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Making sense of the bizarre

Modern Mythmaking 29 Comments

Published in Corporate Dossier, ET, March 11, 2011

This story comes from the Oriya Mahabharata by Balaram Das. One day, Arjuna saw a strange creature in the forest, a creature he had never seen before. It seemed like a fusion of nine animals – its head was that of a rooster, it neck was that of a peacock, its back was a bull’s, it had a lion’s waist and serpent’s tail, and its four limbs were those of a human, a deer, a tiger and an elephant. At first Arjuna thought that this was a monster. He raised his bow to kill it. But then he realized that simply because it is a stranger does not make it a monster. A creature that does not exist in human imagination can exist in the imagination of the cosmos. He lowered his bow and the creature raised its human limb, a hand, in blessing. For the creature was Krishna himself, checking how much patience Arjuna had for creatures he did not recognize.

Often we come across situations that have no precedence, that do not make sense, that confound us. Our natural reaction is one of hostility. We want to shun it, or destroy it, and restore the familiar. We consider it a monster. But if we look at the monster with a different gaze: one with curiosity, seeking the familiar within the unfamiliar, a whole world of possibilities opens up.

Mark had lived all his life in New York City, a city that is designed as a grid. All the roads are laid out at right angles to each other. Every road has a number and there are road signs everywhere. One can get from one point of the city to another by simply following intuition, logic or the road signs. There is no need to talk to anyone to get to the destination.

So imagine his surprise when he landed in Mumbai, which is anything but a grid and where no road is at a right angle to another. In fact, he wonders, in some stretches where does the road actually end. For he sees hawkers on pavements, pedestrians on roads, bikes on dividers, buses cutting lanes and cars moving against the traffic. There were people packed into buses like sardines and suburban trains he could never get into. The flyover was not quite a flyover; it was home to a whole tribe of people who were a moving market of flowers and digital accessories. This is chaos, he concluded. He wanted to run away back to New York.

But after two days of fear, he stopped and observed. He observed the macrocosmic chaos contained microcosmic order. He observed people did get to work on time despite the traffic jams, with a little adjustment. People of different socio-economic criteria were living in the same space. The reality of poverty was not being shoved into ghettos and denied; it was out there for everyone to see and deal with. Everyone seemed to have a mobile. He managed to get to his meetings but it involved asking directions to four people. Deals were being struck, various languages were being spoken, files were being moved, money was being transferred, markets were abuzz and life was moving on. It was just different.

Must every city be like New York? Must every city be like Mumbai? What is the ideal city? Mark realized that order takes many forms. And absence of grids does not mean anarchy. The Navagunjara was no monster just an unfamiliar conglomeration of different familiar creatures. The problem lay in his assumptions and expectations of how the world should be.

  • Abhinav

    an eye opener to all of us…thank you Devdutt

  • Parikshit Sharma

    its amazing how every single day we come across these situations. Devdutt, is it not important (in continuation) to be able to pick up the thread from there and make the best of it?

  • I do not understand why you compare a imaginary story of Mahabharata to the layout of two very different cities and justify the totally unplanned and chaotic city like Mumbai.Should we always ask 4 people to reach our destination?.Should there not be any planned city in our country? Why justify and take pride?.
    Is every thing Indian holy, perfect and fit for emulation. I see that you are always trying to project and justify that India is the only place created by God as the perfect place on earth.If Bhahma has created the universe,then he must also have created all other living beings on this earth. Then why and how only India and Indians are perfect and all others are inferior, unworthy, unfit to emulate, culyurally backward, etc.

    • Devdutt

      Oh dear…is that what you are reading? Justification of India? the article is about the ‘prejudiced’ gaze.

    • Manisha

      Your views contradict exactly what the article is about. It is not glorifying Mumbai’s chaos or New York’s orderliness. replace the city names with any other city’s name.
      but…about perceptions and ignorance – what and who for us is a stranger is not always a threat – and there lies the similarity between Nabagunjara and Mark’s situation.

  • ashim

    India does have the unique characteristic of HARMONY in a sea of DIVERSITY. Just see an Indian currency note, with the denomination printed in several languages … yet all conveying the unique informatio regarding the value of a particular currency note. And that is why, my country never ceases to amaze me … A Proud INDIAN.
    Thanks for the srticle .. it was beautiful !!!

  • Vinay

    Nazar Badlo Nazariye Badal Jayenge.

  • rajesh gawade

    This part of article is really excellent eye opener…

    “But after two days of fear, he stopped and observed. He observed the macrocosmic chaos contained microcosmic order. He observed people did get to work on time despite the traffic jams, with a little adjustment. People of different socio-economic criteria were living in the same space. The reality of poverty was not being shoved into ghettos and denied; it was out there for everyone to see and deal with. Everyone seemed to have a mobile. He managed to get to his meetings but it involved asking directions to four people. Deals were being struck, various languages were being spoken, files were being moved, money was being transferred, markets were abuzz and life was moving on. It was just different.”

  • deeRAZ

    Brilliant as always.

  • Excellent!

  • C.Rajavel

    Being better is better.Is it not?

    • Devdutt

      What is better? Who decides what is better? The central government? The King? The rich or the poor? Who does the blueprint consider – the tax payer or the jobless?

