Hope springs eternal in the human breast
– Alexander Pope
– Alexander Pope
Reactions and Reflections
My previous blog post focusing on the issue of corruption (see "My Encounter with Corruption – a Devil and three Angels), illustrated with an intimately personal narrative, has drawn widespread comments and reactions befitting the gravity of the subject matter in everyday life. The intensely human dimension of my narrative has also come in for special attention. One of my regular readers says; "It touched my heart. It is because of such angels that we have survived". Another said, "Cheers to the Angels (who come in varied forms) and to people...who can make a difference to the world". However, most readers consider my optimism unwarranted and my prognosis unjustified. One of them says that my experience belongs to "once upon a time" and "nowadays angels also expect a 'little something' to tackle the devils". Another is downright blunt in saying that I am hopelessly out of touch with contemporary reality. Commenting mainly on the Anna crusade, one reader argues that what is required is not a new law to fight corruption, but the effective implementation of existing laws.
Some consider my tongue-in-cheek estimate of the angels-to-devils ratio (3:1) as highly lopsided and reckon that an inverted ratio of 1:3 would be more realistic. One of them thinks that even if the devils are vastly outnumbered, their destructive capacity is vastly greater than the healing power of the angels who most often provide only tea and sympathy and no real material help. Also, the league of devils is more tightly knit than the airy flock of angels. It is like comparing the out-of-reach wispy clouds high up in the sky to the familiar potholes on our roads.
I plead guilty as charged on all these counts, but remain unshaken in my belief that humankind is essentially good at heart and that nothing is ever achieved by staying away from the eternal spring of hope. Like most people, I have had my share of encounters with an assortment of devils in all walks of my life but I don't think anything can be gained by digressing on them. On the contrary, there is everything to be gained by recalling encounters with angels, however few and far between and ethereal they may be in one's life. It is much easier to be grateful than hateful. With this in mind I would like to travel down memory lane once again and narrate, as a corollary to my previous post on the same theme, three other extraordinary and greatly uplifting experiences I have had with angels. They are again autobiographical, but no sob stories. Two of them were of the instant variety while the third one was long lasting and of a very different kind. But all three are equally memorable, each for its own special reason.
The Auto Driver
A year after I had joined the Regional College of Education, Mysore as a Lecturer in Physics, I was selected by my employers, the NCERT in New Delhi, to undergo higher training in Science Education at the Ohio State University, USA as part of a USAID-sponsored academic exchange programme. It was in mid December 1966 that I and a colleague of mine from the same institution were to attend a short orientation programme in Delhi and then proceed to our destination in the USA. We had to reach Delhi by train via Bangalore and Madras (now Chennai). We were scheduled to take a train from Madras to Delhi late one evening and had reached the city early the same morning. After spending the spare time in a rest house we took an auto riksha (a three wheeler taxi, as common all over the country then as it is now) and reached the sprawling and ever busy Madras Central railway station well in time to board the train. After paying off the auto driver we picked up our luggage and walked leisurely up to our carriage in the train a considerable distance away. It was only after entering the carriage and locating our sleeper berths I sensed that something was seriously amiss with me. I suddenly realized that my small briefcase was no longer with me. It was the worst ever shock of my life for the briefcase contained everything that was indispensable for my trip abroad – my newly acquired passport, the railway ticket, all official documents pertaining to my trip and a fair amount of money in both Indian rupees and US dollars, the latter obtained through a tortuous official procedure.
The discovery of the missing briefcase struck me like a bolt from the blue and for a few moments I was completely lost, not even conscious of what had hit me. As the full implication of the loss dawned on me I began frantically to recall how and where I could have lost the briefcase. My first suspicion was that somebody must have stealthily snatched it from me as I was making my way to the carriage. In any case I realized the need for a formal police complaint and looked around for any policeman on duty who might help me; none was visible. Even as I was frantically exploring the next course of action it occurred to me that I might have forgotten to gather the briefcase from the auto. If so, there was a very slim chance that the auto driver might have discovered it and waiting for me to turn up. It looked extremely unlikely that an auto driver would notice a small piece of luggage at night in an extremely busy place like the Madras Central railway station, and even less likely that he would wait for me where I could trace him, but the only immediate course of action left for me was to find out. So, hoping against hope and without telling anything to my puzzled colleague, I rushed out of the carriage, ran the race of my life on a crowded railway platform, pushing and shoving against hapless and angry passengers and made it to the spot where I had got down from the auto, panting hard and drenched profusely with sweat from the exertion. My effort could have gone into the Guinness book of records if there had been any official observers!
