Is there anything, anything at all, in creation, in history, in human society that is flawless? We have a sense of perfection in nature, of course. There is the Aurora Borealis, the Kanchenjunga at twilight, and the jacaranda tree which, in flower, cannot be improved upon by any God or gardener.
But I know of no flawless human.
With one exception: Ramana, the Maharshi of Tiruvannamalai. His teaching came from silence, his impact from stillness. His face has to be the most beautiful that was ever created. If you take its features one by one, they are quite unremarkable. The sum of those parts, however, and his eyes, held a light, calm and a gaze that equalled Grace. A disciple of his said Ramana kissed you with his eyes. A shooting star flamed through the night sky the very moment his end came. Coincidence? There is perfection to coincidences. Chance is the most perfect designer.
Incredibly perfect manifestations apart; there are moments in the lives of men that hover around perfection. They are not perfect in the sense of being ideal, exemplary. They are in the vicinity of the perfect because they are spoken in utter honesty,
Faith has created works and acts of beauty, like Mira's songs to Krishna. When Subbulakshmi sings 'Yaad aave…chaandni raat mein…' you have perfection. But the depths of hesitation, dilemma, hopelessness and fear have also led to utterances that are sublime. As when Kumar Gandharva laments 'Ud gayaa hans akelaa…'
Tennyson has said, has he not:
'There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds'.
I would include among 'perfect' expressions of honest doubt:
The Rig Veda asking of Creation: 'Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? When was it produced? When is this creation?.. perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not - the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows - or perhaps (even) he does not know…'
Pontius Pilate asking Jesus, who had told him that he had come into this world to bear witness to the truth, "What is truth ?". And then, unconvinced about Jesus' guilt, telling the crowd baying for Jesus to be crucified "I find no fault in this man". The inflamed mob of course has its way.
Jesus saying, in quick succession, from the Cross: "Eli, Eli lama sabachtani" meaning "God, God, why have you forsaken me?". Then saying like anyone nailed to a Cross would, "I thirst". And finally, the enigmatic but utterly true last words, "It is finished".
The physicist Kenneth Bainbridge, seconds after the first atom bomb test at Los Alamos in 1945, turning to Project Trinity's director Oppenheimer and saying: "Now we are sons of bitches all". And Oppenheimer, turning in turn, self-chastisingly to the Bhagavad Gita's line: "I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds".
Gandhi saying in Noakhali, with communal carna-ge all around him: "What shall I do? What shall I do?"
Faiz writing in the 'hour when black night, drear, forlorn' comes: 'Mere qatil, mere dildar, mere pas raho'
Oscar Wilde saying more in hope than faith: "'Society' will have no place for me…but Nature will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide...She will hang the night with stars… cleanse me in great waters and with bitter herbs make me whole…"
These are not words spoken by perfect men. They are words spoken in perfect honesty. Can there be anything imperfect about honesty? There is something about simple honesty that is higher than certitude, conviction.
President KR Narayanan decided, in 1998, after some hesitancy to confer the Bharat Ratna to MS Subbulakshmi. No musician had received the nation's highest decoration before. But the monopoly of statesmanship, politics and centenarian distinction had to be broken. But he did decide. With the medallion just settled over a very traditional green Conjeevaram, MS held the scroll as lightly as a girl might lift a feather and seemed to say wordlessly, "I do not know if I deserve all this... great people have received it... I am most grateful…". That was a moment of sheer perfection - greatness bowing to its celebration.
Pandit Ravi Shankar was in town and came to felicitate her. Something was on his mind, a slight unease? Bharat Ratna MS Subbulakshmi read the maestro's - and the nation's - mind. In her very own English she looked at him and said 'Ravi-ji …Next time…you!' That was a perfect moment's perfect reverberation.
That Bharat Ratna Pandit Ravi Shankar has made the ineffable music for Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali is not always remembered, a tribute to the drenching and drowning of the scores in the great film's cinematography. Viewers have favourite scenes in the film. Little Apu and his elder sister Durga are the soul of the film. Durga has been helping her friend, a neighbour's daughter, string beads. She brings one such string away, in an act of what may be called stealing. The loss is detected, Durga suspected, scolded and, to frenzied music by Ravi Shankar, even beaten by her mother. But with Durga staying silent, the 'crime' remains unverified. Not long after on a stormy night, Durga dies. The shattered family decides to move out of the village. While clearing their few belongings, Apu chances upon the string from its hiding place. In my favourite scene from the film, Ravi Shankar's quivering music sees Apu take the thing out of their hut-home and running to the village pond, fling it into its moss-laden water, extinguishing not just evidence of his sister's 'wrong-doing' but telling the God of Retribution that if Durga has stolen a miserable string of beads, Fate has stolen Durga from me, Apu, and there… no one will now ever know Durga's secret which is mine and mine alone! Ray has the string disappear into the waters and the moss return to cover the surprised opening. If, in the indefinable world of ethics and aesthetics, that moment is not perfection, I do not know what is or can be.
There is no such thing as a perfect being, perfect behaviour. There are perfect acts, perfect moments.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal