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The old man and his god, p.2
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       The Old Man and His God, p.2

           Sudha Murty
 
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  ‘Masterji, this summer has been so hot. I have never seen such dry weather.’ Or, ‘Masterji, it is getting difficult for me to carry these large loads on my head. Thank god for this horegallu. I wish my son would help, but he only wants to go to the city . . .’ They spoke about the difficulties they lived with. My grandfather could only listen to them but just talking to him seemed to refresh them for the journey. After some time they would pick up their burdens with some ease and go on their way. The horegallu was an important feature in their lives and as a child I would often not understand why they blessed it so often for being there. After all it was only a stone bench. It was my grandfather who told me, ‘Child, a horegallu is essential in any journey. We all carry our burdens according to our situations and capacities. But every once in a while we need to stop, put down that burden and rest. Only then can we be refreshed enough to pick up the load once more. The horegallu gives everyone that opportunity to do so. It helps people regain their strengths.’

  Later on in life, I got to see something that reminded me of that stone bench once again. I was working in Bombay. One of my colleagues, Ratna was a senior clerk, middle aged and always smiling. She had done her graduation and been working in the company for nearly twenty-five years. She went about her repetitive, mundane work with an infectious cheerfulness.

  Every day, during the lunch hour she would sit with some person in one of the rooms, and they would have long chats. I would often wonder what they talked about. One day, I finally asked her, ‘Ratna, what do you talk with each person for the whole lunch hour?’

  Ratna smiled and said simply, ‘They share their troubles with me.’

  ‘But how can you solve the troubles of so many people? Do you always have an answer for them?’

  ‘No, I only listen.’

  ‘And that is enough? That solves the problem?’ I was young and incredulous at such a simplistic outlook. But Ratna answered with the same patience and affection that she must have used with all my colleagues, ‘I am not a trained counsellor or an intellectual. No one can solve your problem. You have to do it yourself.’

  ‘Then how do you help them by listening to them?’

  ‘God has given me two ears to listen to others. I hear them out with sympathy and without any judgement. When a person in trouble or under a lot of strain finds an outlet for his worries, it relieves half his burden.’

  I thought for sometime and said, ‘But don’t you ever break the confidence and tell others the secrets you hear, even by mistake?’

  ‘Not even in my dreams. I consider that to be the worst kind of betrayal. I don’t think there is a greater sin than betraying someone’s confidence. They tell me their worries because they know I will never talk about it or gossip about it to another person. only when they know their words are secure with me, can they talk to me freely. This way I relieve their burden for a short while till they are ready to pick themselves up and carry on with their journey.’

  Her words uncannily echoed my grandfather’s, sitting on the stone bench under the banyan tree. Perhaps, in their own small ways, without access to great wealth, both these people were doing some tremendous social service. No one thought of acknowledging their work or rewarding them for it, but they continued to do so, as these small acts of kindness gave them joy. If ever now I happen to pass a horegallu in a village, I remember them and wish there were many more of them in this world.

  4

  The Way You Look at It

  A few years ago, I was travelling to a village in Karnataka on some work. I had got delayed and it was getting dark. There were no lights on the road and I was anxious to get to my destination. As we neared the outskirts of the village, the beams of the car’s headlights picked out some shrubs on the side of the road. They were thorny shrubs and to my astonishment I saw many women coming out from behind them, shyly covering their heads, each with a tin box in hand. I realized they had gone there to attend to nature’s call.

  Soon I reached the village headman, Veerappa’s house. He was a wealthy man and had arranged an elaborate dinner for me, with many courses including a few different types of sweets. The food was delicious, but my mind was not in enjoying it. I could not get the image of the women skulking out from behind the shrubs out of my mind.

  When at last dinner was over, I asked to meet the cook. She was an elderly lady called Sharanamma. She was very shy and talked to me in a low voice. I wanted to know her better, so I said, ‘The food was excellent. Can I give you something in return?’

  Shyly she replied, ‘Amma, I have heard you do a lot of work for poor people. If possible can you build some public toilets for the women of this village? Life is very difficult for us. Unlike men, we cannot go for our toilet in the day. Like thieves we have to wait till it is dark, then we have to go behind bushes, that too in groups. Whenever a vehicle passes us on the main road and the car’s lights fall on us we feel ashamed. And if ever we are unwell and need to go in the middle of the night then heaven help us. This is particularly traumatic for the young girls. We all would be very happy if you could do something about this.’

  I was amazed at Sharanamma’s sense of responsibility towards her community. I turned to Veerappa and said it was a shame that the headmen of the village had not thought it important that their women should answer nature’s call with dignity and in privacy. It is a basic right that should be available to every human being. Finally I told him, ‘I am ready to build these toilets for the village if you will maintain them well.’ Veerappa, already ashamed after my tirade, readily agreed.

  Thus started our foundation’s work to build public toilets in the countryside and in key areas in Bangalore. In India people are usually enthusiastic about building temples, mosques and gurudwaras, but no one thinks it important to build something as essential as a toilet. Perhaps because there is no punya attached to it.

