How I Taught My Grandmother to Read and other Stories, p.8Sudha Murty
Gowramma described Lord Krishna as a tall, handsome person with a dark complexion, a mischievous smile and a kind heart. Later when I saw the Mahabharata on TV, the actor who was playing Krishna’s role was exactly how she had described. Whereas when I saw the Ramayana on TV, the actor looked very different from what I had imagined Lord Rama to be like. The storyteller influences your imagination of what the characters in the story look like.
Gowramma would pick up many stories from Katha Sarithsagara, literally meaning the ocean of stories, and recreate the scenes for me. For us, time would stop and we would be immersed in the story until the peon of the school would come and harshly tell us, ‘Time is up. Except you two, only the school ghost is here. You may not be scared of the ghost but I am. Kindly vacate the room.’
Then Gowramma and I would get up and depart with a heavy heart.
This went on till I was in class seven. Then I joined another school. For a few days I missed Gowramma, but soon I forgot her in my new activities. Once in a while, I met her at the marketplace and she would affectionately ask about my studies.
At home, whenever I got lost in a storybook, I would be teased as Gowramma’s only true student. My mother would tell me sadly, ‘Poor Gowramma, she is so beautiful, so good-natured but luck is not on her side. Her husband has left her because she cannot bear a child. He has married another woman. That woman has produced children but in no other way is she a match to Gowramma.’ Then I would understand the reason behind the sadness in Gowramma’s eyes.
Time flew by as swift and light as straw. I did my engineering, got married, had children and later became the Chairperson of Infosys Foundation. I toured the length and breadth of the country, met many celebrities and many poor people. My life became public.
I was often invited to colleges and universities to deliver lectures. Once, I went to a university to deliver a lecture. After it was over, students gathered to ask some questions. Though it was getting late for my next programme, since I love talking to students, I remained there answering their questions. I feel students are like my young friends, brighter than me but with less experience.
Students also ask me a lot of questions about my young days, so that they can relate to my life.
One bright girl in the crowd asked me a question which left me dazed. It was a very difficult question. ‘When you are faced with some difficulty, how do you solve it? Do you avoid it?’
I did not know how to answer her and was tempted to ignore her, but my heart would not let me do that. She was a girl of twenty, bright and simple, direct and bold with no hesitation or shyness. When she saw me looking at her blankly, she repeated the same question. Somehow, looking at her, I felt I was looking at myself when I was twenty years old.
In a fraction of a second an answer came to my mind. ‘Children, in answer to this question, I will tell you a story. It is a story from the Ramayana. In the battlefield at Lanka, during the battle between Rama, Lakshmana and Ravana, Lakshmana became unconscious. He needed the medicine plant Sanjeevini to revive. Sanjeevini was only available in the Dhrona mountains. These mountains were huge and far away. The only person who could do this job was Hanumana. Hanumana flew to Dhrona mountains, but alas, he was unable to recognize which was the Sanjeevini plant. Time was running short. The only way out was to take the entire mountain along with the plants to Rama. The mountain was huge, how could he lift it? But Hanumana had the gift to increase his body size. He became higher than the mountain, till it was like a pebble for him. Then he put the mountain on his palm and flew back to Lanka. The rest of the story, all of you know.’
The girl was impatient and restless.
She said, ‘I asked you a different question but you told me an old story which everyone knows.’
I smiled at her and said, ‘Have patience. I have not yet completed my answer. When you come across difficulties, you have to grow bigger than the problem. You have that capacity within you, but you are not aware of it. If you become bigger, difficulties will look smaller than you, and you can solve them easily. If you become smaller than the difficulties, they will look like mountains and crush you. This is the theory I have followed in life.’
The students were pleased with my answer and there was a lot of applause. I stopped them in the middle of the clapping, with moist eyes and a heavy voice, ‘The credit for this answer should go to my teacher, Gowramma. When I was young, she taught me this lesson. She used to tell me many ancient stories which are priceless in their wisdom. To understand them we need great storytellers like Gowramma. It was she who taught me to love stories when I was young.’
The function got over and I returned to Bangalore. As usual I became busier than ever. I forgot about the whole thing.
One day there was a letter. My secretary came up to me and said, ‘Madam, it seems to be from somebody who knows you well. Probably this is a personal letter, so I did not read it.’ She placed the letter in front of me and left. I was wondering who it could be from. It was written in a shaky handwriting. I looked closely at the name at the bottom and was surprised. It was from Gowramma.
It said, ‘I think you know my husband left me long back and everyone used to make fun of me and call me a “barren woman”. Everyone looked down on me and called me story teacher rather than Sanskrit teacher. Sometimes people used to tell me that instead of telling stories to children, I should make money by giving private tuition classes. I did not, because I believed in my work. I was always humiliated because I could not bear any children. You know my husband married a second time and had his own children. These children got into bad habits and brought shame and debt to him. He used to come and cry at my doorstep. At that time I helped him with my savings . . .’
