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The old man and his god, p.8
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       The Old Man and His God, p.8

           Sudha Murty
 
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  Meanwhile Neeta was still pouring out her heart. ‘Do you remember that pink sari I wore one day which everyone commented on and said was so pretty? Even you had asked me where I got it from. I lied that it was a birthday gift from my husband. He has never given me anything on my birthdays. Nobody helped me with my children’s homework or in the kitchen. I would struggle all alone trying to do everything. My life was no different from my colleagues’, but at least they gave themselves the freedom to talk about it and comment in public. I was too busy trying to show I had a perfect life.’

  ‘Now that you have realized that did not work, forget the past and try to be happy.’

  ‘Nothing comes free. I paid a heavy price trying to keep up the pretence of my life. I suffered from repeated bouts of depression. I tried talking about this with some people but they did not understand and I heard some make nasty comments about me. I hope you understand why I have come to you today and told you the truth.’

  I took Neeta’s hand in mine and said to her, ‘Everyone has secrets. We all have faults that we try to hide. But the problem arises when we don’t acknowledge those troubles and faults even to ourselves and pretend to be what we are not. A peacock looks beautiful when it dances but it cannot sing. A cuckoo is dark but has a golden voice. That is why a cuckoo should never dance and a peacock should not try to sing! We can live our lives in happiness only when we acknowledge our difficulties and failures and try to overcome them with our strength of character.’

  20

  Hundred Per Cent Free

  At the Infosys Foundation, we get hundreds of letters every day asking for monetary help for all kinds of purposes—for higher education, a wedding, medical help and so on. Usually we try to verify the genuineness of the claim and then we give sixty to eighty per cent of the total money required by the person. Once I got a letter from someone I had offered to pay a part of the money he required. He said, ‘You are very hard-hearted. Why can’t you give me the entire amount that I have asked for?’ I do so because two incidents in my life taught me that sometimes it is better to let a person struggle. It provides an incentive to strive harder. Anything given away for free loses value and is not treated with the respect it deserves.

  A few years back, when I looked out of my office window, I used to see a young boy of about fourteen selling dusters at the traffic light. He was thin as a stick and dressed in rags. I used to compare his state with the smartly-dressed children sitting in school buses, carrying their bags of books and would feel bad at the boy’s deprivation. One day, I decided to do something about it and called him up to my office. He walked in looking scared and diffident. I offered him some coffee and biscuits to make him feel at ease. Initially he was feeling too awkward to eat. But slowly, he relaxed and after drinking the coffee answered my questions.

  His name was Ravi and his father was a coolie and his mother a housemaid. He studied in a local school and in the morning hours he sold car dusters to earn some money for his education.

  I asked, ‘How much money do you make every month?’

  He said, ‘Between thirty to forty rupees a month’

  ‘Can I see your progress card?’

  The next day the boy came with his progress card. He was doing well in school and was obviously a bright child. So I said, ‘Suppose I gave you fifty rupees a month, then you would not need to sell dusters in the morning. Instead you can use the time to do your homework or learn something else.’ The boy was taken aback at the proposition and looked at me uncomprehendingly. So I said, ‘Just suppose I am buying all your stock of cloth every month and also giving a few rupees extra. That would mean you are earning Rs 50. Use it to study further. But I will want to see your progress report every three months before giving you the money.’ Now he understood and agreeing to my idea he left with great joy written on his face.

  Thereafter he came to my office every three months and after showing his card he would leave with the money. His progress report showed he was doing well in school. One day, he asked to speak to me. I was happy to see a smart, confident young boy in front of me. He came straight to the point, ‘Madam, now my stipend should be increased to Rs 100 per month.’

  ‘Why do you say so?’

  ‘Madam, two years back each duster was for Rs 2. Now it is Rs 4. So, you should pay me Rs 100 per month.’

  I looked at him in surprise. Obviously he looked at the money he got from me each month as his due and did not feel the need to work himself to earn more.