  The toilets that we built in Bangalore were pay-and-use ones. Though many people objected to having to pay, this was one way we could ensure their cleanliness and proper maintenance.

  One day, I went to visit the first toilet, near a busy bus-stand in the city. It was an unplanned visit and I stood behind two women as they waited to go in. They looked like working women and regular commuters on one of the buses. Suddenly I heard them mention my name. ‘This Sudha Murty is a really mean lady. When she has spent so much money constructing this, why has she made it pay-and-use?’ The other one replied. ‘You are right. You don’t know about her. I have heard from people that she has built many toilets in Bangalore and she is running some trust with the help of toilet money. She must be making a huge profit.’

  I was shocked at their words. Even if one tries to do something to improve a city’s civic life, people make all kinds of strange comments. For a while I was upset. Then I cooled down and told myself that people may say whatever they like, but I had to do what I had decided on. I know that the public toilets have benefitted many like Sharanamma. What she had perceived to be an act of necessity for the village women, was looked at here by these two women, as a business venture.

  After all, life is the way you look at it.

  5

  A Tale of Two Brothers

  Ram and Shyam were identical twins and my students in pre-university and graduate college where they studied for an MCA degree. This meant I taught them for nearly seven years. Obviously, I got to know them and their family quite well in the course of those years. Like many other twins I have known, Ram and Shyam were happy in each other’s company and always stayed together in college, sharing homework, lab and class notes. They looked so similar that at times I could not make out which was Ram and which Shyam. ‘You should wear something so I can make out one from the other!’ I would joke with them. ‘I get so confused. What will happen after you get married? Perhaps you should marry identical twins too, then there will be great fun and confusion all around.’

  After they completed their MCA degree, they joined a software company. Their father was an
industrialist and their mother the principal of a school. They were therefore from an affluent family and owned a large house and a farmhouse. one day, the two young men came to invite me to their wedding. Funnily, they were indeed getting married to two sisters who were also twins!

  ‘It seems like your life story will be like a film script!’ I joked again. ‘How did you find the twin girls? What are their names?’

  ‘Madam, when we decided to get married we deliberately looked around for twins, as we felt only another pair of twins would be able to understand us and our friendship completely. Their names are Smita and Savita. You must come to our wedding. After all, this was first your idea!’

  I did attend the wedding and blessed the two couples wholeheartedly. I felt it must be a great relief for the two sets of parents as well. The two brothers marrying two sisters meant there was not going to be any rivalry between the two couples.

  Many months later, out of the blue, Ram and Shyam’s mother called me one day. She sounded tired. ‘Madam can you come and talk to the children?’ she asked wearily.

  I could sense there was some problem, and that weekend itself, I went to their house to find out what was the matter. For a while, I was unable to recognize the house, though I was standing right in front of it. Now there were two front doors instead of one and the garden was partitioned into two. I decided I had the wrong address or perhaps they had moved out, but Ram’s mother saw me and called out from inside.

  I stepped in and immediately sensed an awkwardness and sadness in the air. The house had been partitioned in a bizarre manner. The drawing room was now small, the bedrooms too large and the kitchen in an odd shape. A brick wall ran down the length of the house, from the hall to the kitchen. There was pin drop silence inside. I turned to their mother, ‘What happened? Why have you put this wall here?’ She told me the sad story.

  ‘Ram and Shyam fought and separated, that is why this wall has come up. Why are you looking so surprised? People change when they grow up. They lose the innocence we saw in them when they were young boys.’

  I said, ‘Siblings often fight with each other because of their partners, but here they were sisters, so how could they instigate it?’

  ‘We too had the same thoughts when we got them married. For a while things went well. After my husband retired, we decided to divide up the property and give equal shares to the brothers. That’s when the trouble started. They both wanted the same house, the same farmhouse. How could we solve such a problem? They were adamant, and we ended up building this wall to separate the two households.’

  That old saying is so true, money is one thing which rarely unites and mostly divides people. The quarrel was due to property.

  Their mother wanted me to speak to them and advise them as their teacher. But I knew that in money matters there was little the words of their college teacher would change. I tried any way. I said, ‘From the time you were conceived you have shared the same space. You shared your mother’s womb, you grew up together in this house, sharing your joys and sorrows. You married twins so they would understand your friendship better. You must understand that in life sometimes it is important to compromise and live in peace with loved ones.’

  They had no answer to my words and I knew I was talking to deaf ears. I went away, unsuccessful. By the time I reached home, I was late for a dinner appointment with an old friend. He was a colleague of mine and I had known him for many years. Seeing me walk in late, he said, ‘You know, punctuality is the sign of a good teacher—not only to the class but elsewhere too.’

  I agreed and apologized.

  ‘I am sorry. But which restaurant are we going to now?’

  His wife smiled and said, ‘We are going to a village thirty kilometers away.’

  ‘Oh, is it in a farmhouse?’

  ‘No, we don’t have a farmhouse. The dinner is at a farmer’s house.’

  I did not understand what they were talking about, so I quietly got into their car. My friend first drove us to the nearest market. There he bought sweets and fruits while his wife got some clothes. Curiously, I asked again, ‘Where are we going?’

