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.
First I thought there was an error in the heading: “Why Doctors Need Humanities”. After I read the article I was convinced that “Why Doctors Need to be Humane” would have been a more appropriate heading.
Reading the article made me wonder once again: Why do many prominent doctors and hospitals avoid palliative care like, well, the plague. They welcome the best talent and the best technology, but palliative care? “We cannot spare beds for that.”
To me, palliative care is synonymous with humane care. A hospital refusing to accommodate a facility for humane care is like a school saying we can give you reading and ‘riting, but no ‘rithmetic.
So, why have I have jumped from that Times of India article on Humanities to humane care? Precisely because that article deals with humane care.
Learn empathy with the -pathy
The problem, says the author, Professor Anand Krishnan, Centre for Community Medicine, All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences, is not that our doctors lack the scientific knowledge. The problem “is related to their insensitive behaviour which emanates from their ignorance as well as inability to handle the emotional distress of sick individuals and their near and dear ones. Doctors should not allow scientific medicine to blunt their humanity, ignore ethics and the need for empathy."
Professor Krishnan laments that “A typical consultation today is of less than ten minutes and consists of a few cursory questions followed by a long list of investigations and medicines to be taken with poor explanation of (the) whys and hows.”
The death of E Ahamed, a Parliamentarian, kicked up a veritable why-how storm in both political and medical circles. Did they use the right equipment at the right time? Was the family denied access when it mattered most?
Instead of resuscitating that controversy, let us take note of what Dr M R Rajagopal, widely acclaimed as the father of palliative care in India, had to say following Ahamed’s death, as reported by The Deccan Chronicle: "Science has to be used on human beings with humanity. Death is the inevitable consequence of life, and there is a time at which a gentle touch of a loved one, a few drops of water down the throat and religious rituals become more important than the latest technology.”
Touch to reassure
Recently, Dr Priyadarshini Kulkarni, a prominent palliative care physician ended up having to answer the difficult question of a family member, but for an entirely different reason.
For long, she had been caring for an elderly woman. With her pain under control, often the patient would request the doctor to just sit with her. Dr Priyadarshini would comply, at times sitting with the patient for more than an hour, simply holding her hand in silence.
One day, Dr Priyadarshini was just leaving after what turned out to be her last session with that patient, when the old lady called her back. With difficulty, she sat up on the bed and gave Dr Priyadarshini a warm hug. The patient’s daughter was a bemused witness.
Soon, the patient passed away. Days later, during a visit to the house, the daughter asked Dr Priyadarshini: “I was her daughter. I took care of her for so long. Yet, at the end, she chose you, not me, for a goodbye hug. Why?”
Perhaps, this is best answered by Dr Abraham Verghese, who received a National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama in September 2016. During a TED talk, Dr Verghese regretted that “the patient in the bed has almost become an icon for the real patient who’s in the computer…. I call it the iPatient…. The real patient often wonders, where is everyone? When are they going to come by and explain things to me? Who’s in charge? There’s a real disjunction between the patient’s perception and our own perceptions as physicians of the best medical care.”
Dr Verghese urges a return to old-fashioned touch, the thorough hands-on physical examination. He calls it a ritual, which he thinks tells the patient: “I will always, always, always be there. I will see you through this. I will never abandon you. I will be with you through the end.”
Sharpen left, nurture right
Yes, Professor Krishnan, let us introduce Humanities in medical curriculum. Let us revive the book and cinema clubs. Let us encourage our medical students to abandon the stethoscope and pick up the brush or the guitar as part of their course. Hopefully, all this will prevent what Dr Salvatore Mangione of Jefferson University fears: “Medical school attracts those that are left brain, but then proceeds to atrophy what is left of their right brain.”
Some medical schools are already into Humanities. Dr Sulabh Kumar Shrestha, a medical oncologist (“loves writing poetry, listening and playing music and travelling”) writes: “I pursued MBBS at KIST Medical College, Nepal and we had ‘medical humanities’ incorporated in earlier years, although we needn’t appear for exam…. We had weekly sessions named ‘Sparshanam’ i.e. touch.”
The session titles were “empathy, doctor-patient relationship, the patient, the doctor, breaking bad news (and) compliance.” The students were given paintings, photos, poems and quotes. A 5-minute timer was set for each group to interpret those. “The two major questions that we had to answer were: What do you see? What do you feel?”
For most medical colleges, who find it difficult to accommodate Humanities between Anatomy and Physiology, I would like to suggest a few chapters in the medical textbook, which perhaps Dr Henry Gray would have added if he were around.
Right after “Leave Your Phone, Touch the Patient” and “Compassion is Not on Prescription” let us introduce a lesson on “Disconnect the Tubes, Just Connect”, followed by “The Family is Patient Only When You Talk” and ending with “Letting Go in Peace is Medical Achievement, Not Failure”.
Some of the best communicators I have met have taught me that you are truly big when you communicate small. That is, you get up from your plush designation, push aside the corporate façade, slide down the hierarchy balustrade and “stoop” to talk and connect with a simple, solitary individual.
There was this owner of a group of companies, a true monarch of the market. He would look everyone in the eye, greet by name and enquire about the immediate family.
Last I ran into him, some four years after our last meeting, cruel circumstances had reduced the monarch to a pauper. But, he still greeted me by name, asked about my wife by name, named both my sons and correctly guessed their grade. He remains a communication king in my heart.
Of course, not everyone is blessed with that kind of memory. However, if you think it is important to communicate small, you will find a way.
The CEO of one of the country’s largest companies used his secretary and his laptop to communicate small, big time. I helped him with a few templates. Just by adding a name and changing a few words, he would convert those into very personal letters to suit every occasion—from congratulations to condolences. Before he started a telephone conversation or his secretary ushered in a visitor, his database would bring up the gist of their last exchange—personal and professional.
Goes to show you can’t blame technology for the all-pervading disconnect. Use it right and it can help you connect—if it matters to you.
True healing touch
She was not just a doctor, but a demigod. I was sceptical. She treated the same diseases and prescribed the same drugs like everyone else. Yet, people loved her and stayed put in her waiting room for hours. Why? How?
I was with one of her patients, when I realized the magic was not in her stethoscope. She was 30 minutes late and my friend was in serious pain. Just then, he received a call. It was the doctor. She apologized, explained the delay and told him when she would reach. That call acted like a placebo. My friend settled down comfortably for a long wait.
That doctor’s reputation and her healing touch was not as much in her prescription as in the thoughtful, small communications like that one-minute call.
Back the pat
Talking of calls, I can never forget the Monday when I got a call from a very senior executive of a client organization. My regular contact was about five levels down the hierarchy, so this was a surprise. He took barely a minute to tell me that the presentation I had helped his team make was very impressive and did its job well. That call made my week.
The irony? My contact never bothered with mundane things like feedback. Unless, of course, I had made a Himalayan blunder. Or what was needed yesterday, till a minute ago, was now required the previous week.
Months later, when I told the big boss how his call had had such a positive impact on me, he had no clue what I was talking about. But he shared a secret, “Someone told me a long time ago that you should never miss an opportunity to pat someone on the back for a genuine reason. And you must do it without delay. I just try to follow that always.”
Back the pat to work wonders.
Grace under complaint
I wish my bank would grow up to be big one day. I had emailed a complaint about a wrong charge. When there was no response even a week after the promised 48 hours, I followed their protocol and took up the issue with “higher authorities.”
Four days later, someone from my branch called. “Did you check your account before you escalated the problem?” he sounded very irritated with me. “The issue was resolved two days before you complained higher up.” But, no one told me the problem had been resolved. Else I would not have bothered to escalate the issue. And am I supposed to monitor my account every minute? “When you escalate any issue, the branch must answer. I have to answer.” Did he want me to apologize? “You should understand customer complaint emails are handled by a different department,” he explained.
All he had to do was tell me the issue was resolved. Instead, he made it amply clear that me the small customer was being a nuisance to him, the busy boss of big bank packed with so many departments.
