How I Taught My Grandmother to Read and other Stories, p.2Sudha Murty
I was thrilled.
‘Sir, you don’t know me but I know a lot about you. I have read about your life in the book Wings of Fire.’
‘But I too know about you by reading your columns. I read Ananda Vikatan regularly, where you talk about your dreams and your struggles. Today when I read ‘IT Divide’ in the Week, I laughed and laughed. You have written on a tough topic in such a humorous way! I called my colleagues in the office and told them to read the column. Normally whenever your column appears, I read the last paragraph first because it contains the gist. Then I read the remaining portion as and when I get time.’
That was the best compliment I had ever received. When I write, I always think of the end first and then the beginning. Kalam seemed to have guessed that in no time.
I had heard from many people that he is extremely simple, wears only white and blue shirts and slippers. Soon I got to know that this was not an exaggeration. After our talk on the phone I met him several times. Till today, the more often I meet him, the more I am convinced about the essential simplicity of the man. Any interaction with him is a joy and I always look forward to it.
I met him for the first time in Bangalore. He sent me word that he wanted to see me though he had a packed schedule. I was waiting for him in a room when he came in, looking cool inspite of a long tough day. For a while we talked about literature and human qualities. He asked me in chaste Tamil, ‘How come you know such good Tamil?’
‘No sir,’ I replied, ‘I can’t speak Tamil but I can understand. My translator, Mr Arokia Velu is an excellent translator. The credit for what appears in Ananda Vikatan should go to him.’
As we chatted, a man without a prior appointment wanted to enter. Kalam’s security personnel were reluctant to let him enter. Finally Mr Kalam said, ‘Please allow him. It does not matter. He might have come from a long distance.’
A middle-aged man entered the room along with a photographer. He was holding a huge album and a bag. He told Kalam, ‘Sir, I own this institution,’ and kept the album in front of him. ‘Please come for our Prize Distribution Day. It will be a great honour for all of us.’
Kalam looked at a few pages of the album and said, ‘I am short of time so I will not be able to make it. May God bless the children.’
Then the man requested for a photograph with Kalam, to which he agreed immediately. The gentleman took a pink-coloured shawl from his bag and told the photographer to take his photo while he was laying the shawl on Kalam’s shoulder.
The photograph was duly taken and Kalam thanked him and continued talking to me. But my attention was still on the man. I noticed that he took back the shawl and walked out of the room. I could not control my anger.
‘Sir, he has taken the shawl which he presented to you.’
Kalam smiled at me and said, ‘It does not matter. I don’t need any one of them. Probably he needs it.’
Each time I meet him, I am amazed at his straightforward behaviour and his secular outlook. He has a compassionate heart which particularly loves all children.
After that meeting, whenever I was in Chennai, I would see him in his chamber in Anna University where he was teaching. We would talk about many issues, the main one being about education, particularly in the rural areas. He is extremely grateful to his teachers and holds them in the highest respect.
Once I was sharing my experiences in Chandipur, Orissa and a lesson I learnt from a young fisherboy called Javed. He was a poor schoolboy who helped his mother sell red crabs. For an entire day’s work he received only Rs 5. Yet he was happy and enthusiastic. When I asked him how he could always remain so optimistic, he said, ‘It is better to be worn out than to be rusted.’
As soon as I told this story to him, Kalam wrote Javed’s words down on a piece of paper and exclaimed what a great piece of advice it was. He told me that he liked Orissa immensely, as he had spent many years in that state doing missile tests.
‘If you are doing something in Orissa I will definitely come. I know you work there and that state is very dear to your heart too.’
Once, I decided to visit Rameshwaram, along with a group of friends. When Kalam got to know, he was very eager to go with us as it is his birthplace. He said he would join us at the Madurai railway station. He had made all the arrangements when his nomination for the post of President of India was announced. He told me, ‘We will keep the plan open for Rameshwaram.’
By this time I was sure he was going to be the President of India irrespective of the election. We could not ask him to join us as it could be a major security problem for him. Sadly I had to tell him, ‘No sir, please do not come. We will go on our own.’
By the time we returned from the trip, he had, as I had predicted, been elected President. He invited me to his swearing-in ceremony in the central hall of Parliament. What I saw when I stepped into the hall amazed me. It was filled with children, teachers, his family members, odd people like me and Father George, who used to be my student in Bangalore and then was doing his research under Kalam in Anna University.
It was a most unusual oath-taking ceremony. Everyone seemed to be close to Kalam. Normally, such ceremonies are attended by industrialists, politicians and other VIPs. But here there were students, teachers, scientists, ordinary middle-class people and friends of Kalam. I saw Mrinalini Sarabhai, whose husband the late Dr Vikram Sarabhai, was also a great scientist and knew Kalam well. Her sister, Captain Laxmi, had contested against Kalam for the post of President. She, too, was present in the audience.
