No talking now. Wait.
As a young boy, R. Murali Krishna sat stone still on his grandfather’s lap as he watched him place one finger over a nostril and slowly inhale. Murali, with head bowed back, watched his grandfather’s finger nestle into his large mustache. He watched his chest and abdomen rise. Then fall. He watched his nostrils flare. He could hear the soft whistle of his breath.
His fingers moved slowly to release one nostril and cover the other. Breathe out. Wait. Time stood still.
Murali affectionately called his grandfather Thatha. They often sat on the verandah of his grandfather’s home. He remembers climbing the many steps up to the big rock doors. The verandah was just to the left. Men from the community often gathered there for prayer or conversation. It was there where he often observed his grandfather sitting with his spine straight in quiet reflection, covering one nostril at a time to practice Pranayama. It was just one of many breathing meditations Murali watched with wonder. Pranayama translates in English to “life force … to practice to become perfect,” says the now Dr. R. Murali Krishna. “It is not just air. It is life force.”
It was on the verandah where Murali learned his first English word.
“Angel,” said Thatha with careful pronunciation.
“An-gel,” said Murali with slow precision. “What does it mean, Thatha?”
In his native language of Telugu, the grandfather explained that angel was a spiritual figure.
“Now write it here,” he said as he handed Murali a slate. A N G E L, Murali wrote the letters very carefully.
He had watched his grandfather sit and write for hours. He carried his prayer book wherever he went. It was more than writing. It was Rama Koti, the practice of writing God’s name 10 million times. Thatha’s books contained the same two words over and over and over. “Sri Ram.” With each word, the grandfather pictured a loving act by God. He pictured His face. He pictured Him feeding the poor. He pictured Him caring for the sick. The stack of books grew. He filled book after book. He filled shelves. By the end of his life, he had completed his Rama Koti. Often, the sacred books are placed within the columns of new temples. Sadly, Murali has no copies today. But he holds dear so many memories of his grandfather.
Memories of another era — another country.
He remembers his grandfather’s easy chair. It had wide wooden arms that would swing inward to form a writing surface. He remembers his prayer beads, the mala. He held the 108 beads in his hands as he went through the prayers. The one in 108 represents “One God.” The zero symbolizes the “completeness of God” and the eight represents the central traits of God: Power, kindness, luminance, abundance, strength, omnipotence, omnipresence and omniscience.
Murali loved to spend time with his grandfather, especially after his mother became ill. Thatha was a very wise man, but even he had no answers for Murali regarding his mom — or Amma, as she was called.
Getting up early in the morning was never a strong suit for young Murali, but the one thing that could get him up and going was the promise of a walk to the gardens with his grandfather. The 3-mile walk was punctuated by snacks of black, purplish berries plucked along the roadside. But mostly the walks were filled with questions. And Murali had many questions for his Thatha.
“What’s that bird, Thatha? Who is God? Where is God? Why are some people untouchable?”
At that time, India was still operating under a caste system. Priest and Warrior families were at the top. They were followed by merchants. Cleaners, cobblers, etc. were among the lowest ranks. And then there were the untouchables.
Thatha’s life lessons for young Murali consistently centered on human kindness. Murali learned quickly from his grandfather that he did not adhere to the demarcations of a caste system
“‘You’ve got to be kind to people,’ he told us over and over and over.”
The aging grandfather did more than share his wisdom; he taught by example.
“He stopped on our walks to talk to all kinds of people. Cobblers. Cleaners. People who cleaned lavatories.”
He reminded Murali, his siblings and young cousins that they came from a good family, a loving family; a family of some privilege.
“He used to tell us to be concerned for people. Ask if they are hurting.”
That message stuck with Murali. Even at his young age, he knew his mother was hurting. He just did not know why.
On the walks to the gardens, there were two lakes along the way. They stopped often to watch flocks of white birds take off. They occasionally saw green parrots with red beaks. Some families captured the treasured birds and taught them to talk.
What are they? How did they teach them? Why?
Thatha seemed to have all the answers and never tire of Murali’s questions. He also seemed to be ahead of his time.
“He was a great recycler. Can you believe that? He wore shoes made out of tires. He took an old tire to the cobbler and used it for the soles of his sandals. He would make three pairs a year, and that is all he wore. He would also give them to his friends.”
As they neared their destination, Murali could smell the mangos. With more than 100 varieties, mangos are India’s national fruit. His grandfather and two uncles owned the 16-acre garden. Jasmine dotted the gardens and mixed with the smell of mangos. Part of the garden was planted with mangos and the other part grew sapota, a kiwi-like fruit. Thatha would reach high into the tree and pull a branch down. He would reach into his pocket and fish out his pocketknife. He always carried a pocketknife along with his pocket watch. Murali watched as his grandfather dusted the green mango off on the front of his shirt and then slice it before adding a touch of salt, pepper and chili powder. Sour. Salty. Spicy. Firm. Another variety of mango was taken home to be ripened in straw for a few days. When it became soft, they would squeeze it to make the insides mushy, then cut a hole in the top and suck out the sweet pulp.
For a young boy, the garden held adventure and love. Love for the fruit and love between a young boy and his grandfather.
Education. Education. Education.
Murali got the message repeatedly from his grandfather.
“He used to tell me, ‘Murali, if you have a house, it can burn down. If you have jewels, they can be stolen. The only thing that cannot be taken from you is what you have in your brain.’”
That same message was repeated to Murali by his father, though his father took a much different approach. While his grandfather’s message was filled with praise, Murali’s father often down played his son’s success. Murali could hear his father talking among his friends.
“He would say, ‘I’ll be lucky if he goes to college.’ It would make me so mad, and my mother mad too. I would challenge him. I didn’t understand.”
As Murali grew older, he realized his father’s humility was rooted in the fact that he believed it was a bad omen to brag about one’s children.
His father also echoed Thatha’s message about the importance of God and spirituality.
“My father also had a strong message. ‘Live an honorable life with honesty and dignity. Fight for what is right. Never ever give up on God. You have never done anything wrong to other people. God will always reward you, so hang on to Him in the depths of your sorrows.’ My father used to say that. I prayed so hard. My prayer was always, ‘God, don’t let my father fall apart.’”
Murali knew his father was holding the family together.