How I Taught My Grandmother to Read and other Stories, p.9Sudha Murty
Balu said, ‘Oh, I saw their fields and the grass. The grass was almost five feet tall.’
I pulled his shirt.
He realized he was talking too much. Immediately, he said, ‘No, no, the grass is very thin.’
Somebody asked, ‘What do you mean very thin?’
‘It was as thin as a hair’s width.’
Again I pulled his shirt. But I was so exasperated that I pulled it very hard and it tore. Balu, for once, did not know what to say. But I could hear people talking, ‘After all, it is Balu’s version of America. The real America must be different.’
Balu’s wife is very quiet, which is understandable. If two people talk too much it can get difficult to live together. Once, she was unwell and had a very high fever. Balu talks a lot, but in such a situation he gets scared easily. He was very worried and called me up.
‘Get a doctor immediately. My wife is running a very high temperature.’
‘What do you mean by very high temperature. How much is it?’
‘Oh, it must be about five hundred degrees.’
‘Then you should not call a doctor, you better call a firefighter. Kindly check with the thermometer. It must not be more than 106 degrees.’
Once, we were sitting and chatting when a stranger entered. Many people are aware that Infosys Foundation helps students to study further if they do not have the funds. With help from the Foundation, many children have graduated and stood on their own feet. Whenever I am in villages, parents of such children come and see me. After talking to them, if I feel the case is genuine, we help them. This stranger had come with a similar request.
I had a detailed talk with him and was convinced his son needed help.
I told him, ‘After I go back to my office I will send you the cheque.’
Balu called me aside and said, ‘How can you say that? Do you know what may happen tomorrow? Will you remember your promise? There is a gap between today evening and tomorrow morning. Life is uncertain; anything can happen. If you want to give anything, you must give him immediately. Time is never in your hands. On the contrary, all of us are living at the mercy of time.’
‘Balu, I don’t have a chequebook with me.’
‘That is your mistake. You must carry a chequebook and cash when you travel for this purpose. Many times poor people may not even have an account in the post office or bank.’
I always thought Balu was only an uneducated, hilarious, comic man. But I was wrong. He taught me a great lesson. When donating, don’t think twice or put it off for another day. Nobody has conquered time. Time is not in anybody’s hand.
‘A’ for Honesty
The American education system at the university level is different from ours. There, the final marks are based on the average marks of three examinations held earlier in the semester. As a result, students have to study and do well consistently, and there is not much pressure during the final exam. There is also greater student-teacher interaction in that system.
As a teacher, I have seen that sometimes even a bright student may not do well because of the pressures of the final test. There are other ways to examine the depth of knowledge of the student, like surprise exams, open book exams, oral exams etc. The examination should not scare the students, instead it should measure their knowledge fairly and give marks accordingly. This kind of system requires more number of teachers for students. However, this is difficult to achieve in India, where there are large numbers of students. There is also great pressure on students from the parents and society to perform well.
My son is studying in a college in the US. He loves computer science immensely and always puts in a lot of hard work when he studies it. One day, he called me after his midterm exams. I could make out from his voice that he was very sad. He told me, ‘I did not do my exams well. It is not that I did not know the answers, but instead of digit eight I assumed the digit as six and did the entire calculation based on that. I prepared so well and now I know I will not do well. I’m feeling very depressed.’
As a teacher, I don’t give too much of importance to marks because I am aware of such situations. Many a time I have seen children who are really good in subjects unable to answer questions due to various factors. So I consoled him.
‘Don’t worry. So what? You have lost the battle but you will win the war. Examinations are not the only index in life. Keep courage, face reality and don’t be negligent while reading the questions. Good luck for next time.’
He was not at all pleased to hear my words. ‘You talk like a moral science teacher, Amma. It is very competitive here and difficult to achieve anything in such an atmosphere. You are a teacher and you only give grades. You don’t sit for the exams. So you do not know the difficulties of students.’
I knew he was sad. My consolation did not help him. But he had forgotten that once upon a time I had also been a student and had passed through the same passage.
After a few days, I got another call from him. There was joy and great enthusiasm in his voice. Suddenly the dark winter days had turned into bright sunny days.
‘Amma, you know I got grade “A” in that subject, which I did not do well in.’
‘How come?’ I was very surprised.
‘It is a very funny thing. After the exam, I was talking to the professor and we were discussing various topics. When I got my papers, I saw I had got good marks for the question which I had answered wrongly. My other friends said the professor must have made a mistake, don’t tell him, keep quiet. Getting a good grade is more important in this competitive world.’
‘What did you do?’ I asked anxiously.
