Sunday, October 27, 2013


Like many other kids of my day & age I used to be an avid reader of Amar Chitra Katha.

One story that left an impression on me was of these two kings whose chariots came to block each other on a narrow bridge. The first charioteer submits to the second charioteer that the latter must make way for the first king since the first king was held in high esteem by his subjects and that "he did good to those who did him good and retaliated against those who sought to harm him". To which the second charioteer responds, "In that case, it is your king who must make way. For, my king is held in high esteem because he does good to those who do him good and even to those who seek to do him harm".

The first charioteer and king at this point, bow to the second king and acknowledge that the latter is indeed the greater one for he does good to those who do him good as well as to those who seek to do him harm.

The moral of this story - viz., do good to all whether or not they do good to you - served to reinforce the various incarnations of "do unto others as you would have them do" that were taught to us kids all the time. It also seemed to explain Gandhiji's "turn the other cheek" doctrine - another common refrain we were taught to drive home the point that violence isn't the right answer to violence.

These were my first and early lessons in "reciprocity" and its influence.

As we grew up though - and out of the Utopian world we created from our own innocence - we naturally began questioning the wisdom and efficacy of such total abstinence from aggression.

Sometimes consciously, sometimes sub-consciously; sometimes philosophically, sometimes out of despair; the doubts in our mind kept growing - as did our inability - to refrain from tit-for-tat.

In our lives and our roles at work and home, we encounter a slew of personalities. Whether or not we rationalize people's behaviours and whether or not we understand their intent and circumstances, fact of the matter is, we have to deal with unpleasantness. Sometimes it's benign irritants we have to deal with; sometimes it's an impulsive verbal jab that hurts; sometimes it's plain rudeness; sometimes it's inconsiderate behaviour; at times it's even ill-concealed malafide intent.

I am often faced with a quandary under such circumstances. Do I continue to do unto others as I would have them do, or do I do unto others as they did? Do I yield to someone who is deliberately trying to manipulate me to suit his or her own agenda or do I manipulate in return? Do I continue to be graceful to someone who is a pain-in-the-<whatever> or do I too make a nuisance of myself?

Sometimes it's just a matter of a behavioural trait. Do I don the hat of a diplomat and a gentleman even when dealing with a rogue? Or do I sully my own dignity and respond in their wavelength? Do I continue being kind to a jealous neighbour or do I repay his or her pettiness? Do I act haughty with an arrogant, selfish person or do I just continue being above-board? Do I continue accommodating the requests and whims of someone who is rigid and inflexible all the time or do I just tell him/her to go **** a tree?

But sometimes it gets darker and skirts matters of conduct and integrity. Do I cheat because I am dealing with a cheater and he has cheated me anyway? Do I indulge in sharp practices to settle scores with someone who has anyway taken advantage of me?

And then there's the role of reciprocity in international relations. Does possession of nuclear arms truly act as a deterrent or does it in fact, spur an arms race? Does stoic diplomacy always yield results or should you once in a while just get out of your chair and kick the aggressor hard where it hurts? By the same token, does aggression cause the opponent to cower or does it just foster a sense of hatred and revenge?

The answers aren't easy to come by and there's hardly ever a clear-cut answer or a black-and-white choice to make. There is always the temporary and vindictive joy to be sought by repaying unkindness with inkindness, but there's also the danger of setting of a continuing chain reaction.

Most far-reaching though, is perhaps reciprocity's other side: its utility as a subtle but effective behaviour-influencing tool. Reciprocity is after all, the basic human instinct to mirror the very treatment one receives.

When it comes to dealing with difficult people, I consider my father's and grandfather's track record to be an exemplary one. I have seen them persuasively drive things to an advantageous closure with many a obstinate moron, arrogant scoundrel and shrewd manipulator where the instinct of the average person - mine, certainly - would be to just reach out and deliver one tight slap. At least verbally, if not physically.

My abilities are a far cry from theirs but my limited attempts have yielded fascinating results. Be it trying to inculcate simple disciplines at the work-place, be it laying down an implicit code of conduct with children, be it making requests for some extra effort or be it negotiating prices with a measly vendor - not only has kindness, respect or considerate behaviour been reciprocated, but more importantly, by not succumbing to the temptation of reciprocating, tact won the day.

That is not to say that you blindly turn the other cheek. Indeed, experts believe that Gandhiji's satyagraha would have failed had it been Hitler and not the British that he was dealing with. In times of such quandary, I am reminded of another story I read. This one too, in Amar Chitra Katha, and is one that balanced out in some way, the story of the kind king's chariot.

There was this cobra that used to menace a village till one day, an ascetic bemoaned him to leave the villagers in peace. The cobra heeds this advice and begins to lead a peaceful life. 

A few days later, some children from the village happen to see the cobra lying still. They presume the cobra is asleep and decide to avenge all the months of trouble they faced at the hands of the snake and attacking it sticks and stones. Heeding the sage's advice, the cobra lies still and is badly injured.

That evening, the sage happens to come by and finds the injured cobra and asks what happened. When he hears what happened, he admonishes the cobra for lying still when he was attacked. 

"I told you not to bite, but I didn't tell you not to hiss".