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The old man and his god, p.5
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       The Old Man and His God, p.5

           Sudha Murty
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  Two pages fell out first. I looked closely and realized it was the expenditure list. There were amounts marked against marquee, video and photo coverage, sound system, flowers, decoration, taxi hire etc. They had collected Rs 10,295 and had spent Rs 10,285. A brand new ten-rupee note fell into my hands from between the pages. That was their final contribution to the relief work!

  The next morning there was a photo in the paper of a beaming Rekha handing over the purse to me. I looked at it and added Rs 10 against her name in our list of contributors!


  It is of course not always true that the donors work with their own agendas. Sometimes the beneficiaries too pose problems.

  When disaster strikes an area, I have seen that often the actual population of that area almost doubles. Beggars and other people from the surrounding and even far-off places start pouring in, hoping to win some easy bread by joining the refugee camps and standing in the ration queues. When the relief agencies don’t coordinate their material well, they end up giving away surplus material to the victims, who then sell it to others. In fact, I have come to realize that our country does not lack relief agencies and donors. What we lack is an efficient system of disbursal.

  So at the foundation, we have devised a system. When we take up any relief work, we first do a survey of the area, talk to people and study the depth and nature of the damage. Then we go with only the material that is essential. Before we start disbursing that we make a list of all the people in the area and hand out coupons. The material is handed over when they present the coupons to us at the camp. This way we are sure that the aid reaches the right people and bogus ‘victims’ cannot take advantage. The system is tedious and time-consuming but we are assured that we are helping the right people.

  During our tsunami relief work, we went once to a village where we initially had a meeting with the villagers to discuss their requirements. The next day we came with our material and the queue started forming. Soon we realized we had a problem on our hands. Many people were demanding extra materials and some others were returning time and again for further helpings. We had taken about 15 per cent more than the amount our list indicated but at this rate we would have needed 100 per cent extra.

  While I was trying to talk to some people and tell them that things were going wrong, a middle-aged man spoke up from the crowd. ‘Yes there are some extra people here today. They too need these things. You are not doing us a favour by giving us all this. They were given to you by other people to hand over to us. It is all ours anyway. And you people come here only because you want some fame saying you have done work. You are doing this for your selfish reasons. Getting all this material is our right and we shall decide how much we want, not you. If you cannot give us, go away. We won’t accept anything.’

  Many volunteers were very upset to hear this. Some had taken leave without pay to stay in these areas and do the work because they wanted to help. Arguments began and voices started getting raised. But with age I have learnt patience and realized something had to be done before a full-fledged fight broke out.

  As calmly as possible I said, ‘When we came to your village yesterday you said there are 200 families here. Each one wrote the family’s name and number of members. You agreed yesterday that you needed material only for these 200 families. To be on the safer side we have got enough for 230 families. Now you are saying people have come from outside and they too should be given a share. This is a disaster area. We are not entertaining guests and relatives. You have to survive. We cannot do magic and create extra material. If you feel we are helping you out of selfishness, is it not better that we are selfish in this manner rather than hoarding things for ourselves? Please don’t try to threaten us. Remember if someone is helping you today, you can be grateful and help someone else in need another time. Today people are queuing up to help you, but after a month the world will forget. If you burn your bridges now you will pay a heavy price. Your behaviour today will determine how the world behaves towards you later.’

  The man had no answer. He bowed his head in shame.


  Made in Heaven

  At the end of each semester, when the coursework is complete, I do not allow my students to sit and study in the library. Instead, every few days I arrange a debate in the classroom on some topic, where each person has to say something. I do this in order to hone their communication, especially verbal, skills. We all look forward to these debates, which sometimes become so strong and emotional that I have to jump into the fray and remind everyone that it is merely a classroom discussion.

  Once, the subject was marriage. The students were discussing various issues that arise during a wedding, like the expenses incurred for the ceremony, the advantages and disadvantages of arranged marriages, how well the two people need to know one another before taking the step, and so on. Some of them said, ‘A wedding has always been looked upon as a social occasion in our country. If the families can afford it, why shouldn’t they spend as much money as they desire on the preparations and meet other people.’ Others said, ‘The amount of money spent at a wedding has become a status symbol. It has become a place for exchanging gossip. Parents end up spending their life savings in these ceremonies.’ One of them, Sunitha, elaborated further, ‘In our country, most bonded labourers have got into a debt trap because of high marriage expenditures. These lavish weddings should be banned.’

  I stepped in at this point and told them gently that the expense and the ceremonies don’t determine the success of the marriage. Rather, it is the understanding that needs to develop between husband and wife. To prove this, I told them the story of the most successful marriage I have seen so far in my life—that of Yellamma and Madha.

