"I want to be someone capable of seeing the unseen faces, of seeing those who do not seek fame or glory, who silently fulfil the role life has given them. I want to be able to do this because the most important things, those that shape our existence, are precisely the ones that never show their face."
Like the flowing river
Meet Gus in the first of a series featuring "unseen faces".
Gus, 12, has just won the full house in Housie (Bingo) in his school. The prizes had been on display even before the game started. He is eager to receive the first prize from the school’s Summer Holiday Camp Manager. It is a beautiful statue of Our Lady. He can’t stop smiling when he accepts it.
Then, in a moment, his world changed.
“You take this,” the Camp Manager took away the statue and handed him a smaller bust, which was chipped. The boy who had won the second prize happened to be from an affluent family and deserved the better prize, a shocked Gus was told. Surely, it would make no difference to Gus, right?
Gus felt angry and sad. An inferior prize, just because he was poor?
He was already waging another battle at home. Because he was standing up to an alcoholic and trying to protect his mother and four little siblings. He felt responsible for them.
Why was the world so unfair, Gus wondered. He just had to grow up and find a job, any job, that would give him money so that he could look after his family.
Gus is overseeing another game of Housie with a group of girls and boys, all around the age of 16. For every boy and girl, it is an effort and an achievement to face a group of people and read out the numbers by turn. Gus gently prods a boy to make eye contact while announcing a number. One girl who has problems with her sight and hearing (“I want to be an accountant”) is helped by her neighbour.
There are no statues; the winners get mints and chocolates. The real prize is the time they get to spend together, to work together and to enjoy themselves.
They are all equal. At every opportunity, Gus slips in a tip, a piece of advice. Through games, dance and music they are picking up social skills. And, for them, something that is less difficult to spell than to acquire —confidence.
When Gus steps out of the room, I play the devil. “Gus sir is saying do this and don’t do that. Do you think he is being practical? The outside world is so different. And surely money is important.”
“No! Gus sir is right. He is telling us the right things.” That’s the girl who would be an accountant one day.
“I had so much fear. Now I think I can do something.”
“He listens to us,” avers another. He is now less conscious of his appearance. And a lot less angry with the world than when he had joined.
“Yes, money is important,” a boy patiently explains to me. “But it is no more important than petrol. Sure, you need it to go from here to there. That is not the whole journey, though.”
Some of them have learnt to play the guitar “somewhat”, thanks to Gus, they tell me. They were scheduled to have a dance session, but a neighbour was not happy with the noise of the ghunghroos. So, they have to figure out a new location for dance sessions.
And all of them have been with Gus sir for barely a month.
Au(Gus)tine Mendonca is, by qualification, an engineer. However, he considers himself a “people person”.
“I was working in Bahrain for nearly 15 years. Initially, the local boss would keep calling me ‘Hey Indian’. It was infuriating. Then I realized they probably found both “Augustine” and “Mendonca” a mouthful. Next time he called me ‘Indian’, I told him he could call me Gus. And the name stuck.”
Gus says he has “corrected” his career. “I took up engineering because I was desperate to qualify and start earning. If I could go back in time, I would probably take up HR. Not the admin-kind of HR, but the people-kind. Understand them, work with them, motivate them. That kind of HR.”
The Bahrain stint helped Gus clear all the family debts. When he returned to India, he worked with various companies including an engineering company and a hospital.
The engineering company once faced a drastic fall in output during the night shift. Gus spent time with the workers and figured out the reason. As a cost-cutting measure, a supervisor had withdrawn the mosquito repellent they used to give all employees. Now, instead of manning the machines, they were busy slapping the mosquitoes. Gus got the repellent back and, sure enough, productivity was back on track.
The famous but abrasive chief of the hospital was angry. Everyone feared his morning rounds. “Why do you have your rounds immediately after mine?” he once asked Gus.
“So that I can undo the damage you do,” Gus replied.
Gus had a collection of doctor jokes, which he used liberally during his rounds. Those served to soothe frayed nerves and restore morale.
“What nonsense!” the chief roared. “Tell me one of those jokes right now.” Gus did. And the chief burst into laughter.
Apart from doing the jobs that came his way after the Bahrain-stint, Gus also felt a pull to seek out the less privileged and help them. He worked at a night school and assisted a couple of NGOs.
Once at the night school, he saw a boy sitting outside on the steps. Gus asked him why he was not in class. The boy had been thrown out because he had beaten up another boy.
His language was harsh, almost abusive. Gus sat next to him. “There is so much age difference between us. Do you think we can have a more polite conversation?”
The boy looked at him. “You are the first person who wants to talk to me.” And the story came out.
The boy had lost vision in one eye in a playground accident. Ever since, he was called “blind” by other children. He was constantly ridiculed and forever the butt of cruel jokes. The teachers also wrote him off and joined the students in abusing him.
That day, he opened his notebook to find that someone had written an abuse targeted at his mother. The violence followed and the teacher was prompt in expelling the boy from class.
Gus summoned a meeting of the teachers and asked for an explanation. “That boy is impossible; he must be removed from the school.” Gus interrupted the chorus. “That boy will not be removed,” he was categorical.
Then he proceeded to find out exactly what the teachers knew about the boy. Had they bothered to find out anything at all?
A few days later, Gus ran into the boy again. He was all smiles. “I am back in class. They are talking to me now. They are nice.”
“Sometimes, all they need is a hand, a chance. Just what I needed once upon a time," Gus said.
“It is so easy to brand someone as bad or impossible. Just dig a little deeper. I did once. And behind the alcoholic I found a jovial, talented and loving man. If you must, hate the problem, not the victim.
“When the boys and girls come and tell me they are eager to get any job so that they can start earning, I understand. But I don’t want them to make the same mistake that I did. So, I talk to them individually, find out what they are interested in and try to guide them accordingly.
“A few companies are very happy to employ these boys and girls. They say they like the attitude and the willingness to work hard. That is so nice of them.
“Some of those I had the opportunity to help are doing so well now. They stay in touch. They come and meet me at times.
“Of course, in some cases, I failed. They started earning and money derailed their lives. Bad company, expensive addictions, and the wrong notion that they had ‘arrived’.
“In every case, I begin with a positive intention, whatever the outcome. Unless I am confident of them, how can they be confident of themselves?”
Says Yogesh Kapse, a social development professional, who has been working closely with Gus, “It becomes easier for us to support a project when we know that there is someone as passionate and as committed as Gus mentoring it."
Apart from imparting “employable skills” to the youth, Gus shares art and poetry with all.
Today is song time. He picks up the guitar and the boys and girls join him in singing their “special” song:
I am special
You are special
We are special, you see
Black or white
Short or tall
Fat or thin
All of us are special, you see.
Augustine Mendonca is currently associated with Parineeti Projects.
When the parent company imploded, the CSR division was the first they let go. You can’t fulfil your social responsibility when you are struggling to survive, can you?
Each member of the CSR arm had helped a hundred pick themselves up, discover dignity, look up, hope. What happens now to those who are charged up and waiting for upliftment?
Sorry! They will have to fend for themselves. We have a company to salvage. We have a job to find.
All the employees of the division were efficient, certain to find another employer. But, they were all worried about him.
He enjoyed walking into strange places that spoke strange tongues. He patiently overcame suspicion, cynicism and hostile inertia. One beneficiary, one achievement at a time, he made his mark.
He goaded many an indifferent administration into doing what they were meant to and gladly let them hoard the applause. He pushed the invisibles to face the cameras. After all, they had overcome what generations had endured before them. Of course, his little nudges helped, too.
Yet, in the office, they worried about him because he had no English. They helped whenever they could. He stuttered through presentation-studded meetings in his native tongue. His slides were predictable, tutored.
Now, how can he find another job without English?
He was worried too, but for a different reason. In the few days that remained, he had to go back and talk to his partners in far-off villages, where news had no corporate page, and very few could read.
These were the people who used to call him up almost every day, for little things that mattered a lot to them—fertilizer use, livestock insurance, irrigation ponds. Some of them were not sure of their own age; but they were all sure about him, his advice.
He wanted to tell them he was going. Yet, assure them this was not abandonment. “If I don’t do that, they will never again trust anyone who offers to help. And they still need help,” he explained.
He can’t help that his job was cut short. However, he believes the engagements he nurtured thanks to that job deserves a more satisfactory, productive closure.
English would love to give words to his voice. Applaud his empathetic, proactive communication. And his enthusiasm to preserve positive connect as disconnect roiled around him. He has shown the importance of genuine engagement even when you are not selling, just serving.
He never really had English. He doesn’t need it now.
Financial turbulence had thrown the airline into embarrassing news pockets. That did not deter me from booking my flight with them.
The boarding pass that technology delivered in advance clearly mentioned the time I would start boarding.
Thirty minutes past that time, with no information about what was holding up the increasingly restless group of passengers, I suddenly remembered the headlines.
“No sir, the flight would take off on time,” the employee who finally swiped my boarding pass reassured me. If only someone had taken the trouble to inform us just that with or without a credible excuse for the delay! Too late! The next time I had a choice, I would not fly this airline.
On the return leg, another feat of technology specified the boarding gate number 24 hours before I was to start for the airport. Wow!
Minutes before boarding time, they changed the gate.
“But why didn’t someone tell me?”
“You should have checked the display, sir!” Of course, it was my fault. Why did I stop checking the display after the fourteenth time? And they did text me the gate number nearly 24 hours before boarding. Surely you can’t expect them to also text me the sudden change, when it mattered more?
Intelligence, artificial, is just that. Until and even after we infuse intelligence with empathy, there is no substitute for a simple communication at the right time.
Else, tiny cuts can cause more damage than headlined hemorrhages.
“It is not too far,” he repeats what has now become a joke for us weaklings “from the plains”, as the locals love to put it. And he goes on to add a new one, “I will take you back by an easy route”. Hah!
I was part of a film crew to document the lives of farmers on the mountain slopes in Pachote, Jammu. Someone had warned us that it was not a good idea to travel there during the rains, leave alone shoot. There were under-the-breath warnings, too, to watch out for terrorists.
On day one, when we got off the car and took a few steps towards our first location, I did experience terror, albeit a more down-to-earth kind. Because I was down on earth having lost my footing. We were on the path to a farmer’s place, except that there was no path. Just slippery smooth mud shining in mischief, stones waiting for a foot to step on them to start rolling and treacherous plants with long thorns that offered the only possible desperate grab-hold to arrest your free fall. This was to become our way of life for the next five days.
If the farmers tell you the descent is easier, they are not telling you about the effect of gravity on a near-ninety-degree slope after your shoes seem to have forgotten all about traction and are just clinging to your feet to save their own lives. If they tell you the ascent is easier, they are ignoring the panting connection between your creaking knees and your heaving lungs, after about five hops from one jutting bit of stone to a clump of grass that may cushion your fall or open a hidden portal to the raging river far, far below, which you can’t see thanks to the thick fog.
We were about to pack up at the end of day four, having lost several frustrating hours to the rain and fog when he offered to take me first to the blessed car on a heavenly, level, firm road, somewhere up in the sky from where I looked. I abandoned all feelings of camaraderie towards the rest of the crew and immediately accepted. I counted on them to understand that when the going gets slippery, the old get to go first.
Lend me your hand, leader
He is no ordinary farmer; he is an exceptionally successful one. He is also the sarpanch of the area, which essentially makes him the prime minister if that small panchayat were a country.
He makes three offers right at the outset. We will go at an easy pace. You can hold my hand whenever you want. We will rest as many times as you want. My male ego cringes when I accept all three. When the mind is full of fear and the head is held low for fear of missing the next step, the ego quickly learns to shut up.
Here I am, walking with the king of all that the fog lets us survey at that moment. And he is spending all his time escorting me to the safety of the car.
Surely, as a leader, when you walk around you must have your retinue (security and yes-men) with you?
“What for? I walk these paths any time of the day or night. Alone!”
I am not worried about your getting lost. Surely, you must be concerned about security, I ask, warily eyeing a vague dark shape moving towards us in the haze. That turns out to be cowherd, followed by someone who must be his wife. Tied securely to the back of the woman is a baby, fast asleep.
As he steers me gently away from the horns of the nervous cow, my guide has a little conversation with them. I can make out that they are very respectfully explaining why they were late and, probably assuring my friend that the road ahead was all clear. It does not appear to be a casual hello, he seems to know their names.
“Security?” He returns to my question. “Why do I need security when I am with my people? I was a farmer like most people here and I still am. Then I started a taxi service and did what I could to help people here. They asked me to stand for election because they thought I could help them solve some of their problems. They are the ones who elected me to be their sarpanch. Why do I need protection to be with them?”
But, you know, how politicians ….
“I am not into politics. We have many problems here. I have helped my people solve some. We are working to solve the rest.”
As he talks and I pant up a mercifully stone-paved portion of the path, we run into several other villagers. The same scene repeats. A brief halt, a little conversation. By now, I am convinced he knows almost everyone around. Even the sceptical journalist in me is silenced when he translates the conversations. His concern is for real; so is their respect.
Did they give you some sort of ID when you became sarpanch?
“Of course,” he fishes out a card from his pocket. According to the ID, his tenure had ended six months ago. “I am an ex now,” he calmly put the card back. “They postponed the election for some reason. And these people want me to fight the election again whenever it happens.” There is no trace of pride. “Leaders from other panchayats ask me why I continue to work when my term is over.”
Why do you?
“You people have come all the way from Maharashtra to help us. I am right here. Why can’t I help them? What has it got to do with my position? How does it matter if am an ex?” He gets a little worked up.
I gesture to him that I would like to sit down for the umpteenth time. There is a nip in the air; the fog is getting even thicker. But, I am sweating profusely. I can see him watching me closely. Must be wondering, is this guy just tired or is he getting a heart attack?
He decides to cheer me up. “What is left ahead is less than what we have left behind.” That sounds so profound and so politically correct, I think. Then I will my knees to carry me again.
Being a benevolent bridge
Just when my lungs are to ready give me a lockdown notice, he points to a building that emerged from the fog on the left. “This is the school where I studied. It was just a primary school. I made it bigger. Now children can finish their education here. They don’t have to give up or go away.”
So, you concretized this path to make it easy for the children? “This is the only path the children have,” he justified.
“And that shed you see,” we are almost on the road. “We used to wait near the road as children but there was no shelter from the rain and snow. So, I made that shed.”
No, he did not spend from his pocket. He explains that the government has enough schemes for the people. But you can’t expect the government to take the first step; and the people just don’t know. His job is to shatter the reluctance at one end and the ignorance at the other. That is how he managed to get a roof over the heads of many helpless women farmers and got them the benefit of government schemes (ranging from food to jobs).
He is quite capable of spanking the law too. Like when the bureaucracy mulishly refused to complete a small stretch of road the villagers desperately needed, he spurred the villagers to do it themselves in just one night. In the morning when the law came for him, he was right there and so were the villagers. Bureaucracy had to bow and retreat.
As I collapse on one of the benches under “his” shed, he asks the driver to get water. After several long moments, when I feel strong enough to talk and walk, he tells me he would be getting off on the way.
The driver stops at a spot that has no sign of civilisation. Except for the fog, I cannot see a thing. My friend gets off, waves me goodbye, simply steps off the road and vanishes.
I look at the driver for assurance. “Don’t worry, he knows the way.” How long would it take him to reach home? “About 45 minutes,” he shrugs.
That was almost a month ago. I hear he rallied the villagers once again, for another road. And that he has been invited by the government to speak on how he managed to make the most of government schemes and corporate funds to inspire his fellow villagers reap a rich harvest they had never thought possible.
Dear Parkash Chand, we need more of you to guide us through treacherous slopes. And to reassure us that what is ahead is less worrying than that we have covered.
When you pass through Ghazipur in East Delhi, you are unlikely to stop. Unless you want to buy some flowers, meat, poultry or fish from some of Delhi's largest markets for these. Surely, you haven't brought along some garbage to add to the towering mountain that keeps growing thanks to some 2500 tons of waste dumped here every day? If you have friends among the 400-odd families of waste pickers and dairy farm workers, you must brave the filth and stink to meet them.
I did not have friends among them either, when I was there in June to visit Gulmeher, better known to the locals as the place where the "phool-patti" work happens.
No, I will not write about Gulmeher. Discover it for yourself in the video below.
Before you play the video, I will just share one equation with you, that will make more sense after you see the video.
Gulmeher = art + heart + tenacity + hope.
After you see the video, you may want to stop at Ghazipur and be a part of the equation. So that your heart can feast on some painstaking art. And you can help feed the hope that makes wounded flowers and neglected lives rise up and challenge a mountain of indifference.
Video and images courtesy Gulmeher.
Some river somewhere. Clusters of people standing in the shallow water. High up on a rock a young boy is getting out of his street clothes. Moments later he jumps into the water. There is a resounding crack as he hits a rock. Some people move away from the river in a hurry. Some swim to the boy, who is now still. They bring the body to the bank. The fall has split the face open. Someone pushes up the vest on the body to cover the face. Another pulls the vest down to take a photo.
Yes, this is a WhatsApp video that landed on my phone some days ago. The questions that came up were as disturbing as the video.
Imagine. The same setting, the same incident. But there are no instant means to transport images and videos. What then?
Would the boy have attempted the stunt?
Would those moved away have, instead, rushed towards the boy to try and help?
Would the body’s dignity have been preserved and the vest left on the face?
Would the hands and minds have shown more haste and concern to dissuade the boy or to save his life, if they were not occupied by devices?
Now that being social is easy and instant, has man become more of an animal? Or worse?
It was her last day in the office.
For her, work was singing and dancing with children, pleading with men in their sober moments to send their children to school and convincing women that they were not challenging their husbands if they worked to earn a second income or went to school with their children.
Her work was persuading the swaying man on top of the building he was helping build, to climb down. She understood his ego was hurt when his child was beginning to read and write, while he, the master of the house, remained illiterate. She told him his family would die without him. She made his child and wife yell from eight floors down that they would never disobey him. She apologized for not seeking his permission before enrolling his child at the little school on the construction site. He let them help him down.
Early next morning, before he left his 10X10 tin shed for work, she was there forcing him to look her in the eye. The low of shame had replaced the high of the drink. She made no accusations; offered no apology. Her hands around his son sitting on her lap, she asked the father to choose. The boy could grow up to carry bricks and cement bags or study and hope to escape. And even support his parents one day, she added softly. The father broke down; she did not. At least not until the mother hugged her and thanked her through her tears and the boy looked up at them both in confusion.
Then she rushed back to her own house, to prepare lunch for her own son to carry to school.
Getting them to give
Her work was in standing up to her own colleagues so that a hundred workers could live in a decent shelter and the women did not have to trek beyond the hill for the sake of dignity. She boldly inspected filthy toilets, where even men no longer went. She stood guard near a water tank until someone covered it with a tin sheet, so that no little child could fall in and drown.
Her work was to stand aside and clap as those who did what they had to only because she made them, walked away with shining corporate awards for “serving beyond their duty”.
Her work was in discovering the glow beneath layers of grime and snot. Then she sang, danced and played with them to fan that flame to chase away shadows lurking around their lives.
Her scooter took her all over the city as she looked for schools and hostels for the children to stay safely in and study, regardless of where their parents worked. She pulled all the strings she could so that those children, her children, could stay tied to a more secure future. Day and night she fretted, pleaded and threatened as little children escaped, back to the familiar, the not-so-demanding insecurity of home.
The grateful ungrateful
She wasted more fuel and time to gather experts and their films to talk to workers, “uncivilised and ungrateful” as their employers described them, about addiction, personal hygiene, health and HIV.
The supervisors growled at her for taking their workers away when they had concrete to pour and bars to bend. They did not understand her thrill when a worker shyly confessed to her that he had given up tobacco.
As she gathered the last of her things that belonged to her and not the office, the phone rang. It was the mother of the girl, who had topped the class in studies and sports. Other mothers were eager to send their children to school, but could she come and help them with the admissions?
As gently as she could, she replied that someone else from the office would definitely help.
After a minute of silence, the question came, “Are you leaving, madam?” The reply was a sob. “Don’t leave us madam, we will find you another job. We need you.”
Yes, she would need another job for her family to survive. However, as long as she cared, as long as they needed her, she would always have work.
After this was posted exactly four years ago, she did take up one job after another. Not all of them matched her idea of her true work. Last I met her was at an astronomy event, excitedly looking through the telescope and asking if she could just reach out and grab Saturn and preserve it in a bottle. Her health has not been keeping up with her enthusiasm but she continues to reach out, to help and to learn.
When you invited me to participate in the Messier Marathon Mania, I did not understand why. I am not into marathons, messy or clean, and neither of us is maniacal. Then you explained that “mania” was just a marketing appendage to the real thing—Messier Marathon.
If Wikipedia were to educate me before I accepted your invitation, I might have declined the opportunity to find as many objects as possible during one night from the catalogue compiled by French astronomer Charles Messier. Me? Astronomy? No way!
My knees creaked at the idea of staying up from 5.30 p.m. to 5.30 a.m. in the wilderness where the temperature was sure to plummet to sweater-plus-jacket depths. All that suffering just to spot 100 celestial objects? I shut my instincts up and said yes!
And, my dear Sarang, I am glad I did. Because your telescope showed me more than those objects.
When that one faint star turned out to be a collection of thousands of brilliant stars, I wondered about all the assumptions I make based on what I think I see.
When I looked at two galaxies captured within a lens barely bigger than a single eye, I wondered about all that is within me beyond the physical.
That coat hanger arrangement could have been shells or pebbles on any beach here. Except that it is a “very entertaining asterism in the Sagitta constellation,” as you put it. Where is that beach? Who is that child?
Hazy gases giving birth to new stars; stars on the verge of an explosive death. Dimensions and distances beyond comprehension. Countless. Endless.
It was a night that established my own insignificance as man in the grand scheme of things. And made me sad about our infinite capacity to damage the treasures that have been gifted to us.
Before we began, a sudden gust of wind threatened to blow away the tent you were trying to erect. Was that a warning?
As we wound up, a peacock called from the hills. Was that a plea to wake up to the infinite beauty around us? To be humble before all that we don’t know, yet?
Thank you, Sarang. I learnt a lot. But I don’t remember the names of all the stars, nebulae and galaxies you opened my eyes to. I am an old romantic; I would rather let them remain celestial mysteries.
You invited me to “explore stars, nebulae and galaxies” and to “explore yourself.” The latter I shall, thanks to that one night with you and the stars.
Your fellow earthling
Sarang Oak is a passionate astronomer, author and teacher.
Photo by Priyanka Kudchikar.
“Effulgence, I like that word.”
I agreed it was a nice word. After all, he was the client.
“I like the alliteration: Intimacy of Indore and the aura of Aurangabad.”
I was not sure if alliteration would help him sell more rooms in his hotels in the two towns. Aloud, I simply thanked him for liking the line.
“You know, I always wanted to be a writer.” Aha! “You are so lucky. You make a living writing.”
I could not afford a room in either of his hotels. Not that I admitted it. Maybe I could wangle a complimentary stay?
“Effulgence … you are sure you cannot include it somewhere in the heading?” He was pleading for some indulgence.
I was positive I could not.
“Kerala is a beautiful place. We should have a hotel there. Maybe in a nice town … like Ernakulam.”
For a moment, I did not figure out why the conversation had suddenly changed tracks and towns. Then the alliteration hit me.
“Did you know about this word flocci something? Wait, I will write it and show you.”
He jotted it down on a piece of paper, frequently glancing down at something hidden in the drawer—floccinaucinihilipilification.
“We should shock people with our words. I find it fascinating. It will attract them.” Wasn’t he concerned with what the word meant? Obviously not. The meeting was over.
Soon, I lost that client, probably because he found me too timid with words.
Some months later, his brochure arrived in the mail, inviting me to the opening of their latest hotel in the “effulgence of Ernakulam.”
I broke into a sweat when I read that their plan for the next year included another hotel … in Faridabad.