Bragging Rights

Zainab Sulaiman
(Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

There are a few more questions, sir, if you'd only just keep the answers short," the grey-haired MC in a sharp kurta-pyjama instructs the Nobel Laureate (NL). "No offence meant," he adds, grinning like a naughty schoolboy.

"Oh shaddup!" the woman sitting beside me mutters under her breath. She turns to her friend, and they hold a short under-your-breath-but-audible-enough discussion about what a jerk the MC is, drowning out the words of wisdom that we have all gathered to hear from our distinguished guest.

"I'm very disappointed to hear your views on so-and-so, sir," an elderly gentlemen of some distinction, begins - at least in the MC's eyes, as he's waved, gestured and almost yelled over the NL's head for the mike to be passed over to his friend. It's time for the audience to ask questions.

The man begins expounding his point of view on a subject on which the NL is an acknowledged global ustaad - the man doesn't even bother to hide the fact that he has no question, and ends by pompously saying that such-and-such cannot be possible simply because he doesn't think so. The NL, a wise old man with a lifetime of experience (Master Shifu from the world of Finance), simply nods and says that that is his opinion - he's simply offering it up for consideration.

As the NL answers one of the best questions of the evening, the MC's now frowning at his watch, tapping the podium lightly with his fingers, rolling his eyes ever so slightly at one of his chums in the audience, as he strives to live up to his reputation of closing on time. My neighbours continue their commentary on every question asked, and every answer answered, and it strikes me that the truly accomplished are not those who talk the loudest, expound the most or even know the most. It's those who are simply willing to learn. And there's probably only one thing that sums up the difference between the two: humility. To open their hearts and minds and really listen and look at the world around them: to stop thinking about everything in terms of themselves - I don't agree with this; I feel we should do it this way, I would never behave like Mr Smug-as-a-Bug MC (guess who's feeling smug about not being smug).

A lady with an aggrieved look on her face is complaining to the NL about how every problem stems from the caste system (a worthy topic, no doubt, but one which is as far away from the discussion as the moon to the earth), obviously her area of expertise and one that she's allowed to consume her mind and soul. The NL listens patiently and delivers his reply in the same easygoing manner; he's well aware of the problems of planet Earth: he has in fact spent 25 minutes explaining to us how we are all doomed to a quick extinction unless we do something. Yet, his approach has none of the angst, anger or frustration that characterises so many of us in the audience.

My mind goes back to others like him whom I've had the privilege to listen to. A doctor who's devoted his life to alleviating life's suffering for the poorest of the poor and who was recently awarded the Padma Shri, yet he generally seemed to radiate optimism even as he lived his life amidst death and suffering. A pleasantly plump scientist with a warm smile who's working with the government to conserve whatever little water Bengaluru has left, even as the government routinely continues to pass policies that reverse all that she's working for, never lost her air of "tomorrow's another day." The scientist spoke matter-of-factly about her plans for the city, most of which she believed might not fructify, but that little detail didn't seem to worry her too much.

What is it with these people? Do they inhale a special rarefied air that's filled with hope - some might call it fake positivity - which we ordinary mortals are denied? Perhaps, it's because they know they don't have all the answers, and never will. They're humble enough to realise that, and it keeps them moving, searching, hoping. That tomorrow might just turn out to be a wonderful day after all. And even if it doesn't, at least one has tried. So, why worry? Do what you can. And move on.

"Done!" the MC announces, as the evening wraps up exactly at 8-o' clock. His eyes are shining. Just short of pumping his fists in the air at having gotten rid of this Guest of the Century on time, he trips off the stage and chuckles with his friends about the trials and tribulations of MC-hood.

The NL is meanwhile surrounded by the audience who would have happily stayed on and listened to him for another hour. As he finds his way to the exit, he takes on as many questions as he can, smiling at someone, acknowledging another, joking with a third. We follow him out, loathe to break away from the spell of the man who's a breath of fresh air from all the know-it-alls we are more and more forced to know. And then there's a mad rush for the cars as the evening gets over just as quickly as it had began.