I came away from the function feeling deeply moved by the love I saw everyone showering on Kalam. After a few months, I asked my son, who is a teenager, to meet Kalam.
My son said, ‘Amma, he is the President of our country. He is a learned and well-respected scientist. He is a very busy man. What will he talk about to a person like me?’
‘Child, please understand. I knew him before he became the President and I have met him after he became President. There is absolutely no change. He loves talking to people of your age. That is his mission. He interacts with children through email and chat. That is the reason I want you to meet him. Learn from him those qualities which you will never learn in any university.’
Somehow my son was not very convinced. ‘He is too big a man for me,’ he muttered.
Nevertheless, he was there when we had dinner with Kalam. For the next two hours they hijacked the entire conversation. Murthy and I could only sit and listen. They discussed the best operating systems for computers, the great Tamil saint Thiruvalluvar and his teachings, the future of the children of India, teaching methodologies in America, etc. After he left, my son told me, ‘Amma, I never felt that I was talking to the President of India. Rather, it was like talking to my grandfather whom I loved so much and lost four years back. Amma, what you said was true and not at all an exaggeration.’
When Kalam went by train on a tour of Bihar, he invited me to go with him along with five other friends. There I saw another face of Kalam. He would work more than all of us. His schedule would start at 6.30 or 7 a.m. and end at 10.30 or 11 p.m. At seventy-one years, he was tireless and the most enthusiastic person in the team, all of whom were much younger than him.
He would regularly address large groups of students, followed by question-answer sessions. He would take individual questions and answer them. Then he would make the children recite some of the important lines after him. He reminded me of a loving schoolteacher or a doting grandfather or an excellent friend to these children irrespective of the difference in age.
During Bangalore’s IT.Com I watched him taking an internet class for thousand students. He held their complete attention and was excellently prepared.
When we built a 150-bed Paediatric Hospital in Bhubaneshwar, Orissa for poor children, I was very keen that he should come and inaugurate it. I remembered his promise made to me in Chennai that he would come to Orissa if I invited him. But now he was the President of India, and there were many people like me i
Hassan’s Attendance Problem
For many years now, I have been teaching computer science to students studying for their Master’s in Computer Applications at a college in Bangalore. I have interacted with many students, and though it is not possible to remember all of them now, the memories of some are etched in my mind. That is not because they were all brilliant, but rather because something in them was very different from the others.
In my first batch, there was a very bright boy called Hassan. He was tall, handsome, with a very good memory. He came from an affluent family where he was the only son. Initially I did not come to know of his existence at all, mainly because he was hardly ever present. I normally take the first class of the day, which is scheduled at 9 a.m., or the one after that at 10 a.m. I prefer this time as this is when students are fresh and very attentive. Once in a while Hassan would turn up, particularly if there was a class test or during examinations. I met him more often in attendance shortage meetings. He would beg for attendance in such a manner that it was very difficult for me to say ‘no’. Sometimes I would get upset and tell him, ‘No, I can’t give you attendance. There should be discipline.’
‘Yes Madam,’ he would reply apologetically, ‘pardon me. From the next semester onwards I will definitely attend your class. Can you not pardon me this time? “To err is human; to forgive, divine”. You have only taught us this.’
I could not remain angry for long. Teachers do get upset with students who are not regular, but if the attendance shortage affects their appearance in the final examination, then one tends to melt like snow against the sun. A good teacher will always wish for the best for her student, though I do agree discipline is very important too.
As he was very bright, Hassan would invariably get a first class in the exam. However, before the exams started, every semester this drama with Hassan would be repeated. I would get upset, threaten and ultimately give in. Each time, Hassan would promise to improve his attendance record, and for one week would attend all classes, then the same old story would follow. Each time, he had a different reason for his absences. Unfortunately, they always seemed genuine to me.
Once I got tired of his stories and called his parents. ‘Your son is a bright boy, he is not arrogant but he is indisciplined. If only he came to class regularly and attended the lab, I am sure he could get a rank. I have failed to convince him. I will be happy if you could look into the matter more seriously, because this is going to affect his life,’ I said to them.
Hassan’s father was a busy man and did not take my words very seriously. He said, ‘As long as he does well that is fine with me because after a certain age children do not listen to their parents. Only life will teach them.’
But his mother was in tears.
‘Madam, I have failed as a mother. He does not listen to me at all. He spends all night listening to music, and chatting with his friends. He sleeps at six in the morning. How can he come to any class? He does not pay any attention to what I say and tells me I repeat the same thing always.’
