It was one of those conversations in which one finds oneself faced with that philosophical question – What is the motivation behind any particular action? It had started as one that is quite common among friends –we exchanged pleasantries, asked of each other how life was going on, and slowly drifted to more personal matters. At no point was there any indication that the conversation would take such a turn. I am pretty confident she blames me for starting it; I would have done the same, were I in her place. Later on, she did point out that I asked a lot of questions, that each answer she furnished seemed to be the root of yet another question and that it was tiresome on her part to entertain my insatiable curiosity. To this I replied in my own way that an honest, clear and complete answer would have sufficed and would not have driven me to ask supplementary questions. She still insisted on my insatiability. But, I digress. This article is not about what she thinks of me, or whether she is justified in doing so. No, no, the objective of this article is to explore a little deeper into the actual question that brought about all the fuss. She had just asked me how much time I would permit her for a particular piece of work that I expected of her. I replied with a careless flourish of my arms, “You have all the time in the world. Today, tomorrow or the day before the final doom, it does not matter. Just don’t disturb me on the doomsday. I will be busy running for my life.”
“Oh don’t worry, I’ll be busy myself on that day, but of course, in saving someone else’s life.”
And it was now that the question popped up in my mind. What is she thinking? It was the way she said it, simply as something that did not warrant a second thought. She said it like she would be doing it as a duty to that someone else.
Clearly, I am not very deft at handling such situations. It was much later that I realized that her statement was just a clever response to my intended wit and as such was not one to be pursued seriously. However, at that very moment I tossed back at her, the inevitable, “Why? And whose life, by the way?”
“Come on, is it not obvious. Leave it.”
“No, it is not obvious, far from it actually. And why should I leave it?”
The answer to my question had dawned on me even before I had uttered the words – she did not want to discuss this. And to be very honest, it was pretty obvious that she would be trying to save the life of the person she loved the most. I mean, it is quite the cliché these days, isn’t it? The whole act of self-immolation for the sake of one’s beloved. Total hogwash, I say, but I concluded that to know her motivation behind such an action would be an amusing exercise. It turned out it was, though not so much for her.
“You are serious about continuing this? Well, leave it because you won’t be able to understand.”
“I just might. So, there is no harm in giving it a try, is there?”
“Alright, I would save the life of that person who means the world to me, the one I love more than I love anyone else.”
“But why? I mean, why save his life and not your own?”
“I would save his life because his life is more precious to me than my own.”
I allowed myself a silent chuckle. She did not have a clue about what she was saying. She had just stated two contradicting statements and she did not even realize it. It was not her fault entirely, either. She was not accustomed to contemplate very deeply about the concepts of love and value. She trusted her feelings to settle any matter in this accord. And if you are wondering how these feelings are defined, I would urge you to watch all those television soaps where-in the leading character is always a woman, who saves her family from all troubles armed with nothing but her Love. These soaps have a pretty clever way of dealing with the whole matter. They never define love, emotions, feelings or any other term of this sort. They just portray these as those things that the villain never understands. By doing so, they achieve a double benefit. One, the audience is left with a sense of awe, the kind that is inspired from the inexplicable; they have a really good score playing in the back to push the point home. And two, the audience never questions what love, emotions or feelings really mean. To question these concepts would be tantamount to a deliberate attempt to side with the villain. If you ever question the motivations of the heroine, you get this rather annoying response, “But of course, she did it out of her love for the family. Clearly, you don’t suggest that you did not understand this, do you?” To question is to declare moral bankruptcy – this is the order of the day.
I was pulled out of my little reverie by her rather loud protest, “Hey, I know that look of condescension. It is typical of you. You act like you know it all, and yet I know for sure that when it comes to the stuff that really matters in life, you have no clue. You are too selfish to understand the meaning of my statement and for that matter, the meaning of love.”
I suppressed my urge to laugh out loud. I will never understand the meaning of love. I was already the villain. I said plainly, “You are right about that. I do act as a know-it-all and I hardly have a clue about what you mean by the stuff that really matters in life. And yes, I am selfish, though I do not see how that is an impediment to the understanding of love.”
“Isn’t it obvious? You just said it. You are selfish. To love, you will have to see beyond yourself.”
“So, you mean to say, in love we have to hold the life of the beloved as more precious than our own.”
“You are impossible. It is so difficult for me to talk to you these days. Why do you ask all these questions? Do you question the fact that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west? Do you question the fact that the sky is blue and that birds can fly? No, but when it comes to the realities of life, you start firing your mouth with a magazine-full of Whys and Hows and such other silly questions.”
All I did now was to look into her eyes. How I wanted to retort – the sun does not always rise in the east and set in the west, and depending on the time of the year, it rises anywhere between east-north-east to east-south-east and sets similarly between west-north-west and west-south-west; the sky is blue only on a clear day; and some birds don’t fly. You might consider me a slight pedantic, but she had much better examples she could have stated as fact: the fact that we exist, the fact that we think, the fact that this discussion is happening. No, she chose the sun, the sky and the birds, particularly because they are always the ones being used on the television.
She did not seem to notice my silence. She threw up her hands and said, “I will answer that question on one condition: you won’t follow it up with more questions”
I kept my silence, only shrugging my shoulders to indicate that I wished neither to accept her condition nor to decline it outright.
She continued, “See, I love him. If he dies, my life will have no meaning left. So, what is the use of such a life that cannot save the life of the one I love most?”
