pipal. What do you think about finding a mighty oak and sitting beneath her to contemplate in the way the Buddha did under the Bodhi Tree of Awakening?”
He mistook my offer of a path to end his suffering as a path to greater wealth generation. “I like this idea. That’s one fine TAM, ma’am.” He saw my confused look and respectfully explained his jargon. “Sorry, Lakshmi-ji. I got a little excited there. Imagine the Total Addressable Market for all the people the world over who need shade from the sun or just a little respite from their daily troubles. This could be safer than the CBD cannabis business, bigger than the Chia Pet craze craziness. We just get a snip from that ancient tree my wife showed me in Bodh Gaya, replicate its genome, and market it as BYOB – Breed Your Own Buddha. I’m sure I can motivate my clients in the wellness vertical to buy into this concept.”
Whatever his motivation, I could never understand why he always dropped no more than a single copper penny into the temple hundi in front of each murti. I understand that we are stone-cold, marble statues, not the actual Gods and Goddesses; but we can sense the warmth of a needy person who offers more to the donation box than she can afford, and we recoil from the frigid, greedy person who penny-pinches.
As a social scientist, he was especially attached to theories of human behavior. One of his favorite phrases was “There is espoused theory and then there is theory in use.” He espoused a Gandhian lifestyle, eschewing the acquisition of material goods. But he had no qualms about accumulating gobs and gobs of money; a quick look at his checking account, retirement plan, and his incoming mail suggested that his theory in use was out of alignment with his Gandhian worldview.
During this pandemic when most everyone was throwing around overused clichés like “health is wealth,” I decided to observe this miser to see how he would fare.
He lit up like a Diwali firecracker whenever an envelope announced that an invoice was paid for one of his many consulting engagements. His clients liked the reflected glory of the business school where he taught MBA students organization behavior and loved that he knew how to help them cut costs by cutting heads; he liked the whirlwind thrill of making more in advisor fees from a heady, three-week consulting engagement than from years of steady teaching. He especially disliked writing academic journal articles, because they earned him less than what he dropped in my hundi … zero, shuniya, nada, nothing.
The envelopes from his clients’ processing centers boldly exclaimed, “PAYMENT ENCLOSED.” The cellophane windows revealed boringly, bountiful, beige checks. At home, he consistently and carefully used a gifted blade embossed with his bank’s name to open the envelopes. After joyfully updating his check register, he wrote the check amount on a deposit slip and rode his bicycle – pedaling, rain or shine, to save on fuel – to the bank to greet the teller with a generous smile. To his great delight, the tellers always recognized him and said, “Another deposit, sir?”
Just after Christmas, on his return trip home after an end-of-year deposit at the bank, he fell from his bike while talking enthusiastically on his cell phone to a prospective client. To avoid being hit by a car, he foolishly held onto the phone with one hand and braked with the other; the front calipers gripped the rim of the front wheel, causing the bike to flip and hurtle its distracted driver onto the rough pavement. Bloodied up a bit, but not seriously hurt, he was momentarily remorseful and looked to the Gods. Calculating the cost of replacing his shattered phone, he thought of me. “Thank you Lakshmi-ji for saving my life. I wonder if the screen can be repaired?”
I was tempted to tell him that both he and his phone were beyond repair, but instead I said, “Have you now learned to slow down a bit, perhaps even stop more gracefully? You want, you want, you want. The paradox of abundance is that cupidity and stupidity have no brake.”
He replied, “But I cannot stop. I’m like this iPhone of mine. So many apps to choose from. So much to explore. So many calls to take. So much to make.”
I shook my head knowing that like his less-than-smart smartphone, his battery would soon dissipate. I bid him farewell saying, “Remember your dear Gandhi-ji’s words: The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed.”
The enthusiastic client had a need for the consultant’s profitably subtle feel for strategic parsimony, and the consultant had a need for being needed. Both sides came to a Faustian bargain: the client embraced his exorbitant proposal’s return on investment; the consultant agreed to the client’s requirement that he travel extensively across the globe during the pandemic that would change the world in the new year.
Although he could never master a simple two-line Sanskrit shloka, the consultant was a quick study of organizations. He learned a lot about his client’s immature portfolio of water-based green-energy products; he understood that hydrogen was ubiquitous and bet his and his wife’s retirement on the company’s tanking stock. He lost almost every hard-earned and harder-saved cent on a stock that was worth pennies on the dollar.
He lost even more when the travel resulted in his sitting in business class, on a flight to nowhere, next to a passenger from somewhere, infected by a virus that was more ubiquitous than the “H” in H2O.
Dr. Raj Oza has written or contributed to: Globalization, Diaspora, and Work Transformation; Satyalogue // Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day Dilemmas; P.S., Papa’s Stories; and Living in America. He can be reached at satyalogue.com or amazon.com/author/rajoza.