  I met them when I happened to be spending a night at a tiny village in the course of my work. I had had a wonderful meal and was enjoying an after-dinner stroll around the village. It was a full-moon night and the quiet and serenity were most welcome to my ears: no noises of phones ringing, cars honking, aeroplanes roaring overhead. Instead leaves on the trees were rustling gently in the breeze, a bird or a dog was calling out now and then into the dark night, which was lit only by the moonlight. Gowramma, the local lady accompanying me, was talking as she walked with me, describing the village’s problems of drinking water, procuring pesticides and lack of medical facilities. We were walking towards the large banyan tree, the heart of the village, when I heard someone singing a folk song. I was struck by the beauty and soulfulness of the rendition and asked Gowramma about the singer. She said it must be Madha singing for his wife Yellamma. I immediately asked if I could visit them and we walked to their hut.

  Madha and Yellamma were perhaps the poorest people in that village. They had to beg for their meals every day. Yellamma was quite sick and when I reached their hut, she was lying down, while Madha was massaging her feet and singing. It was a rare but touching sight. We started chatting with them, and I asked candidly, ‘What problems do you face in this village?’

  Yellamma replied, ‘We don’t have any problems. We do everything together, dividing the work between us. We usually ask each other’s opinion. We always tell what is on our minds and if one is wrong the other does not hesitate to correct. If I cannot go out, Madha fetches alms for both of us. We believe that in this journey of life, we should be together in everything. Whether it is some special alms or only a pot of water, we share whatever we earn. We spend the day begging in different parts of the village but are always glad to be with each other at night. We trust each other and are happy with our lives, full of hardships though it is.’

  Standing there in front of their ramshackle hut under the bright moonlight, I realized I was listening to great words of wisdom. Yellamma and Madha were the poorest of the poor, uneducated, and had faced great adversities in life, but they had learnt the most valuable lesson: how to live happily with one’s partner.

  In our society now, marriage is often treated as a security measure, and wedding ceremonie
s as social events where the status of the couple is on display. It is rare to come across a couple who understand that they are on a journey together, sharing their joys and sorrows. For Yellamma and Madha marriage was a partnership, not a burden or an object to be flaunted.


  The Grateful Tenant

  It was a Sunday morning and for once I was eager to attend a function. It is not something I normally look forward to, but this one was special; it was the housewarming ceremony of my friends Ramesh and Sheela’s new house.

  Ramesh is a professor and Sheela works in a bank. They earn well enough but most of it goes in looking after their large family. In fact, I knew Ramesh had had to spend a large amount on his sister’s wedding a few years back. Given this situation, and the fact that with land prices shooting up in Bangalore, it has become difficult for an honest salaried person to buy a house, I knew my friends were very proud and happy to have been able to do so. I too was keen to meet them and be a part of their happiness.

  The house was at a new layout in the outskirts of Bangalore. It was simply built and just right for a family of their size. I could see the satisfaction on Ramesh and Sheela’s faces. Many of our old friends had also come and we spent a lot of time chatting. We had lunch together and time seemed to fly, there was no time to feel tired or bored. Right after finishing lunch, we were sitting on some chairs laid out in the shade outside the house, and waiting for the paan to arrive. Someone had gone to the nearest market to get it and we knew it would take a while for him to return. We were talking of this and that and I was looking at the house, when I noticed a plaque attached next to the gate. It had the name of the house, Shyamkamal, engraved on polished black granite.

  In my experience, people name their houses after their own or children’s names. Or it is named after the family deity, like Venkateshwara Nilaya or Raghavendra Prasad or Beereshwara Krupa, etc. Of late more exotic names like Love Nest, Paradise, Seventh Heaven and Sukha Villa, Aishwarya Villa, etc. have been added to the list. (Of course here ‘villa’ is the French word for ‘house’ and not the Kannada word meaning ‘no’!) Some people with an artistic or literary bent of mind name their houses Megha Dhoot, Nadaswara, Varshini, etc.

  But Shyamkamal was not fitting into any of these categories. So I asked, ‘Sheela, why is your house called Shyamkamal? I have only heard of the movie Neelkamal!’

  Sheela and Ramesh exchanged a look. Ramesh said, ‘It is a combination of the names of the two people who changed our lives, and the ones we remember and thank each day.’

  ‘What do you mean by that? Who are they?’ I asked.

  I had known Ramesh and Sheela for many years. His father Madappa was from a village near Dharwad in north Karnataka and Sheela’s family was distantly related to Ramesh’s. We had been friends from childhood and would go to school and play together. We often ate our meals together and knew each other’s relatives quite well. I was quite sure I had never heard of or met anyone called Shyama-Kamal among their relatives.

  Ramesh explained, ‘Shyamkamal stands for Shyama Rao and Kamala. Do you remember when I was in college in Dharwad, I used to stay with an old couple?’

