Chapter 3: Red-cap in Digha
Hu had come a long way since the days of ethnic strife. Five more years had passed. Hu was now
twenty. He had graduated from high school with distinction, and had been admitted to the Indian
Institute of Technology (IIT) at Kharagpur, in the state of West Bengal. Hu’s parents were
building their retirement home, not in Shillong, but in a suburb of the biggest city in the region –
Calcutta, also in West Bengal.
The first two years had been a relative breeze, since much of the material taught, Hu had already
covered in school. Hu, therefore, found the time to get into a lot of extra-curricular activities. He
sorely missed his long walks in the pine forests of Shillong, but discovered that there was an added
attraction at this institute of higher learning. There was a swimming pool on campus, and the beach
town of Digha was just a few hours away by bus.
The swimming program at Kharagpur was run like a military camp by an ex-Olympian by the
name of Buzz. For too long, Hu was categorized as a beginner, and given a red cap to wear
anytime he was near the water. The deeper parts of the pool were roped off for the red-caps, and
he spent hours hanging on to the edge of the pool with his hands and splashing with his legs.
Needless to say, in his two years of swimming with Buzz, Hu never quite got over the designation
of beginner, although he was confident he had learned a lot.
One weekend, Hu and his friend Mit decided to take a bus to Digha. They packed their swimming
trunks in anticipation of their total swimming freedom – in the Bay of Bengal! They rented a nice
cabin near the sea for a very reasonable fee. As luck would have it, the cabin next door was rented
by an older couple with two college-going daughters. Suddenly all their plans changed.
Mit started spending all his waking hours with the other family, leaving Hu to discover the beaches
by himself. After walking on the beach for a while, Hu decided that he wanted to go for a swim.
Hu chose a secluded spot to go into the water. Hu had heard about rip tides and undercurrents in
the waters off of Digha – but that morning the water looked so harmless and appealing.
Hu soon got tired of swimming in the sandy water where the waves were splashing onto the shore,
and decided to head out for the region beyond – where the waves were less intense. Quite quickly,
Hu had swum out beyond the waves. After a while he thought he had had enough and decided to
Hu swam leisurely towards the shore and, after a minute or two, stopped to see how close he was.
The waves around him still were not crashing on to the shore, so he decided to put his feet down
and feel for the beach below. No luck!
This time Hu started swimming with more urgency. After another couple of minutes, he gauged
the depth again, and still could not feel the ocean floor! Hu began to feel desperate.
Now Hu swam with all the urgency of his life. He swam and swam, never stopping to gauge the
depth until he finally crashed down on the beach, with the waves breaking right on top of him. Hu
was totally spent. He took his beach towel and lay down to get some rest, on the isolated beach
itself – under some nearby palm trees.
Hu did not know how long he had dozed off, when he felt a light touch upon his shoulder. He
opened his eyes to see a butterfly wafting around near him. This was like no butterfly he had seen
before. The pattern on the wings looked like the Tao symbol, except it had four segments in place
of the traditional two. Also the traditional circular eyes of the Tao symbol was replaced with what
looked like a sideways smiley face.
The butterfly so absorbed Hu that he was startled when he felt another light touch upon his
shoulder. Looking up, he saw Uni’s face peering down at him. Hu was quite surprised as Uni,
though older than him, suddenly looked a lot younger than he remembered from the last time they
Hu: You? Here?
Uni: It’s a small world – I am on vacation too.
Hu: It’s so nice to see you!
Uni: You look troubled! What’s up?
Hu: I almost drowned.
Uni: Out here, on this isolated beach?
Hu: I know. It was foolish of me to go swimming alone…
Uni: We all live and learn.
Hu: Whatever could have possessed me to behave like this; I don’t know!
Uni: You are twenty years of age, aren’t you? Young people do a lot of rash things at
Hu: You would think I’d know better, with my exploration of the inner and outer selves.
Where did I go wrong?
Uni: Look at what you have achieved in the last few years. You have left home and
enjoyed a lot of independence. You have experienced a lot of the freedoms that you did
not enjoy before. It is almost natural to think …
Hu: … that I am invincible. I know, but must my life be under serious risk for me to come to
Uni: Sometimes it is the only way. It is to your credit that you now realize that the freedom
trajectory cannot continue indefinitely.
Hu: I could have died! If I did, would people have said ‘He deserved it – because of his
rashness?’ I mean, if you believe in Karma, there must be some retribution for by
Uni: Is that what Karma is about? Justice and punishment?
Hu: Many Philosophers have said, “As you sow, so you shall reap.”
Uni: And some have said, “A heartfelt apology cleanses a lot of sins.”
Hu: Then what is the philosophy of Karma all about?
Uni: What do you think?
Hu (thoughtfully): It can only be for us to realize the consequences of our actions, either in
actuality or within our minds. Kind of like a developmental phase that we must go through.