  Another incident soon after that convinced me to start my policy of extending only part of the help where money was concerned.

  I am very fond of atlases. When I was growing up in a village, it was difficult to get hold of one. So when I started the foundation I decided to start distributing atlases free to school libraries. In them children could see the country and the world and learn the vastness of the planet they lived in. I thought it was the perfect way to open a child’s eyes to the immense variety of life on earth. Later, teachers used to come to my office and collect them free for their schools.

  Once I was spending some time in the rural parts of Karnataka on work. It was dusk and the cattle were coming back after their day’s grazing. There was a pall of dust everywhere and I smelled the wonderful aroma of fresh groundnuts in the air. A man was sitting with a pile of freshly plucked groundnuts in front of the local school gate. It was quite irresistible and I went up to him and asked for a kilo. The man was a farmer selling his product directly to customers passing that way.

  He weighed a kilo and gave it to me loose. ‘Take this and put it in your bag,’ he said. I was not carrying one, so I asked him to get one from somewhere. He thought for a minute then he turned to his assistant and said, ‘Run into the school, the classrooms are still open. There will be a big red book there, with thick pages. Tear out one page and get it.’ Before I could protest the boy had run into the school. Soon he came holding a colourful page and I was handed my kilo of groundnuts in it. I looked closely at the page and realized it was from one of the atlases I had given to the school some months back! I was shocked.

  ‘Why did you tear the page from this book?’ I asked. The man answered, ‘Oh some lady gives these book free to the school. The paper is nice and thick, so we use it sometimes for wrapping things.’

  Then seeing the shocked look on my face he said placatingly, ‘We do it only when we need paper in a hurry, not otherwise.’

  I looked down sadly at the pack of groundnuts in my hand. In that dim light, I was sure I could make out the seal of our foundation on it.

  21

  Two Faces of Poverty

  Leela has been working in my office for many years. She sweeps, dusts and mops. She does her work quietly and takes on any extra work without any complaints. Since she was always so quiet and I was usually very busy, I did not know much about her personal life, apart from the fact that her husband had deserted her and she was bringing up three daughters singlehandedly.

  One day, she came in to clean my office and after doing her work, stood hesitantly in front of me. It was such an uncharacteristic thing for her to do, that I was surprised. Slowly, she brought out a soiled bundle and put it in front of me. Then she said in a low voice, ‘Madam can you lend me twenty thousand rupees?’ I was still puzzled and asked, ‘What happened Leela? Why do you suddenly need so much money?’ She replied, ‘My youngest daughter wants to join college and I need the money for that.’ While she was explaining I opened the cloth bundle. Inside, there was a pair of worn out gold bangles. ‘Why are you giving this to me Leela?’ I asked.

  ‘These are the only assets I have. I will do anything to see my daughter studies further. She is very bright. She wants to become an engineer.’

  I could make out the pride in her voice when she spoke of the girl. But when has a child not seemed the best and the brightest to her mother? So I told Leela, ‘Take back these bangles. I am not a moneylender. I want to meet your daughter and talk to her myself. Ask her t
o come and meet me with her school marks cards.’

  The next day a pretty girl in ordinary but clean clothes was waiting for me in the office. Her face was bright with intelligence and as soon as I entered she stood up politely.

  ‘Madam I am Leelamma’s daughter,’ she introduced herself. ‘My name is Girija. My mother said you wanted to talk to me.’

  Then she placed her marks cards in front of me. I was taken aback to see the high marks she had scored consistently. She also had numerous extra-curricular activity certificates. No wonder Leela was so proud of her and wanted to pledge her bangles for her. I looked again at her closely. She was fair and her face was as clear as dew. That seemed strange, as Leela was short and dark. We talked for a few more minutes and I could make out Girija’s fondness for her mother and sisters in her words. I sent her back and called Leela.

  ‘Leela, I met your other two daughters when they came to the office some times, but I am very impressed after meeting Girija. There is something about her that sets her apart. You were right, she is very bright. I will help you out with the fees. If she performs well I will give her entire course fees. She has it in her to change her future, if she continues to work hard . . .’ I was talking while clearing my desk and only after I had spoken for so long I realized that Leela was standing without saying a word. Finally she said, ‘I need to tell you something before you proceed further with your help. Girija is not my child. I have adopted her.’ I was amazed. ‘When? Why?’ I asked.

  She sighed. ‘It is a long story. Many years ago I was working for a young girl. She was staying by herself. Her parents were in the US and she was supposed to go to them after finishing her studies. I was a cook in the house. The girl was good looking and quite friendly. Often boys and girls would be at her house and there was a lot of fun, music, laughter and partying.

  ‘One day I found the girl looking worried and sad. She would often talk to me so I asked her what the matter was. She confessed that she was pregnant. The boy who was responsible had gone abroad soon after hearing the news and she was left in the lurch. She did not dare tell her parents and it was too late for an abortion.

  ‘What could I do after hearing such a story? I looked after her through her pregnancy, cooking the best foods. She gave birth to a baby girl in a nursing home here. All the while no one but me knew about the situation. Soon after the baby was born she told me to take it and put it in an orphanage. I tried, but holding the tiny baby in my arms I found myself unable to give her away and decided to bring her up. I already had two daughters and my husband had deserted me, but I knew I would always find enough to share with this new soul. That girl is Girija.’

  I was dumbstruck by Leela’s story and her courage and generosity. The crushing poverty of her life had not diminished the humanity within her.

  Yet not all children are fortunate enough to find a Leela to take care of them. There are others whose stories of cruelty and neglect can amaze even the most cynical of people. One such unfortunate child was Somnath.

  Usually I try not to give money to individual parents. Instead, we give it to a hospital where they take care of the needy at nominal rates. Once I made an exception and have regretted it ever since. It started one day when Ramappa came to meet me. He was standing in the reception arguing with my secretary who did not want to let him in without an appointment. Since he was already there I saw no point in turning him away and asked him in. His son, he said, was suffering from cancer and needed urgent surgery. He was a clerk and could in no way afford the Rs 2 lakh needed. I looked at all the papers and medical certificates he had got with him. Then I told him to get some more papers—proof of hospitalization, pathological report, estimation of the operation, his id in the hospital, etc. I also wanted the doctor’s name so I could talk to him.

  Ramappa thought for a while, then said, ‘All right I will bring the papers tomorrow.’ But the next day, Ramappa turned up holding a child by the hand. The boy was obviously very sick and it made a pathetic sight. I was furious that he had dragged the child all the way to my office in this condition. ‘Why did you get him?’ I asked. ‘I only wanted to see some papers.’

  Ramappa was ready with his reply. ‘It would take me a few days to get all the papers you wanted, so I got the child as proof.’

  I felt sorry for Somnath and wrote out a cheque for Rs 25,000. Ramappa said, ‘Can you give me a letter that you have given me this money? I can show it to other donors. If they see your name they too will agree to help me.’ I could see nothing wrong in writing such a letter and gave it to him. Ramappa thanked me wholeheartedly and went away promising to let me know how the operation went. But there was no news from him and a year passed. We too forgot about Ramappa till the auditors were doing their work and I realized that Ramappa had not called nor sent any other papers or receipts of the operation. I called up the hospital he had mentioned and wanted to know if they had operated on any child called Somnath that year. I was sad to hear that they hadn’t. Perhaps Ramappa could not raise all the money, I thought and berated myself for not helping him more or following up on the case.

  I decided to go and meet him. I still had the address he had given me. When I found the place, it was locked. It was a big, three-storeyed building in the latest style with plenty of tiles and granite. It was by far the grandest house in the locality. Having come so far I did not want to go without finding out more about Somnath, so I knocked on the next door. An old lady came out and was least taken aback to find a stranger at her door asking questions. She talked freely to me.

  ‘Where are Ramappa and Somnath?’ I asked her.

  ‘Somnath died six months ago.’

  I was saddened, but not surprised.

  The old woman was meanwhile chatting away. ‘Somnath’s disease came as a boon for Ramappa. He got a letter from some famous lady who gave him 25,000 rupees for the operation. With that he went around to other donors and managed to raise Rs 8 lakh. He used the money to build this new house and also started an auto business. Now he is doing very well in life.’

  ‘But didn’t he get Somnath’s operation done?’

  ‘Ramappa was no fool to get him operated. He was least bothered about it. In the end, he used to carry him around when he went to collect the money. Poor Somnath suffered a lot and died at home.’

  I was dumbstruck. By then a man appeared from inside and told the old woman not to talk. But she replied fiercely, ‘Why should I not talk? I saw Somnath from the day he was born. I saw him suffer. God will certainly not forgive Ramappa for what he did to his own son.’

  I had got to know enough by then and took my leave. I found myself in tears as I walked to the car. All I could do was thank god there are still people like Leela in this world. They lessen the pain and suffering inflicted by people like Ramappa, of whom unfortunately there are plenty.

  22

  India, the Holy Land

  Maya was a simple young lady who lived in the Tibetan settlement in the outskirts of Mundugod, near Hubli in north Karnataka. She used to teach the Tibetan language to the children in the camp, so they would not forget their roots. She was smart and hard working.

  My father was a doctor working in Hubli and he occasionally visited that settlement. If any of the Tibetans wanted further treatment, they would visit my father at the Government Hospital in Hubli. Maya too started visiting my father when she was expecting her first child.

  Over the months she became quite friendly with all of us. Whenever she came to the hospital she would pay us a visit too. My mother would invite her for a meal and we would spend some time chatting.

  In the beginning, we would be in awe of her and stare at her almost-white skin, dove eyes, the little flat nose and her two long, thin plaits. Slowly we accepted her as a friend and she graduated to become my knitting teacher. Her visits were sessions of knitting, chatting and talking about her life in the camp and back in her country for which she still yearned. Maya would describe her homeland to us with great affection, nost
algia and at times, with tears in her eyes.

  ‘Tibetans are simple people. We are all Buddhists but our Buddhism is of a different kind. It is called Vajrayana. There’s been a lot of influence from India, particularly Bengal, in our country and religious practices. Even our script resembles Bengali.’

  Her words filled me with a sense of wonder about this exotic land called Tibet and I would pester her to tell me more about that country. One day we started talking about the Dalai Lama.

  ‘What is the meaning of Dalai Lama?’ I asked.

  ‘It means “ocean of knowledge”. Ours is a unique country where religious heads have ruled for 500 years. We believe in rebirth and that each Dalai Lama is an incarnation of the previous one. The present Dalai Lama is the fourteenth . . . You know, India is the holy land of Buddha. Historically, we have always respected India. There is a nice story about how Buddhism came to Tibet through India . . .’

  I could not wait to hear about this!

  ‘Long ago there was a king in Tibet who was kidnapped by his enemies. They demanded a ransom of gold, equal to the weight of the king. When the imprisoned king heard this, he somehow sent word to his son, “Don’t waste any gold to get me back. Instead, spend that money to bring good learned Buddhist monks from India. With their help, open many schools and monasteries so that our people can live in peace and gain knowledge”.’

  Months passed and Maya delivered a baby. After that our meetings became less frequent. But she succeeded in awakening within me a curiosity about Tibet and a great respect for Buddhism

  Recently I got a chance to visit Tibet and memories of Maya filled my mind. I knew I would be seeing a Tibet filled with Chinese but nevertheless I was keen to go. Among the places I wanted to see was a Buddha temple at Yerlong valley which she had described to me.

 
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