But I find it difficult to contain tears when I see my watchman eat just plain rice, because he has no money to cook or buy sambhar or daal, and he is either too proud or embarrassed to ask for it. Or watching labourers building a house eating, during lunch break, rotis with just an onion. They would be grateful if someone put a few spoonfuls of vegetable curry on the dry roti, but they will never ask for it. Or at the plight of a 10-year-old boy, whose parents are dead and who is growing up in the house of a relative, living on whatever little they give him to eat and wearing the discarded clothes of his cousins. Yet, he has a smile on his face.
I have been fortunate, as many of us have been: there was a warm home and pampering parents. And how we took these for granted! -- the home became stifling when freedom of youth lured us, and parents became villains when they disapproved of girlfriends or boyfriends or did not give you the money for what they thought was extravagance.
But for every one of us who have a cosy childhood, there are 10 others who become pre-mature adults due to circumstances. A friend of mine, who runs a store in the heart of Chennai, had been desperately looking for a shop attendant. The other day, he found one -- a girl who is barely 18. Her father, the only earning member, recently lost his job, so she volunteered. At an age when she should be studying and hanging around in malls, she will be taking the train from the outskirts of Chennai to put in 8-10 hours of work. And rather cheerfully.
That's what makes me want to cry: not the poverty or desperation, but the honour with which one withstands or fights it. It is easy to be a beggar or a borrower in the face of poverty, but divine to make peace with it with head held high. "Doesn't matter if you eat only rice and salt, but never ever spread your palms before anyone," my grandfather, my mother's father, always told me. He had had a tough childhood: there were plenty of evenings when he would be hungry but the meals would depend on the whim of his stepmother. That is why he managed to save a lot of money.
My father's father, who I never met, was happy-go-lucky. He divided his time between teaching English and writing poetry. He also wrote two books, way back in the 1940's, and one of them -- I am told -- earned a letter of appreciation from Mahatma Gandhi. In one of my uncle's house, there is a framed four-column clipping of a newspaper that announced his death. But he had no money: his sons grew up in the households of his rich brothers and were left to chart their future on their own. Those sons didn't face poverty literally, but deprivation, yes. Yet they branched out successfully -- each going on to set up a home which didn't stink of deprivation. But -- as I look back -- the thought of what their childhood must have been makes me sad.
Why did I look back? The other day I was having a drink with a senior IAS officer posted in Chennai. We had a long chat -- as long as four drinks could inspire and permit. He told me his life story. As a small boy in Assam, he went to a small village school where there were only seven students. Four boys, three girls. The school was a hut, and the job of the boys was to collect cowdung, and the job of the girls to apply the dung on the mud ground to make it a floor (as has been the practice in rural India). Only then the classes began. That one of those boys crossed the length of India and came to Tamil Nadu as an IAS officer -- I don't know if it is the story of determination or destiny.
And then he told me about his father. One incident he narrated shall always remain embedded in my heart. The father, when he was young, was working in a city when, one morning, he got the news of his mother's death. Those days you didn't have trains running all the time: there was one in the morning and one in the evening. So he took the evening train. But there was a problem: the train didn't stop at his village. Circumstances, however, can give you extraordinary courage -- even it means jumping from a running train. And jump he did, at the cost of his life, to light the pyre of his mother.