Chapter 2: An Evening Away From Greatness

We may be born in a middle-class family, but we can scale such heights in this lifetime that we can cause an industrial revolution. We may be born to illiterate parents, but we can die as a scholar of world repute. We may have been considered a misfit during our childhood days, but we can become role models for the future generation. What we are and what we have been has no bearing on what we can be. We can be, what we choose to be.

The school had just won  the finals of the national quiz championship. It was a very of the emotional moment for everyone in the school. They had lost the last year’s finals by a whisker. Everyone in the school was in tears, then as well as now; just that the reasons were different. Nivya had been on both the teams. In the assembly, to celebrate the occasion, the Principal of the school invited Nivya to speak a few words. Nivya stood in front of the mike, first looked at all her fellow students, then turned towards
the Principal and broke down. Many students and teachers could connect with what Nivya was going through and there were tears in the eyes of many. It wasn’t a moment of triumph for Nivya alone; it was a moment of triumph for the whole school.

After composing herself, Nivya said, “I first thank our Principal for all her encouragement. She works as if her sole mission in life is to see each one of us reach the top in areas of our choice. I also thank my parents for the freedom they have given me to choose my extra-curricular activities, rather than imposing their ‘will’ on me. I will fail in my duty if I don’t thank my teachers who have repeated this mantra to me time and again, ‘Nivya, you can do it’. Often, they have shown greater faith in me than what I had in myself. I know how I felt last year after we had lost in the finals and I know how different it feels this year after this success. Above all other factors there is this one man who is responsible for this transformation. If now our school is in the national reckoning, it is all because of…” Nivya’s eyes began to scan the crowd and stopped on spotting Avyakta.

Avyakta was a trainee who had joined the school only the previous year to teach Mathematics. Though not many teachers in that big ocean of over 250 teachers knew Avyakta by name, he was very popular amongst his students. It was not for the way he taught the subject but for all the other aspects of life that he discussed with them. Avyakta split his forty- minute period into thirty minutes for the subject and ten minutes to interact with his students and inspire them on various aspects of human dynamics. One of the reasons he was not very popular with the teaching faculty was that he was breaking away from conventional teaching methods, and they detested that. They screamed, “You are a novice. Don’t be overenthusiastic and try too many things. All this doesn’t work. You will not be able to complete the syllabus.”

But then, think about it. Never has an expert ever changed a traditional system or revolutionised any system with groundbreaking methods. It is always people who work at the periphery of a system that look at it from a different perspective and bring about revolutionary changes. The cutting edge rarely comes from people who work at the core of a system, but always from people who work at the periphery of a system.

In a novice’s mind, there are several possibilities. In an expert’s mind, there are but a few. Avyakta was a novice when it came to teaching, and hence the possibilities of innovation. But then, teachers often do not like other teachers who are popular with students. Avyakta knew that his methods were right and that they would eventually be recognised by the school. So he continued to follow his heart.

Nivya, pointing towards Avyakta, said, “One of his ten-minute sessions made all the difference. Though I was back in school two days after the previous year’s defeat, I was still finding it difficult to concentrate in class. I felt I had let the school down. This was written all over my face and he probably noticed it during one of the Maths periods. That day, Avyakta Sir made eye contact with me and with radiance in his eyes that I have never seen before said, ‘Nivya, for all you know, you are just an evening away from greatness’. Then he turned to the class and added, ‘In the process of climbing to the top in whatever you people choose to do, there are going to be moments of failure and defeat. Greatness of character does not lie in thinking positive when everything is going like a song, but in thinking positive when things are going deadly wrong’.”

Nivya concluded, “The evening before this final I kept uttering to myself that I am just an evening away from greatness. Even as I went to sleep that night, somewhere subconsciously this chattering that I am just an evening away from greatness kept lingering. So, on my own behalf and on behalf of the whole team, I dedicate this victory to Avyakta Sir.”

Some ran towards Nivya to congratulate her and some ran towards Avyakta to congratulate him. As the celebrations were on, the Principal took over the mike and said, “Do Avyakta’s ten-minute sessions make so much of a difference? I have never heard you speak Avyakta. Why don’t you deliver one of your ten-minute sessions to the whole school? Let me also have the opportunity of listening to you.” Blushing with embarrassment at the loud cheers, Avyakta shook hands with Nivya on the way and walked up to the podium. This was the first time he was facing such a large gathering. Avyakta had never before spoken on the mike. He stood before the mike, turned towards the Principal and as if to make a mockery of the opportunity provided, asked the Principal, “What should I speak?” He followed it up with an uneasy smile, shattering the image that Nivya had just created of him. One of the students from the assembly shrieked, “Come on, Avyakta Sir! You are just a speech away from greatness,” and the whole assembly burst out laughing. The Principal encouraged him. “Go on Avyakta, go on.”

