This post is contributed by one of my best friends, Shashi Sahai. She is a pediatrician in Detroit. The picture was designed by her 12 year old daughter Avani Prasad.
A wise man walks in to the kingdom of an angry and mistrustful king and says. “Go out and find me one truly good man.” The king puts on a disguise and for the next year talks to every person he meets, not only in his own kingdom, but in all the neighboring kingdoms, and in the end he returns and reports that this mythical creature, this truly good man, cannot be found. ‘Some came close,” says the king. “But when I really examined them, they were, in their hearts, all bad.”
And so the wise man goes to the next kingdom, where the king is loving and kind, and he says, “Go out and find me one truly bad man.” This king too, fails at his task. “I met some people who seemed bad at first,” the king says. “But once I got to know them, I found that there was always some good.”
Ann Patchett very eloquently used this story to comment on our country’s current and recent leader in her article in TIME magazine (Jan 30 2017). I have been perplexed by how the Presidential election unfolded. One candidate whose modus operandi had been to stir up hate, suspicion and conspiracy theories was able to quash his crowded opposition that came actually with a fairly wide variety of abilities, beliefs and convictions. One would think that one of them could have captured the imagination of the voters, but that was not to happen. I think the writing was clearly on the wall when voters who in the past had gone in for the nice candidates deliberately chose someone who was specifically making an effort to appear bad and nasty. (That’s me still thinking that there must be some good underneath all the show) People thought that the body politic needed a disruptive force and they found that force in our current President.
I think many were shocked at the results of the Presidential election on November 8, 2016. I can’t help but draw another analogy here from the Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata. The good Pandavas lost their kingdom, themselves and their wife Draupadi in a game of dice to the evil Kauravas. A court full of good people did not stop the disrobing of Draupudi by the evil elder Kaurava brother. It was some divine intervention from Lord Krishna that prevented Draupadi from actually getting disrobed. I think in times like these being good alone may not prevent the bad from happening. In Gita, Lord Krishna says that one has to be actively good, that is speak up for the values and perform actions that would indeed let good thrive, or else the evil forces may take over. Who knows what the outcome would have been had all the people with their good convictions come out to vote on November 8. Was it voter apathy that got us where we are or a sense of smug confidence? Who knows?
We do not have kings, we do not have a Draupadi getting disrobed or kingdoms being lost. However some basic tenets of our American democracy are being tested. There are beliefs in our society that will be challenged. There is some sense of helplessness that people have felt recently and it makes one think that this was a kingdom and the diktats from one leader are creating waves that shake the collective conscience of a populace. American values of freedom, justice and equality that always caught my imagination and fascinated me as a young girl growing up in India are being looked at through a different prism due to proclamations from the country’s leadership. I remember as an 8th grader, in my Social Studies class, I would be the first one to say great things about the American sociopolitical structure. At that stage in my life, I never had any first-hand experience of living in America. I had been fed all that by my father who had intermittently spent some years at American Universities in the 70s and 80s. I also remember his use of the word “tremendous”. I used to like that word, but not any more since I see that word rolling off very frequently in recent speeches in negative contexts.
Going back to the Draupadi analogy, probably there is a Draupadi whose rights are endangered. As a mother of two young daughters, I can’t help but worry about how the society may evolve over the next few years. Will they be at a disadvantage not only for their gender but also the color of their skin? The words of our leader could be easily absorbed in to the psyche of the society at large and could exacerbate the discriminatory behavior patterns of many citizens. It is good to see a groundswell of activity in reaffirming the need for true women’s equality and the need for women to get back control over their bodies. And it is even more heartwarming to see children speak up and express disdain and outrage at any bigotry from any source.
I also recognize that we face a different landscape. As a parent I remember the November of 2008. My daughter was an enthusiastic kindergartener and she threw a statement at me that many minority parents may dread. This was 6 AM in the morning and she said “Mom this boy in my class said that there should be no browns in the school” I had my back to her at the moment while packing her lunch. I had a moment of panic while trying to find the best words to use where I do not throw any bad light on the little boy in her class. But before I could collect my thoughts, she came out with the next statement. She obviously did not want me to necessarily respond to the statement. In the certitude that comes with being a 5-year old, she already had the answer, she said “But President Obama said all of us should live and work together”. I breathed a sigh of relief that I did not have to fumble with words.
Thankfully the children were not in kindergarten in November 2016. They were middle schoolers. It was heartwarming to see them express their opinions on politics and even nicer to see that many of their friends from different backgrounds held together united in their opinion and belief in American values.
Let’s hope that there is enough resilience and stretch in the American democracy that it can weather the current stresses and strains that it faces. These are high winds generated while a country examines its values in changing economic and industrial landscape. It might be difficult not to give in to the eye watering and blindness that occurs with the dust that will rise. It remains upon each citizen to follow their inner compass to not get lost. Soon it will be time for another election and for all of us to be actively good and there may be a leader who will indeed see the good in all human beings.