The Old Man and His God, p.7Sudha Murty
By then we had reached Airport Road and it was time for me to get out of the car. But I wanted to say something to her before that.
‘Saroja you are dreaming of utopia. Your dream is an impossible one. If we want to be happy we have to change our attitude and not the world’s! The world is full of difficulties and unfulfilled desires just as the earth is full of dust and mud. If you want to keep your feet clean in this muddy world, there are only two solutions. Either cover the entire earth or wear a pair of sandals.’
Saroja interrupted, ‘What a great thought. Who told you this?’
By that time I was out of the car and closing the door behind me. I told her, ‘I was not fortunate enough to hear these lines from the guru himself as he was born 2,500 years before me. He was the Buddha.’
‘When did you become a Buddhist?’
‘Just now, in front of you.’
Some years ago, my friend Suman came from the US to stay with me for a month. She had been living abroad for nearly twenty-five years. All her relatives and friends are in Bangalore and Dharwad, and the purpose of her visit was to catch up with all her friends. She had grownup children who were not interested in visiting India, but she had the freedom to spend as much time as she wanted in her country. She still felt strongly about having her roots in India, perhaps more so because she had been away for so long.
Suman is very conscious of her health, and is always trying to keep her weight under control since she has a history of blood sugar and hypertension in her family. When I went to the US, I stayed with her once and saw her way of living. She diets, exercises, walks and meditates. She spends perhaps up to four hours a day on her fitness regime. When we were in school together she was on the plumper side and used to love eating sweets. Now, she hardly touches them. Knowing her love for them, I can understand the great effort she must be making to abstain from them. once I asked her how she managed to do it. She replied sadly, ‘It is so difficult. But I practice it. Sometimes I feel like having sweets, which is why we don’t keep any in the house.’
When Suman was staying with me, I accompanied her on some of her visits to the houses of friends and relatives. In India, a guest is supposed to be treated like god. Traditionally, the best of everything is put aside for the guest. People will go out of their way to make the guest happy. I have noticed that this is more so in the small towns and villages.
Once, I went with Suman to our friend Jaya’s house. Jaya was not keeping well, but had gone to great efforts to prepare many eatables for us. As soon as we arrived, she disappeared into the kitchen and reappeared after a while bearing two tall copper glasses and two plates of sweets. They were all traditional home-made sweets and I could see the copious quantities of ghee and sugar oozing out of them. Jaya was serving us with great warmth and it was getting awkward to say no. In such situations, it is expected that the guest should finish all that has been put on the plate. In fact, it can be perceived to be an insult if food is left uneaten by the guest.
Suman was of course quite upset to see all the sweets being served. She could not afford to abandon her diet. Though it may be easy to stay off the food one has not seen in years, as soon as one is face to face with it, the food becomes irresistible. Temptation and Jaya’s coaxing got the better of her and Suman ended up eating all the sweets. By the time we finished those, Jaya arrived bearing a second round of sweets.
‘You must drink this payasa,’ she said, putting before us bowls filled to the brim with creamy appali payasa. ‘It took me most of the afternoon to prepare this and I made it just for you.’
This time Suman was stronger and refused strictly. Since I was not on a diet, I finished my bowl, enjoying it immensely. It was indeed very good. Jaya was quite upset that Suman had refused the payasa.
‘Come on Suman, please have it. We are not as well off as you are now, but I prepared it with a lot of love. You will never get this in the US. Now that you are in India you must forget your diet. Get back to it when you return home.’
By now Suman was in tears. Seeing her state, I told Jaya, ‘Don’t insist so much. You have made everything with a lot of affection, but let her decide what she wants to eat.’
Jaya was unhappy that I had spoken for Suman. ‘If I insist she will have it. This is supposed to be good for health. I knew your grandfather, Suman, and he used to love this payasa. He was a friend of my grandfather’s and I remember him well. He was as thin as a stick, even though he used to eat everything, including sweets, and never dieted in his life.’
‘That is true. But my grandfather lived in a village and used to work in the paddy fields. He used to walk ten miles a day. That would have burned up all the calories he ate. My grandmother used to walk to the well and fetch water even in her old age. Theirs was a different way of life, our pattern of living has changed completely. Please understand.’
Our visit to Jaya’s house ended on a sad note. And as Suman went visiting from house to house, the same story was repeated. At the end of her stay, Suman showed me the reading on the weighing scale. She had put on five kgs. She left India full of worries about how it would affect her health, and not the happy memories she had expected to take back with her.
Her parting words got me thinking. She said, ‘People do not understand that hospitality does not mean serving rich food and large helpings. In all the houses I visited, they were upset that I refused to eat so much. For them it was a courtesy, but for me it is like poison. When I went to Delhi, I attended a wedding where they had a separate section with sugar-less food. I thought that was so considerate of the hosts. Nowadays everyone is conscious of one’s health and wants to eat healthy food. For me some kinds of food are silent killers and I have to avoid them. I wish my friends had understood this and not taken offence.’
