The Importance of the Last Leaf

This is an article I wrote in my final year for my college magazine(INSIGHT, VNIT mag 2008-09) . The then editor of the mag called me up one afternoon and told me to contribute an article cause they were short on entries. So I began thinking, and as usual a thread struck me in the most unlikeliest of places… the shower. I finished this piece in one night, and sent it off. It ended up bagging the best English entry spot. I like it so much that I included this article in my SOP (other achievements) for my B school interviews and it was an immense hit there too…..

This being my final year, I was under immense pressure from my sense of tradition to render the normal final year fare, an article encompassing my journey through the college, filled with nostalgic memories of my stay in the hostel, the first day of class, the first ragging session and everything else worth remembering. But then I thought that most of the readers must be terribly bored of wading through these final year memories each year….. C’mon, who in the world will be interested in reading about the first time I was ragged..? (For those sadists out there, it was not a pretty incident, and I am not going to tell you about it, so there!!)

Each year, true to tradition, half of the final years will write their mini autobiographies to be published in the college magazines, recounting their adventures and those of their friends, a few invented, a few embellished. But I think I will spare you people the adventures I have had; most of them cannot be published in good conscience anyway. Instead, I will tell you two stories. I do not lay claim to their originality, both are stories that I have heard from other sources.

Here’s the first one: In Austria, after the War, there lived a chemist who operated out of a small single storey building at the far end of a dead end street. His shop had no distinguishing features except for an old oak board that proclaimed to the world, in a timid fashion, that this here was a chemist. Nothing more, nothing less. He had a telephone, but the number was not listed. He did not advertise in the papers. The majority of his customers consisted of small children, offsprings of the poor and the poorest of the poor who inhabited that alley. They came into the shop occasionally to buy an everlasting toffee or some gum, depending on how much money they could lay their hands on. Rarely, some women also came, enquiring after the latest in face powder or peroxide. It is interesting how people care for their appearance even in poverty, because when you have nothing else, dignity is to be found in the smallest of luxuries.

However, the chemist did a thriving business, albeit in a slightly different line. Occasionally, upper class gentlemen and ladies could be seen hurrying out of his shop, furtively eyeing their surroundings. It was plain that they had not gone in to buy cosmetics or even everlasting toffee. The chemist was known in their circles as the man to go to whenever there was a problem to be solved, permanently. That day, the deputy mayor himself had come, seeking the chemist’s help over his wife, who was having some difficulty maintaining loyalty to her husband. He had requested for a box of chocolates to be delivered to his address, ostensibly from his wife’s lover, when he would be away from his house, conveniently nursing an alibi. The chocolates were to be flavoured with any obscure poison, leaving the husband free to order inquiries against the lover for murder. To be fair to the man, he was devoted to his wife and hadn’t even thought of taking a lover, even after he came to know about his wife’s adultery. His only vice was a glass of port wine which he sipped religiously before retiring each night.

The chemist duly noted down his complaint, received from him the box of chocolates, and, after he had left, spiked them with his own brand of deadly preservatives, and send them on their way. He then entered the deputy mayor’s number in his register, just below that of his wife. For, the good lady had dropped by in the morning, with a bottle of port wine to be specially aged and supplied to her husband for what would amount to be his last nightcap.

The second story is more famous, written by an embezzler and ex-con who also happens to be one of the world’s most famous story tellers, O. Henry. The story, named The Last Leaf, tells us of two young hard-up artists, Joanna and Sue, who share a flat in Greenwich Village. When Joanna catches pneumonia, Sue tries her best to nurse her back to health, but Joanna’s fatalistic attitude frustrates her efforts. Joanna believes, for better or for worse, that her last remaining hours on this planet are tied to the fate of an old creeper that grows on the brick wall of the building adjacent to their’s. The creeper had seen better days, and what with the autumn cold and the constant drizzles and heavy winds, was rapidly shedding its leaves. Joanna predicts that as the last leaf falls, she will die too.

But an old washed up painter, an irascible German, who lived on the flat beneath them, had other ideas. He was fond of the young girls, and often posed for them. He was always talking of painting his ultimate masterpiece, which would magically help solve all their problems. Hearing of Joanna’s fixation, he goes out in the night, and disregarding a heavy thunderstorm, paints a single leaf on the vine that was bereft of any.