If I had the shock of my life a couple of minutes earlier, I had the most pleasant surprise of my life when I not only saw a lone auto at the crowded station entrance but it also turned out to be, lo and behold, the very same auto I was desperately hoping to find, defying all tenets of reason and commonsense! When the driver saw me he looked nearly as relieved to see me as I was of finding him. He explained to me, naturally in Tamil which I could readily understand but reply to only with some difficulty, how he had a hard time convincing a policeman that he had to keep the auto parked there for a short time at least in order to give me an opportunity to find it with my lost briefcase inside. The policeman had reluctantly agreed but had asked him to get away as soon as possible and deposit my briefcase either at the railway office or at a nearby police station in case I didn't turn up. This contingency was avoided in the nick of time! The driver said he would have handed in the briefcase at the railway office but doubted that I could have discovered and retrieved it before the train left. So, he was dodging the policeman and waiting for me as long as he could. This had gone on for nearly fifteen minutes. He hurriedly handed the briefcase over to me and asked me to open it and check if everything was in order. I told him there was no need for it considering the troubles he had already taken to ensure its return to me, thanked him profusely, took out a fifty-rupee currency note (not a small amount in those days) from my wallet and offered it as a small token of my everlasting gratitude. Astonishingly, he politely declined to accept it, saying that it gave him much greater satisfaction just to have found the rightful owner and that too without too much trouble. Obviously no other thought had crossed the mind of this simple soul! At that moment I felt I had witnessed the pinnacle of human decency and dignity. I bid him a warm goodbye and walked back leisurely to the train with the briefcase securely in my hand. Overwhelmed by a welter of uplifting emotions, countered in part by the thought of my initial unforgivable and monumental carelessness, I ruminated over my extraordinary good fortune in running into just him among all the thousands of auto drivers in the city.
When I returned to the train and narrated the extraordinary story to my colleague, he remarked that any other driver's response to the accidental discovery of the briefcase in his auto might have been to leave the scene as fast as possible and later examine its contents to see what he could do with them.
Ever since this encounter I have treated all auto drivers with the utmost courtesy and consideration, even those who have behaved with me rather devilishly on rare occasions. Quite recently I had the pleasant experience of being driven by a young lady driver in her auto from the railway station to my home in Mysore. The fare was just forty rupees. I handed her a hundred-rupee note and asked her to keep the change. When she looked at me with grateful surprise I told her I had a soft corner for auto drivers and in her case it had softened further.
The Bus Conductor
My next episode may sound like a scene from a movie reenacted in real life. The location was inside a public transport bus in my home city of Mysore sometime during the annual Dasara festivities way back in 1985. I was returning home in a usually overcrowded late evening bus, seated on the aisle side with a friend in a back row. I had paid for my ticket with cash taken out from a wallet in a trousers pocket. Half way through the journey, I felt a sort of lightness in my pocket and suddenly discovered that my wallet was missing. I was struck with the same kind of feeling that I had experienced in the Madras railway station as described earlier and sat stiffly frozen with inaction for a few moments. Foolishly I was carrying a large amount of cash in the wallet, some of it in British currency after having returned from a long stay in England only two or three months before. I was also carrying my driving license in it.
I looked all around me on the bus floor to see if the wallet had accidentally fallen off, pushing and shoving many irate passengers in the process. When I couldn't find it, I decided that it was time for me to appraise the bus conductor of the situation, partly in the hope that he might be able to help me out. This didn't look promising at all when I recalled the brusque demeanor of the conductor at the time I got the ticket. Short of writing off my loss this was the only course left for me. So, I waded my way past the standing passengers to the front end where the conductor was busy with his work. Apprehensively and hesitantly I told him what had happened. I was gearing myself up for some well deserved scolding from him for my carelessness and an assertion of his inability to do anything. However, what followed couldn't have been more unexpected. He listened attentively, assessed the situation very quickly and asked me if I was absolutely sure that I had lost the wallet inside the bus. When I confirmed this, he went up to the driver and conferred with him. The bus stopped suddenly and the conductor shouted that no passengers should get down, explained the reason for his action and asked them to look around to see if my missing wallet was lying anywhere inside the bus. When no positive response came he said he had no alternative but to take the bus to the nearest police station to have a formal complaint lodged and investigated since otherwise I stood to lose a large amount of money. He said it was his duty to do so and requested the passengers' special cooperation, promising that the journey would be resumed as soon as possible and without undue delay. He said this so convincingly and effectively that no passenger objected; many in fact nodded in agreement.
The driver restarted the bus and indeed changed course towards a police station just a few hundred meters away. It was obvious that the conductor was not bluffing and really meant what he said. Within seconds somebody from inside the bus shouted that he was seeing something that resembled my missing wallet and asked the conductor to pick it up and show it to me. This was duly done and my wallet was restored to me much to my surprise and delight. The conductor demanded that I count the money and satisfy myself that all of it was there. Unlike the situation in the previous episode I knew I had to do so. Nothing indeed was missing. The conductor put up the green signal and the bus resumed its normal service much to the relief of the passengers.