  He coolly replied, ‘To my brother’s house. He has been asking us to visit him for a long time. I am sure you will like it there.’ As far as I knew he did not have any brother or sister. He was the only child of his parents.

  ‘Where has this brother turned up from? Is he a cousin? Or a close friend who is like a brother? Or like in Hindi films, have you suddenly discovered you have a long-lost brother?’

  He only chose to smile mysteriously and drove on. Soon we were outside Bangalore and the car was moving fast on the highway. His silence disconcerted me and I wondered if I had asked too many questions and intruded upon his personal life. If we were in America and I had talked so much, he would have told me to shut up and mind my own business. But here in India we cannot resist asking questions about someone’s personal life, whether we are interested or not.

  Suddenly my friend started talking.

  ‘Fifty-five years ago, I was born in the village we are going to visit. I lost my mother when I was only ten days old. My father had loved her immensely and was brokenhearted but he also had to look after me. I was allergic to cow’s milk and with my mother dead I could not drink any milk. I would cry piteously the whole day in hunger. As you know, those days there was no infant formula or powdered milk. I started getting weaker and weaker and hopes for my survival started dwindling. My father was worried but did not know what to do. Help came to him in the form of Seetakka. She was the wife of our servant and had delivered a baby boy only a few days before I was born. Unable to bear my plight, she requested my father, “Anna, if you don’t mind, I want to feed this baby my milk along with my son.” My father thought for a while, and even though many relatives protested at the arrangement, he agreed and Seetakka saved my life by giving me her milk. She continued to feed me till I developed resistance to cow’s milk and other food. I stayed for five years in this village before moving on to other places. But I always remember her and consider her to be a great woman. In fact, I look upon her son Hanuma as my brother. I gave him a part of my share of the property even though my relatives opposed the idea as usual. For them Seetakka was just a servant, but for me she was a large-hearted, simple woman, whose love knew no bounds.

  ‘I am busy in Bangalore now, but I make it a point to visit her son, my brother, at least once a year. After all Seetakka poured her love on us in equal measure without expecting anything in return. We shared the love of the same mother, and that makes us brothers.’

  By the time his story ended, we had reached the village and my friend pointed out Hanuma, waiting at the street corner to escort us to his house. All through dinner, watching the love between them, I was remembering the wall between Ram and Shyam’s families and wondering at the quirks of destiny, which turned brothers into strangers and the sons of masters and servants into brothers.

  6

  The Journey

  Way back in 1974, before Infosys was even a gleam in our eyes, young Narayan Murthy was working as a team member in SESA, a French firm which was building software for handling air cargo at the then newly built Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris. He was very shy and an idealist.

  The money was good, and whatever remained after sending back home to fulfil his various family obligations, he donated to organizations working for the development of our country. His views tended to be leftist and he was an ardent believer in the principles of Marxism. After working in France for a few years, he wanted to come back to India. But unlike the other young Indian engineers, he decided to hitchhike his way back from Paris to Kabul. Carrying his backpack, he took rides in cars and trains, or simply walked when nothing was available. Little did he know when he set out, that this backpack journey would change his destiny, as well as affect many other lives!

  One wintry Sunday morning, hitchhiking from an Italian town, he reached Nis, a border town between what was then Yugoslavia an
d Bulgaria. Once inside the communist block, Murthy realized it was not going to be easy to get rides from passing motorists, so he decided to take a train to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Thus, on reaching Nis, he straightaway walked to the local railway station. His efforts at buying breakfast at the restaurant were not successful since they would not accept the Italian currency he was carrying and the banks were closed. Murthy slept off on the platform till eight p.m., when the Sofia Express arrived at Nis. The train generally stopped there for about two hours to handle the immigration chores. Murthy got on to the train and took his seat. To his delight, the compartment was nearly empty. Being an introvert, he was quite happy to be alone.

  As he sat reading a book, a tall, blonde and beautiful girl entered the compartment and settled down in the adjacent seat. Murthy remained buried in his book and did not even bother to exchange a smile. usually women, anywhere on earth, are talkative, and the girl broke the ice and struck up a conversation with him. When she got to know that he was from India, which then was much in favour of communism and socialism, the conversation naturally veered towards their countries’ various policies. Slowly, they began talking about their personal lives as well. The girl explained her situation.

  ‘I am from Sofia. I was sent on a scholarship by the government to Kiev University to do my PhD. There I met a nice young man from East Berlin. We liked each other and decided to get married.’ Saying this much, she sighed.

  ‘What was the matter? Why did you not get married?’ Murthy asked sympathetically.

  ‘We did get married and that was the problem. We applied for permission to marry a citizen of another country to our respective governments. They agreed, except that Bulgaria wanted me to complete the term of my bond in my country and my husband was asked to stay back in East Germany for the same period. The result is I travel to East Germany once in six months while my husband comes to Sofia once in six months. This has become extremely frustrating for both of us. We have lost all hopes of leading a normal married life,’ she said.

 
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