Published in Corporate Dossier, ET, Jan 2009
Savitri, the only child of king Ashwapati, fell in love with a woodcutter called Satyavan, and insisted on marrying him. But her father was against this marriage. He had good reason too. “He is poor,” said the king. That made no difference to the love struck princess. “He is of fallen reputation; his father was once a king who was driven out of his kingdom,” said the father. That made no difference to the daughter. “He is destined to die one year from now.” Even this information from the astrologers did not make any difference to Savitri. She was determined to be Satyavan’s bride. Ashwapati had no choice but to give his consent, and Savitri very readily gave up all royal comforts to follow her husband to his tiny hut in the forest.
After a year of bliss, Satyavan died, as foretold; Savitri saw Yama take his life away before her very eyes. Rather than accept her fate and cremate her husband’s body, Savitri decided to follow the god of death.
Yama noticed the woman following him as he made his way south towards the land of the dead. The journey was long and Yama was sure Savitri would stop eventually. But she did not. Hours later, Savitri showed no signs of exhaustion. Her pursuit was relentless. “Stop following me,” yelled Yama but Savitri did not heed this divine command. “Accept your fate. Go back and cremate your husband’s body,” said Yama, but Savitri cared more for her husband’s life breath that lay in Yama’s hands than her husband’s corpse that lay on the forest floor.
Exasperated, Yama said, “I give you three boons, anything but the life of your husband. Take them and go.” Savitri bowed her head respectively and for her first boon asked that her father-in-law should regain his lost kingdom. As her second boon she asked that her father be blessed with a son. As her third boon she asked that she be the mother of Satyavan’s sons.
Yama gave Savitri all three boons and continued on his journey to the land of the dead. Just when he reached the banks of the river Vaitarni which separates the land of the living from the land of the dead, Yama found Savitri still following him. “I told you to take your three boons and not follow me.”
Savitri once again bowed her head respectlfully and said, “The first boon has come true. My father-in-law has regained his lost kingdom. The second boon has come true. My father has a son now. But the third boon. How will it be fulfilled? How can I be mother of my husband’s sons when he lies dead on the forest floor? I came to ask you that.”
Yama smiled for he realized Savitri had outwitted him. The only way his third boon could be realized was by letting Satyavan live once again. He had no choice but to let Satyavan live. Thus Savitri was able to rewrite not only her own future but the futures of her father-in-law and father.
Had Savitri been a typical Indian, she would have simply surrendered to her father’s will or to her fate. She would either have not married Satyavan or she would have accepted widowhood without any resistance. At least that is what we are led to believe is the Indian way. But Savitri defied all things: she refused to accept her father’s will or her fate. She made her own decision and stuck to it – and was so determined to have her way that she subverted even the laws of nature, by a judicious use of desire, determination, shrewdness and selflessness.
Like Savitri, Gille knows the value of desire. Four years ago, Gille was a cycle mechanic. Today, he has his own shop and he also rents the place out to a tea-vendor for extra income. This was unimaginable four years ago when he came to Delhi, was not given any shelter by his relatives or his friends. Homeless, with barely fifty rupees in his pocket, he refused to surrender to the odds before him. His tenacity stemmed from desire. He wanted to make it big – he wanted to achieve something in life. His desire, he realized was the root of all his actions. Like Savitri who wanted Satyavan, he wanted something. Unless there is desire there can be no action.
But desire alone is not enough. It had to be translated into determination. Come what may, he would not let go of his dreams. Like Savitri who followed Yama, he pursued his dream: went from shop to shop looking for a job. He did not let rejection lead to dejection. He just continued looking for a job and found one – no pay, just a place to stay and two meals a day. This was exploitation, he knew, but it was better than nothing. It was a start.
This job gave Gille many opportunities. And he used this opportunity not to help only himself. Like Savitri who first helped her father-in-law and then her father, he went out of his way to help those around him, thereby earning great equity and making great friends. All this provided him the support that helped him save his meager earnings first and then set up his own cycle shop. He gave his best friend an opportunity to open a tea stall thereby becoming independent himself.
Like Savitri who outwitted Yama by not directly asking for Satyavan’s life, but indirectly doing so by asking for sons by her husband, Gille was shrewd. He knew the ways of the world and was smart in using favors. Like getting his former boss to partner with him, offering to work for free just to get the initial capital for his cycle shop. Once the business boomed, he made more than enough to buy out his partner and become full owner of the cycle shop. It is only a question of time before Gille does better. He has the wisdom of Savitri.
During the festival of Savitri, women go around Banyan trees with a string. Banyan trees are symbols of permanence. By binding this symbol with a string, the women are ritually expressing their ‘permanent’ desire and determination for a good home. All leaders who ‘get things done’ need to bind their desires to the tree of permanence so that like Savitri, through desire, determination, selflessness and shrewdness, they can and will give shape to their thought, no matter what.