I listened to Suman and felt sad. She was correct. Hospitality means making a person feel at home, allowing her to relax and sharing whatever we have without making anyone uncomfortable. But we seem to have forgotten that. For us hospitality means preparing masses of food and piling up the guest’s plate with it. And if she refuses, we get annoyed and jump to conclusions.
As I waved goodbye to Suman, I could only wish that Indian hospitality did not remind her always of a plate of sweets!
Radha and Rohini were my students through their college days. They were inseparable friends and I learnt they had studied together since the first year of school. I have rarely seen two friends who were so close to each other. They took all their classes together, attended lab with each other and were horrified when I suggested they take different lab partners as I was in favour of my students changing their lab partners every semester so they could learn to work with different kinds of people.
Of the two Rohini was the quieter one. She was also very talented and could paint and embroider beautifully. In fact often she would stitch similar clothes for herself and Radha and people would think they were sisters. There was such perfect understanding between them that they never felt the need to make other friends. I would see them together and wonder what would happen to their friendship later in life and after they got married. As it turned out, Radha got married first, to Ramesh, a civil engineer, and moved to Delhi. Rohini married Suresh, a mechanical engineer and set up house in Bangalore itself. I would see her once in a while and ask her about Radha. Time passed and both had children.
Meanwhile, I got more involved in my work with the foundation. In the course of that, I was planning to build an orphanage in the outskirts of the city. My funds were limited, so I was looking for someone who would take on the task of building the place at cheaper rates and yet do good work. Cheap is not always the best, is what I found out soon enough.
One day, a man in his late thirties came to meet me. He gave me a wonderful quotation for the work. He had made out a detailed proposal and I was very impressed. So I asked him, ‘How will you do all this a
He smiled and replied, ‘Madam, this is something I want to do. It is not a business proposition. I am not making any profit on this.’
I was pleased to hear his answer and said, ‘It is always good to see young people getting involved in social projects. So are you a philanthropher too?’
Now he grinned widely and answered, ‘Actually someone very close to me wanted me to take on this work. I don’t know if you remember her but she talks about you very often. Her name is Radha and she is my wife.’ Now it all became clear to me. It also explained the name of his construction firm, Radha Constructions.
‘Of course I remember Radha. But I thought you were in Delhi? Have you moved here?’
‘I left my job and started my own construction company in Delhi. It is doing very well and recently we moved here as I want to expand my work in Bangalore. Since Radha is from Bangalore, she too was keen to come back and stay here for a few years. Soon after we moved she read in the papers about your work and also about this orphanage that you plan to build. She immediately asked me to draft a proposal and meet you with it. You know, it is my belief that Radha has brought me a lot of good luck after our marriage. There was no way I could refuse her.’
I was delighted to hear his story, and especially that he attributed his success to my former student. ‘Will you tell her to come and meet me?’ I blessed her in my mind, for asking her husband to do this work for us at no profit.
Radha came to meet me the very next day. Of course she looked much older now. I was glad to see the happiness on her face. There is no greater joy for a teacher than to meet an old student who is doing well in life and is satisfied. Invariably, Rohini’s name came up in our conversation. ‘So do you now dress in similar saris? Are your children as close friends as you two were at their age?’
To my surprise, Radha remained quiet. Then she said, ‘I don’t know why but Rohini has changed a lot. You know I was so keen to come back to Bangalore because of her too. She was almost like a sister to me. And I know that was the way she felt about me as well. But somehow, things have changed. Our friendship is not the same any more.’
Astonished at her story, I asked Radha to explain further. She said, ‘Rohini has changed a lot. Whenever I go to visit her she is very polite, but the warmth is missing. She talks to me like she would to a stranger, and not her oldest friend. I have been trying to work out the reason, but I am still at sea.’
After talking for a while longer, Radha went back home. I felt I should talk to Rohini. Having been their teacher I still thought of them as my students. Teachers tend to be under the illusion that their students will always listen to them! So, I sent word for Rohini. She came to meet me at my office. I was seeing her after many months and was shocked to see her state. There were worry lines on her face, and she looked tired.
I tried talking cheerfully to her, ‘So Rohini what have you painted lately? Do you remember how you always used to pester me to give you a sari which you could embroider? Well, Radha gave me a plain sari yesterday. Will you make something on it?’
Quietly Rohini replied, ‘No Madam. I have stopped doing all that.’
‘What is the matter with you Rohini? You seem to be under a lot of stress. I came to know from Radha that you are no longer friendly with her? Did she do something to hurt you?’
‘Not really. You see, now there is a lot of difference in Radha’s and my economic situations. Her husband is doing well, whereas we are having a lot of financial problems. I don’t think it is possible for people of unequal status to be friends. Now that Radha is rich she pities me.’
‘Why do you say so? Did she say anything to you?’
‘Whenever she comes she brings expensive toys for my daughter and presents me with silk saris at the least pretext. She knows I cannot reciprocate. Perhaps she looks down at me and I am not comfortable around her. So I have tried to keep a distance between us.’
