A couple of years back I was watching the Academy Awards ceremony on TV. Roberto Benigni was announced as the best actor for his role in Life Is Beautiful. After his trademark gauche tricks, like walking away from the stage instead of toward it, he finally received the Oscar. Then he started his acceptance speech.
“First I must thank my parents for giving me the greatest gift of all,” he said, then he paused for effect and dropped the bomb, “poverty.”
The glitterati were laughing, but I was hit by the sudden realization that he was dead serious.
I sat up, stunned.
My son and daughter were born in India. My wife, Maria, and I moved to the United States when the children were 11 and 13. They were thrilled by the chance to come to the greatest country on earth. They grew up in a small town where the cultural highlight was watching a movie once a month in the palm-leaf-thatched cinema hall that leaked during monsoon, where toys or new dresses were a rarity given only on birthdays, and where the only tourist spots we visited were their grandparents’ homes.
Whenever we ask our children, whose five years of American life have been replete with Big Macs, Orlando trips and 3-D video games, what their happiest moments have been, they go back to the humble times we had in India. They mention things like the four of us sharing one chocolate bar, catching fish at grandpa’s pond, eating free rice soup at church on Good Fridays, swinging in my old car tire. They bring up several other such paltry things, which my wife and I are trying hard to forget. But for Benigni there was no forgetting. He seemed to be thriving on it. Furthermore, he had the chutzpah to declare the enriching quality of penury to one of the wealthiest audiences in the world. And they laughed, totally missing his point. It reminded me of Mark Twain confessing in his old age, " All I did was tell the truth, and everyone laughed."
I once asked my mother, who, with my father, had struggled through financial difficulties and other hardships to bring up eight kids, whether she was happy in those days. She said they were so busy that she did not have the time for such a luxury as being unhappy or depressed. The little leisure time she and my father had, she said, was used playing Scrabble or going out on the beach and watching the soothing evening waves while the kids made sand castles till the last hues faded in the sky. Free but rich moments.
Recently on National Public Radio, during a discussion about happiness, a caller said we feel unhappy nowadays because there is a lot of pressure on us to be happy. It’s like a commercial for a Caribbean cruise, insisting that is the only way you can experience paradise. If I don’t own Nike Air Jordans, I have no right to feel like a man. Same case with shirts—has to be designer shirts if I am to be worth my salt.
These are the times when I feel like going back to my village, where I don’t have to wear a shirt or shoes and where a haircut costs 25 cents, which includes shaving the underarm, as it is done in our home courtyard. It’s cutting-edge service minus the unnecessary technology.
During the past five years, for some strange reason, I became convinced that happiness comes from being rich, like babies come from being pregnant. So I have been impregnating myself with common symbols of wealth. Alas, I just kept getting overweight, but not at the right place. It was at this juncture that my son, Anand, who was reading Tao of Physics, came up with an observation a Chinese intellect made quite a while back—about 600 B.C. What he said woke me up from my temporary illusion of grandeur. I saw the light, or at least a semblance of it. Here are his words:
“One who knows he has enough, is rich.” — Lao Tzu
Jayant Kamicheril markets spices in North America for a Danish food company.