“I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test: Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self-melting away.”
I remember flipping through countless pages of text books through my schooling, but scarcely what I read in them. The Mahatma’s talisman printed of the first page of every text book though remained etched in my subconscious. I have had great reverence for the Mahatma. Unifying a population of one billion odd countrymen divided by cast, creed, religion, dialect to fight for a common cause, I felt was an extraordinary feat. He did this in a day and age when the means of communication were at its infancy if not primitive by current standards. He didn’t have any of the social media at his disposal and neither was traditional media so prevalent in the pre independent India. However those words in the talisman I felt were a bit utopian.
Scarcely could I have imagined that they would come to my rescue when under the severest trials. My life had traversed an average curve. A mediocre academic record at school, I went on to finish my graduation and got into a job/career which I neither liked nor despised, but one which allowed me to lead a comfortable life. I moved out of my family nest a couple of months into my job so as to be able to spread my wings. My parents weren’t happy with the decision of their only child. Soon I was living the ‘life’. Just managing the bare minimum at work and partying hard afterwards. My visits back home became scarcer as days flew by. Rare occasions of my visit, evoked a sense of bewilderment.
Life took a sudden turn when the monsoon set it. A frantic call from my cousin broke the news of my father passing away. I was stunned not knowing what to make of it. My father had planned well for the family. We weren’t in any financial strain. I had to give up my bachelor pad and move back home. Up until this time I had lived a care free life. Suddenly I felt a dread of not being able to take care of my mother, in spite of nothing evidently suggesting that financial we wouldn’t be able to make it. Responsibility I realized was more of a physiological thing. My weekend life ebbed away and so did my fair weather friends. Sharing booze and drags evidently meant something only if one marked constant attendance at the weekend gatherings. Moving out of my parents’ house and the subsequent passing away of my father hit me hard. Though unrelated, the feeling of guilt lingered on. My mother was inconsolable and I seemed to be of little help in assuaging her heart.
A few months on the monsoons set in with full force. With clock work like precision the rains always seemed to time with my travel to and from office. My personal situation mattered little to the organization; they weren’t in the mood to put up with my sloth. I was given an ultimatum to buckle up or get out. Subsequently I started putting in long hours to meet my deadlines but the pile of work never reduced.
I still remember that day, etched as it will be in my conscious forever. I had missed my quarter closing deadline. My boss was furious, he yelled with all his might, just stopping short of choking me to death. He threw me out of his cabin asking me to be ready with my bags packed. As I headed back home the sky tore open, it poured the heaviest that I had ever seen. The roads got clogged and the traffic came to a standstill. Traversing every inch of my way back home increased my resentment with life. I had to trudge the last mile home with a flat back tyre. Life seemed meaningless and hollow. Instead of getting down on the 3rd floor and reaching my home, I took the lift to the top floor and climbed the final flight of stairs to the terrace. I pushed open the terrace door and walked towards the edge of the terrace wall. It was the first time I had ever come to the top. As I stood there contemplating on a jump that could possibly end my misery, I was transfixed by what I saw. The road which I had just trudged through was clogged with heavy traffic, it was still pouring hard. But it all seemed beautiful from the top. As the signal lights changed to green, the vehicles scrammed across the road, the headlights, indicators and the stop signal coupled together formed a dazzling array, dimming at the frag end of horizon as my eyes followed them. The honking no longer irritated my ears, the distance softened the decibels. Weaving itself into the pitter patter of the rain drops they now created a symphony. Tears rolled down my cheeks; mixing with the rain drops they dissolved all the anguish, resentment and hollowness from my heart. As I looked down I saw Ani draped in big polythene sheet cut out from a garbage disposal bag prancing around in the rain. It reminded me of Gandhiji’s talisman and I knew that jumping off would mean a waste of my life. I resolved at that moment that I would face life as it came and help Ani to the best of my abilities.
Anirudh Venkatachala Reddy was a feisty young boy. His parents were construction workers. Their dwelling place was the construction site. Their home consisted of make shift shelter built out of stacking bricks and tin sheet to be used for future construction. As the buildings they helped construct neared completion their bricks got used. As the buildings got done their house got torn down and it was time for them to move on. Our building was almost nearing completion and hence Ani’s house had shrink from the 8 by 8 feet to a 6 by 4 dwelling. Yet Ani remained happy, unperturbed by the changes in his circumstances. Ani came across as a confident boy. The resident community knew Ani very well since he always made an effort to interact with them while they went on their walks, or passed by on their way to or from work. His parents didn’t send him to school yet he had on his own picked up words of the English language. With a big grin on his face, good heartedly he would shout to the residents “How are you doing?” When some of them replied back in English, Ani would enquire what the sentence and words meant. So on and so forth the boy worked tirelessly to gain a grasp of the language. He also was inquisitive about the world at large. He asked the residents where they worked, what they did at their work, what it meant etc. For a kid with no access to formal education Ani was quite knowledgeable.
That night I worked tirelessly from home and finished my closing reports and mailed it to my boss. I wasn’t sure if I would be left with a job the next day but I slept soundly. To my surprise I didn’t get kicked out of my job the next day. My boss was impressed with the report that I had sent out and decided to give me another chance with a stern “One more mistake and you will be on your back” threat. I made friends with Ani and persuaded his parents to send him to a nearby school run by an NGO and assured them of all financial support for his education. I spent my after office hours and early morning teaching Ani math, science and English. Ani waited every evening at my apartment gate for me to step in and start the class. I brought him some savory dishes like samosas and pakodas, dishes that most privileged children take as their birth right. But Ani wouldn’t take a bite out of it until I had finished his class. He never asked me to stop the classes, never got bogged down if he got a math problem wrong, never showed any resentment as I repeatedly reproofed his grammar and pronunciation. His eyes shone with the hunger for knowledge even though he had sparse food to satisfy the hunger of his belly.
Six months later one day when I stepped back home from work. My mother handed me a ragged looking necklace and piece of paper. “Ani’s parents moved out today. He pleaded with them to stay till he could meet you in the evening. But they had to catch the train in the afternoon. He left me this necklace and a letter” she said
“I thank you for all that you have done for me. I am sorry I couldn’t stay. I have noted down your house address. I will write you a letter soon” – Ani
It was a terse two liner but it left me with a mix of emotions. I was glad he was able to write it on his own but saddened that we couldn’t say our goodbyes personally.
I waited for his letter but it never came. I don’t know what happened to Ani. But whenever I was confronted with a challenge in life I recalled his shining eyes and I got the strength to move ahead.