I could not understand why Gowramma had written this personal story to me. I was aware of her situation. But why had she written it all to me now? But patience is one quality I have acquired along with my grey hair. It told me to complete reading the letter.
‘Today, my husband brought me the newspaper and showed it to me. He said that you mentioned my name in public and contributed your success to my storytelling. For a minute I froze. I am not your biological mother but you behaved as if you were my child. People have children, but they fight and bring disgrace and shame to their parents. My husband felt ashamed about his own children, whereas I felt proud about my child whom I taught selflessly and who listened wholeheartedly. You made me proud. Now I don’t have any complaint with God.’
Tears welled up in my eyes and fell on the letter mingling with the ink. I was unable to read further.
Who Is Great?
Whenever I teach my class, I make sure that everyone participates in the question-answer session. I normally teach for forty minutes and the last twenty minutes I keep open for debates, questions and answers. This way, students learn to express their opinions in front of others and the teacher also understands how much the students have learnt. Many times I have learnt a lot from my students during these sessions. Sometimes their questions are so difficult I am not able to answer. Then I tell them that I will refer to my books and answer the next day.
Frequently, after the class I tell a story which leads to debates. Once, I made a statement, ‘Many a times there is no perfect solution for a given problem. No solution is also a solution. Everything depends upon how you look at it. We make judgements on others depending upon what we think of them.’
My students immediately objected to this statement. ‘Convince us,’ they said.
‘Okay, I will tell you a simple story. This happened many centuries back. There was a beautiful girl called Rathnaprabha who was rich and bright. She completed her studies and asked her teacher, “What shall I pay you as gurudakshina?”’
‘Her teacher replied, “Your father has already paid me. You don’t have to worry.”
‘Rathnaprabha insisted and the teacher was upset. He said to himself, “I want to test the courage of this girl. Let me put a difficult condition which she will not be ab
‘So he said, “Rathnaprabha, on a moonless night you should deck yourself with lots of jewellery and come to my house all alone.”
‘There was a forest between Rathnaprabha’s house and the teacher’s. The road was very bad. There were many animals in the forest and a river too. Rathnaprabha thought for a minute and went away. The teacher was very happy that he had silenced his student.
‘Finally it was a moonless night. Rathnaprabha decked herself with expensive jewellery and was about to set out to her teacher’s house. Her father saw this and was very upset. He asked her where she was going, so Rathnaprabha narrated the story. Her father was taken aback.
‘He said, “Your teacher is a nice person, you must have troubled him, which is why he told you to do this, just to teach you a lesson. I know him well, I will explain to him tomorrow. Don’t go. He will understand and he will pardon you. You are like a daughter to him.”
‘Rathnaprabha did not listen. She insisted on going all alone as she had promised she would. There were many animals in the forest but she had made up her mind and kept walking.
‘Suddenly, she was stopped by a young thief. He had never seen so many expensive ornaments and was delighted by the amount of money he would make that night. He stopped her and told her his intentions.
‘Rathnaprabha was unperturbed. She said, “I promised my teacher I would go to him wearing all these ornaments. I will give them to you when I come back from my teacher’s house. I always keep my word.”
‘The thief was surprised and let her go. But he followed her secretly to know what happened next. Rathnaprabha knocked on the door of the teacher’s house. He opened the door and was surprised and sad to see her.
‘“I thought you would take it as a joke. It was only to discourage you. I never thought you would come here against all the odds. Please go back home. I will bless you my child. You are a woman of your word.”
‘Rathnaprabha turned to go back when the thief appeared before her. She said to him, “I promised to give you all my ornaments. Please take them.”
‘The thief smiled and said, “You are an unusual woman. I don’t want anything from you. It is difficult to meet people like you.”
‘Rathnaprabha came home. Her father was waiting at the doorstep. She described everything to him. Her father was proud and happy. He said, “You are courageous and you kept your word. Come inside and take rest. You have travelled a lot today.”’
When I completed the story, my students were not impressed. They said, ‘What is great in this story? There is a headstrong girl, a foolish teacher, an impractical thief and an irresponsible father. What do we have to learn from this story?’
I told them, ‘That is how you view things. I understand the story in a different way. Courageous Rathnaprabha, kind-hearted teacher, generous thief and a responsible father who values his daughter’s words. Who do you think was the greatest person in the story?’
A lot of noise broke out in the classroom. The students started debating and arguing amongst themselves. I was smiling and looking at them.
One group got up and said, ‘Madam, we think Rathnaprabha was great because she was aware of all the difficulties and yet did not change her mind. She was opposed by her father, scared by the thief, worried about the animals in the forest, but still she believed that gurudakshina should be given to her teacher. We only hope Madam, you will not ask such a gurudakshina from us.’ The whole class burst into laughter. I did not answer.
Another group immediately got up and argued, ‘We don’t agree. There was nothing great about Rathnaprabha. She was a headstrong girl. The thief was the greatest person because a thief usually robs people without asking their victims or worrying about what happened to them afterwards. There is some bond between the teacher and Rathnaprabha and between Rathnaprabha and her father. They had some commitment to each other, whereas the thief was not a part of the system. So we think the thief was the greatest personality.’
Before they could complete, another group got up and argued for the teacher. ‘The teacher was the greatest. He told Rathnaprabha not to worry about the fees. But when she was adamant, he put forth a difficult condition. When she came, he was surprised and worried. He did not ask anything else. He blessed her wholeheartedly.’
The last group did not agree, because they believed the father was the greatest. They argued, ‘The father allowed Rathnaprabha to take her own decision. How many fathers even today allow their daughters to do that? Madam, in this class how many girls can take independent decisions?’
Things became too noisy after this because the debate had now become personal. I realized it was time for me to interfere.
I said, ‘There is no one person in this story who was great. It is the way we look at it. Similarly, whenever any problem arises we should view it from different angles. The decisions each of us arrives at will be different. Whenever we blame somebody, for a minute we should enter into that person’s mind and try to understand why he did what he did. Only then should we take a decision.’
Now my entire class agreed with me.
Balu is my cousin. In no way is he extraordinary, yet he is very special to me. That is because he can always see the lighter side of any situation, however difficult. When I talk to him I feel life is so simple, and I have been complicating it unnecessarily.
Once, a friend of mine who was working in a bank, was transferred to a small village in a forest area. He was worried about his family, children, their education, etc. He could not resign, as he would not have got another job at that age. One day, while he had come to my house and was telling me his worries, Balu arrived. He heard the problem and started laughing.
‘If I were you I would have accepted this happily. You can leave your children with your parents. Grandparents always look after children very well and also teach them better lessons. Is it not true, Sudha?’ Without waiting for my answer, he continued, ‘Of late, your health has not been good. In this city it is difficult to go for a walk. The congestion and traffic chokes your throat. The best cure for your problems is to go for a five-kilometre walk every day. How will you do that here? That is why a village is the best place for you. There are trees everywhere and the air is fresh. Take advantage of this situation and enjoy it. Your wife can visit you once a month and you can come here once, that means you will meet your family twice a month. Sometimes it is better to be away from the family for a while, as you get a lot more respect. This is my personal experience.’ Balu finished in a hushed tone.
My friend certainly looked more at ease after listening to Balu’s speech. That is the way Balu speaks. If somebody fails in the exam, Balu has a ready-made consolation.
‘In life, some failures are essential. Repeated success makes a person arrogant, whereas occasional failures are essential to become mature. Have you not heard the famous words, “Try and try and try again, you will succeed at last.” Don’t fail next time. Start studying now.’
Parents don’t always like this advice of his but it goes down very well with the students.
Another cousin of mine, Prasad, is always complaining, ‘People cheat me a lot. I want to help everybody, but people take advantage of me.’
Balu was ready with a clever answer, ‘There was a person who used to complain the whole day, from morning to evening, that he had a headache, a stomach ache or a leg pain. I asked him, “Show me where you are aching.” He pointed all over his body with a finger. Then I told him, “You have a pain in your finger and not in the other parts of the body.” Prasad, when you say everyone is cheating you and taking advantage of you, then you have a problem, not others.’
Balu is a good narrator and once he starts describing something he forgets the time. That is the reason why he is very popular with children.
He exaggerates his stories, is never punctual, but still I enjoy his company. He is not cunning and would never hurt anyone. He can
His children have all grown up now and done well in life. Balu jokes about this too. ‘They have done well because I did not help them in studies.’ He can laugh as much at himself as at others.
Balu has travelled to many places. He has a story to tell about every place he has visited, but I usually take them with a pinch of salt. His son works in the US. When he had a baby, he invited his parents to the US for a year. Before Balu left, the whole village knew he was going abroad. After he came back, he summoned everyone in the village under the big banyan tree and said, ‘I want to describe my experiences in the US.’
Today, going abroad is not anything great. But not too many people from our village had gone. The ones who had gone did not describe their stay there in too many details. They just said, ‘That is a different country with a different value system.’
But Balu was not like that. He started describing his stay endlessly from the day he arrived. I knew Balu’s nature, so before he went to tell all the villagers his stories under the banyan tree, I said to him, ‘You don’t have control on your tongue. Anybody can make out that you are telling a lie. There is a method to describe and a limit to exaggeration. If you want to say some boy is tall you can say he is perhaps six feet four inches in height. But you will say, the boy is ten feet tall, which is not possible. People make fun of you. Do not underestimate villagers. They know about America. They have seen it on TV.’
Balu did not argue. He said, ‘I agree. But when I start talking I lose control over my tongue. Exaggeration has become a habit with me. Will you do me a favour? When I start exaggerating, you pull my shirt. Then I will understand and I will correct myself immediately.’
We agreed. Balu started describing New York City with its tall buildings. But one of the villagers got up and said, ‘We have seen this city many times on TV after 11th September. Don’t exaggerate. Tell us something about their methods of agriculture, their fodder, grass etc. Then we can compare them to our ways.’
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