This is a poem from the great Tamil poetry collection from the Sangam era. This era is thought to be between 1st Century before Christ to a few centuries after Christ,
The poem by the woman poet Avvaiyar and is addressed to the gatekeeper of the chieftain, Neduman Anji,
Here goes the poem. Translation follows.
Here is the translation (translation mine.)
O! Sentinel! O! Sentinel!
O! One who guards the gates
that never close for those
with ambition in their heart
living a life of deception
flattering their donors
obtaining gifts and good position
Do you think
Neduman Anji doesnt know himself
Or do you think he doesnt know me
Its not yet the way of this world
that people with fame and talent
die of starvation
So I pick up things,tie my bag
As a skilled son of a carpenter
goes into the woods
with his axe
Any which direction I go
a meal awaits me
– Avvaiyar (Purananuru)
Neduman Anji was a chieftan who was very close to Avvaiyar. During those times it was very common for real or imagined poets to sing the praise of the king in order to obtain gifts from him. A lot of poetry in Purananuru is in praise of the kings and chieftans of those days. This poem is against the tide..
It is very easy to read this as a rejection of the way of life, wherein the poet had to constantly praise the king. We can probably do that in textbooks to show children how poets of those times were very particular about their self respect etc. But experience teaches you otherwise and reading the poem through your life will make it seem as something else.
Avvai knows that she is more talented than othersbut the gates seem to remain open only to those who praise the king !!! As we wonder how someone with so little talent can occupy an exalted position in a company, Avvai is also pretty much fed up with such people having access to the very top. This is what lot of us experience in various companies. The people who have the access to the top need not always be the most skilled or the most talented.
Jeyamohan, commenting on this poem in his ‘Sanga Chitirangal’, says that more than the bitterness apparent throughout the poem, what makes him sad, is the fact that the poem is addressed to the gatekeeper. Very very similar to people leaving an organisation and having to tell what is wrong with the organisation to some HR person during their exit interview. No one has a clue if the opinion goes anywhere beyond the gatekeeper.
A pertinent observation here is the fact that Avvai knows that Neduman Anji is aware of this. It is not surprising to find some of top guys being quite intelligent yet encouraging mediocrity or downright loyalty as against encouraging talent. It is so often found that many of the top people want to work with people they are ‘comfortable’ with. This is something which seems to happen in almost every company.
Jeyamohan says that words ‘a meal awaits me’ are self deceptive. Avvai is trying to tell herself that she has talent and she can walk away from Neduman Anji and still survive using only her talent. The most important thing we need to note in this poem is something which is very true in the corporate world. Talent without ambition will not get you too far up the ladder. I see lot of guys around me who are talented but lose direction because they lack ambition. If Avvai is so certain that she would get a meal in any direction she goes, why is she bitter? The answer is simple. Avvai knows that in whichever direction she goes, the menu will remain the same !!! The conditions will not be too different if she goes somewhere else. A sanskrit grammarian by the name Jamini said, “Na kadachit anidrusham jagat”. The world was never any different. True words indeed.
You can easily derive all that I told by just reading the poem. The reason I picked up this poem was that this poem led me to reflect on certain other aspects. So what follows is rambling about some aspects of life.
One of the things that I have observed when I speak to my colleagues or to my clients is the fact that many of them try to justify their positions/roles etc. This has been a common trait, be it an Indian or an American. Some people will boast about their achievements, some people will tell you why they don’t want to move up the ladder, some will tell you why they should have moved and haven’t. Everywhere you see this need to justify what you are doing.
The need is just not a surface need but a deeper one. To many people it is their work that gives meaning to their lives. However much we may claim that family life is the most important etc, it is work that becomes a means to justify our existence. Coming to the middle stage in life, the need for justification becomes even more important. Unfortunately the justification is just not for your current situation, but for all the decisions that you have taken to arrive here. The decision to join a particular job, the decision to fall in love, the decision to get married, to have children, to change jobs, not to change jobs etc etc, all come under scrutiny.
The need to justify our existence and to define a purpose for life, is probably the core issue for any human being. No wonder that this forms the basis of lot of great literature. (Read Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ if you want to understand what I mean) The need for a purpose has driven people in different directions. One hand, you have people developing very nihilistic tendencies and see lot of young and sensitive artists commit suicide, people willing to join violent struggles and blow themselves up. On the other extreme you have people who are willing to dedicate all their lives to serve people and not wanting anything for themselves. So you have people dedicating themselves to art, to science, to social service, to freedon struggles and what not. This is probably the easiest way of finding a purpose and sticking to it and at a later date saying that your life did have a purpose and that you ‘achieved’ something in life.
To me it seems that every religion is formed only to address this issue. Some of them, like Hinduism and probably Buddhism, ask lot of questions, give some answers but drive you to find the answers. (I am talking about the Jnana marga of Hinduism, not the bhakthi route). Upanishads are full of questions concerning this and you may or may not understand the answers.
Some other religions give you a clear documentation of what needs to be done and what will happen to you if you do it. Like going to heaven in case of Islam and Christianity or in case of our own Bhakthi marga. In such cases, to many people, following the religion closely becomes their purpose of life. It also excuses them from performing an arduous function, namely, thinking about a purpose for life. So religion provides a prop to many people and gives them an excuse to continue living.
But do you need an excuse to live? I feel that the whole problem arise from the basic fact that we are trying to fit a purpose to life which basically asks nothing from us, not even that we live it !!! Some like Camus feel that the absurdity of life can only be overcome by struggle. Some feel that the basic purpose of life is that live it !!! Is there a need to find a purpose?
That becomes a difficult to question to answer. On one hand, the absurdity of life is such that it seems to make no sense mapping a purpose to it. On the other hand, if you don’t map a purpose, you have this feeling within yourself that you are just trying to run away from life.
I am reminded of the film lyricist, Kannadasan’s very perceptive words here. In one of his famous songs he wrote:
‘As you wake up in the morning
tomorrow’s questions stare at you
Even when you have the answers in hand
the soul still struggles
The question ‘why’ is the one which will survive
Through man’s happiness and sorrow only questions remain’
Yes. Only the questions remain. It reminds me of the homam that we do in our houses for certain functions. As you keep pouring ghee, the fire rises higher and the whole thing burns with a great intensity. As time passes by, our past gets poured into this great yagna and the questions blaze with ever increasing intensity. The intensity of this fire only increases as we keep living our lives. Whatever you offer in the form of an excuse, a justification, is devoured and just helps in the the flames rising higher.
I will try to condense a short story of Katherine Mansfield here. (My apologies to her for probably trivializing her story by condensing it. I thought it would be very relevant to our discussion). The story goes that a very young girl is invited to a ballroom dance. She is naturally excited since it is the first ball that she would be attending. She is stunned by the opulence of the place, the chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling, the tastefully done decorations, the spiral staircase and what not. Her joy reaches a peak when a young boy asks her for a dance. She dances a lot and feeling tired, to take a break she comes and sits down. Next to her is an old man. He starts talking to her. He says that though all this looks great now, once this ball is done, what remains will be messy, the whole room will be dirty, nothing will remain in its place, she will be tired. In short, he tries to explain the ‘reality’. The girl becomes a bit sad hearing this and her mood changes from joy to that of reflection and bit of sadness. Then another boy comes up and asks her for the dance. She agrees and very soon she is swirling around, with the colors all around her, excitement in her heart and the old man totally forgotten.
Once in a while, in our lives, we too look back, only to see the questions leaping at us majestically. We shudder for a second, turn our faces and then join the huge ballroom dance called life.