How I Taught My Grandmother to Read and other Stories, p.5Sudha Murty
There is a huge park in Moscow, known as Peace Park. In the middle of this Peace Park there is a large monument. There is a pillar, and on the pillar the different battles fought by Russia have been mentioned along with dates and places. The park has beautiful fountains. In the summer, flowers of many colours bloom and the place is a feast for the eyes. In the night it is decorated with lights. Every Russian is proud of this park and it is a spot visited by all tourists.
The day I went to the park was a Sunday. It was drizzling and cold, though it was summer. I was standing under an umbrella and enjoying the beauty. Suddenly, my eyes fell on a young couple. It was apparent that they had just got married. The girl was in her mid-twenties, slim with blond hair and blue eyes. She was very beautiful. The boy was almost of the same age and very handsome. He was in a military uniform. The bride was wearing a white satin dress, decorated with pearls and pretty laces. It was very long, so two young girls were standing behind her holding up the ends of the gown, so it wouldn’t be dirtied. One young boy was holding an umbrella over their heads so that the couple would not get drenched. The girl was holding a bouquet and the two were standing with their arms linked. It was a beautiful sight. I started wondering why they had come to this park in this rain soon after getting married. They could have surely gone to a merrier place. I watched as they walked together to the dais near the memorial, kept the bouquet, bowed their heads in silence and slowly walked back.
By now I was very curious to know what was going on. I could not ask the couple because they probably could not speak English and I didn’t know the Russian language. There was an old man standing with them. He looked at me, my sari and asked, ‘Are you an Indian?’
I replied, ‘Yes, I am an Indian.’
‘I have seen Raj Kapoor’s movies. They were great. Raj Kapoor had visited Russia. I know one Hindi song, Main awara hoon. Do you know Moscow City has statues of three great Indians?’
‘Who are they?’
‘Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi.’
Since we were chatting quite amicably now, I decided to use the opportunity to ask some questions.
‘How come you know English?’
‘Oh, I worked abroad.’
‘Will you tell me why that young couple visited the war memorial on their wedding day?’
‘Oh, that is the custom in Russia. The wedding takes place normally on a Saturday or a Sunday. Irrespective of the season, after signing the register at the marriage office, married couples must visit the important national monuments near by. Every boy in this country has to serve in the military for a couple of years at least. Regardless of his position, he must wear his service uniform for the wedding.’
‘Why is that?’
‘This is a mark of gratitude. Our forefathers have given their lives in the various wars Russia has fought. Some of them we won, and some we lost, but their sacrifice was always for the country. The newly-married couple needs to remember they are living in a peaceful, independent Russia because of their ancestors’ sacrifices. They must ask for their blessings. Love for the country is more important than wedding celebrations. We elders insist on continuing with this tradition whether it be in Moscow, St Petersburg or any other part of Russia. On the wedding day they have to visit the nearest war memorial.’
This set me wondering about what we teach our children. Do we tell them about the sacrifices of the 1857 War of Independence? Do we talk about the 1942 Quit India Movement, or ask newly-weds to visit the Andaman Cellular Jail where thousands lived in solitude and were sent to the gallows? Do we remember Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad, Shivaji, Rana Pratap, Lakshmi Bai who gave their lives to save our country?
These men and women never lived to see an independent India. But do we have the courtesy to remember them on the most important day of our lives? We are busy shopping for saris, buying jewellery and preparing elaborate menus and partying in discos.
My eyes filled with tears at the thought and I wished we could learn a lesson from the Russians.
‘Amma, What Is Your Duty?’
At that time, my daughter Akshata was a teenager. By nature she was very sensitive. On her own, she started reading for blind children at Ramana Maharshi Academy for the Blind at Bangalore. She was a scriber too. She used to come home and tell me about the world of blind people. Later she wrote an essay on them, called ‘I Saw the World through the Blind Eyes of Mary’. Mary was a student at the academy who was about to appear for the pre-university exam. Once, Akshata took Mary to Lalbagh for a change. The conversation between them was quite unusual.
‘Mary, there are different types of red roses in this park,’ Akshata told her.
Mary was surprised. ‘Akshata, what do you mean by red?’
Akshata did not know how to explain what was red. She took a rose and a jasmine, and gave them to Mary.
‘Mary, smell these two flowers in your hand. They have different smells. The first one is a rose. It is red in colour. The second one is jasmine. It is white. Mary, it is difficult to explain what is red and what is white. But I can tell you that in this world there are many colours, which can be seen and differentiated only through the eyes and not by touch. I am sorry.’
After that incident Akshata told me, ‘Amma, never talk about colours when you talk to blind people. They feel frustrated. I felt so helpless when I was trying to explain to Mary. Now I always describe the world to them by describing smells and sounds which they understand easily.’
Akshata also used to help a blind boy called Anand Sharma at this school. He was the only child of a schoolteacher from Bihar. He was bright and jolly. He was about to appear for his second pre-university exam.
