This I Believe

Surja - Buffalo Grove, Illinois
Entered on July 13, 2007

The Cake That Was Larger Than the People

When I was very young I drew a birthday card for my mother. It had little matchstick figures for people, and a large cake dominated the foreground, towering over the tiny guests. For good measure, the card was awash with candles and festooned with brightly colored streamers – a crude pastel drawing in a child’s unformed hand. My parents, who were philosophically minded, were greatly entertained by the relative disparity in size of cake and human – laughingly, they talked about abstract Expressionism, Perception, and a child’s vision of Truth. They have kept the drawing to this day, not because they detected in it the genius of a budding Picasso, but because they thought I’d like to share it with my own children some day.

Almost thirty years have passed. After a passionate youth spent dreaming of achievement and fame and fortune, I am now drifting into middle age. I do not live and dream with the intensity of ten years ago, when every color was a little brighter, every image sharper in focus. I am a little less exuberant, but I think more. I am a little sadder but more compassionate. I am still hopeful that life is overall a good thing, though there are moments when my belief is tried, and I have to cling to it with both hands.

In my teens and twenties I believed in competition, in the importance of winning. It is only now that I am gradually coming to understand that in spite of our best efforts, we have not been able to create a perfectly level playing field everywhere, that some people never even have the chance to compete.

I believe today that with material well-being comes moral responsibility. I have become a mother now and the thought of a world where children go hungry makes me angry and makes me want to cry all at the same time. At such times, I am reminded often of the lyrics that Joan Baez sang “And there, but for fortune, go you or I”. I think often about that Magic Cake of my childhood. The older I get, the more I realize that by an accident of birth I had a privileged childhood growing up in India, that the United States opened its arms to me and paved the way to a comfortable living. I did not know this in my teens and twenties, when glorious deeds seemed just round the corner, but today I know my limitations. “For want of me the world’s course will not fail” – I am not a mover or shaker or a doer of big deeds. But if I can shed a small ray of light now and then on somebody else’s darkness, perhaps that is enough. And if all of us – the ones in more fortunate circumstances – can pitch in and do our share, perhaps some day there will be no need for a Magic Cake to feed the hungry children on our planet.