by Dr. Kausthub Desikachar

Chennai, a South Indian city, one of the largest in India, faced an unprecedented situation that it neither anticipated, nor was it prepared for. Since 1916, there has not been so much rain recorded in one month. Within a four week period there has been relentless showers, including three cyclones, which have totally submerged most parts of the city under water. Many people have died (not easy to count how many), and even more have been displaced from their homes. A lot of people have lost their properties or assets in business. Varied reports from the media guesstimate the total loss of business in the entire state to be close to two billion dollars. Health in the form of transmitted diseases, as well as emotional and psychological damage has also occurred. Anger and frustration with government officials has been combined with the grief and sadness felt through the losses witnessed by so many. All in all these few weeks have been traumatic for many, to say the least. There can be so many reasons to complain and find the million faults in our flawed modern system.

Yet, so many lessons can be learnt from these past two weeks, and turn these sufferings into great opportunities for personal reflection and growth.

Here are five lessons I have learnt myself, and share it for your own contemplation.

1) Success of Humanism.
For all the negativity we experienced these torrential times, citizens of Chennai showed the power of human spirit. People from all walks of life joined hands together to help not just their own kin, but also extended support to all who needed. Chennaites opened the doors to their homes (and refrigerators) to offer support and help to those in need. People formed human chains to help move people and children from their damaged homes to areas of safety. Thousands of people volunteered to bring food and water to the sick, old and newly homeless.

A visiting student of mine, who is visiting here for three weeks was marooned in his apartment as there was neck deep water in his street. With not enough food or water to sustain him for days, he even lost three kilograms of weight. His neighbour in the apartment, an Indian family that he has not known before, offered him food and water, so that he could sustain. They never met him before. And perhaps they will not ever meet him again. It did not matter. What mattered was to reach out and help one another.

2) Happiness in small things.
With no power, internet or connectivity for many days, as well as the inability to just leave the house and for a stroll or a drive, a simpler life was forced on us. Though frustrating in the beginning, it brought a sense of peace and joy as the days chugged along. My wife and I started finding immense happiness in small things. She being an artist, started painting again, and enjoyed it so much. My love for books helped me catch up on my reading. My father had presented me two precious books a few years ago, that I have always wanted to read, but somehow could not seem to manage. At least up until now. The books were also connected to our ancestors and were the biographies of Sri Ramanujacarya and Sri Vedanta Desika. It showed us how the simple and focused life of our former Acaryas made their life so valuable and purposeful. This apart, every evening my wife and I would sit and meditate together, surrounded by traditional oil lamps, which we used to light up our home. We also had so much more time to play with our five cats, who were as delighted as we were. Through all these things, we learnt how we could find happiness in such small things of life that are slowly been forgotten, thanks to our modern era.

3) Technology is not always our saviour!!!
Our absolute dependance on technology and what a bad idea it is, became so apparent during this unexpected monsoons. We could not access our phones or computers or any other apparatus like the smart washing machine, or the smart grinder in the kitchen etc. Making them smarter somehow has made us dumber. We could not remember any of the phone numbers of our colleagues as we had conveniently stored it in our phones. We had given away our manual food grinder (called ammikkal in tamizh), and replaced it with an electronic one. Our banks sent us messages that their ATMs were not working, but the internet-banking was fully functional. It was kind of a sadistic joke that nature played on us. Owing to lack of power neither was the computer working, nor was the internet, and hence the internet-banking was only a hope, not a reality. Shops only could take cash. Shopping had to be done each day as there was no way we could store food or milk. My mom, my uncles and others of her generation, who do not believe in credit cards, nor internet banking, were the only ones who had cash. And they were our saviours to sustain life on a daily basis. It really opened our eyes that while technology offers great convenience to our lives, it definitely cannot be relied on completely during moments of crisis.

4) We cannot be control freaks.
We humans have this innate quality of trying to control the variables outside so that the quality of our lifestyle ‘seemingly’ remains the same, or must somehow get better. We flip out when things change, especially when we are robbed of our regular indulgences. We are used to lights and fans that provide us comfort during our day time, and especially during night time. We are used to having warm water for our morning baths and shaves. We are used to just having coffee each morning of our lives when we wake up, and we enjoy sipping the hot beverage while reading our newspaper or catching up with the morning news shows on TV. We are used to going to work each day in a comfortable means of transport, enjoy collegial camaraderie, before returning home in the evening to catch up with family. So many people, including myself, were greatly agitated that our ‘normal’ life got disturbed.

It dawned on me during one of the evening meditations, that this sense of frustration was mainly because we are control freaks. If we went along with the flow of life and embraced each moment as it comes, we would be in peace. When I realised this, I was immensely grateful for this lesson.

5) Wisdom is everywhere. 
One of the great joys in life for my mother is enjoying her morning coffee. With no milk available for many days, nor a storage possibility, I had to go out to a coffee shop to buy her, her morning pleasure. One of the mornings, while waiting to pick up the coffee, I met an elderly man who was also enjoying his morning beverage. He did not look very educated, but rather looked like he only had a meagre education, and a very simple life. We got talking and I was sharing how frustrated I was with the response from the government, and how they could do more to help our citizens from this crisis. Although he was patiently listening to my barrage of complaints, at one moment, he simply smiled and said ‘Don’t be negative, it will only make your suffering worse. See the positive and what things are actually working, you will lessen the suffering.’ I was stunned into a silence. It surprised me,as it was so true, that it is so easy to fall into the negative pattern, but it is more meaningful to see the positive and cherish it. Not only was this a great learning for me, but I also realised that gurus are everywhere, even among the general population, and wisdom is truly omnipresent. All we need to do is open our hearts to receive it.