While walking to a little dhaba near Allahabad station (we were staying in a really seedy hotel), I noticed this man lying with his head in the gutter.
That could have been me during my teenage years. I was in engineering college, and we yearned to be free of the constraints that held us back. Our souls blended with the starry nights as the grassy fumes made their way to the heavens, and gave us the feeling that we were larger than life itself.
Many of my classmates outgrew this as their bodies and minds raced from the teens to the twenties, and the realities of the job hunt hit them. Some did not, and became prisoners of the heavenly weeds that grew around them.
A few of us got jobs in India, and started working here. The rest left for the USA, the “Land Of The Free”, to pursue their masters, and to be free of the shackles that our home country imposed upon them. They yearned for the freedom that the USA would bring to them, and the feeling that they were now part of “The First World”. Many would return to India for short visits, with newly acquired American accents, and talk of being ‘back home in Texas’, conveniently forgetting that it was an Indian education that helped them move from a Third World Country to a First World Country.
Those of us who stayed back in India worked. Some of us did our MBA and some did not. We worked hard, put our nose to the grind to earn more money, to have the freedom to do what we chose.
Our Professor of Macro-Economics told us that almost none of us bright MBA students would become independent entrepreneurs. We would work hard in corporations to make others rich. We were a poor country those days, and chose safety and comfort over the desire to change our dreams. Most of us did not know what our dreams were. But, we were convinced that a good position in a company, with a nice salary would set us free. From what?
We all became slaves to the grind.
I once wrote about an Aussie fellow who I met in Beijing. He told me that he had reduced his possessions, because he found that they were becoming his master, and not he, theirs.
There was a chap in my engineering college who came from a conservative family. The freedom at college allowed him to sink into alcoholism, drug addiction and prostitution, and at the end of his second year (he was 18) was almost kicked out. We pleaded, and he was asked to repeat his second year. Did he reform? No? One morning, he was lying on the floor of the canteen, pretty much like the gent in the picture, when his father arrived out of the blue. No one knows what transpired between them, but the young chap changed. He distanced himself from all of us, became a recluse, and became prone to bursts of spiritualism. I was one of the few he spoke to, and he spoke to me of the self. What he said, was this,”
“For the sake of the family, give up the self; For the sake of the community, give up the family; For the sake of the Nation, give up the community; For the sake of the World, give up the Nation; For the sake of the Self, give up the World”.
Pretty deep stuff actually.
Nirvana, as we believe is, is freedom from all want and desire. It frees us from the bonds that tie us down.
You don’t need to be a Priest to be Holy. When I was photographing something in Allahabad, a Priest waved his feathers under my nose, and yelled, “Chal Hat, Haraami”. This loosely translates as “Get your sorry ass out of here, you scoundrel and son-of-a-bitch.” Not the sign of a chap who has found freedom.
So, my question is: “What is Freedom?”
To me, it is an elusive concept. Our understanding of the word changes as we grow. When my finger presses down on the shutter switch on my camera, I feel free. Or, do I? When I am mindful when I am photographing, or writing, then I feel something. Or, when I am lost in the dance of the light on a leaf as it gently sways in the breeze. There can be just that micro second when you hold ‘eternity in an hour’, and see ‘Heaven in a wild flower’.
Earlier, I though freedom was found in the aisle seat of a business class jet to Europe, or the USA. Or, in the welcoming smile of the staff at a five-star hotel. They make you feel good, don’t they? Then, one day that life vanishes, and so do the smiles.
What remains is yourself.
Something that we chase all the time. But, maybe if we stop chasing it, it will find us?
Maybe freedom is, as Janis Joplin sang, ‘just another word, for nothing left to lose’.
Maybe, that gent in the picture did indeed ‘cry freedom’…
What is Freedom to you?