She was supposed to give me an answer. Although, she thought that her question was rhetoric, it was not. It was a genuine question. Her response had set my mind running. “You have barred me from asking any questions, but can I at least comment on your answer.”
“Why yes, sure. Knock yourself out.” Her eyes did not have the sparkle of one engaged in a philosophical debate. She was just indifferent. She did not attach any value to this discussion, and very much did not care what assessment I made of her answer. She was continuing just for the sake of entertaining me; she considered it one of the duties of friendship. I saw all this. I could have stopped. There was no point in continuing a discussion when the mind across you had just switched the channel. However, I continued. I wanted to be the great teacher to her who unveils the secrets of life by dispelling the existing misconceptions. I am arrogant in that way.
“The statement you made does not address the question I asked. I simply asked why the value of someone else’s life is more than your own. You never answered this. You said your life would be meaningless without him. To prevent this state of zero, that is a life that has nothing more to offer, you choose to channel your efforts to save him. Up to this point, I followed. Beyond this I have understood nothing of your answer. You asked what use a lover’s life is, if it cannot the save the life of the beloved. It is a profound question in its own right. To answer that would take much thought and much skill at explanation. However, it is in no manner an answer to my question. At no point have you made a comparison between the values of the two lives. Your answer requires only the axiom that you value your own life greatly. That is why you did not want to lead the meaningless life. When you questioned the use of your life, if it could not save the life of your beloved, you have expressed your fear that your life will lose value in your own esteem. In both cases, you are concerned only with the value of your life.”
“It is only by his life that my life has value. Without him, in your words, it is a zero.”
“Yes, that is exactly what I am trying to say. We have agreed that it is only to preserve the value of your life that you are willing to save his. At no point are we making any comparison. So, how can you say that his life is more precious than yours? And by extension, how can you say that you love him more than you love yourself?”
Not until I had finished speaking did I notice her face. The countenance that had been bubbling with friendly enthusiasm a quarter of an hour ago had now become taut with effort – the effort to not burst out into a terrible, uncontrollable rage, the effort of restraint. When she spoke again after a pause of over one minute, her voice was calm, but her nostrils were flaring and her hands betrayed a slight shiver. “No one thinks like you do. I had always admired that in you. I am happy that you want all things to be crystal clear in your mind. However, I do not encourage you to take liberties with my personal beliefs again. Do not try to put me in the same category as yourself, you didactic, selfish, arrogant, pedantic egoist.”
I looked at her intently, trying to figure her out. She was not angry at me for saying something wrong. She was angry at the fact that I was right – right by logic and right by reason. She did not want to accept this right, because for all she knew everyone else would denounce it as wrong. She knew I was right but she doubted her own judgment. How could so many people be wrong? This is a world that upholds heroes for their selfless sacrifice for those they love. It preaches a code that one must sacrifice oneself for the greater good of humanity. She chose, in this moment of doubt, to side with the world and not with me. She figured that the best way to do so was to shut her mind and have faith in what she has been taught all her life. She was angry at herself for having doubted it even for a moment. She blamed me for that and so she levied upon me all the profanities she could muster.
She called me didactic; I did want to lecture her on her misconceptions. She called me selfish; I have never committed to any action that returned me no value. She called me arrogant; I do have an over-bearing self-worth. She called me pedantic; why should I want anything less than perfect? She called me an egoist; yes, I am, and I am proud to be one. I wanted to thank her for recognizing me for my own worth, but I knew she didn’t. She used these words only as an insult, not as a tribute. I just kept looking into her eyes with nothing more than pity for the fear she held in hers.
She rose to leave, fumbling with her bag and umbrella; she grunted the pleasantries of goodbye careful not to make eye contact. In that moment, I could not resist myself. I shot at her one last volley of questions, “So, you value his life more than your own, to the extent that you wish to suffer but not let him come to any harm. Then, by giving away your life why are you escaping your responsibility? Why are you taking the easy way out? Why are you subjecting him to the zero that you yourself dread so much to live with? Why should he suffer by outliving you, while you escape to your heavenly bliss?”
She stopped half-turned away from me. With her head bent low enough for her chin to touch the collar of her shirt, she let out a loud sigh. When she turned again to face me, the frustration and anger that had contorted her face were gone. Her eyes were no longer burning; they were calm with pity. “For the sake of the friendship we have shared for so many years and for the sake of it to continue as such in the years ahead, I solemnly pray that the Lord deliver you from yourself.”
I rose up quietly. I had nothing further to add. She was lost to my thinking. I fished my cell phone from my hip pocket and gave my driver a call. He was to drop my esteemed guest at her residence. I could not do so myself, not today. I grumbled my goodbye and started towards my balcony. I needed air.
As her providence would have it, I had no respite there as well. The air was still, no breeze today. I leaned against the wall for support. That last sentence from her rang in my ears, refusing to damp out. The blood throbbed in my veins to cloud out the ringing. It was to no avail. The dread had consumed me thoroughly. The dread was not for my sake. I did not have one bit of self-doubt. I was right and I knew it. I did not need another person’s sanction to know that I was right. The dread was the conviction with which she had voiced those words. The dread was for that tone, which did not know guilt or fear or anger. These were the attributes of a thinking man, a rational man. To derive such confidence from the non-absolute, from the obscure, from the undefined was an act I had deemed impossible to humankind. And yet, there she was. She had challenged me with those words. She had thrown at me another conundrum to ponder over.
Originally published on an earlier (now defunct) blog in the Summer of 2011.