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How the wise man went mad

An allegory to remember, on failures and lessons from them

I had failed in my eleventh grade chemistry paper. I had tearfully folded it and kept it in the practicals file and returned home.

The only things that now crossed my mind were my parents’ expected reactions. Scolding, comparing, staring at how dim-witted a child I was, maybe grounding. Or worse, extra tuitions which they were already pushing for, refusing pocket money, confiscating my library card, my phone… and a lot of other scenarios. But I believed back then that I was smart enough to find a way out. I decided I would forge my parent’s signature and return the answer sheet. Nobody would know.

Leave out the fact that my parent’s signature was hard to forge and I was scared to my bones. I practised the signature — but to no avail. At the end of the day my back-up plans remained just that, merely plans. Soon my dad came to know that I had failed. It was evening and I had blurted it out.

Scared, I stood in front of him. Then he took me out on an evening walk. He recounted his days as a child in a small village. The simple life, as he liked to call it. Then he stopped midway and looked at me in the eye. He was dead serious.

I need you to tell you a story, he told me. It’s kind of a true story.

All I could do by way of answering was to nod, so I nodded, fully aware that I was going to be scolded. It was my first taste of failure, and I didn’t know how to anticipate its results.

The story was about how the wise old monk who went mad.

I nodded yet again.

Long, long, long ago… He started the tale as he used to for bedtime stories when I was a child. There was once a wise man, old obviously. He was honest, had the fruits of discernment. But as in the case of all humans, he had one imperfection. He was hot-tempered and could not tolerate anything that crossed his opinion. He was high-headed that way.

He knew he had to change, so one night, just like this one, he told himself he would control his temper and change. The town in which he resided respected him for his wisdom and despised him for his arrogance. There was a huge crowd who thought him to be mad: how else could one man be so different from all of them?

The same night he had decided he would control his temper, the realisation dawned in him that he would not be able to achieve this in the town in which he lived. So he decided he would go far away, to a better place with fewer people, hopefully none. A place where people would not mock him and anger him with their futile pursuits and hypocritical ways of life.

He called out to the town that he was finally leaving it for good. With a stern decision in his mind he turned his back with the assurance that he would never look back.

The village heard him and thought it strange. The old man was finally leaving. They gathered together and started following him. First they whispered, then they came together, proud of their numbers. They insulted him, called him names, booed at him.

The old and wise monk just clenched his fists, breathed in hard and tried hard to control the violence in his thoughts, the one in which he wanted to implicate others. As he tried harder, his steps slowed, his senses were activated, the insults were heard more loudly, the anger was more present — till it emerged out through his expression and burst out as a need.

Somebody threw a rock at him. It came and hit him hard in the darkness of the night. Then there was another and then more people joined in, jeered at his wounds they had caused and laughed when the blood oozed out.

Instead of running fast and escaping from the town as he should have, he stood there paralysed, in anger, in fury at the disrespect and unjustifiable violence meted out to him. He bent down, gathered the stones thrown at him, turned around and threw them back with even more force and malice. Now, he thought, things were squared, as he chased them back and answered stones with stones, brick for brick. All of it he thought was just. After all he was returning what was theirs.

He chased them till the early rays of sunshine hit a stone that was in his hand. It looked like a pure mount of light. His eyes were blinded at first. He rubbed his eyes and when he looked at it closely he realised he was holding a diamond, a precious stone, in his hand.

The realisation dawned on him that it was diamonds, rubies and sapphires that were being thrown at him.

He ordered two chocolate bars and, handing over one of them to me he concluded that the old monk ran out to the crowd which had by then dispersed. It was too late when he finally realised the preciousness of what he had lost. He chased them but to no avail. He went mad and cried out till the day he died, of the stones he wanted returned to him. Where are my stones?

The streets had heard his shouts all too well. He was trapped in the town that he wanted to escape from.

Strengthened by the story and the chocolate bar in my hands I said: “Dad, you don’t get it, I have failed my chemistry papers.”

“You don’t get the story, do you?” he asked. The truth was, not exactly. So I shook my head, hoping to be enlightened.

“You will,” he told me, inhaling, “in time.”

“You just shouldn’t forget about it and keep it in your heart.”

“Think,” he told me, “think for yourself.”

I nodded as I always had when I didn’t understand even a word.

“With time you will find that it was just a chemistry paper you failed in. There are far worse things to fail in, life for example.”

valeriousphrimna@yahoo.in

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 7:26:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/how-the-wise-man-went-mad/article18191857.ece

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