  • Sumedha

    Habit is easy…
    Conciousness in difficult… but only in the begining….
    like probably Osho would put it!

    Fimiliar…is so so fimiliar….so undemanding…. And maybe so uninspiring too….

  • Rajashree

    Loved this article…very true, how our view of the world becomes myopic and anything that does not fit in our map is not just different, it is just wrong!
    We all have some deeply held beliefs. It is when those beliefs are challenged that one has a choice–either grow as a person spiritually and re-work our mental map– or give in to intolerance and negativity.
    Look forward to more!

  • Sree Nair

    I think the core of the article is about rejection of the unfamiliar.
    That is a basic human tendency. Earlier South Indians were looked at different human beings in North. That was true for Northerners in South. Even now Maharashtrians have not got well acquainted with the Biharis.

    Swami Vivekananda said about foreigners perception of our Religion : Let them preserve and understand deeply then they will be overwhelmed with adoration and amazement. Did it not happen ?

    • Sinha

      The problem lay in his(one’s own) assumptions and expectations of how the world should be-

  • brilliant..brings out the essence of spirituality being at peace with any peace situation anywhere..this also helps us be in the present and enjoy the moment as it comes.

  • Anbu

    The fact that most of us deny “The problem lay in his(one’s own) assumptions and expectations of how the world should be”-Great finishing line. Loved this peace of yours.

  • Anjan

    Nice article DD.
    This is the training that is imparted thruout human evolution to treat anything that is unknown as a threat and then animal instincts of fight or flight takes over. Only an evolved human beings, and Arjuna not being an ideal example though, can exercise a judgement to have a relook at unknown.We know that we think in compartments. If we cannot classify, we donot know how to handle.
    Keep writing. Cheers

  • Bhaskar

    I really like this. Actually anything that we encounter for the first time which is unconventional raises some apprehensions… even though we recognize it parts but fail to take a bigger picture. Instead of taking a step back and thinking about it we simply reject it or are afraid of it. The Room of Denial in The House of Change.

  • Simple yet strong writeup Devdutt.Perceptions & their influence cannot be explained better. The whole world is a big reaction based on our perception.

  • Very good article, It Clears lot of issues we handle in our life with pre-judice. To move forward in life we have to handle the situation with great Sensiblity & with peace of mind in a strange or known situation. Most a time we reject oppurtunity both at personal level or professional level bcos of Myopic view (non-sensiblity)

  • Darshan

    This is true, “Often we come across situations that have no precedence, that do not make sense, that confound us.” – The story teaches us to face, accept, understand any new challange, situation, or what ever you may call.

  • Anon

    You seem to make a fair point but over-extend it by the NY / Mumbai city comparisons. Surely it is perfect alright to have ‘prejudiced views’ about absolute evils – poverty and ineffieciencies included? In certain areas, a myopic vision is potentially beneficial. Indeed Jean Jack-Rousseau and Voltaire commented at different times when they went to unfamiliar grounds and experienced slavery – “Just because you have got used to slavery, it doesn’t make it right”.

    • Devdutt

      When cities are designed people below poverty line are not even considered….they cannot afford to live outside slums because they are below poverty line and government cannot afford to subsidize them….conservatively speaking 20% of India is in such a state

      • Anon

        Fair point. I just think it would be great if we could start with a hard and fast / myopic rule and strategy in the first place on certain matters and then move to more nuanced considerations which your piece alludes to. Poverty shall be eliminated. Corruption shall not be tolerated. Inefficiencies will be curbed. Then we can start familiarising better and confront the bizareness of what we see in daily life. Many thanks for an insightful read and a fine piece.

        • I think Poverty, freedom, chaos, etc. are all related to one thing in India…Population Explosion…Stop it and you stop the Chaos…!!!

  • Kishore

    Dev, This is the first article I read of yours. After reading (even the comments)I spend some time thinking about it and this is my thought. You sure did a great comparison, but I think it was not in the right proportion – means, if your intention was to bring out the “prejudiced gaze” of people, then you should be comparing the Arjuna story with something like we “welcoming” a new boss in office or even better a daughter-in-law and mother-in-law issue.
    A Newyorker coming to Mumbai is a matter of getting adjusted in a new place. The same feeling will be for a person from India going to Newyork for the first time. He will not understand on day 1, that he could get around so independently. You kind of had a regular “look down on” mindset of India just like so many others.

    • I think Devdutt Sir has been trying to explain the simple fact that we Human have become so used to Tailor made rules and thoughts that we Fear anything thats new and everything thats new may not be astonishing but frightening at the start.

      When an Indian goes to New York, he may not be frightened but be astonished by the simplicity and orderliness of the place and people.But its opposite vice-versa.

      But a True human is one who is pure and always finds a new way to adjust to a new surrounding. Thats why We Indians are called “Jugadu” means finding temporary means to a permanent problem :)

      Thus, India will frighten the Westerners for the first time, but if u look closely, we have more freedom, we are more close to natural instincts and we are the most adventurous kind of people finding new ways to do same things everyday.

      Thus, If Devdutt Sir just explained the Human nature in a bit Western way not understood by the Western people.
      :)