Booker T Washington once wrote: ‘Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which one has overcome.’
Each of us must measure our journey, not by the distance, and not by the destination, but by the motivation in our hearts to travel, and where eventually that journey will lead us. In 2013 I began to write my memoir, and the first thing that I realized was that this would be a journey unto itself. Every person has a story, and even though some stories may, on the surface, be mundane, each one is the chronicle of triumph over adversity, for if it is not, it would be no story at all.
A life without struggle has been a life without objectives, and a life without objectives is no life at all.
The first advice that I was given was that any good story has a beginning, a middle and an end. That’s easy, I thought, birth, life and death. I intended my memoir to be a kind of life manifesto, upon the conclusion of which, my life too would be over. And so I began to write, but very quickly I realized that my memoir would be more complicated than that. It would be birth, life, death and rebirth, and suddenly it was all clear to me. Life is rich with permutation. You cannot simply drill it down to three phases, and hope that it will make sense. My memoir cleared my head, and gave me direction, and now I sense that it is just one chapter of a continuing journey, one with many more turns in the road.
I was born in Bombay in 1952. The circumstances of my birth were not particularly remarkable. My parents were originally from the Sindh, a region of India that in 1947 was partitioned to become a province of Pakistan. Anyone who is familiar with that period of history will be aware that this was the point at which India was broken apart along religious and sectarian lines, creating the two states, one predominately Hindu, and the other predominately Muslim. The separation was characterized by human tragedy on scale almost unimaginable. My parents escaped the Sindh separately, but met in a refugee camp in Bombay. My father was lucky enough to have been transferred from his job in Karachi to a similar placement in Bombay, and against such a backdrop of human suffering, what he had, he held on to.
He was a complicated man. He stuck to his desk for thirty years, his ambitions deferred, and his energies lavished on the education and prospects of his eldest son. He had seen much, and he was fearful in his heart, and under the burden of that fear he drove me relentlessly to succeed. In February 1977, a year before I graduated from medical school, he died, and I became a man.
In India, ‘life‘ transitions from ‘birth‘ at the point of marriage. I married, and emigrated to the United States, and there, after some years of struggle, I qualified to practice, and began to run the race. And the race was truly run. With a strong karmic wind behind me, I multiplied, and multiplied again. Soon I owned the largest single medical practice in Knoxville, Tennessee. I had a wife, two sons, a beautiful home, a healthy investment portfolio and a considerable amount of wealth. I was also touched with hubris. My father, the faith of my ancestry and the purity of my spirit were corrupted slowly by an obsession with work, and acquisition. Enough was never enough.
The Whisper of God can sometimes be a scream!
This is life. Wealth becomes an end unto itself. My father had equipped me for success, and I had achieved success, a greater degree of success than I could ever have realistically imagined, but I had lost sight of something essential, something elemental. The knowledge that is inherent within us at birth had become clouded. I had ceased to think, and to feel. The Whisper of God that at one time had been clear to, was distant, and indistinct, and I did not much care.
On Friday, April 9, 1996, I died. In a high speed automobile collision in Knoxville, Tennessee, my upward trajectory was halted. My ankle was shattered, my career ended. It need not have ended. I could still have practiced medicine, but the event was a message, an unmistakable message. In Hinduism, there are three phases of life: Learning, earning and returning. Here now was my returning phase, but it would take time for me to understand.
The Whisper of God can sometimes be a scream!
One day I climbed a mountain. I had not intended to, and I certainly should not have, but I did. I realized at the summit that my journey so far had been from rags to riches. I was wealthy, but yet for so long I had been impoverished. What I desired was wealth of the spirit, of the heart, wealth that could never be taken away. Injury, chronic pain and daily suffering all proved in the end to be the greatest gift imaginable, for without that gift where would I have been?
Wealth can be a gift or a curse, it can be both, but it cannot be neither. It can only be useful to the broken spirit if it is used to heal, and what it means to a single person is not enough to heal that broken spirit. A broken spirit is healed not by receiving, but by giving. Money sticks to your fingers, it is hard to give away. It is like the monkey trap of Hindu mythology. So long as that money is held in a man’s fist, he is trapped, but when he lets it go, he is free.
This was my rebirth, and with it begins a whole new journey.