Feeding the flames

If you want to shine like a sun, first burn like a sun – A P J Abdul Kalam

In the previous post, we looked at the destructive analogies given to fire. Surely there must be good qualities as well? The quest of humans has been to control the power of fire than to conquer it. Fire is feared but also respected and revered maybe for this reason the ancient seers likely understood the destructive force that fire can unleash and hence approached it with caution, aiming to please, appease, and eventually to work with it instead of trying to fight it.

Fire is also more positively associated with creativity and creative genius, from a spark representing an idea, the glow of a flame representing knowledge, and a raging flame at times representing the intensity of the creative process.

The Spark

To explain this further, let us look at the creative genius of recent times in Thamizh literature – Bharathiyaar.

அக்னி குஞ்சொன்று கண்டேன் அதை
அங்கொரு காட்டிலோர் பொந்திடை வைத்தேன்
வெந்து தணிந்தது காடு – தழல்
வீரத்தில் குஞ்சென்றும்  மூப்பென்றும் உண்டோ

agni kunjondRu kaNdEn adhai
angoru kaattilOr pondhidai vaithEn
vendhu thanindadhu kaadu – thazhal
veerathil kunjendrum mooppendRum uNdO?

I found a spark and kept it in tree hole in the middle of a forest.
The forest burned down.
Does it matter whether a spark is young or old?

Somewhat Haiku like, this poem brings many layers of meaning. Given his time in which he wrote this, it is likely that Bharathiyaar was referring to the passion that one can bring in and the role they can play in supporting the independence struggle that India was going through, regardless of age. A spark is what it takes to bring a forest down. Regardless of whether one is young or old, they should shed doubts about their capacity to serve and join the freedom struggle, which will be a powerful opposing force against the British.

The blaze and the fizzle

While the words would apply equally to any movement against injustice – be it real or perceived – in modern times, they seem relevant even outside this immediate context. Fire is caused by a spark rising out of the inherent capabilities of certain elements. The spark, under right conditions, can become powerful enough to burn down an entire forest. But if the conditions are not conducive, the spark will either fizzle out or burn out.

There has long been a debate on whether genius is something that is inherent (God-given) or one that happens by circumstance. The words above seem to give the answer that it is both – the spark is inherent, but it needs an appropriate environment to nourish itself as well.

Unfortunately, not everyone recognizes the creative genius of a person and provides the right environmental nourishment, although it may seem obvious. Many of us are guilty with our own kids, trying to raise them in a way that we feel is right – pushing them (gently or otherwise) to become a doctor, engineer, etc. The intentions may be noble but the side effects may not be desirable.

Even in the case of Bharathiar, this seems to have been the case. His genius was not appreciated fully until well after his time. He was shunned and misunderstood. However, his was a spark that wouldn’t fizzle out but burned as an uncontrolled blaze, even if for a short while.

In an ideal world, what we need is the ability to identify the spark and nurture it so that it neither fizzles out nor burns out, but continues to grow as a  steady flame that can shine an illuminating light to those around it.

Easier said than done!

Sustaining the flame

Interestingly, the effort that is needed to nurture and sustain a flame also implies that it requires a lot of input from the surrounding environment, which may potentially rob the nourishment of other ‘less bright’ flames. We have seen a glimpse of this in an earlier interaction between Kamban and Auvaiyar. Kamban’s flame, sustained by the king, also had the side effect of not recognizing other, even if slightly less, talented poets around him, until Auvaiyar came and pointed it out. We see this happening willingly or unwillingly in both work and our family lives.

Parents, who may be creative in their own aspect, pause nurturing their own talent in preference of spending that effort on their kids in the hope that their kids will be a brighter flame than them. On the other hand, frequent resentment occurs, especially during promotion time, of talented team members being sidelined or at least not appreciated as much because of a few ‘brighter’ individuals – potentially demoralizing them a bit in the process. Would we consider them as an injustice or should we simply consider it as the price to pay for nurturing the brighter flame? The answer is not always straightforward.

What we can take solace on is in Bharathiar’s words – regardless of whether we sacrifice our own creativity for the sake of our kids or are overshadowed by others, we must take heart in that we still have the spark, a spark that has the power to unleash energy if channeled properly, and a spark that does not age with time, remaining as powerful as ever in youth or in old age, looking for the right nourishment around it to shine bright.


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