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.