TEDx MEC: FROM SOME TO AWESOME
September 26, 2013
From Paddy Fields to the World Parliament
From some to awesome, from the ordinary to the extraordinary, from the mundane to the memorable, from man to superman, is the law of evolution. The transformation is slow and gradual for humanity, but for individuals, it is dramatic, a revolution in a single lifetime. It is the evolution of an individual human being that adds up to the transformation of humanity. As Armstrong said, a small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind.
Imagine a boy, born in a village, with no electricity, whose playgrounds were the paddy fields, flooded in certain seasons and dry in others, whose toys were made out of coconut leaves and used bicycle tires, with no idea of the world outside. Subsistence farming ensured that there was plenty of food, but not much else. He had one pair of clothes for the school and a topless outfit for the home, either a tattered pair of shorts or a coarse loincloth.
He walked to the school, barefooted, balancing himself on the slippery, narrow tracks in the fields, rain or shine, and read with the help of a kerosene lamp. His ambition was only to do well in class, with hardly any competition in a village school. What guided him was a dream that his father had, that he should conquer the world, not just be the best in the state or India. The widest horizon he could visualize was the Foreign Service, a magic wand, he thought, that would transform a village boy into a globetrotter. His father’s dream became his own, though he did not know what it meant, or how to accomplish it. But he toiled on, from school to college, in frustration and excitement, in failure and victory.
He went through College with the singular objective of competing for the diplomatic service, chose literature rather than science, read everything that he could get hold of from the libraries, read newspapers and meticulously took notes that filled many notebooks. The Hindu editorials were the staple of his learning, both for language and information. Academic success gave him the courage to tackle the Civil Services examination. Pursuit of a dream energized him even when there were setbacks.
And finally, the fairy arrived with her magic wand in the form of success in an examination, which literally transformed him from being one in a billion struggling
Indians into one in less than a thousand diplomats, consisting mainly of princes and other privileged men and women from Oxford and Cambridge. It was truly turning from some to awesome. It was an intoxicating experience as he moved from one world capital to the other, initially as a minor functionary, but eventually as an Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, authorized by the President of India to speak on behalf of a billion people. His identity merged with the identity of India, his voice became one with the voice of the motherland. He became an Excellency, not just a simple human being.
The glamorous places on the political, cultural and tourist maps of the world became part of his daily routine, driving past the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, the Dzong in Thimphu, the red square in Moscow, the Empire State Building in New York, the lions park in Nairobi, the fabulous beaches of Fiji, the White House in Washington and the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. He sat across the table with world leaders, Brezhnev and Clinton, Castro and Tito, negotiated with world class diplomats and signed agreements that served the best interests of the country. Even when he was expelled from a country and hurt in an armed attack, the feeling was of elation that he went through them for his country. Having pledged to do whatever was required to be done, a few drops of spilt blood or a couple of metal pieces in the bones made no difference.
He turned every challenge into an opportunity and treated every experience as part of the learning process. He sipped bitter green tea with relish at tea ceremonies with the geisha, gulped down yak buttered and salted tea not to offend the Bhutanese monarch, burnt the gullet with undiluted vodka to celebrate India-Soviet friendship and drank kava, which tasted no better than gutter water to savour the bliss of the lotus eaters of the South Pacific islands. He ate raw fish in Japan, raw meat in Moscow, tasteless corn meal in Kenya and flourished on burgers and hot dogs in the US and relished schnitzel and wines in Austria. He watched the kabuki theatre in Tokyo, the Nutcracker in the Bolshoi Theatre, heard Jazz in New York Village and enjoyed opera in Vienna. He wandered in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Hermitage in Leningrad, the Space Museum in Washington and the Museum Quarter in Vienna. He lived in temperatures ranging from -30 degrees in Moscow to +40 degrees in Delhi. Magnificent libraries, high domed Cathedrals and manicured parks were daily fare for him. Could any one wish for more, having been born and brought up beside the muddy waters of the paddy fields?
Every time our man stood up in the magnificent hall of the General Assembly or addressed the mightiest around the horseshoe table of the UN Security Council on issues of international importance to India, he marveled at his own journey from the paddy fields of Kayamkulam to the Parliament of the world.
Our hero did not know whether he made a difference to the world, as achievements in the IFS are nebulous. There are no bridges to be built except in the minds of men. No accomplishments can be attributed to individuals. It is more a matter of intellectual satisfaction. On rare occasions, one gets a chance to play a crucial role in a crisis or shape a consensus among warring factions. None of these bothered our man, as he saw his work as a mission to be accomplished to his own satisfaction.
The evolution from some to awesome continues. Both his sons, who had better living conditions and better education than him, had their own accomplishments. One, who went to school in Manhattan near the famous Metropolitan Museum of Art, today leads the Met’s efforts to turn its marvelous collection of art into a digital resource for global education. The other is a connoisseur of popular western music, even while managing a business concern. Happily, even the next generation is showing signs of evolution.
Believe me, friends, there is no exaggeration, no hyperbole, no fiction in this tale. The person who transformed himself from “some to awesome” was none other than the speaker, now back in the back waters with a fund of memories to recall and to relish with malice to none and goodwill for all.