RESHMA N C SHAH
When I was about eight-year-old, I remember reading this legend of Oedipus Rex about a riddle put by a Sphinx that no one could solve. The riddle was: Which animal walks on four legs in the morning, on two legs in the daytime, three legs in the evening and no legs at night? Many brave souls attempted but all failed and were devoured by her. Oedipus was able to answer, forcing the Sphinx to kill herself: it is man who, as a baby in the morning of his life walks on all four limbs, as an adult in the noon of his life, walks on two legs, and as an old person, uses a walking stick for help, and when he dies, he is carried by others.
Somehow that imagery stayed with me from my childhood.
Now, in the noon of my life, duties towards family keep me occupied. As a mother, my energies are focussed on making each day count for my kids even as I run errands.
On my way home after picking up my daughter we usually ask each other riddles. Today, it was my turn and the Oedipus riddle came up. Naturally, she could not answer. But as I gave her the answer and started explaining it, I had an epiphany.
In a flash, a flurry of images swept through my mind. Suddenly I realised that the riddle and its answer meant something more.
The morning of our life is the time we start to find our bearings in this world. The ego is formed and we start reacting to others as an entity, a self. As a young infant, our very survival depends on pillars of strength and support around us- parents, immediate family, emotional stability and a nurturing environment. These are the four ‘legs’ that enable us to explore and learn. They form the building blocks of our personality and our character.
As we mature into adults, we learn to become more self- reliant. Now we are driven by two important factors: an education and our desire to achieve, to strive and to explore, namely, our ambition. Even a mother harbours ambitions for her family, a student for his future, and a leader for his people. Education and ambition are the two legs we need at this stage to enable us to take risks and to take us places.
With age comes experience and maturity. As we enter middle age and go beyond we realise that there are a few things that matter more than our career or our money: our health, our peace of mind and our dignity. The fear of ageing, of having to depend on others to get by is universal, no matter which country or culture we belong to. In the evening of our lives we need good health, peace of mind and dignity.
As night approaches, and we prepare for the final journey, detachment sets in. We take more pleasure in time spent with family than anything else. Worldly troubles of money and career seem trivial. We are painfully aware of the fact that where we are going, money, gifts or even relations do not matter. We seek freedom from the frailty of our bodies. We let go.
A question from my daughter jolted me back into the present. I looked at her and wondered what her future holds for her. For now, her toughest challenges are her projects and her exams. But as she grows the nature of the challenges will change. They will be tougher, sometimes almost breaking her spirit. But as long as she knows that she can delve into the treasures of wisdom from different civilisations, she will be ready to face anything.
That is when I realised that folklore and legends are more than just that. We forget them at our own peril. It is time to revisit them to safeguard our future.