The Light of Ikigai

I have been reading a book titled Ikigai – the Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life – By Hector Garcia & Francesc Miralles. The concepts mentioned in the book are varied, for it takes many factors to constitute a happy, meaningful life.

I am not sure if Prof Rukmini read about Ikigai, but it is abundantly clear to those who knew her, that she practiced it whole-heartedly. Of course, if ever there was a lady who could’ve curiously read up on concepts new to her, and taken to practicing the good in them, it is Professor Rukmini. She may well have been teaching Ikigai all her life. Kunja Athai as we referred to her, was a diminutive figure physically and a stalwart intellectually.  She adored learning about new ideas, and she loved those in her life with equal fervor. These will always be things I remember about her. 

There are a few people whose life story you grow up with. Kunja Athais was one. 

She was married after 8th Grade. Her life though was a tumultuous one: she was widowed shortly thereafter with a 2 year old daughter in tow. She came back to live with her elder brother and sister. Her brothers, intellectuals themselves, wondered whether a regressive society would kill her too. So, they urged her to study again. She wrote her SSLC exams with private tutoring and then went on to study Physics at Presidency College in Madras. 

She was bright, hard-working and wanted to be economically independent. Fate delivered a particularly terrible, and a somewhat vindictive blow to the beleaguered soul again. She had written 5 out of the 6 Physics honors papers. A few days before she was to write her 6th paper, her only daughter, aged about 8 or 9 passed away. I cannot imagine how it must’ve been for her. One of her professors who knew about her plight, told her to come and sit the exam – she needn’t even write anything, he told her. (For her performance in the remaining papers would ensure she got her degree). So, poor kunja athai went to the examination hall. 

Every action is a choice. 

Once there, she decided to take her mind off the terrible events in her life just then, and write the examination anyway. 

A moment that turned out to be a momentous one in her long life.

Kunja Athai graduated with Honors from Presidency College in Madras in the 1950’s. A rare feat in India at the time. I wish I knew the statistics of the number of female vs male graduates, or the economic statuses behind their fates. But none, I am sure had her particular set of circumstances. She had lost her young husband a few years ago, her only child a few days ago. Yet, she persevered. 

She became a Physics Professor at Ethiraj College in Madras, and went on to inspire hundreds of girls as she urged them towards a degree.

The authors of the Ikigai book interviewed the elderly people  of Okinawa in Japan(the place with the highest concentration of the longest living individuals), and gleaned some key concepts that contributed to their healthy, happy lifestyles. Some of them are : Communal life, Never Stop Learning, Finding the Flow in your tasks, Humans as Ritualistic Beings, and Enjoying Nature.

Kunja Athai seemed to have practiced all of these things.

One of my early memories of the grand old lady was at twilight in a small garden patch in Tambaram. I was staying at my aunt’s place for the night. My mother’s eldest sister, her husband and his sister, kunja athai. I pottered around the garden patch with her – probably chattering, as I was known to display considerable prowess in that department.

Kunja Athai let me smell the star jasmines, feel the gourds, grind the hibiscus leaves between my fingers, and pluck a few of the hearty hibiscus blossoms for her idols inside.

I loved tracing the shapes of leaves as a child. I would collect leaves from everywhere as I played or went on walks, and trip back home to trace them out in my notebooks. I told her about this pastime of mine, and she approved with a twinkle in her eyes. When we went back into the house, she took down a book that she thought I might like, and pointed to pages in the book. The leaves from the book came alive. Her eyes shone with bright interest. That is the image I will always have of the legendary kunja athai.

Kunja Athai passed away last week. While I sat there thinking of the marvelous life of Kunja Athai, I realized there were ever so many things and angles from which one could approach her life. I could write about she was a Professor of Physics in Ethiraj College for Women inspiring thousands of girls to get themselves an education, and acquire an inquiring mind that would serve them well through life. Or I could write about her struggles in early life, and how she not just found a way of going on, but of building something marvelous out of it.

I realized that Kunja Athai seems to have learned and consciously imbibed all the tenets of a meaningful life from the philosophers who came before her. Her Ikigai was well in practice. She was determined that her life should be one in which she spreads love and fosters a love for learning.

Every soul traces their own path. Some souls we are lucky to have benefited from: they are the suns who shine, give, and illumine all those around them. Kunja Athai’s light of Ikigai shall shine on in every life she helped nurture and guide by example. 

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