[I dedicate this to the abiding memory of my nephew (son of my elder brother whose sacrifice on my behalf is also gratefully remembered in this post) who suddenly passed away recently at a very young age, creating a void in the lives of me and his family that is impossible to fill. He was a hard working self-made man, with a penchant for innovation and improvisation, who had risen to a noteworthy position in the IT hardware industry without the traditional formal education. He was a constant source of encouragement for me in both my professional and personal life. I particularly miss the enlightened feedback he used to provide me in support of my writings. With a sensitive outlook on social issues, he would have appreciated this post.]
So far I have avoided writing about any subject other than those of professional interest to me. However, recent developments compelling everyone's attention in the country's polity make me sidestep this policy, travel down memory lane and write about a related personal experience that happened well over half a century ago and deeply affected me.
Before narrating my episode, let me first sum up the current scenario in the country. Anna Hazare's ongoing crusade against the cancer of corruption in India has reverberated throughout the country and abroad. His campaign to push the Lokpal bill through a prevaricating and insensitive Indian parliament is being described as the harbinger of the second independence for the country, after Gandhi had fought ceaselessly to secure the first one in 1947. If a strong Lokpal law comes through and delivers on even a small fraction of the expectations of Anna and his team, the citizens of India can justifiable claim victory in the first battle of what can only be a long drawn out civil war against corruption, a battle that has barely begun.
My story is wholly autobiographical and dates back to early 1957 when I was a student of the B Sc (Hons) Physics course in Central College, Bangalore, one of the oldest institutions for higher education in the country and then the post-graduate centre of the University of Mysore. I had joined the course in the previous year after passing out of the Government Intermediate College just across the road. Coming from a very poor economic background and dire financial straits, I could hardly afford the barest necessities of life. I could attend college only because of a supreme sacrifice by my elder brother in terminating his own college education barely a year before he was to graduate and taking up the family responsibility with a paltry part time job. I had to walk over 12 km every day for over six years to be able to attend school and college. Two whole meals a day was often elusive. It was not infrequently that a rich and kind friend of mine, who had seen through my mask of normalcy, would discretely invite me to join him for lunch in his hostel mess.
Despite such privations, I had always been good academically and had passed the public examinations ranked among the top ten in the state. I had secured the sixth position in the secondary school examination in 1954 and, however incredible it may seem, this was not good enough to fetch me any financial support by way of a scholarship or otherwise in those days, all because I was supposed to belong to a 'forward caste'. I could only get a free studentship and somehow managed to complete the two year intermediate course. My ranking had even gone up to fourth and I was hoping for a better fortune. This did indeed materialize in the form of a national merit scholarship instituted in the same year by the central ministry of education, which had belatedly decided in its infinite wisdom that even merited students deserved some need based financial support. I was an automatic qualifier because of my high ranking. The confirmation had come to me from a fellow student who had heard it announced on the radio. I found myself suddenly lifted from a rocky terrain to cloud nine. Looking back, I am certain my education would have come to a grinding halt but for this huge act of magnanimity on the part of the government.
I was soon to learn that earning the scholarship was a lot easier than encashing it. First I had to formally intimate to the ministry, through my college, what academic proramme I was enrolled in. The next step was to provide them evidence that I actually needed the scholarship money to pursue my studies. No one could have needed it more than I, but a mere declaration from me was not adequate; a certificate to this effect was needed from a competent authority! After some enquiries I identified the state agency authorized to issue such a certificate. The concerned official told me that the matter was quite simple and that I needed my father's salary certificate from his employer. When I told him that my father had no formal employment, he was puzzled, consulted his superiors and came up with the solution that a sworn affidavit stating my circumstances would be acceptable. I had to go to a magistrate's office to do this and a condescending advocate, who had never seen my face before, identified me as known to him personally and got the affidavit made out in quick time, of course for the usual consideration. A few weeks later the ministry in Delhi was satisfied that I had passed their 'means test' and my case was cleared. However, a formal letter of announcement came, as happens even now, only towards the fag end of the financial year. The catch was that the scholarship amount could be disbursed only through my college. On the basis of the communication the college office had to send a claim in proper form to the ministry. This went through smoothly thanks to a very kind and helpful office clerk, the first of my three angels, about whom I have a great deal more to say later.
One fine day I received a letter from the ministry saying that my scholarship amount for the first year was being sent to the college and that I should approach them for the payment, inclusive of the accrued arrears. At 75 rupees per month for all twelve months of the year, it was no small amount in those days. But to actually get hold of it was such a herculean effort and so painfully ingrained in my memory that I want to chronicle it in some detail here.
I went to see the college accountant, the custodian of my scholarship money. One look at him and I realized that I was in for a long struggle and delay ahead of me. He asked me gruffly what I wanted and when I told him as respectfully as possible what I wanted, he said he was too busy at that time to attend to it. Even after about 15 minutes of standing before him, he didn't even turn his head towards me. It was his way of saying that he was done with me for the day. I had never been humiliated like that for any reason; here it was happening to me without reason. When I mustered enough courage to see him again a few days later, he took a long look at me as if in expectation of some sort of proposition from me. When I merely asked him for the payment due, he said angrily that no communication about it had come to him. When I showed him my copy of the letter from the ministry, he pretended to look into his files and repeated that he had not received anything. He wouldn't entertain any further queries from me.
Swallowing my pride, or whatever was left of it, I made two more attempts in the subsequent days to plead with him, appealed to his moral sense and all but begged him to help me out in view of my indigent circumstances. He dismissed me on each occasion with a contemptuous wave of his hand and didn't even care to look at me. Once again I felt utterly humiliated for merely trying to get what I had rightfully earned. I realized that no useful purpose would be served by meeting this heartless monster again and wondered how I should handle the situation.
The First Angel
It was then that my first angel came to my succour and showed me the way. I just ran into him as I was coming out of the devil's office. The sight of a disheveled, diminutive but friendly face was very soothing on my nerves. Even as I was trying to jolt his memory about who I was, he greeted me by calling my name and asking me what brought me to the college office. When I blurted out my story, he thought for a moment, said that he was not at all surprised at my plight and revealed to me in confidence that the funds from the ministry in payment of my scholarship had been received more than a month ago. He knew this because the communication had passed through him to the accountant's office since he was its case worker. The accountant was deliberately hiding the fact and expected me to cough up a hefty bribe if I wanted my payment. He was looking for a percentage cut and would not be interested in peanuts. This was a well known fact in the office circles and the accountant was rarely known to forego his pound of flesh. The clerk told me not to yield in any manner and suggested what he thought was the best way to get out of the devil's hold on me. Recently, the college had got a new principal who, as I was soon to discover, was the personification of all that was good in the world. He advised me to bypass normal channels and take up the matter directly with the new principal. He pointed out that it was also my right to do so. It was my first lesson on how to exercise my democratic rights.
The Second Angel
It was a few days more before I could find the principal Prof S B Bondade in his seat. As I hesitantly entered his office, he called me in softly and asked me to take a seat in front of him. This was so unexpected that I froze stiff not knowing how to react, but heard his voice again repeating the invitation. I hesitantly sat on the edge of the seat and muttered out my plight as best as I could. He listened attentively, asked me to relax, congratulated me on my academic distinction, particularly the award of the merit scholarship, and told me that as a professor of Physics he was looking forward to seeing me in his class during my final year. Then he sent for the case worker, my first angel, to confirm my information and then sent for the accountant. When the accountant entered he was taken aback to see me sitting in front of the principal and became noticeably uneasy and incoherent. Alluding to my case and without sounding accusatory, Prof Bondade gently but firmly asked him to investigate and report to him on the facts immediately. The rather relieved accountant left and returned soon with a manufactured smile on his face to say that he had 'successfully' traced the 'missing' documents. The principal then told him politely but unequivocally that I should receive my dues no later than the next day and that there should be no further reason for me to approach anyone again on this issue. That was the end of my meeting with the second angel. Later I came to know that he was totally incapable of saying anything harsh or unpleasant to anybody under any circumstances.