‘I thought for a while, then I realized, grades are important but honesty is even more important. You taught me that when I was a little boy. Do you remember, Amma? Once, the shopkeeper mistook fifty rupees for one hundred rupees and gave change for one hundred. At that time we did not have much money, but still you sent me back to the shop to return the extra money. At that age, I was so reluctant to go and return the change but you were strict with me and said if I didn’t, I would have to go without dinner. Somehow I was unable to keep quiet about the professor’s mistake. I wrote an email to him saying I did not deserve those marks. But his reply was more surprising.’
‘What was that?’
‘He replied, “I have not given the marks by mistake. It was deliberate. After the exams I was talking to you, and my constant interaction with you throughout the semester had convinced me of the depth of your knowledge and your passion for the subject. Mistakes do happen by oversight or due to tension. That is the reason I gave you some marks for that question. After all, exams should also measure the depth of your knowledge.’’’
My eyes filled with tears on hearing this story. I was happy, not because he had got an ‘A’ grade but because he had practised what he believed in. Many of my own students have behaved in a similar way in different situations, though they may have lost a lot in the process. To some people it may seem to be stupidity. But I am sure the good values they have learnt will help them in any crisis.
A Lesson in Ingratitude
I was attending a seminar on how to eliminate poverty. For some reason, such seminars always seem to be held in five-star hotels. I really do not know why they have to be organized in the most expensive places.
After attending the seminar, I was standing in the lobby of the hotel, when I saw a middle-aged person in an Armani suit with a pipe in his hand. His perfume was expensive and very strong. I could smell it from a considerable distance. He was talking on his mobile and was probably waiting for his car. I looked at him and felt sure I had seen him somewhere earlier. He finished his call and stared at me. Both of us were trying to place each other. Suddenly I realized he was my classmate from thirty years back. His name was Suresh. I said, ‘Are you Suresh? Who was my classmate …’
He said, ‘I was wondering, are you Sudha?’
We started laughing. It had been thirty years since we had last met. Both o
I asked him, ‘I have not met you for a long time. The last I heard you were in Bombay. What are you doing here?’
‘Yes, I live in Bombay. I have my own business there. By the grace of God, I am doing very well. Why don’t we meet up sometime and talk about the old days? By the way, where are you going? Can I drop you?’
I agreed immediately because my driver was on leave. By then his Mercedes Benz had arrived at the hotel door and we got into the car.
Suresh started explaining. ‘I own a few companies in Bombay and Bangalore. I am into Medical Transcription. I also train people and send them abroad for software jobs. Now there is a dearth of teachers in the UK. I want to train teachers and send them. This is a very lucrative job as there are not many overheads… I heard from many people you have become a teacher and a social worker. I felt sad for you. You would have done well in business. You were one of the brightest in the class.’
He looked genuinely sad at my choice of profession. To console him I said, ‘Don’t look so sad. I took up this profession out of choice not compulsion. Do you know Suresh, “Doing what you like is freedom, liking what you do is happiness.” If you look at it that way, I am very happy.’
By then, we had reached my office. Before I got off the car, Suresh gave me his visiting card and insisted I come to his house for dinner or breakfast.
One Sunday, I was free and I remembered Suresh’s invitation. I called up his home and his secretary told me he was in Bombay. She fixed up a breakfast for the next Sunday. She also said she would send a car to pick me up as it was difficult to locate the house.
That Sunday morning, a driver came with a Toyota car and I got into it. I started chatting with the driver after some time. He was very talkative as he knew I was his boss’s classmate. Suresh’s house was sixty kilometres away from Bangalore city. It was a farmhouse on the banks of the river Cauvery. It was inside a forest and spread over twenty acres of land. There they grew fruits and vegetables without using chemical fertilizers. Madam, the driver told me, is very conscious about health and has got a special gym and a swimming pool made. Suresh had another house in Indiranagar, in the heart of Bangalore city. They visited this farm only on weekends and invited special guests there.
I asked him, ‘How long have you been working for Suresh?’
‘Oh, I have been with him for the last twenty years. Actually I was his father-in-law’s driver. He was a businessman in Bombay, and Madam, his only daughter. I can call Madam by her first name if I want to, I have known them for that long, but I don’t do that.’
I could make out a sense of belonging and a shade of pride on the driver’s face.
When I reached the house, I realized the driver had not exaggerated in his description of the place. It was like entering a palace. There were five or six guest rooms, a huge hall, a large dining room, spacious courtyards, all built in the traditional Indian style. There were many servants in uniform. Now I could understand how zamindars and petty kings lived in the olden days.
Suresh came in two minutes. He was dressed in silk. He looked very pleased to see me. ‘Welcome to our small abode. I am very happy you could make it. Let us go to the living room.’
His living room was full of statues, paintings, Persian carpets and chandeliers. There were silk-covered sofas made out of sandalwood. I felt I had entered a museum and not someone’s home.
