Three Thousand Stitches, p.12Sudha Murty
After a quick lunch, Shoba and I returned to the office.
My next appointment was one that had been put off a long time ago. At first, all the three men who came spoke together and I couldn’t understand anything. So I asked them to speak one at a time.
‘I have received many awards in this area of work,’ said the first.
The second one added, ‘And I have the political connections to make things happen.’
‘Let me first tell you why we have come here and how we will help the urban poor through the drinking water project,’ said the third.
‘Please allow me to ask you a few questions,’ I said gently. ‘Have you gone to the proposed area where you intend to work? And if so, what is the distribution of the population and the ratio of the number of males to the number of females?’
The three fell silent.
I changed the line of questioning. ‘Where will you get the supply of drinking water from?’
‘Is there an existing system in place that doesn’t work? And if so, why not?’ I tried again.
With no answers in sight, I gave up. ‘Please prepare a well-researched proposal and execution plan with all these answers. After that, we will discuss it at the next internal review. If you give me the details of the location, I will make a personal visit there,’ I said. ‘It really doesn’t matter who is ruling the area politically or who will bestow awards upon us. We specifically target the underprivileged and hope to help them through our efforts and see them smile.’
The three men seemed disappointed, most likely because I hadn’t committed any funds for their project.
While I was saying goodbye, there was a knock on the door and Leena came in. ‘Madam, you have to reconsider your travel plans. In your absence last week, I received many phone calls from all over the country for project visits in different locations. We have to allocate the site visits between Prashant, Shrutee and you. I need some of your time to block the dates today.’
I glanced at the calendar in the room. ‘Fix my tours for the weekends so I can continue with my routine work on weekdays. If I have to visit Delhi, then plan all my project visits around the region, including places like Jammu and Lucknow, at the same time. I want to avoid unnecessary trips as much as possible.’
Leena nodded and went back with a determined glint in her eye. She would figure out the jigsaw puzzle of my travel plans herself.
I made my way to my room. All the emails had been sorted and directed to the appropriate people. I went through the ones left for me and began responding to them.
Next, I switched over to the physical mails. One of my goals is to have a paperless office, but I don’t see it happening any time soon. We still receive hard copies of brochures, request letters and invitations.
Since I am an author, I receive many complimentary books too. It is a running joke that the number of authors exceeds the number of readers these days. Some of the writers request for a foreword, others want me to promote their books by stocking them in libraries and schools, and a few want to know my opinion on their books. Some authors send us their original manuscripts and ask us to send it back, which causes unnecessary hassles. The books for libraries are handed over to a selection committee, while the foreword and opinion requests are declined most of the time due to my tight schedule. By evening, our trash bins are usually full.
Then there are letters from my readers to the foundation office. These are a mixed bag—some share their experiences, some criticize certain aspects of my writing while others appreciate it. I take these home to answer during my personal hours.
My task was interrupted by a call from a news channel. The journalist asked me, ‘What is your opinion on the current government? What are your thoughts about the demonetization of currency and its execution?’
I declined to comment. I may be good at what I do but I had no expertise in such matters.
I began sifting through the letters, some of which I routed to Leena for a suitable reply. There was a bunch of letters from the families of army martyrs thanking the foundation for our small contribution. Two others caught my attention—one was from the central government and another from the state government. Both were reaching out to the foundation to seek help for some projects. These were added to the agenda for the next week’s internal review.
Leena came in to give me an update. ‘Madam, I have worked out your travel plans. You will be travelling fifteen days a month for the next three months. Besides losing most of the weekends, you will also miss your distant niece’s wedding and your father’s death anniversary. Is that okay?’
‘That’s fine, Leena. Thank you. My father has taught me that work is worship and I know that he would understand if he was here.’
Leena handed over my travel details to Krishnamurthy, who immediately started arranging my tickets and accommodation at the company guesthouses wherever possible. Staying at the guesthouses allows easier coordination of my plans and also allows us to save money that we would otherwise have to spend on hotels.
Minutes later, Shrutee came by. ‘I have some good news,’ she said. ‘The boys whom we supported in the Mathematics Olympiad have got admission in MIT and Caltech. In their media interview, they thanked the foundation profusely and said that our small gift of ten thousand rupees towards their effort pushed them to choose science. There is also an email from Pavagada. The selfless swamiji who works for blind children has written that the midday meal programme has been successful in making the children stay in school. The donation for their music classes has also made them happy. They even received an award recently. He has sent pictures of their bright little faces smiling with pride.’
Once she left, I sat in silence for a few minutes.
The loud ringing of the phone jolted me out of my thoughts. Out of instinct, I picked up the phone but Leena was already on the other extension with the caller. The person was screaming at Leena, ‘I deserve more money from the foundation than what they have given me. You are only a secretary. Connect me to your boss and tell them who I am. If you don’t, I will go to the media and tell them about the foundation. So be careful before you respond.’
