Pursuit of Happiness

by A. N. Hegde
 In India, where Hari grew up, everyone said one had to get a degree with “scope,” meaning one with good job prospects, like a medical or an engineering degree. All the inspirational books that Hari found in the second-hand book shop said “go forth and get an education to broaden the mind.” Hari thought he might as well be practical while expanding his horizon, so he got a B.A. in economics, which only made for poor job prospects. His father said that government jobs meant respect. His friend Vishwa, who spoke in choppy bursts, said, “In private sector, good pay but lot of work. They make you toil like a donkey and kick your ass if you slack off. In public sector, low pay but no work. Once you get in, you’re set for life, no? All you have to do is move paper from one desk to another and maintain status quo."

Hari didn’t want to be a low-level bureaucrat; he wanted to make something of himself. He wanted to join the Indian Administrative Service, a top government agency. Everyone warned him that the only way to survive as an IAS officer was to be corrupt. Otherwise, politicians got you transferred to a town with a constant water shortage. 

Hari was on his way to the post office to mail his application for the IAS entrance exam with the requisite fee when he saw a beggar in tattered, mud-coated clothes. The man was beating his tummy with a stick-like hand and yowling, “Give me something, please. I am dying of hunger here. Please take pity and give me something so that I can fill this empty tummy.”

 Hari’s heart melted and he thought providence was giving him a chance to opt out of a dishonest life as an IAS officer. So he gave all the money meant for the IAS entrance exam to the beggar. The beggar thanked him as if Hari had given him a new lease on life. He then blessed Hari and said, “If you go up this hill, you will see a big hut on the other side. If you go there, good things will happen to you.”

Hari was curious and he had nothing better to do, so he went up the hill and found the place. When he was trying to decide what the etiquette was in attracting attention at the entrance to a stranger’s hut, a beautiful young woman opened the door as if in answer to his quandary. Hari told her what the beggar had said. The young woman said that the hut belonged to a good old witch who occasionally granted wishes, but the old witch was sleeping and it wasn’t a good idea to wake her. The young woman said that she was the witch’s assistant and perhaps she could help. She was so comely and fetching that Hari didn’t even entertain the notion that she might not be qualified to grant wishes. The young woman gave a seed to Hari to chew and said that upon swallowing it he would be taken to a land of opportunity.

Hari closed his eyes, chewed the seed and swallowed. When he opened his eyes, he was standing in Times Square in New York City. Being from a small town in India, Hari was frightened by the scene with multitude of vehicles and thousands of people milling about speaking hundreds of tongues. Even the beautiful young women on billboards looked menacing with their mountainous boobs and bare legs as tall as coconut trees. He wandered and wandered around Manhattan and ended up on the Upper West Side. An old woman saw him on the street and told him she ran a place that provided a job, food and shelter. It turned out to be a sweatshop that made robotic monkeys that sang pirated songs and danced in response to a slow, retarded-sounding command. Hari worked and worked and complained that he had a college degree and he was not supposed to be there. Among his fellow sufferers there were Russians who called the old lady suka behind her back and Mexicans who called her puta. Hari, like the educated Indian he was, called her a bitch under his breath.

One day, Hari escaped from the basement and walked for two days and found himself near the Catskill Mountains. It was late in the afternoon when he saw a witch sitting under a tree. The wreck of her hunched figure told him that there once stood a pretty maiden. She told him that his luck was about to change. All he had to do was to walk up the hill and find a flock of wild fowl, spot the one with reddish feathers. 

Hari interrupted her and asked, “Does this involve eating that special fowl?”

“Yes,” the witch said.

“Don’t you know I am an Indian and like a lot Indians I am a vegetarian?”

“In that case,” said the witch, “take this other path where you will meet a witch with vegetarian recipes for changing fortunes.”

When Hari found the other witch she asked him to go to an apple tree with scrawny fruit and find one apple that was juicy and eat it.

As soon as he ate the apple, he became the owner of a factory that made pieces of crap cheaper than the Chinese-made stuff. His factory made anything and everything that could be made at low cost in Third World countries. He had money now, plenty of it. 

He asked himself, “Am I happy?” While asking himself this question, it occurred to him that people in India never asked themselves such a question. Why was it that the moment they stepped out of the old country such questions became essential? 

He thought he would be happy if had a wife. So, he dated beautiful white women. It soon became apparent that a white woman was like the earth before Galileo’s time. She was the center of the universe. Hari was apprehensive about becoming a minor planet revolving around her desires and demands.  So, he pondered the traditional Indian model. A Kannada ditty said that if you have disposable income, a convenient wife and a nice house, you can pretty much burn Heaven down. He knew he was conforming to the Western stereotypical notion of Indian marriage by letting his and his bride’s horoscope decide compatibility rather than checking each other out. He went to India and looked at hundreds of young women whom their fathers were eager to marry off. He knew one thing for certain: regardless of the kind of person she was, the bride was sure to be a virgin. When he chose a beautiful bride, the priest, upon receiving a generous fee, adjusted Hari’s horoscope to fit the bride’s, unbeknownst to the bride's family.

The new wife was happy for almost three days after arriving in America. But by the third day she had explored all the gadgets and gizmos in Hari’s house and soon became nostalgic. He took her to New York in an attempt to cure her nostalgia with the purchase of authentic 22 carat Indian gold jewelry (not the 14 carat trinkets that passed for jewelry in department stores). The wife’s symptoms subsided for a few months, but then Hari had to infuse a higher dose of cash for shopping trips to bring the nostalgia under control.

When the children were born, a boy and a girl, Hari thought for a while that he was happy. He thought they would have the best of both worlds. An Indian attitude toward life and the comforts of the West made for a great combination. He was horrified to notice American arrogance and Indian petulance in his children as they grew up.

Perhaps what was missing was a soothing tropical atmosphere. So Hari had a huge greenhouse built on his vast property and filled it with mango trees, hibiscus plants and mini palm trees. To top it all, he purchased a peacock and let it roam the greenhouse. One day, he was sitting in the greenhouse admiring the plants. The peacock let out an eeow, eeow sound and danced. The peacock’s sound, like that of all others of its kind, brought to mind the type of sound a cat would make if life was being wrung out of it. Hari asked the peacock, “Why are you so perky? Are you happy because you have these beautiful feathers?” The peacock said, “No, no, I am happy because I am free to sing my song.”

Hari immediately strummed his air guitar and sang an English song out of key. Then he sang a Kannada song in the wrong pitch. Then he sang a Hindi song without regard to its tune. He was happy.

© 2010 A. N. Hegde.  All rights reserved


A.N. Hegde  grew up in the beautiful hill country of southern India. He now lives in the foothills of the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. He is a scientist by profession and trained at Columbia University in New York, but spends much of his time reading and writing.

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