‘Tell me Suresh, how you made your journey from college to this place.’
I remembered Suresh came from a very poor family. His father was a cook and the family had many children. He was unable to educate his son. A kind-hearted gentleman knew Suresh’s father. He offered a room and food for Suresh in his own house. His son was also studying with us. Our college provided Suresh a full scholarship. We all knew his financial situation and we would help him in as many small ways as possible. We used to contribute money for him to buy books. Even the librarian went out of his way to give special concessions to him. Suresh was a fairly good student, hard-working and very shy. He hardly spoke with us. So I wanted to know how he had become this affluent, talkative Suresh.
‘You know, after college I went to Bombay in search of work. I got a small job. I worked very hard as I knew then that to come up in life you require talent, hard work, aggression and connections. I had the first two but had to build up the latter two qualities. Later I met Veena, my wife, whose father helped me a lot and we started a different business. Today I am well-off. I helped out my family in various ways. You know I came from a poor family. I bought lands, shops, built houses which I gave to my parents, brothers and sisters. Everyone now owns two cars and is well-off. I am very happy that I have done my duty towards my family.’
‘What about your children?’
‘I have two daughters. Both of them are studying in England, one is studying Indian culture and the other one is doing home science. Do you know any good boys who are well-off and handsome for my daughters? But they should not want to stay with their parents. They must be either independent or live with us. You must be knowing some eligible men, you meet so many people.’
‘Suresh, the people I meet are poor, helpless, destitute. Or I meet students. I don’t know the kind of people you are talking about.’
By that time his wife called us for breakfast. The food was served in silver plates. Veena looked very beautiful and young. Only when she came near me, did I realize she was as old as I was. She had hidden her age with a lot of clever make-up.
Suddenly I remembered the gentleman with whom Suresh stayed, our college librarian, and the rest of the students in our college.
‘Suresh, did you ever go to college after you left? Do you remember our librarian, the Principal, our batchmates?’
With a grim look on his face Suresh replied, ‘No, I never went to college, nor have I met any one of them. Some classmates I have bumped into accidentally. I have invited them here. I never felt like going back to the college.’
‘What about Mr Rao? You stayed in his house, did you not meet him any time?’
‘No. I feel everyone in college helped me because they wanted to feel better about themselves. After all I was a very good student. I am convinced people help others only with a selfish motive. They want to say, “I brought up a person”. That is the reason why I never felt like meeting any one of them.’
Still I persisted, ‘I heard Mr Rao’s financial condition is not good.’
Suresh replied emotionlessly, ‘Yes, that was bound to happen. He fed so many unwanted students who were not good in studies or hard-working. How long could he continue like that?’
I remembered the institution which gave him free scholarship, the librarian who helped him, Mr Rao who was his host for five years. They were all good, kind people, but Suresh refused to recognize that. What was great about helping your own sisters and brothers? Giving them two cars and a few houses is not philanthropy. Helping somebody who is needy and without expecting anything from them in return is real philanthropy. In life, you must help others so that they can live independently.
Gratitude is the highest form of education, but Suresh never learnt that. Without receiving any help from others he could not have reached the position he was in that day. When climbing the ladder it is very easy to kick those below, but one must not forget that you cannot stay at the top forever. The higher you go, the longer is the fall.
I did not feel like eating breakfast from a silver plate that day.
My Biggest Mistake
In my computer science class, once I gave a very tough problem to my students. Programming is an art to some extent. When the same problem is given, different students use different methodologies to arrive at the same result.
I never insist on a single method and allow my students their freedom
Everyone gathered around. Nalini inserted the diskette into the computer drive. While she was talking to me, by mistake she formatted the floppy. Formatting is nothing but clearing all the information on the diskette. Everybody was stunned. Then they looked at me. Nalini was in tears. They were aware that I had spent one whole week trying to find a solution to this problem.
For a while I was very upset. But after five minutes I cooled down and smiled. A smile can make tension disappear and is the best medicine in a friendship. After all, my students are my young friends. When I smiled, the bubble of tension broke. I got up from my chair.
Nalini was sobbing ‘Madam, I am very sorry. I did not do it purposely. Please forgive me.’
‘I know you did not do it on purpose, Nalini. None of my students can do such a thing. Accidents do not require an invitation. Anybody can commit mistakes. If someone says he has never ever committed a mistake then he must be a robot, not a human being. Even our gods and our great rishis committed mistakes. Let us put our heads together and see if we can redo the program.’
Somebody asked me, ‘Madam, how can you be so cool, when you have spent so much of time on that?’
‘Yes, I am aware of it. I will somehow steal some time and try to write the program again. I am cool because I also committed a similar mistake when I was young.’
My students immediately switched the topic from computer science to storytelling. I told them my story.
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