I immediately went to Leena in the next room and took the phone from her.
‘Sir, what is the problem?’ I asked.
‘I requested for two crores for a school but you have given us two lakhs—it is a pittance for the foundation. I want . . . no, I demand an explanation. I am an influential activist and can tarnish the name of the foundation if I want to.’
‘Sure. I will give you an explanation. We get more than a hundred genuine applications and around two hundred calls every day. We don’t work under any sort of pressure nor do we care to gain any advantage from our grants. There is an established process in place and we have to distribute the grants to the best of our judgement. We do not increase our grants without a review of the progress made. Experience has taught us that the work speaks for itself. Besides, there are trustees who are also involved with the decision-making. We may not be there in the foundation at a future date, but the established processes will continue. I must also tell you that we aren’t afraid of the media because we haven’t done anything wrong or under wraps.’
The man calmed down and cleared his throat. ‘Well, if we do well and clear the review, then will you help us next year?’
‘Maybe. We help many organizations and are not afraid of approaching the good ones ourselves. It is the quality of work that attracts us and we do not worry about potential threats or the connections of our beneficiaries.’
I could hear a murmur that vaguely seemed to sound like an apology.
I had had a hard day and was in no mood to let him off the hook. ‘Sir, we also have difficult days at the foundation but we try to ensure that it does not affect our relationships with others,’ I gave advice that nobody asked me for.
A glance at the clock confirmed that it was almost 5.30 p.m. I was planning to stay back a little
‘I think I will leave,’ she said.
I walked with her till the main gate to see her off. On the way, she passed the reception, where we had displayed some of our awards.
‘Are you proud of all these?’ she asked and pointed at the awards.
‘In my younger days, I was. As the years passed and my experience grew, I realized that my joy was coming from the work and not from these occasional awards. Today, they don’t matter much to me personally but they are important to my organization.’
‘Tell me, why do you continue to give your remaining years to this thankless job?’ she asked. ‘You can sit back, relax, spend time with your grandchildren, go to weddings and birthdays and reduce a little bit of stress from your life.’
‘The truth is that I am the luckiest of them all. I love what I do and every day is a holiday for me because of it. Who doesn’t love a vacation?’ I grinned.
Shoba smiled as she got into the car and nodded. I waved goodbye and went back to work.
I Can’t, We Can
Recently, I attended a nephew’s wedding. It was a wonderful occasion to meet my cousins whom I had spent my childhood with but hadn’t met in a long time. The wedding ceremony began and a few cousins and I sat leisurely in a corner.
One of my cousins said, ‘I am the president of the laughing club in our community. Come for one of our sessions. We hardly meet any more. This way I will at least get to see you for some time!’
It is common now to see older men and women gather in parks in the morning and attempt to laugh—ha ha ha. I have often wondered how people can make themselves laugh in this manner! I visualized myself attending such an assembly. What would I talk to them about? I was absolutely clueless and so I politely declined.
Another cousin said, ‘I am the secretary of the housewives’ association in my apartment community. I have already shared with the members that you are my cousin. You must come and address them.’
‘But what is the subject matter that you are interested in?’
‘You are a wise investor. So give the women tips on how to save and identify high-return investments like you have.’
‘I’m not sure I understand. Can you elaborate a little on that?’
‘Well, everybody knows how you invested ten thousand rupees in Infosys and made millions in return.’
‘I didn’t do that for the sake of investment,’ I said in a serious tone. ‘I gave the seed money to fulfil my husband’s dream—a dream that was considered impractical in those days. He is successful now and that’s why you are referring to me as a wise millionaire. Had he not been so, you would have called the same move a foolish one. You have it all wrong—I am not the right person to talk about investment. Instead, you can ask me for advice on how to spend money. That will be more suited to my skills!’
People around me laughed.
‘I have a special request,’ a third cousin said. She began, ‘My friend’s daughter is a bright student and . . .’
‘Is she planning to apply for a job at Infosys?’ I interrupted her. ‘Because I really can’t . . .’
‘Have some patience,’ she stopped me. ‘Let me finish. I thought you would have garnered a lot more patience by now, considering your line of work. The girl wants your guidance. She already has a job offer as well as an admission letter from an American university, and needs to pick one.’
‘There’s not much guidance I can give. The decision depends on the family’s financial position, the girl’s ambition and her career plans, along with other social aspects of the family.’
‘Come on! Meet her. She really needs your help.’
I was reluctant. But I said, ‘Okay, ask her to meet me tomorrow at 9 a.m. She can come to my office.’
The next morning, I met the young petite girl named Jaya. She was shy and quite nervous.