Now I understood. And Radha was not even aware of all this! I explained quietly to Rohini, ‘Come on. You must realize that in a true friendship the status does not matter. It is what you make of the situation. If Radha had given your daughter cheap toys you would have said she is doing so because you are poor. It is not what Radha does, but what your interpretation of it is. You must have read of the friendship between Krishna and Sudama. One was poor and the other a king, yet they kept their friendship alive. Radha gives you what she can afford and you too can try to give her something within your means. It need not be expensive. You are so talented. You can give her some paintings, or make a dress for her child. It is not the price but the thought behind a gift that matters. Don’t spoil your friendship of so many years because of an inferiority complex. Give Radha a chance. Shall I tell you an interesting line that I read somewhere once?’
Rohini was sitting quietly listening to me and nodded her head.
‘I was born with relatives, but at least I can choose my friends!’
We both burst out laughing. Rohini went home looking much happier and a few days later I received a beautiful sari with intricate thread work done all over it. The card read, ‘From Radha and Rohini’.
The Perfect Life
Many years ago, I was heading a project in the company where I was working. My team consisted of mostly married women of similar age and background. We were given one big hall to sit in. I had a cabin with a glass partition, while the others sat outside. During lunch hours the women would sit outside and gossip. They were just loud enough for me to hear them from behind my partition and I would end up listening to the stories of their households.
Most of the women were quite talkative, except for one called Neeta. And while the rest used to usually complain about their husbands and in-laws, Neeta would be the only one who had anything positive to say about her family.
When Neela would grumble about her mother-in-law, Neeta would say, ‘My mother-in-law is like my mother.’ Then Kusuma would say, ‘My sister-in-law is so jealous of me.’ And Neeta could be heard saying, ‘My sister-in-law is fantastic. We share everything like sisters.’ Geeta’s husband had a short temper and she would talk about how he got angry about the smallest issues. But Neeta would say she was more short-tempered than her husband, in fact he hardly ever lost his temper.
One day Neeta came to the office wearing a very pretty pink sari. Everyone commented what a lovely sari it was and I asked her, ‘Where did you buy it from? Is it your birthday?’ Neeta blushed and replied, ‘Yes, madam, it is a birthday gift from my husband.’
And so we heard stories of her perfect family everyday. Whereas everyone had the standard complaints of all working women, on how they had to juggle their office work and responsibilities at home, where they got little support from their husbands or in-laws, Neeta would relate how her father-in-law helped out the kids with their homework, and how her husband helped her in the kitchen.
It was the common consensus that Neeta was a lucky person, perhaps even the eighth wonder of the world. Savitri, the poetess, said, ‘Neeta’s family is better even than the flawed moon—it does not have any defects!’
Those days of laughter and joking passed and slowly the group dissolved and each went their own way. Many years later, I got a call from Neeta. For some time I could not place her but then slowly her stories came back to me. She was Mrs Perfect! She spoke softly into the phone and I thought I heard a trace of anxiety in her voice. She wanted to come and meet me one day and I told her to do so.
The day she stepped into my office I was astonished to see her state. While her friends had progressed from youth to middle age, Neeta seemed to have jumped straight to old age. She was frail and her hair had greyed. We talked for a while about our old team members, but she had no idea where they were now. So I told her. Neela, who used to fight with her mother-in-law and had moved out of the house with her husband, had finally gone back and looked after the old lady in her illness. Kusuma had
Life had gone round like a wheel for most of these people. They had taken on the challenges and responsibilities that came with age and had faced them with courage. Then I asked Neeta, ‘So how are you now? You never had the troubles that these people had.’
She looked even sadder at my words and there were tears in her eyes. ‘Madam you don’t know the problems I am facing.’
‘You and problems, Neeta?’
‘Yes Madam. I am suffering from depression. I have to go to the psychiatrist.’
‘There is nothing wrong with that Neeta. It is good that you are taking a doctor’s help to overcome your condition. It is like going to a doctor for any other ailment, there is nothing to worry about there.’
‘Madam, I have been depressed for so long that the psychiatrist says if I shared it with someone I know and respect, it might help me. That is why I asked to meet you.’
‘I am glad you thought of me Neeta, but why are you so depressed? You had such a wonderful family life.’
‘I always had lots of problems. I just could never bring myself to talk about them. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law were worse than Neela’s and Kusuma’s. My husband always took their side in any argument. I was so miserable. When my friends would talk about their families I always wished I could share my story with them, but my mother had told me never to talk ill of my family in public. She said I should always restrain my emotions and whatever happens at home, should put up a happy face outside it. As a result I would pretend to be happy. For me being frank meant showing my weakness.’
I was stunned by her words. I had always thought being frank was a virtue. I was taught to look around me at all the misery that existed in the world and then compare others’ problems with my own. I had counted my blessings when I felt sad and that had kept me going even in my darkest days.
The Old Man and His God by Sudha Murty / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes