To lead a happy life, what do we need? Wealth? Acceptance? Friendship? Love? Or sage advice? Methinks it is a little bit of all-of-the-above. In a rapidly changing world, we have witnessed ourselves as well as others as being unhappy and dissatisfied. Our life has become a challenge that needs to be met head-on; a progression from being sad to satisfied, from being nobody to somebody. But this path is not so easy, fraught as it is with many obstacles. And as assistance, we have all come across books that act as guides to happiness and success.
One such book is John M. Alfonso’s Jinnechi Vatt (2009). A Carmelite monk hailing from Canacona, Alfonso has a post-graduate diploma in Counselor Training programme and as such has given lectures on life skills and good living. He is a regular contributor to Konknni mastheads and the present book is the compilation of his essays that were first published in Gulab and The Goan Review. Sukhi Jinn was the author’s first book.
John M. Alfonso writes about life skills because he is of the opinion that though injustice is rampant in the society, we – or the ones who perpetrate these injustices – are part of the society, and by focusing on the root causes and fundamentals of our behaviour, we would be able to take steps to resolve the problems facing our society.
John M. Alfonso’s text, as mentioned earlier, primarily deals with the leading of a fulfilled life and finding happiness. Being the subject of the author’s specialization and training, he draws on the already established literature in this field as the brief bibliography at the end of the book demonstrates. This goes to the credit of the author as the works are in English and John M. Alfonso has taken pains to adapt the terminology and concepts of such specialized literature into Konknni – a task by no means simple! It must also be said that the author advocates the greater use of counseling and therapy for resolving the issues that people might face. Having said so, one wishes that John M. Alfonso had introduced such works and the authors in an elaborate manner, considering the fact that many of his readers would not be familiar with such literature and their authors. A case in point would be Stephen R. Covey, the internationally renowned author and motivational speaker whose books have sold millions of copies.
In introducing the subject of the essays, John M. Alfonso generally starts by using a statement of a person and then proceeds to expound his thoughts and reflections and at the same time providing some useful advice. This literary device helps him to get straight to the point, a necessity for writers in newsmagazines who have to be economical with words. But as I have pointed out in some of my previous reviews dealing with columnists who have compiled their works in a book, the topics could have been introduced in a much more leisurely manner. Konknni, as Dr. (Fr.) Pratap Naik points out, is our kallzachi bhas [language of our hearts] and as such I personally prefer some generous doses of florid prose!
What I gather from the essays is that the aim of the arguments is to ultimately provide the keys to happiness to the reader. Very well! At the expense of sounding like a whiny skeptic, I would begin by questioning the actual concept of ‘happiness’. What is happiness? John M. Alfonso does not dwell on what is his idea of happiness. I would also maintain that this is not a simple concept and that ‘happiness’ could be very confounding. I recall a poem by E. A. Robinson called Richard Cory, where we encounter a similar question as posed above and whether true happiness always evades human beings. The protagonist of the poem had everything (or at least it seems to the observer): respect, wealth and acceptance. Yet, the poem ends tragically with Richard Cory committing suicide. Here is the poem:
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
‘Good-morning,’ and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head
In suggesting a way to a fulfilled and enriched life, John M. Alfonso sees the individual as the driving force in the scheme of things and therefore s/he is the one who has to take steps to reform his/her life. Alternatively, I would like to stress on the role of the structures and processes of society that can also work in a counter-productive manner, restricting an individual to access a happy and contented life. I am highly doubtful whether such abstract concepts like happiness and satisfaction (though necessary) can be cast in a polarity of borem (good) and vaitt (or bad). Doesn’t it oversimplify things? Here is a quote which more-or-less, illustrates my point: Amchi jinn moladik. Tacho samball koso korop hem amcher dhorlolem asa. Tornatteponn, vo duddu asa mhunn somazant sobona toslem jivit jiyevpache yotn zaunche nhoi. Fattlea jivitant jem kitem ghoddlem tache bolli zavop amkam sobona. Moslotdaracho adhar gheun sodanch togta tosli khuxalkay zoddchi. Kitem mhonntat tumi? [Our life is valuable. How we nurture it depends, solely, on ourselves. Just because one possesses youth or wealth doesn’t mean that one can act as s/he pleases in society. Our past should not hold us down. Through counseling we can try to obtain everlasting happiness. What do you think?]
My attempt to provide an alternate view to the major arguments and themes of John M. Alfonso is not to dispute his work; rather I want it to be an exercise in dialectics and heuristics, since the subject is so subjective! To end, I maintain that the work of John M. Alfonso is an insightful one, leading one to think further – and deeper.
Jinnechi Vatt by John M. Alfonso (Margao: Carmelite Monastery), 2009; pp. 136, Rs. 60/-
(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: September 5, 2012).