I wanted to make her comfortable, so I told her to sit down and offered her a cup of tea. Then I asked for her mark sheet. Her academic record was outstanding. ‘Jaya, what’s on your mind?’ I did not beat around the bush. ‘Where do you see yourself in ten years?’
She was quiet.
I rephrased my question, ‘Perhaps you want to be a corporate professional or pursue the academic line? Or maybe something else?’
Still, there was no reply.
‘Are you scared of me? Do I look like a monster?’ I persisted and smiled.
She smiled back and shook her head. Then she began speaking very softly about her future plans.
I could see that she didn’t have any confidence, despite her achievements.
‘Jaya, academic excellence is not everything,’ I said. ‘You must have confidence in yourself. One of the flaws of our education system is that it doesn’t really teach us that quality. Our parents, society and the recruitment process concentrate too much on the marks we get. I can give you many examples of people who may not have studied much but have done well for themselves because they believed they could. Confidence doesn’t mean that everything will go our way. It simply gives us the ability to accept failures that we will inevitably meet on our path and move forward with hope.’
Without any warning, Jaya started sobbing. Like a toddler. It was heartbreaking.
At first, I was startled. ‘Maybe I have given her too strong a dose without knowing her nature,’ I thought. In India, most of us excel at giving advice without people asking for it, and I am no exception.
I offered her a tissue and said, ‘I am sorry if I have hurt you, Jaya. But I don’t know what to tell you. You aren’t sharing much with me.’
The girl calmed down and wiped her tears. Her voice was shaking when she spoke, ‘No, ma’am, your advice didn’t make me cry. The truth is that I feel inferior in front of most people.’
‘Why? Anyone in your shoes would be proud of accomplishing so much at your age.’
She paused. Then she said, ‘Ma’am, my father was an alcoholic.’
She spoke a little more fluently, ‘He is now in AA but my younger years were different. He would often get drunk and abuse my mother. She went through so much, and I had no idea what I could do to help her. I grew up scared of my father’s temper and in an unhappy and tense atmosphere. Then I thought that the only way I could make a change was to study hard and get a decent job so that I could take my mother and leave. I have a sister too, but my mother doesn’t want to leave the family home. She is worried about . . .’
‘I think I can understand your mother’s concerns. Many in our society still judge women who are separated from their husbands and she’s probably concerned about how that might impact her daughters’ marriage prospects.’
‘You are right, ma’am. She says that I should go abroad and never come back to India. She wants me to get married to a good man irrespective of his caste and creed. Her only condition is that he mustn’t drink. But I don’t want to run away and leave my mother and sister behind. I want to be here for them. I’m so confused, ma’am. That’s the reason why I wanted your advice.’
The word AA was on my mind. ‘What is AA?’ I asked.
‘Alcoholics Anonymous. It is a support group for men and women who are addicted to alcohol. It has taken my father several years to become sober, but the darkness he caused has left a permanent scar on my heart and life. I don’t like to share anything personal with him nor do I ask him for advice. I have no respect for him at all.’
‘Jaya, I don’t know much about AA, but we don’t know the circumstances under which he turned to the bottle. He has changed now and it sounds like he is trying hard to be a better man. The best way forward is not to get upset or run away from your problems, but to open a channel of conversation with him. Your father must regret the actions of his past. Is he nice to your mother now?’
‘Of course, he has been very good to her since he became sober.’
I sensed that she was feeling better. ‘Jaya, go to a counsell
She smiled and her eyes shone brightly. She thanked me and left.
That day, my thoughts were preoccupied with AA. At the foundation, we are already predisposed to reaching out to people in tough situations. Dharma, on its own, also means protecting someone who needs it, no matter who they are or where they come from. It’s pure and simple, and my mind wouldn’t rest easy. Besides, we had never worked on this problem before and I had to understand it first. I got some information on AA online but it wasn’t sufficient. Multiple questions bounced around in my mind. What was it and how did it really play a role in an alcoholic’s life? What challenges does he or she face? Was it hereditary? Does one’s financial status or family make a difference? How does counselling help? What is the success rate of de-addiction and where does a person go on from there?
It was clear—I needed first-hand information. I wanted to meet someone to understand the problem a little better. Vaguely, I recalled a friend mentioning in passing many years ago that her son-in-law had been a victim of this. I hadn’t been good at keeping in touch and wondered if he would speak to me about it.
I took a chance, picked up the phone and reached out to my friend. I was hesitant. When she came on the line, we chatted for a few minutes and tried to catch up on the time gone by. Finally, I asked her, ‘Several years ago, you had told me about your son-in-law, Ramesh, and that he had gone to a de-addiction camp. How is he doing now?’
‘With God’s grace and with the help of AA, he is sober now and lives a good life.’
‘Would he mind if I asked him a few questions about the group? Only if he wants to, of course. I can assure you that it will remain confidential.’
Three Thousand Stitches by Sudha Murty / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes