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The old man and his god, p.9
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       The Old Man and His God, p.9

           Sudha Murty
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  When I finally reached the valley, it was past midday. There was a cold wind blowing though the sun was shining brightly. The Brahmaputra was flowing like a stream here, nothing like the raging torrent in Assam. Snow-capped mountains circled the valley and there was absolute silence all around.

  The monastery at Yerlong is supposed to be a famous pilgrimage spot, but I could see only a handful of people in the entire place. After seeing everything inside I sat down on the steps and observed the serene beauty of the place.

  I noticed an old woman accompanied by a young man walking into the monastery. The woman was very old, her face was wrinkled and she walked slowly and weakly. She was wearing the traditional Tibetan dress and her hair was plaited. The young man on the other hand was dressed in the usual modern manner, in tight jeans and a body-hugging t-shirt. The woman started circumambulating the monastery using her stick for support while the man sat down on the steps like me.

  When she finished, I realized the old lady was staring at me. Then she said something to the young man in Tibetan. She looked tired by the end of her ritual and sat down on the steps. She said something to her companion again but he took little notice of her. So she slowly picked up her stick and came towards me. She sat down near me, took my hands and saying something, she gently raised my hands to her eyes and then kissed them. Before I could say anything, she got up and started to walk away. But I noticed she was smiling, as if she had achieved a longheld desire. I realized there was a wetness where her eyes had touched my hand.

  Now the young boy reluctantly came up to me and apologised. ‘Please forgive my grandmother,’ he said. ‘She is from a village in the interior part of Tibet. She has never ventured out of her village. This is the first time she has come to Yerlong. I beg your pardon for her behaviour.’

  He was talking to me in English with an Indian accent.

  ‘How come you speak English like us?’ I asked in surprise.

  ‘My name is KeTsang. I was in India for five years. I studied at Loyola College in Chennai. Now I run a restaurant in Lhasa. People here like Indian food and movies. I accompanied my grandmother for her pilgrimage. She was thanking you.’

  ‘But for what? I have not done anything for her!’

  ‘That is true, but your country has. It has sheltered our Dalai Lama for so many years. He is a living God to us, particularly to the older generation. We all respect the Dalai Lama, but due to political reasons, we cannot express it in public. You might have seen that there isn’t a single photo of his in any public place in the whole of Lhasa. He is the fourteenth, but we have paintings, statues and pictures only up to the thirteenth.’

  I still did not understand the old lady’s gesture. The grandson explained, ‘She said, “I am an old lady and don’t know how long I will live. If I don’t thank you before I die, I will never attain peace. Let anyone punish me for this, it does not matter. It is a gift that I met an Indian today and was able to thank you for sheltering our Dalai Lama. Yours is truly a compassionate land.”‘

  Her words eerily echoed Maya’s from many years back. I could only look down at the wet spot on my hand and smile.


  Mother’s Love

  I was once invited to speak on motherhood at a seminar. It was a well-attended seminar and people from different walks of life had gathered. Some were medical practitioners, others were from orphanages, adoption agencies, and NGOs. Religious heads, successful mothers (the definition of which, according to the organizers, were those whose children had done well in life and earned lots of money), young mothers, all were there.

  There were numerous stalls selling baby products, books on motherhood, on how to handle adolescents etc. The speakers were good and most of the time they spoke from the heart about their experiences. The media was present in full force, clicking away photos of celebrities. Since this had been organized by the social welfare department, there were many government officials and a big gathering of students too.

  When my turn came, I started narrating an incident that I had been witness to many years ago.

  Manjula was a cook in a friend, Dr Arati’s house. Manjula’s husband was a good-for-nothing. She had five children and when she became pregnant for the sixth time, she decided to get it aborted. She also decided to get a tubectomy done.

  Dr Arati, however, came up with a different idea. Her sister was rich but childless and wanted to adopt a newborn baby. She was desparately searching for one, so Arati gave a suggestion.