This was the first of my numerous encounters with the great man. As hinted, he did teach a Physics course in my third year, treated the students with as much courtesy and respect as he himself received from us and was as close to being a perfect gentleman as anyone can ever be. There is one unforgettable indication of this which bears strong testimony. When calling out the students' names while marking their attendance in his class he would always prefix our names with a 'Mr' or 'Ms'! I have never known or heard about such attitude on the part of anyone else even in academic circles. In due course he developed a particularly soft corner for me and helped me greatly in the formative years of my professional career.
My story doesn't end with just the two angels healing the damage done to my psyche by one devil. A third angel was waiting in the wings the next day as my following narrative will reveal.
The Third Angel
The next morning when I went to his office, the devil acknowledged my presence with a venomous stare and asked me, in a recalcitrant tone, to collect my check two hours later. At last, by lunch time I was in possession of my passport to a long awaited financial liberation, borrowed a bicycle from a friend and rushed to the imposing St Marks Road branch of the State Bank of India on which my check had been drawn. Reaching it just minutes before the bank was to close its doors, I presented the check to the official at the counter with a letter of identification that had also been issued by the college. The official looked uncertain, went inside apparently to verify the authenticity of the check and came out with the startling piece of information that it had not been signed by the authorized signatory. He directed me inside to a higher official for further clarification. This man, who turned out to be my third angel waiting in the wings, went through a file, examined the matter and explained to me patiently that there was nothing in the bank's record to the effect that the principal was the authorized signatory for this particular transaction which came under a different head of account. As it was, the bank could not encash the check until the situation was rectified. He quickly absorbed the look of puzzlement, dismay, disappointment and helplessness in my face and apparently decided that the situation needed his personal intervention. He fished out the telephone number of the college office administrator, explained the problem to him over the phone, told him in precise terms what needed to be done and asked him to get the necessary documents ready for me to collect personally as soon as possible and positively on the same day, without fail. Then he promised to do something for me that the bank would do only for its VIP clients – draw cash in anticipation of receiving the check and hold it for payment even after normal transaction hours. Unless he did that I would have had to wait another three days for my cash because of a long weekend holiday period. He told me that it would amount to adding insult to the injury I had already suffered and didn't want it on his conscience. He assured me that I could get my cash from him personally anytime that evening if I brought the right documents from the college.
I rushed back to college, managed to collect the documents and got back to the bank well in time to exchange them for a bundle of crispy new currency notes, my most invigorating experience since hearing about the award of the scholarship which seemed to have happened ages ago. I had never before handled so much money with my hands. More unforgettable was the help I had received from the three angels. It occurred to me that the last one was no ordinary angel, he was an archangel! Before I left him I tried to express my heartfelt gratitude for all that he had done, but my words failed me, drowned in a sea of emotions. He didn't need such words as befits any angel. He just smiled as angels are always supposed to do. I could see that he himself felt elevated by the little experience and the pleasure he derived from helping a fellow human being in need.
The first thing I did with the money was to buy myself a bicycle that liberated me from the ordeal of walking long distances every day. The next was to buy myself some essential textbooks for which I had been heavily dependent on the college library and friends. But the best thing was to be able to eat well and pay for it myself. I felt truly liberated. At last I had won my own independence. It resonated with the independence that Gandhi had won for the nation ten years earlier and the one Anna is trying to duplicate today.
One of the major demands of Anna and his civil rights group is a citizen's charter to be drawn up and made mandatory for all public service departments and agencies. The guiding principle for such a charter could be Gandhi's oft quoted exhortation to public servants;
"A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us; we are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work; he is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business; he is part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.”
It would be appropriate to have this displayed prominently wherever a citizen expects any kind of service from those obligated to render such service.
On the basis of my single experience and as an eternal optimist, I would like to generalize, most unscientifically of course, that angels outnumber devils by three to one in this world! Anna and his team should take heart – the angels are on their side!