One day, I was heading for an examination committee meeting. At that time, I was head of the department of computer science at a local college. It was almost the end of February. Winter was slowly ending and there was a trace of summer setting in. Bangalore is blessed with beautiful weather. The many trees lining the roads were flowering and the city was swathed in different shades of violet, yellow and red.
I was busy getting ready to attend the meeting, hence I was collecting old syllabi, question papers and reference books. Akshata came upstairs to my room. She looked worried and tired. She was then studying in class ten. I thought she was tired preparing for her exams. As a mother, I have never insisted they study too much. My parents never did that. They always believed the child has to be responsible. A responsible child will sit down to study on her own.
I told Akshata, ‘Don’t worry about the exams. Trying is in your hands. The results are not with you.’ She was annoyed and irritated by my advice. ‘Amma, I didn’t talk about any examination. Why are you reminding me of that?’
I was surprised at her irritation. But I was also busy gathering old question papers so did not say anything. Absently, I looked at her face. Was there a trace of sadness on it? Or was it my imagination?
‘Amma, you know Anand Sharma. He came to our house once. He is a bright boy. I am confident that he will do very well in his final examination. He is also confident about it. He wants to study further.’
She stopped. By this time I had found the old question papers I had been looking for, but not the syllabus. My search was on. Akshata stood facing me and continued, ‘Amma, he wants to study at St Stephens in Delhi. He does not have anybody. He is poor. It is an expensive place. What should he do? Who will support him? I am worried.’
It was getting late for my meeting so casually I remarked, ‘Akshata, why don’t you support him?’
‘Amma, where do I have the money to support a boy in a Delhi hostel?’
My search was still on.
‘You can forfeit your birthday party and save money and sponsor him.’
At home, even now both our children do not get pocket money. Whenever they want to buy anything they ask me and I give the money. We don’t have big birthday parties. Akshata’s birthday party would mean calling a few of her friends to the hous
‘Amma, when an educated person like you, well-travelled, well-read and without love for money does not help poor people, then don’t expect anyone else to do. Is it not your duty to give back to those unfortunate people? What are you looking for in life? Are you looking for glamour or fame? You are the daughter of a doctor, granddaughter of a schoolteacher and come from a distinguished teaching family. If you cannot help poor people then don’t expect anyone else to do it.’
Her words made me abandon my search. I turned around and looked at my daughter. I saw a sensitive young girl pleading for the future of a poor blind boy. Or was she someone reminding me of my duty towards society? I had received so much from that society and country but in what way was I returning it? For a minute I was frozen. Then I realized I was holding the syllabus I was looking for in my hand and it was getting late for the meeting.
Akshata went away with anger and sadness in her eyes. I too left for college in a confused state of mind.
When I reached, I saw that as usual the meeting was delayed. Now I was all alone. I settled down in my chair in one of the lofty rooms of the college. There is a difference between loneliness and solitude. Loneliness is boring, whereas in solitude you can inspect and examine your deeds and your thoughts.
I sat and recollected what had happened that afternoon. Akshata’s words were still ringing in my mind.
I was forty-five years old. What was my duty at this age? What was I looking for in life?
I did not start out in life with a lot of money. A great deal of hard work had been put in to get where we were today. What had I learnt from the hard journey that was my life? Did I work for money, fame or glamour? No, I did not work for those; they came accidentally to me. Initially I worked for myself, excelling in studies. After that I was devoted to Infosys and my family. Should not the remaining part of my life be used to help those people who were suffering for no fault of theirs? Was that not my duty? Suddenly I remembered JRD’s parting advice to me: ‘Give back to society.’
I decided that was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I felt relieved and years younger.
I firmly believe no decision should be taken emotionally. It should be taken with a cool mind and when you are aware of the consequences. After a week I wrote my resignation letter as head of the department and opted only for a teacher’s post.
I am ever grateful to Akshata for helping bring this happiness and satisfaction in my work and life. It means more to me than the good ranks I got in school, and my wealth.
When I see hope in the eyes of a destitute, see the warm smile on the faces of once helpless people, I feel so satisfied. They tell me that I am making a difference.
I joined Infosys Foundation as a Founder Trustee. The Foundation took up a number of philanthropic projects for the benefit of the poor in different states of India.
I received many awards on various occasions. One of them was the Economic Times Award given to Infosys Foundation. As a trustee I was invited to receive this award. At that time I remembered my guru. Now she was a student in USA. I told her, ‘At least for one day you must come for this award ceremony in Bombay. If you had not woken me up at the right time, I would not have been receiving it today. I want you to be present.’
I will remain indebted to Akshata forever for the way she made me change my life and the lesson she taught me.
The Story of Two Doctors
My sister is a doctor in a government hospital. She works very long hours. Often she has to do night duty which can be very exhausting. Our government hospitals may not have too many facilities, but at least the poor can get treatment here almost for free.