As some of the teachers, who could not relish the adulation Avyakta was receiving, were beginning to experience sadistic satisfaction at the prospect of Avyakta’s impending moment of humiliation, Avyakta closed his eyes and began.

“Visualise a chessboard with the pieces on it. In the first row are lined what are called the powers – a pair of rooks, a pair of bishops, a pair of knights, a king and a queen. In the second row are lined eight pieces – the pawns. Though we call the pieces in the first row as powers, they have one handicap. A rook can only be a rook till the very end of the game; a bishop, only a bishop; and a knight, only a knight. Whether you see them only as the rook, bishop and knight or, as an amateur chess player would call them, the elephant (rook), the camel (bishop) and the horse (knight)… it does not matter; but all the three so-called powers symbolise the lower forms of creation, animals, which are born to a nature, live within their nature and die to their nature. Though at birth most animals are functionally more capable than a human being, their curse is that they are limited by their nature. So are the so-called powers on the chessboard – the rook, the bishop and the knight.”

At the prospect of something very new, very original that was emerging, the Principal adjusted the direction of her chair to face the podium. Some of the teachers, who had been standing until then, waiting for the assembly to get over, were now looking for empty seats to occupy. Nivya was all smiles… in fact, her face was buried in her smile. She was worshipping her Avyakta Sir. To her, it was just her Avyakta Sir and she… she was oblivious to everything else in the assembly.

Avyakta, now totally in a zone, was flowing with spontaneity. “Now, what about the other two pieces – the king and the queen? Like what Shakespeare said: ‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.’ The ‘king’ represents, in Shakespeare’s parlance, those that are ‘born great’. The ‘queen’ represents those that have ‘greatness thrust upon them’. The queen, by virtue of being the king’s wife, has greatness thrust upon her. Of course, in cases like the Queen of Great Britain, the reverse is true. However, even the pieces of the king and the queen have the same handicap of being born to a nature, living within that nature and finally dying to that nature.”

Avyakta, who had been speaking with his eyes closed until this point, opened them. He continued in a booming voice. “Now let us focus on the pawns. To me, they represent what Shakespeare referred to as those that ‘achieve greatness’. Every pawn is just six moves away from becoming the queen – the most powerful piece on the board. The pawn actually represents the common man, you and me… though we are born to a nature, we are bestowed with the ability to transcend our nature. We may be born in a middle- class family, but we can scale such heights in this lifetime by bringing about an industrial revolution. We may be born to illiterate parents, but we can die as a world-renowned scholar. We may have been considered a misfit during childhood, but we can become role models for future generations. What we are and what we have been has no bearing on what we can become. We alone can proclaim, even on the days we have failed – ‘so what, we are just an evening away from greatness’. Like the pawns, we are born to a nature, but do not have to die to the same nature. We are, like the pawns, just a few moves away from greatness.”

Avyakta then bowed down to the Principal and moved away from the podium. There was a standing ovation and the Principal stepped forward and shook hands with Avyakta. Nivya ran towards Avyakta and said, “Thank you so much, Sir.” Avyakta placed his hand on Nivya’s head, as if to bless her, and said, “I am proud of you. Wishing you most and more…” and blushing with embarrassment, rushed to the staffroom.

A few weeks later, in one of the leading garment showrooms, Avyakta discovered that one of the leading T-shirt manufacturers had stolen his messages and manufactured T-shirts with these messages printed on them: ‘An evening away from greatness’. Another T-Shirt had an illustration of a chessboard and a pawn sporting a thick moustache, saying ‘Six moves away from greatness’. Avyakta held the T-shirt in his hands, laughed, and then murmured, “Why did they put a moustache on the pawn? My pawns are not necessarily men… but women too.”

Never has an expert ever changed a traditional system or revolutionised any system with groundbreaking methods. It is always people who work at the periphery of a system that look at it from a different perspective and bring about revolutionary changes. The cutting edge rarely comes from people who work at the core of a system, but always from people who work at the periphery of a system. In a novice’s mind, there are several possibilities. In an expert’s mind, there are but a few.

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