Madhyamavati | The gospel of proportion 

In the pastry shop of the mind many emotions and ideas both attractive and powerful jostle for attention. A sense of proportion is knowing how much to order and where to stop 

Fathers and daughters are supposed to have a special bond. Mine, as I discovered much after I had become an adult (notionally), had to do with kitchen counter tops. Like my father, I cannot cook if the kitchen platform isn’t spotlessly clean, and like him I can’t go to bed without adhering to a set of cleanliness best practices that include the obligatory rituals of cleaning the stove, clearing away the dishes and finding the right size of containers to store leftover food, all duly covered with plates of proportionate sizes.

His was one of those unspoken transmissions – a lesson not in housekeeping but in what constitutes proportion. There is a phrase in Hindi for this kind of thing – anupaat ka gyaan, that I learnt about from another father. This was my political editor and immediate superior when I was a green-behind-the-ears reporter. He would bring up this wise sounding phrase when speaking of his own little daughter and what she didn’t understand yet. There has to be something about a sense of proportion and why fathers see this as protection against the vagaries of life.

What then is this much-vaunted idea and is it something akin to Karna’s impenetrable shield? The dictionaries put it like this: ‘If someone has a sense of proportion, they know what is really important and what is not’ (Collins dictionary); or ‘the ability to judge the relative importance or seriousness of things’ (Oxford English dictionary).

Both definitions are simple and capture the essence of the phrase, ‘have a sense of proportion’. The protective shield, I suspect comes, from the sense of control that knowing what is important and what is not imparts to those who understand its meaning experientially and not in the textbook sense. There also an unspoken element in its usage that is at the core of the idea, namely, a sense of balance.

On balance, the question for each one of us is how do we know what is appropriate for us in the circumstances we are in. A sense of proportion in its deepest sense includes the knowledge of balance that alerts us to what we need as opposed what we may want, however attractive it may seem. Handling emotions, the unending flow of forceful feelings that is a barometer of how we experience life, is that much easier when we are in the grasp of this first principle of living that perhaps fathers fret over most.

The best among us at the art of handling emotions seem to know when to turn off from them and when to let them sweep us away. They also seem to know how to burrow beneath emotion to a place of stability.

Balance is essentially knowing how much or in what proportion something is needed for us and keeping away from the rest even if it casts a spell over us. This includes not just material things but also strong emotions.

Imagine walking into a pastry shop. Your mind is blown away by the burst of sensations and hungers that course through it. The desire for satiation overpowers you. You stop. You look for the one thing (or maybe two) that will deliver this to you. You order.

This would be our course of action if we were disciplined. The same thing goes for the pastry shop of the mind where a host of emotions and ideas each more attractive and powerful than the other jostle for our attention. A sense of proportion is knowing how much to order from this shop and where to stop.

Many years ago, perhaps when I was somewhat older than my political editor’s six-year-old daughter, I remember throwing a tantrum in my father’s absence and protesting that he was forcing a disciplined way of life down our throats like the ‘British masters’ did in respect to their ‘Indian servants’. The remark was reported back to him and amuses him no end till date. I’m only now beginning to appreciate that he may have had deeper motives than trying to lay down rules of conduct and behavior when he insisted on discipline. And as the mother of a nine year-old myself now, I suspect a sense of proportion is right up there among the unspoken transmissions I am loading into the parental Ethernet.

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