The next day, Joanna sees the apparent resilience of the remaining leaf, and decides to fight back to life. The old painter, meanwhile, contracts pneumonia from his night out in the freezing rain, and passes away. O. Henry, in his indomitable style, thus tells a heart rending story with apparent indifference and flippancy.

If you have been with me till now, you might be slightly confused as to what exactly I am trying to convey. It is simple. The two stories, as far as I am concerned, show the multifaceted nature of the real world. The world into which we all are going to be thrown into in a short time. My final year brethren will understand me more readily. We have grown accustomed to the order and apparent discipline in our lives. One fine day, all this, as we know it, will change, and our lives will be shaken up, only to settle down somewhere else, in some other form. There will be very little that we can do to prepare for this change for there will be very little that we will be able to relate to. Where once we worried about having enough money to buy the next recharge coupon, we will be worrying about filing tax returns and stock options. Where once we were concerned about which movies to go to, we will now be concerned about fighting deadlines.

In this apparent chaos, one of our most important weapons will also be one of the most fragile. The one, whose two extreme features have been captured most sublimely in the two stories I mentioned above; the last thing to remain in Pandora’s jar, HOPE. The first story shows the result of a society living without hope, where any means to secure a better future is grasped desperately, while the second one shows the ultimate power of hope, to give life where it is all but lost.

I consider hope to be the most important tool that all young graduates take out of the college with them. The hope that he or she can change this world, the hope that no situation is beyond repair…. For decades, graduates have passed out from colleges all over the world, nurturing this fragile weapon in their minds. But the world they pass out into has been, and will be, exceptionally hard. To paraphrase Morpheus, the world is indeed a desert, bereft of most soft emotions. The young generation is rarely taught how to survive in this desert, centuries of pedagogic evolution choosing instead to let them learn on their own. They stumble often, some perish, some are left as wrecks of their former selves, but most survive, and a few even succeed and conquer life. But the casualty that often results is that of the hope that they can change the world. Instead, the world changes them, as they learn to adapt and blend in to survive.

I am not against adapting to changes, nor am I a die hard revolutionary bent on anarchy. I only hope that the quality of innocence, that of optimism, does not die out in our fresh batch of graduates. I believe there exists a buffer zone between the time a graduate passes out of college and the time his or her mindset becomes more or less fixed. The experience that they acquire, the situations that they face, and the hardships that they endure will play a major role in the formation of their character. If they are able to survive this buffer zone without losing their grip on optimism, then hope survives. But if all they can see in the world during the buffer zone is the sort of life our chemist and his friends lead, then cynicism sets in. This does not mean that hope doesn’t have a chance in the real world. If we are willing to consciously keep it alive in our hearts, it can draft the most miraculous success stories ever heard.

The current state of our educational system is partly responsible for the handicap that the students acquire even before they step out into the real world. As I mentioned before, very little real world skills are imparted to the students, the educational system instead choosing to rely on equipping each student with the same basic framework of knowledge before letting them loose into the world. But, each student approaches the world in a different way, and is in turn dealt with by the world in a unique manner. Ideally, we should have a customized teaching approach that focuses on each student separately, teaching him or her the unique set of tools that he or she will need to win. Most important of all, the system should ensure that the students are sufficiently trained to overcome cynicism and a negative attitude. They should be trained enough to recognize setbacks and failures (which everybody will face at some point or the other) as temporary, and prevent them from affecting their character. In short, the schools and colleges need to teach the students to hope.

My friends, as my batch passes out from VNIT, my only request to you all, including my batch mates, is this: Don’t ever lose hope. Retain that innocence, that optimism in your lives. We can change the world as much as it changes us. Don’t let the last leaf fall.

6 thoughts on “The Importance of the Last Leaf

  1. Well I felt I should comment on this work since I was one of the first few to read it. The work you have presented here is missing a few ingredients. In fact, when I think about it I feel nothing.

    Now, where is the flaw in the essay?
    I do not suggest that your essays need to address issues or maybe inspire people. The reason why I don't admire this is that it is preachy. What your emotions and conclusions from two very famous stories would hardly match with others.
    I will not be condescending and keeping in mind the fact that your work has won many accolades, I simply feel it lacks original ideas. The only place it becomes original is where you describe your interpretation. It is something I would call an analytical review. In a way your words can make people sit on thier butts and think about thier good old days but it can never estimate the variety of life one will face. The problem with extrapolation is that you always want that something extra and you end up getting a pole up the ass of some guy called “lation”. In technical terms it does not describe what everyone will feel. It just makes a fool out of people in many ways. However, congratulations for winning many awards and I wish u the best for your future endeavours

  2. @ Nada,

    Thanks for reading through the story. And I'm grateful for your well meaning though slightly convoluted criticism. It took me some time to make sense of it, but from what I was able to decipher, here are the salient points:

    1.The essay is preachy.
    2.The work becomes original only at one point.
    3.My emotions and conclusions would hardly match that of others. Extrapolating on those only makes fools out of others since my conclusions do not necessarily reflect what others feel.

    Now, my two cents' worth on this:
    1.The essay never preaches anything anywhere. It just describes, with the help of two contrasting examples, the fallacy of “one size suits all” philosophy currently prevalent in educational institutions. It ends with an exhortation to change this, using hope as the weapon.

    2. You say that my work lacks originality. I completely agree. “Hope” is one of the most unoriginal concept you can ever find. However, a lot of the world has lost faith in this concept, and it needs to be revived. What matters in this essay is not the originality of the concept, but the context in which it is presented. Hope is something each generation must pass down to its successors, without fail. Hope this clears up your confusion.

    3. As far as your third observation goes, I confess I do not see its relevance here. The crux of your argument is that I seem to be force fitting my structure to everyone's life and hoping it will fit snugly. This is exactly the “one size fits all” philosophy I am refuting in the essay. I'm sorry you were not able to grasp it, probably since I did not make it clear enough for everyone to understand.In my defence, though, this line should explain it all, “But each student approaches the world in a different way, and is in turn dealt with by the world in a unique manner”

    Thank you for your compliments, and I'm sure with practise I shall be able to write better.And yes, when you write criticism, try to stick to the point, it makes it easier to read 😉

  3. by the time he thought about not being condescending he was already setting new records ffor it … dont ask me how they measure it but i'm sure the unit is Nada i.e. one Nd, 2 Nd, 10^3 Nd…

    what the hell is the bad extrapolation joke man… bol na seedhe seedhe ghaand mein danda ho jaata hai…why try to try the same idiom in some other bhaasha and then seem like idiot?

  4. Ok Man
    Your answers seem to be good. Since muffy is a lil miffed with my style of arguing i wudnt comment further on the extrapolation joke..although his pun intended words on facebook are a joy to the eye…..

    The only thing I wish to say here in a more professional way is that the points you gathered from my comment are accurate to a certain level. Now, if you decide to tackle all the these points simultaneously instead of dealing with them seperately you shall see an underlining concept which i was trying to elucidate.

    The plain input of ideas in an essay may be appealing to some. It is also appealing when u put ideas in a persective. the most appealing work is that of challenging ideas. although i am a fan of all these methodologies i do like other styles of writing. in fact im very appreciative of writers who spin a fairy tale with beautiful tools of expression. U might be surprised but i admire Ankur Shukla's works.

    coming back to the point ur ideas may be repetitive and maybe presented again and again i do not see how ur rendition is making the readers think further. It is more like a treatise but where is the scope for imagination.
    If u catch my drift i am talking about ur shortcoming of being too candid and direct in presenting ur ideas. In a way u must see how muffy spins his ideas in a boiling pot of words. i dont say u need to follow his style…its just that ur ideas need to be intelligent for them to be appealing. if ur purpose is to compare two stories i agree ur purpose mite have been served..but the question remains… ur interpretation is too starightforward…why not think of evils in a different dimesion. it is possible that such ideas may not come to u…but u need to challeneg urself to write much better than this… this is just a feel gud script with a very weak base as the world will just sit and read it to thier childern as a bed time tale…there is a lot more to learn from thyese stories…that is what i want to say….if u still do not undersgtand my reservations..do post on facebook… nice work anyway….and nice streak of frustation from muffy…i just enjoi the guy's hatred for me

  5. “this is just a feel gud script with a very weak base as the world will just sit and read it to thier childern as a bed time tale…”

    My dear Nada, if they do that, my purpose in writing this essay is served. Thank you for your keen observation.

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