The meeting ended in an argument between his parents. His father said, ‘You are the mother. It is your duty to correct him. You spend more time with him. I am so busy. You have failed.’
His mother said, ‘You are the father. It is difficult to control boys. You can speak to him man to man. Earning money is not the only thing in life.’
This continued for a while and the meeting ended fruitlessly. Hassan continued in his ways till he passed out of his course, as usual in first class. He was a nice boy. He came and thanked me.
‘Madam, thank you for teaching me for the last three years. Because of your kind heart I could get all my attendance. I wish all teachers were like you in the college.’
‘God willing, we will meet again.’
But I did not meet Hassan for a long time and forgot all about him. Years passed. I taught many students. Some of them became very good human beings, some became famous, some became rich and some remained ordinary. As far as I was concerned, they were like my children. Some remember me still and send invitations to weddings, naming ceremonies, house-warmings, etc. If I am in town I definitely try and attend, because for me their immense love is my strength.
One Monday morning, my secretary told me a person wanting to sell the latest software in high-school teaching wanted to meet me. I was extremely busy and the piles of unanswered letters were looking at me accusingly. I had no time to talk to a sales person. So I told her, ‘He can meet someone else. I don’t have time.’
But my secretary said he was insisting he wanted to meet only me and that he was my student. She knew how fond I was of all my students, so she had been unable to say ‘no’ to him.
‘In that case let him see me at 2 p.m.’
In the afternoon, a man of about thirty-five, plump, with a bald head, and moderately dressed was waiting for me in the office. In his hand was the CD with the software. I could not place him though he seemed familiar. He smiled at me and said, ‘Madam, can you recognize me? You may not, because how could you remember all your students? From a window you can see the outside world but from the outside you cannot see all that is inside.’
I liked his analogy and was sure he was my student because I often used this phrase in my class. Still, I could not guess who he was.
‘Madam, I was the perpetual latecomer of your class.’
That’s when the coin dropped. ‘Hi Hassan. How are you? It’s been a long time since I last met you.’ I was very happy to see him.
‘Madam, I am fine and remember many of your lessons.’
‘Is it database management? Or C? Or pascal?’
‘None of the software, Madam, I remember the moral lessons.’
I didn’t know what moral lessons I had taught, though I do tell some stories during my lectures on computer software.
‘Hassan, what are you doing now?’
Now his face became a little pale.
‘Madam, I am selling this software which is useful in teaching maths, physics and chemistry. It is of help to both teachers and students. I know your foundation helps a lot in education at the high-school level. I thought it may be of some interest to you.’
‘Hassan, what did you do for so many years?’
I knew all his classmates by this time were in very high positions in the software industry. Hassan being a bright student, should have definitely done well. Yet, on the contrary, he seemed to be doing a small job of selling high-school software door-to-door.
‘Madam, you know I was very irregular in college. The same habit continued even after my graduation. I would get up late and was very lazy. My mother would lose her temper and peace of mind. I did not bother. I took her for granted. After a lot of pressure from my parents I took up a job. But I continued with the same habits of going late to office, not keeping appointments and not being responsible. I did not have the proper knowledge also. In college, I hardly studied. Getting a first class in the examination is not an index of the amount of knowledge one has. I would study just before the exams, guess the probable questions, and skip the chapters. I always thought I could somehow make it later. But without proper knowledge it is difficult to work. I always laughed at those people who were hard workers. I used to make fun of them and called them “nerds”. Today those “nerds” have become millionaires. Nobody liked me in my office because of my behaviour. No employer would keep such an employee, and I lost whatev
I felt sorry for Hassan, who with all his intelligence and good nature, could not make it.
‘Hassan, you knew your faults, you could have improved and made a better life for yourself. There is always a start at any age. Don’t get disappointed. You may have lost a battle but you can still win the war.’
‘Madam, old habits die hard.’
‘But Hassan it is possible to change your habits. There is nothing which is impossible. You only require will power. You are yourself not aware of all your potential. Please remember when elders say something they do so because they want you to lead a better life than them. Excellence does not come by accident but by practice.’
I could see a twinkle in his eyes. I thought I saw a glimpse of the bright young Hassan. ‘I will try my best, Madam,’ he promised, as he rose to leave.
I have not met Hassan since that day. I hope to bump into him unexpectedly once again, and this time find him happy and successful.
The Red Rice Granary
Every year, our country has to face natural disasters in some form. It may be an earthquake in Gujarat, floods in Orissa or a drought in Karnataka. In a poor country, these calamities create havoc.
In the course of my work, I have found that after such calamities, many people like to donate money or materials to relief funds. We assume that most donations come from rich people, but that is not true. On the contrary, people from the middle class and the lower middle class, help more. Rarely do rich people participate wholeheartedly.
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