  ‘Manjula, instead of aborting the baby, why don’t you deliver it, and irrespective of the gender, my sister will adopt it. She does not even stay in this city so you won’t need to see the baby’s face ever. She will adopt it legally and help you with the education of your remaining children too. This child, which is now unwanted, will be brought up well with lots of love. Think it over, the decision is yours and I will not insist.’

  Manjula thought for a couple of days and finally agreed to the proposal. In a few months she delivered a baby girl. Dr Arati’s sister also arrived that day after completing all the formalities. It had been decided that she would take the baby a day after it was born. But when the time came to hand over the child, Manjula refused to give her away. Her breasts were now full of milk and the baby had started feeding. She pressed the baby against her weak body and started crying, ‘I agree that I am very poor. Even if I get a handful of rice, I will share that with this baby. But I cannot part with her. She is so tiny and so completely dependent on me. I am breaking my promise but I cannot live without my child. Please pardon me.’

  Arati and her sister were naturally upset. They had prepared themselves to welcome this baby to their family. But seeing Manjula weep, they realized that motherhood may not always answer to the logic of agreements.

  I concluded my speech saying that many times I have seen a mother is ready to sacrifice anything for her children. Motherhood is a natural instinct. Our culture glorifies it and a mother is held in great respect, over anybody else. I was rewarded with great applause. I too was satisfied with my speech.

  I stepped down from the podium, and saw Meera standing near by. She was blind and taught orphans in a blind school. She was representing her school at the seminar. I knew her fairly well because I visited her school often. I went up to her and said, ‘Meera how are you?’ She was quiet for a minute. ‘I am fine, Madam. Can you do me a favour?’

  ‘Tell me what is it?’

  ‘Ahmed Ismail was supposed to pick me up and drop me to my school. But just now he called up on my cellphone and said that he is stuck in a traffic jam and will take more time. Can you drop me to my school?’ Ahmed Ismail was a trustee of the blind school.

  Meera’s school was on my way to the office and so I agreed immediately. In the car, I noticed she was very quiet and so started the conversation.

  ‘Meera, how was the seminar today? Did you like my lecture?’

  I was expecting the usual polite answer, saying it was very good.

  But Meera answered, ‘I didn’t like your lecture. Sorry for being so blunt, but life is not always like that.’

  I was taken aback. I wanted to know the reason behind it and asked her, ‘Tell me Meera. Why did you say that? What I narrated was a true incident and not a story. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.’

  Meera sighed, ‘Yes, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. That is really what I wanted to tell you. Let me tell you another story. There was once a five-year-old girl who was half-blind. Both her parents were labourers. The girl would complain often that she could not see clearly, but they would say that was because she wasn’t eating properly and they would take her to the doctor when they managed to collect some money. One day, they finally took her to the doctor. He told them the girl needed an operation which cost a lot of money, else she would go blind slowly. The parents discussed something between themselves and took her to a bus-stand. They gave her a packet of biscuits and told her, “Child, eat the biscuits and we will be back
in five minutes.”

  ‘For the first time in her life the child had got an entire packet of biscuits for herself. She was overjoyed and sat down to enjoy them. With her half blind eyes she could just make out her mother’s torn red sari pallu disappear in the crowd. The day wore on, it started getting colder and she realized that it was getting dark. The packet of biscuits was over long back. She was alone, helpless and scared. She started calling for her parents and searched in vain for them, trying to spot the torn red pallu.’

  ‘What happened after that?’

  ‘The child continued to search for her parents, sleeping wherever she got a place. One day, a kind-hearted man saw her pitiable condition and took her to the blind school. The child could not give any address or name by which they could trace the parents. He requested the matron that in case any parent came forward to claim the child, they could hand her over after examining them. But nobody came looking for her. The child waited for her mother for several years, till one day she gave up all hope.’

  I turned to Meera to see she was crying and I realized so was I. Even though I knew the answer in my heart, I asked her, ‘Meera, how did you know all these details about that child?’

  Through her tears, she replied, ‘Because I was that half-blind child. Now, tell me, how could my mother leave me like that? She deceived me with a pack of biscuits. What happened to the motherhood that you spoke so strongly about? Is poverty more powerful than motherhood?’

  I did not have any answer for her, but could only hold her hand in my own. I realized that there were as many kinds of mothers as there are people on this earth, and poverty can lead to acts of great desperation.

  Even today, if I happen to see a woman on the road wearing a red sari, I think of Meera and her experience of motherhood.


  Village Encounters

  One of my aims, when starting the Infosys Foundation, was to inculcate and spread the joy of reading among as many students and young children in the rural areas as possible. From my own experience of having grown up in a small town, I knew the best way to do this was to help schools and local libraries stock up on good books for children. It was in the course of identifying good government schools and youth clubs in the rural areas of Karnataka, that I happened to meet many young people from the small villages and towns of this state.

  Krishna Murthy was a young man of about twenty who I met during my travels. He had recently graduated from a college in Bangalore. His father owned large properties and agricultural lands in the village and was therefore very well off. Krishna Murthy on the other hand, was taken in completely by the charms of city life and was intent on staying on in Bangalore rather than returning to his village as his father wanted. No amount of explaining could budge him. On the request of his father, I told him that life in a big city like Bangalore can be stressful, what with the rising costs of living, the high pollution levels, impossible traffic situation and water and electricity shortages. But young Krishna Murthy was adamant. Finally I told him about Guruprasad.

  I met Guruprasad in my Bangalore office.

  I had been very busy with my travels and been able to meet him only two months after he first said he wanted to talk to me about our library project. He had been very keen to meet only me. He was about twenty-three or twenty-four years of age and looked like any other young person these days, smartly dressed and equipped with the latest gadgets like cellphone, organizer etc. He was from a village called Kandale in Shimoga district. He had a jolly face and showed a great deal of spirit and enthusiasm. As we talked, I learnt that he had graduated with honours in English from a reputed college in Bangalore. A national level chess player, he was the eldest of two sons. His father was an agriculturist. After discussing his ideas for our library project, our conversation turned to Indian villages and life there.

  ‘How do you spend your time in the village?’ I asked him.

  ‘Oh! There are numerous activities to keep me busy. I have a very lucrative mushroom business and everyday I have to work four to five hours on that. We have a big ancestral house. I live there with my parents and other relatives. In my village there is no pollution, though with better connectivity, we get almost all provisions usually available in cities close by. When I am not working at my business or looking after the house, I coach children in chess. We have also formed a youth club where along with my friends, I have started a library. The library has become a meeting point for many young people like me. We exchange ideas there and talk about which new books we should try to procure. I heard about your foundation’s work there and came to meet you so we can take some books for our collection. I have been trying to start similar clubs and libraries in the neighbouring villages with the help of like-minded boys and girls.

  ‘Life in our village is clean, healthy and I am happy being there as I am living the life I always wanted to.’

  I was curious to know how much he was earning by his mushroom business.

  ‘It depends upon how much you invest. If you invest ten rupees you can easily make forty rupees. It is better than any fluctuating share market. I earn much more than I would in Bangalore. I also don’t need to spend enormous amounts of money commuting and paying exorbitant rents. I have a car which helps me a lot in my work. I don’t feel inferior when talking to any city person. Nobody ever forced me to stay on in the village. It was my own decision and I am happy I took it.’

  Guruprasad’s words reminded me of one of Kuvempu’s poems

  Vasantha vanadali kooguva kogile

  Raajana padaviya bayasuvudilla

  Hoovina maradali jeenu hulugalu

  Morevudu raajana bhayadindalla’

  It is not in anticipation of the king’s throne,

  That in the springs, the cuckoo sings so beautifully

  Nor is it out of fear of the king’s anger

  That the bees hum in the flower gardens

  Guruprasad had decided on the course of his life by staying in his village and was happy there. He was doing what he enjoyed without giving in to any pressures but by using his own intelligence.

  After hearing the story Krishna Murthy promised to think about staying on in his village. I don’t know what he decided eventually and how happy he was with his decision. But till today I am convinced that it is young people like Guruprasad who can bring about change and a breath of fresh air to their villages. The future lies with him and many others like him.


  May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Children

  I was on my way to the railway station. I had the nine o’clock Bangalore-Hubli Kittur Express to catch. Halfway to the station our car stopped. There was a huge traffic jam. There was no way we could move either forward or reverse the car. I sat and watched helplessly as a few two-wheelers scraped past the car through a narrow gap. Finally I asked my driver what the matter was. Traffic jams are not uncommon but this was something unusual. He got out of the car and said the road ahead was blocked by some people holding a communal harmony meet. I now realized it was perhaps impossible to get to the station. The papers had reported about the meeting and had warned that the roads would be blocked for some time. The car was moved into a bylane and seeing there was no way I could try and make my way back home, I decided to join the crowd and listen to the speeches.

  From a distance, I could see the dais. There were various religious heads sitting on a row of chairs on the stage. An elderly gentleman stood next to me and commented loudly, ‘All this is just a drama. In India, everything is decided on the basis of caste and community. Even our elections are dictated by them. Whoever comes to power thinks only of the betterment of his community. It is easy to give speeches but in practical life they forget everything.’

  Just then a middle-aged lady started speaking into the mike. From the way she was speaking, so confidently, it was apparent that she was used to giving speeches and had the gift of the gab. Her analogies were quite convincing. ‘When you eat a meal, do you eat only chapattis or rice
? No, you also need a vegetable, a dal and some curd. The tastes of the dishes vary, but only when they are put together do you get a wholesome meal. Similarly different communities need to live together in harmony and build a strong country . . .’ etc. ‘It is a nice speech but who follows all this in real life?’ the gentleman next to me commented.

  ‘Why do you say that?’ I had to ask finally. He looked at me, surprised at my unexpected question, then answered, ‘Because my family has suffered a lot. My son did not get a job as he was not from the right community, my daughter was transferred as her boss wanted to replace her with someone from his own community. It is everywhere. Wherever you go, the first thing people want to know is which caste or religion you belong to.’

  The woman was still talking on the podium. ‘What is her name?’ I asked.

  ‘She is Ambabhavani, a gifted speaker from Tamil Nadu.’

  Her name rang a bell somewhere in my mind and suddenly I was transported away from the jostling crowds and the loud speeches. I was in a time long past with my paternal grandmother, Amba Bai.

  Amba Bai was affectionately called Ambakka or Ambakka Aai by everyone in the village. She spent her whole life in one little village, Savalagi, near Bijapur in north Karnataka. Like most other women of her generation she had never stepped into a school. She was married early and spent her life fulfilling the responsibilities of looking after a large family. She was widowed early and I always remember seeing her with a shaven head, wearing a red sari, the pallu covering her head always, as was the tradition in the then orthodox Brahmin society. She lived till she was eighty-nine and in her whole life she knew only the worlds of her ten children, forty grandchildren, her village and the fields.

  Since we were farmers she owned large mudhouses with cows, horses and buffaloes. There was a large granary and big trees that cooled the house during the hot summers. There were rows of cacti planted just outside the house. They kept out the mosquitoes, we were told. Ajji (that’s what we called Amba Bai) looked after the fields and the farmers with a passion. In fact, I don’t recall her ever spending too much time in the kitchen making pickles or sweets like other grandmothers. She would be up early and after her bath spend some time doing her daily puja. She would make some jowar rotis and a vegetable, and then head out to the fields. She would spend time there talking to the farmers about the seeds they had got, the state of the well or the health of their cattle. Her other passion in life was to help the women of the village deliver their babies.

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