  I thought back to those days of long ago. Of course I remembered. With age, I have discovered it is easier to remember the events of the distant past rather than what happened earlier in the day. In Dharwad, there was an old couple who used to rent their outhouse to college students. Ramesh must have stayed there for six years. But I was still puzzled. Why would he want to name his house after the couple who were after all only his landlords. Ramesh noticed the mystified look on my face, and explained, ‘You may not know, Sudha, but those days my family was much against my going to Dharwad for higher studies. They wanted me to stay back in the village and look after the fields. At that time, Shyama Rao supported me wholeheartedly in my decision to study in a bigger town. He was a retired postmaster and my father’s friend, and he convinced my father to send me to Dharwad with promises of looking after me. He became more important than my father to me. He gave me a place to stay. My meals used to come from my village in the state government bus every day, but if ever the bus did not come, or I could not go to the bus stand for some reason, his wife, Kamala Bai would share their meal with me. She did not let me go hungry for a single day. And you know how hard up we were, so if I got late in depositing my college fees, Shyama Rao would put aside some money from his meagre pension and help me out.’

  ‘But you used to run errands for them and do odd jobs around their house. In fact we used to call you their Man Friday behind your back,’ said Raghav, Ramesh’s roommate.

  ‘I won’t agree with you Raghav. Think of the old couple. They had no need to do all those things for me. They were not rich but they went out of their way to help me out of my difficulties. Without their help, I do not know where and what I would have been today. I will never forget their generosity. Even after I finished college and was unemployed and despairing, I remember Shyama Rao would speak encouraging words to me and lift my spirits. “Don’t feel bad. So what if you have lost the battle, you will win the war”, is something he told me often.’

  ‘But why did you name this house after them?’ I went back to my first question.

  ‘It was my father’s suggestion. You see, he brought me up, his son, because it was his duty, the way I am doing everything possible to bring up my children. But there are some people who do things out of affection, and not duty, and they change your life with their love and generosity. My father said this house should be named after the people who played such an important part in my education. This is a story that my children need to know. I also want them to understand the gratitude I feel towards Shyama Rao and Kamala Bai not through mere words but by my actions.’

  Ramesh and his father’s gesture moved me immensely. They reminded me of Dr BR Ambedkar, who decided to call himself Ambedkar after his teacher. It is people like them who reaffirm our faith in humanity and the culture of this ancient country.


  A Foreigner, Always

  Gautam Buddha was born 2,500 years ago as Prince Siddharth in Lumbini, in present-day Nepal. Throughout his lifetime he crisscrossed the subcontinent spreading his message of peace, tolerance and the righteous path. Shravasthi, Rajagraha, Sarnath, Boddh Gaya, Kushinagar are some of the places he visited and which became important centres of Buddhism. Though he imparted most of his teachings in India, in the ensuing centuries, Buddhism spread all over the world. Today, Sri Lanka, Japan, Korea, Thailand are some countries where Buddhism is flourishing. And in the Indian subcontinent too, there are places which retain strong links with Buddhist history.

  Nearly twenty-five kilometers from Islamabad, there is a sleepy town called Takshila. At one time, it was the site of the world’s oldest university, and an important centre of Buddhist learning. King Ashoka, the great patron of Buddhism, built many viharas here where scholars discussed philosophy and religion for centuries. Hiuen Tsang described the glory and beauty of Takshila in his writings.

  Now, all that remains of that bustling university are the ruins. The Pakistan government has converted part of it into a museum, where one can see splendid works of art including heads of Buddha statues which have been excavated, jewels and panels depicting the life of Buddha. For anyone interested in Buddhism and its history, this museum is a place that has to be seen.

  Recently I visited Pakistan for the first time. Though I was there on some other work, I had decided long back that if ever I got the chance to visit Pakistan, I would go to Takshila. I landed in Islamabad with many of the usual preconceived notions about the country in my mind. But soon I saw that women were moving about freely and not always in burqas! The sumptuous meal of channa bhatura, alu paratha and jalebi that our host had prepared for us made us feel more at home. I spent some time shopping for clothes and again, the bazaars and shops were not too different from ours, and we ended up buying the latest bargains. Our taxi driver was humming what turned out to be the latest
Hindi film number when I heard him closely. And like in our country, there was a delay in the flight I was to take. So it was not surprising that I found myself feeling quite comfortable.

  The next day, I set off for Takshila with a French group. We got a bit delayed in reaching the museum and the curator, perhaps guessing our keen desire to see the exhibits said, ‘It is nearing closing time. Why don’t you all go in and start looking around, I will explain everything. Your tour organizer can get your tickets meanwhile from the counter.’ This seemed like a good idea to all of us and we were soon absorbed in looking at the wonderful articles on display. For me it was additionally moving as I was fulfilling a long-cherished desire. I was seeing parts of our history which I had only read about in books come alive. After a detailed tour, the curator led us outside. There, for the first time, I noticed the ticket window. The rates were Rs 200 for foreigners and Rs 25 for locals. When the organizer handed me my ticket counterfoil I realized I was holding one for Rs 200. Thinking there had been some mistake I went up to the man at the ticket window. ‘I understand your reasons for charging more from foreigners as you need all the funds you can get for the upkeep of the museum,’ I said. ‘But why are you charging me Rs 200? I am from India. This place is as much a part of my heritage as yours.’

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