At the next stop a lot of passengers got down and this gave me the opportunity to approach the conductor and express my gratitude for his superb handling of the matter. So did a few of the discriminating passengers. Elated by his success, the conductor was now in a relaxed and even expansive mood, and told us how he was almost certain of the successful outcome of his strategy. It was obvious to him that someone had picked my pocket and could have gotten away with the loot, but for the implied threat of a police search. He even suspected the identity of the thief but had realized it would be impractical to catch him red handed in such a crowded place and bring him to justice. So he took recourse to this strategy. Under the circumstances he thought it would be more sensible to recover the wallet than to catch the thief. Most deservedly, he took me to task for carrying such a large amount of cash in a place like that. I promised to heed his advice, a promise that I have successfully kept till now.
When I alighted at my destination I discretely called the conductor aside, thanked him again for his thoughtful action and offered him a hundred-rupee note as a small token of my gratitude. As I was about to do so, my mind raced back to the Madras railway station episode twenty years earlier and how the auto driver had declined to accept anything from me for a lofty reason. Shaking with excitement, I wondered if history would repeat itself. I very much hoped it would not; but indeed it did! The conductor conducted himself in an identical manner and gave exactly the same reason. Is this an instance of extrasensory communication among angels, transcending the limitations of both space and time? A believer might think so. At the very least, here is an instance of fact being stranger than fiction. I may have a hard time convincing my readers that I am not making up any part of my story.
The English Lecturer
My third episode is spread out thinly over a span of about eighteen months during 1954-56 when I was a student of the two-year intermediate course at what is now the Government Arts and Science College in the heart of Bangalore city, just across the then Central College, the centre stage of the episode described in my previous blog post. In those days, English was not only a compulsory subject at all stages of education, but the standards of expected attainment in the language were very high. One had to study a number of textbooks, including a play of Shakespeare, compulsorily. Hamlet was the prescribed play in my first year and it was taught by one Mr D'Souza, a lecturer and head of the English department in the college. Though I had acquired a taste for English literature, including Shakespeare, through my own efforts, his approach to teaching was so unique and so refreshingly different that my liking for the subject underwent a quantum jump. He sensed this in the class and one day asked me to visit him in his chambers later in the evening.
When I met him he greeted me warmly, complimented me on my academic background and praised me particularly for the interest I was evincing in his subject. He was so gentle and made me feel so much at home that what developed between us thereafter was more of a friendship than a student-teacher relationship. He wanted to know specifically what I had studied till then by way of English literature and what my intentions were for the future. I poured out to him how I had developed a special liking for the works of stalwarts like Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Conan Doyle, Walter Scott, Louis Stevenson, Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy and a host of others, apart from Shakespeare's plays, and mentioned a number of titles that I had read in full. Then I told him I was interested in expanding my horizons even as I wanted to read more of Hardy for whom I had developed a special liking. He showed me his own personal collection of books, and I was pleasantly surprised to find almost all the hard bound works of Hardy arranged in a neat row. Even before I could ask him, he told me that I was welcome to borrow any of them anytime. For some reason he himself pulled out Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd and asked me to start with it. I guessed it was one of his favorites as much as it became one of mine later.
I met Mr D'Souza a number of times thereafter, each time reporting to him what I had read since we had met last. Once I told him how I had come across A C Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy in the library and was so impressed with the work that I had read through it in just two sittings. He said he was as impressed with me as I was with Bradley. Many a time he had asked me if I needed anything from me other than the intellectual stimulus. Apparently he was aware of my indigent situation and would have gladly helped me at the slightest indication from me. For whatever reason I resisted the idea, but later wished I had taken some advantage of his generous disposition.
In my penultimate meeting with him, sometime before my final examination, he inquired about my plans for the future. I told him truthfully that I had not yet made up my mind between two options – continuing in the science stream and going for an honors course in Physics or changing over to the arts stream and pursuing an honors course in English literature. He said he would be particularly pleased if I went for the latter but told me that the choice had to come entirely from my own volition. After the examinations I debated this issue seriously and decided in favor of the former. In retrospect, this was rather illogical since I had suffered some of the worst possible teaching of Physics in my classes as opposed to some of the best in English, particularly from Mr D'Souza. When I met him for the very last time and told him about my preference for Physics, far from being disappointed he was highly supportive and pointed out, very aptly as I realized later, that it would be much easier for me to sustain my interest in English while studying Physics than vice versa.
Mr D'Souza was very much like Prof Bondade whom I have referred to so admiringly in my previous blog post. Both seem to fit Shakespeare's famous description from Hamlet:
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!
My last two posts have been dominated by references to at least six unforgettable angels and one highly forgettable devil (not counting an unidentified one) that played a memorable role in my life. As my episodes indicate, angels seem to come in different forms and guises, many a time when most in need, often difficult to anticipate in advance, almost never with flapping wings and almost always with a healing touch. Their combined influence on the lives of all ordinary people is not inconsiderable. How right one of my readers was when she commented; "... It is because of such angels that we have survived."!
After the uncharacteristic diversion of my last two posts into uncharted territory, triggered by some extraordinary events in the country, I intend to send both angels and devils back to their respective abodes, commonly understood to mean heaven and hell, and return to some down to earth mainstream writing.