The joy of contentment

A couple of nights ago I had to take a taxi to an event. I love chatting to the taxi drivers here in Dubai where I currently live, as every one has a fascinating life story to share, whether funny or tragic. However, this week, I met a man whose story and approach to life were so uplifting and joyful that I haven’t stopped thinking about him all week.

Khalid has been driving a taxi in Dubai for 24 years.  Having seen the city grow exponentially over that time, from a sandy small town to the modern metropolis it is today, he had lots of interesting anecdotes about the “old days”.  Yet when I asked about his family back in Pakistan, he glowed with joy.  He told me about his oldest daughter, who achieved her MBA last year, got married and has just had a baby boy. He proudly showed me photos, with one hand on the wheel and the other precariously scrolling through his phone’s camera roll, a broad smile plastered across his face.  I got to share in his daughter’s beautiful wedding photographs and heard about the three days of celebrations they enjoyed. He told me about his first son, who is just finishing his mechanical engineering degree at Pakistan’s top university and who has been awarded a full scholarship to study for his Masters degree in Germany or Australia – he can’t decide which to choose. Finally, I heard about his youngest twin sons, the brightest of all his children apparently, who are top of their class and who constantly switch between first and second place in examination results and compete for the top spot endlessly. They are in their final year of school and will go to university next academic year. Khalid will continue to work until their education is complete and then he wants to retire home to Pakistan.

He spoke of his wife, who he met on his wedding day, having trusted in his parents to choose the best bride for him and told me with love and respect in his voice that he was so lucky to have been able to marry the “best woman in Pakistan” who is entirely responsible for shaping his children into the fine young people that they have become. He said he only provided the money – the rest was all down to her.

He concluded that his life is complete. His purpose was to provide for and give the best opportunities to his children and he has achieved that, so there is nothing more that he wants.

The entire conversation was liberally sprinkled with ‘Alhamdulillah (thanks be to god)” at the end of most phrases and, whilst I don’t share Khalid’s religious beliefs, I could see that he feels truly blessed and has an enormous sense of gratitude for the life he has led and for his intelligent and hardworking children. They must surely have been inspired by the example he has set them over the years.  He was a gentle, humble, thoughtful man and he had what I can only describe as an aura of contentment around him. It was joyful to be in his company and I was genuinely disappointed to reach my destination.

I have thought about Khalid a lot over the last couple of days as his words and manner have stayed with me. His acceptance of his role in life and his view of his ‘purpose’ was inspiring. He didn’t long for material goods, he didn’t complain about driving a taxi for almost a quarter of a century and he didn’t protest at having missed out on being with his children as they grew, as he wanted to keep working to provide for their education.  It is so rare to meet someone who is genuinely content with all aspects of their life and at peace within themselves. I know I would be the first to admit that I am not. However, this chance meeting has had a profound effect on me – it’s hard to explain. There was true joy in his contentment and I’m working on changing my mindset to be more accepting and grateful in my own life. He may not have had much money, but Khalid was the richest man I’ve met in Dubai. Alhamdulillah.

 

History Lessons

The first glimpse of the Bridge over the River Kwai takes your breath away. It’s not just the impact of its striking design, but more the significance of what it represents. Whilst this was not my first visit to Kanchanaburi on the River Kwai, it was the first time I had been with my children and it would prove to be a profound learning experience for us all.

The construction of the Death Railway during the Second World War was an extraordinary feat of engineering, seeking to create a supply route for the Japanese forces between Thailand and Burma across 415km of inhospitable jungle, broad rivers and solid rock. Yet the prisoners of war and conscripted workers who were forced to work in appalling conditions to complete the project in only 16 months, mostly using simple hand tools, faced unimaginable ill-treatment, disease and starvation and over 100,000 lost their lives.

Wherever we’ve travelled, I’ve always made a point of explaining the history and culture of our destination to my children. I truly believe that children have an incredible capacity for understanding and appreciating those things that are outside their usual experience and that the realities of the world around us shouldn’t be hidden from them.  We have had many conversations over the last few years which have really made me think about how to explain difficult subjects – such as poverty, religious practices and beliefs and political ideologies – in a way that they can understand. However, this was a tough one. How do you explain the brutality of the Japanese PoW camps, death and disease on such a vast scale and the futility of war to a modern-day 7- and 9-year old? The answer, I discovered, was with honesty.

Visiting the wonderfully informative Thailand-Burma Railway Centre Museum and the Allied War Cemetery in Kanchanaburi helped them to understand what had happened and, so far as is possible, why events unfolded in the way that they did. They were shocked by much of what they saw, but took it all in and asked surprisingly insightful questions – I was tremendously proud of them for the compassion and respect they showed. Pausing with my sons to read the inscriptions on the grave markers of the brave young men who never returned gave me an enormous sense of gratitude that we live in an age where I should never have to go through what their mothers had to endure.

Yet the lessons we learned in Thailand were brought closer to home with the knowledge that my great uncle had spent the War fighting in the jungles of Burma alongside his brave Gurkha colleagues. The boys wanted to know more, so emailed their grandparents with a  long list of questions and we all learned something new about their great-great uncle’s story.

Our family history brought a different dimension to our trip, as the events we were learning about and trying to explain to the children were not just something from a dusty old textbook that happened to someone else, but were lived through by the kind, jolly man who I remember fondly from my own childhood. As with most of his generation, he rarely spoke of his experiences in Burma, but the letters and postcards he sent home during the War give a glimpse into the nightmarish experience that we now know so much more about. Walking through the Allied Cemetery, you couldn’t help wondering whether any of those tragic young men from the same regiment had been his friends.

The final stage of our journey was a visit to the poignant Hellfire Pass Memorial – a dignified and moving tribute to those who died building the railway, located 80km north-west of Kanchanaburi. The barbaric events that took place in this infamous cutting were depicted in the 2013 movie The Railway Man, based on Eric Lomax’s autobiography, and walking along the original rail bed through the Pass is a truly moving and sombre experience.

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In this month of November, when we remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice fighting for freedom and, at a time when our global politics is in a state of flux, wars still rage in parts of our beautiful planet and desperate refugees are being scattered to the four corners of the world, it seems to me to be vitally important that the lessons of history are not forgotten. Our children are eager to learn and they understand more than we think. It is our duty to teach them about the past; the future, after all, is up to them.