Uni: This way we can learn from other people’s mistakes, and our ‘almost’ mistakes.
Consequences would be imposed only as a last resort – for someone who absolutely
refuses to learn unless their physical being is seriously affected.
Hu: So some benefit will come out of my experience here? I don’t see how.
Uni: You will surely remember this experience. Rest assured, you will find the opportunity
to pass it on.
Hu: Tell me more about why we must curb our freedom trajectory? Why can’t it continue
Uni: That is the nature of being. Say, did you notice the butterfly that just flew by?
Hu: Yes, I remember, it had a unique Tao like pattern, but with four segments instead of
the traditional two.
At this point Uni reached down to the locket that was hanging by a slender chain around her neck.
She opened up the locket, and the pattern that emerged was the same as the one on the butterfly’s
wings! Now Hu could clearly see that Uni was no ordinary person.
Hu: Thanks for letting the cat out of the bag. Could you tell me who you really are?
Uni: I promise I will tell you, but first let me tell you a secret - the significance of the
pattern on this locket. What does it look like?
Hu: It looks like a variation of the Tao symbol, with the Yin and the Yang, representing the
male and the female, the constructive and the dissipative… But instead of just black and
white, it also has two shades of gray – for a total of four segments.
Uni: Does the four segment construct remind you of an important feature of the human
Hu: Yes, there is the Riddle of the Sphinx – but that had three stages. On four legs
(baby), two legs (adult human), and three legs (old person with a cane).
Uni: Ah yes – there is actually a fourth stage that the Sphinx could have asked about.
Hu: What did she miss?
Uni: …and at the hour of midnight has the ability to fly about without the use of any legs?
Hu: A human being can really do that?
Uni: With the proper preparation, yes we can. Does this pattern remind you of anything
Hu: Yes, there is the ancient Indian Ashrama System, where we are Students for about
the first twenty years of our life, Householders for the next twenty, Societal Elders for the
next twenty, and Saintly Sanyasis for the final years of our life.
Uni: You are twenty now – are you ready to be a Householder?
Hu: Not yet, but maybe in about five years.
Uni: That is what I thought – each of the segments here represents about 25 years of the
life of a human. Let’s say, in your life.
She picked out a short stick lying nearby and drew a circle in the sand. Then she drew a line
through the middle, and then crossed it with another line through the center, dividing the circle into
four segments of equal size.
Hu: Is this the cycle of life?
Uni: Not just life – sentient life. Human life. That too, not merely human in the biological
sense, but an Aspiring Human.
Hu: Aspiring? For what?
Uni: For Greatness. For leaving a permanent imprint upon the Universe. For transcending
our existence into something much bigger. You could even say, for a level of Divinity.
Hu: All humans want that?
Uni: They could. Yet, most humans settle for far less…
Hu: So this is kind of a potential that may or may not be realized?
Uni: Spot on! Yet, for those who want to realize it – there is a way.
Hu (thinking quickly): I bet it has to do with finding your inner and outer self, as well as
knowing your limitations.
Uni: Yes, that is a part of it. Let me explain. Humans start off life as little more than the
chemical information contained within the sperm and the egg, which combine to give us
our genetic identity. A newborn human is particularly helpless compared to other baby
animals. Hence we start off life with a lot of potential, but not much else.
Using the stick again, Uni drew a line below the circle, with an arrow at the end pointing from left
to right. Then she carefully walked over next to it, and stood next to the line with both feet. She
then took her left foot, and moved back a step, leaving a single light footprint on the sand. She
then moved forward one small step towards the direction of the arrow, and took an additional side
step to leave three deep footprints side by side towards the tip of the arrow.
Hu: So our physical growth is like leaving more and deeper footprints in the sand?
Uni: The material out of which our physical body is made washes away with time. A
footprint is a good analogy to our temporary existence here on planet earth. It is not only
our physical body, but all the things we acquire as the material part of our existence.
Hu: Oh! That explains why the footprint grows till we are middle aged. But do most people
really reduce their footprint after that?
Uni: When we pass away, the footprint returns to very close to zero. The peak of the
footprint is easy to understand – when we are at the prime of our economic life, raising
children, looking after a household, working hard at a job or a business, and building our
Hu: I can see the build-up. I also see that the end state is close to zero. I am not sure I
understand the process by which it comes down from its peak...
Uni: Let’s say the children have grown up, and have left to lead independent lives of their
own. These people we call the Empty Nesters. Some folks will actually down-size their
homes when the need goes down. For most people, the level of activity goes down as we
age, and as our household demands get fewer and easier.
Hu: I see how we get over the hump. But the footprint must fall a long way before we get
close to zero. An older person does not shrink nearly as much as a baby grows!
Uni: Ideally, their demands on the environment do go down significantly. In ancient India,
under the Ashrama System, the last stage of life was Sanyas, where one gave up all
worldly attachments and led a life of asceticism.