Once, during one of her night duties, she had to perform many operations and came home very late. Just as she reached home there was a call from the hospital for her to come and perform another emergency operation. She was about to leave immediately. Seeing her tired face, I made a comment. ‘I agree patients are very important to doctors. But for the last twenty-four hours you were in the hospital. You are also a human being; you too require rest. You can tell somebody else to do this operation. Why don’t you rest now?’
She smiled at me and said, ‘It is not me alone. There are many doctors along with me who are working equally hard. They also require rest. I am the seniormost doctor, so I must lead the team. In the larger interest of the people you must sacrifice your personal pain. Don’t you remember the story of anaesthesia?’ Saying this she went away.
I then remembered the story she had mentioned. My sister had narrated it to me some years ago. To what extent this story is true I don’t know. But it is a remarkable one.
Many years ago, in England, there was a father-and-son pair who were doctors. The father was very famous and innovative, and the son was young and enthusiastic. In those days there was no concept of anaesthesia and whenever a patient was to be operated on, chloroform was given.
The senior doctor did many experiments in this field and developed a medicine, which when injected in the area where the operation was to be done, made only that part numb. There was no need to make the patient unconscious. Today we call this local anaesthesia.
He performed several experiments and was convinced by adding different chemicals that his medicine was effective. But there was one problem. No one would offer himself for the experiment. Without experimenting on a human being this medicine could not be officially released in the market.
Now, the doctor’s son had six fingers on his left hand. One day, he suggested to his father, ‘Father, I know your medicine is very good. Inject it to my sixth finger and operate and remove the finger. Anyway I wanted to get rid of that finger. Let us perform this operation in front of other doctors. No man can stand the pain of surgery without anaesthesia. When they look at my face they will come to know that your medicine has made the area numb and I am not experiencing any pain.’
The suggestion was very good. The father conveyed a message to the members of the Academy of Medical Science, who were the final authority for allowing this medicine to be used in public.
The day of the operation came and several scientists, doctors and other public figures assembled to watch the effect of this miracle injection. The father exhibited his son’s sixth finger, and injected the medicine. He said, ‘Now I will start the operation. You can observe the patient’s face.’
There was a smile on the young man’s face. The operation was performed and was a success. Throughout, the smile remained on the son’s face. Everybody was amazed by what they saw and congratulated the senior doctor for his work.
After they left, the young doctor was dressing his wound. His father had tears in his eyes. He embraced his son and started sobbing uncontrollably.
‘Sorry, my son, I knew what pain you were undergoing during the operation, you never showed it to the public.’
The injection had to be prepared by adding four chemicals, but in his hurry and tension before the operation, the father forgot to add the fourth. Because of that the injection was not at all effective. There was uncontrollable pain during the operation. However, the son realized there was something his father had forgotten. If he showed his pain his father’s experiment would fail. He knew how hard his father had worked to develop this medicine. He himself was aware that it was effective. It was unfortunate that something was not making it work now. In the middle of the operation the father too realized the fourth chemical was missing and the medicine was not working. But he was unable to tell this in public. He knew what agony his son was undergoing in spite of the smile on his face. That was why, when everyone left, he broke down crying.
The son consoled his father. ‘Father, don’t worry. For the welfare of others, I controlled my own pain.’
I don’t know how true this story is, but in my sister’s and her colleagues’ dedication to their work, I thought I saw a glimpse of the sacrifices people in the medical profession make.
Till a few years back, I did not have a driver, and used to drive everywhere myself. The petrol bunk where I filled petrol from had a service station beside it. Some Saturdays, I would take my car to that service station and stay there until it was serviced. There were two boys, perhaps fourteen years of age, who worked there. They were identical twins. One was called Ram and the other one was Gopal. They were very poor and did not go to school, yet they could speak many languages.
Though Bangalore is the capital of Karnataka, Kannada is not the only language spoken here. There are many people who have come from outside the state and settled in this beautiful city, hence Bangalore has become very cosmopolitan. These boys had met many people during their work in the station and so could speak Kannada, which was their mother tongue, and also Tamil, Telugu and Hindi. Ram and Gopal worked as errand boys. They were always very cheerful and everyone liked them.
The servicing of my car used to take about two hours. The boys would bring a chair for me and I would sit under the shade of a tree and read some books.
Over a period of time I became friendly with them and they told me about their life. They did not have a father. Their mother worked as a labourer. They stayed in a nearby slum with their uncle. They had studied up to class four but then had to drop out as they were too poor. There was nobody who could guide and teach them at home. Though the salary at the service station was not much, they got free breakfast and lunch and sometimes some small tips from the car owners. They had no fixed working hours. They came around eight in the morning and went home only by 8 p.m. Sunday was the only holiday they got.
In spite of all the difficulties they faced, these kids were always smiling. They never said no or grumbled about any work they were told to do. I have seen children in many well-off families with grumpy faces and no happiness. If you ask them to do any work they give hundreds of reasons to avoid it. I suppose happiness does not depend on the amount of money in the bank.
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