Hu: But today, a lot of the medical industry is geared towards servicing the older
population. Activities abound that cater to an aging population – and entire communities
are being built up to address this economic reality.
Uni: Our human civilization is passing through a phase. In its current form we humans are
a very hyper-active material-oriented civilization. The material footprint does not go down
Hu: But to achieve our full potential as a civilization, a graceful decline is better…
Uni: You could almost say it is a requirement. The decline that we observe is only a part
of what is happening. What we lose in material footprint, we make up in potential energy.
Almost like a spring which is being compressed and re-energized for the next cycle.
Hu: I see.
Uni: You know, the capability to work well in the final two segments is what sets humanity
apart from our animal cousins. But I am getting too far ahead. Let’s discuss what the
segments are first.
Picking up the stick again, Uni drew a line along the left hand side of the circle. This time she put
two arrows, one at each end.
Uni: There is something else that happens in the early stages of life, when we are a
student of what life has to offer, and are building up our self-sufficient independent
existence. Can you guess what that other influence is?
Hu (after a pause): Our ability to fend for ourselves? Independence?
Uni: That’s right. Some people call it freedom to be unique and individual. It is the coming
of age, of discovering what we are capable of doing…
Hu: And it can be dangerous – as I found out today.
Uni: In this first segment we are gearing up to be the most competitive we can be. In
education, in physical skill building, in all the ways that we can be fit and survive in a
Hu: I see now. The downward axis is competitive capability. Survival of the fittest.
At this point Uni took her two hands, made them into fists, and brought them together with the
fists facing each other. She put her hands down next to the downward pointing arrow, and left
their impression on the sand. Two fists in apparent conflict – a fitting symbol of the nature of
competitive survival, Hu thought.
Uni: This is where we discover the limits of our capabilities. This is where we develop our
strengths and our individuality…
Hu: … and if we are not careful we can lose it all. Life on the very edge of what is
Uni: And also what is sustainable. You still have a few years to go – enjoy your growing
freedom, but be careful not to go over the edge.
Hu: Like I almost did today. Do tell me, I am curious about the next stage in life where the
competition decreases, but our footprint increases.
Uni (laughing): That is the life of the householder. You would now voluntarily constrain
yourself, first with a spouse, and then with children – and keep yourself gainfully
employed in order to support your growing family.
Hu: I am not ready for that. I have too much to see and experience first. I am not ready –
at least not yet!
Uni (laughing): Don’t worry, you have plenty of time.
Hu (after a pause): I guess it will take a little getting used to – for me to give up my
individual freedom, my sense of adventure. Knowing that the changes are coming - it
gives me an extra incentive to enjoy these things while I still have them.
Uni: This is the first of the four major transitions in life. Each produces a qualitative
change in who we are as humans.
Hu: I get it! The sideways smiley face is really a lower case ‘i’. As we transition, the ‘i’
takes on the color of the next segment. How interesting!
Uni: You are perceptive! And I think you already have an appreciation of your next ‘i’
Uni (after a pause): It is getting late, you know. It is time for me to go.
Hu: But you still haven’t told me who you are. And I have so many questions.
With her right hand Uni gently held Hu’s hand, and together walked over next to the arrow
pointing upwards. Then she proceeded to leave an imprint on the sand of the two hands grasping
Uni: This is where we work cooperatively, our internal self and our external self, the
individual and the universal. This completes our diagram.
Uni (gazing into Hu’s eyes): I will tell you this – I know you very well, and you are
beginning to know me. Next time, when we meet, I’ll tell you more.
Hu: Bye then. Till next time...
Suddenly, Hu was distracted again by the butterfly swooping low over the sand. He was able to get
enough of a glimpse to note that the two patterns on the two wings were mirror images. Just like in
Uni’s locket, the swirl of the Tao was going clockwise on one wing, and counter-clockwise on the
When Hu’s attention returned to his surroundings, he looked around for Uni – but she was gone.
He looked down at the diagram that Uni had crafted, and it was still there. The skies were
darkening now. Hu ran quickly back to his cabin, snatched up his camera and ran back again to
take a picture of the diagram on the sand.
Hu was sure he had had a metaphysical experience. But at least, now he had some proof that he
hadn’t been hallucinating.
The human life-cycle can be divided into four segments. The ebb and flow of two Taoic
complements covers the gamut of Human existence. These complements are:
A. Potentiality (Germinal) to Expanded Material Reality (Affluence)
B. Individuality (Competitive) to Universality (Co-existential).
Their superposition creates a four quadrant Tao Cycle, whose segments are named as
follows. The ages given are approximate.
1. Studenthood (0-25 years)
2. Householder (25-50 years)
3. Service (Social) Leader (50-75 years), and
4. Spirtualist (approx. 75+ years).
Annotated Tao Cycle Diagram