Talk beyond script
My internet service provider (ISP), on the other hand, is beginning to grow up. I am used to tiring cut-paste email responses when I post a complaint. This time it was no different and I had almost given up.
Surprise! A live human being, who knew my name and my problem called up to admit they had not figured out a solution yet. Two days later, he called again to say that the company had sorted out the issue and went on to share his personal number, in case I faced any problem.
Admitting a problem, taking the initiative to make a call and conducting a conversation with a small, solitary customer, without a script. Yes, my ISP has suddenly grown big in my eyes.
Image source: www.dogkneeinjury.com
Some books inspire you, so do some people. Some people walk with you and give you just the push to find and use your own wings.
They are often inconspicuous and unaware of how they influence you. Yet, you realise their worth and contribution when you pause to take stock at some juncture. Or, like it happened this morning, an obituary catches your eye and pulls you back in time.
A gruff introduction
Chandrakant Khandelwal. I met him at a time when I had just stepped into the unknown domain of business, leaving the comfort of a job. Life was fun. I was earning money doing what I enjoyed. That I could not escape some mundane stuff like keeping books and filing returns had not yet sunk in.
It was my accountant who introduced me to Khandelwalji. He was a chartered accountant and his firm was to handle my tax matters.
Maybe I expected a warm welcome and exclamations of how happy he was to get my business. Instead, the hello was intimidating to say the least. “This is what we charge and we don’t help you cook books,” was the gist of his introductory proclamation.
I was tempted to find another CA, one who smiled, at the least. For some reason, I decided to stick on. “He has got a great reputation; his firm is very respected,” my accountant reassured me.
The senior Khandelwal and I barely interacted because his son handled most of my work. Very often he would walk by when his son was helping me make sense of the numbers. “Good morning” was frequent; a smile, rare.
I got to know from the son about his father’s work ethics. Don’t try to dodge hard work. If you can’t do it ethically, walk away, no matter what the price. Whenever I faced a problem, the son would resolve it but I would draw reassurance from the fact the father was backing that resolution.
After some years, his firm went on to become my client. The senior Khandelwal would participate in briefing sessions but barely spoke. He would keenly watch the interaction among others. His occasional comment made it amply clear that he was with us and thinking ahead. In fact, he even smiled at me once or twice.
The firm grew in leaps and bounds. He could have sat back and enjoyed the success. Instead he preferred to come to work every day. Until he was too frail and ill.
This morning the obituary told me he was gone, never to return.
At the condolence meeting, a speaker pointed out that Khandelwalji was always available to solve problems, whether it pertained to regulations, to relationships or to religion. From the little I knew of him within the confines of his office, I was sure that was no eulogical exaggeration.
As mobiles sullied the chanting of the prayer and the members of the sizeable gathering surged to pay their respects to the family, I imagined his small figure walking past my chair. His booming voice would have requested everyone to be patient and not to rush. If that failed he would have sat down on a chair, hand to chin, pensively waiting for the world without him to settle down.
Accounts and returns are no longer a terror and I manage the little I need to do without help. Did that searing introduction fire me up to handle my own battles with numbers? Did the unacknowledged desire to be in the good books of a tough task master inspire me to balance my books? I would like to believe so.
Thank you, Khandelwalji!
This morning I got an instigating call. “Remember that letter you had written for me? Maybe you should send a version of that to the new President. He would love to hear from his illustrious predecessor.”
He was still laughing when I cut the call. Advise the new President? No way! There is enough out there to see and read about both, the one who has come in and the one who is gone. Everyone seems to be asking both the same question, “Why, oh why?”
Neither needs advice from the 16th in their line. But, some years ago, my friend did. Yes, the same friend who called me this morning.
Enter the fighter CEO
My friend used to be the chairman of a company that was fighting for survival. He was keen to appoint a strong CEO to lead the battle and win.
There was a candidate within the company. He spoke his mind and cared two hoots about the outcome. He frequently quarreled with his bosses. He did his best to overthrow two CEOs. His juniors hated him. About what he thought of the women in the company and, in turn, what they thought of him, the less said the better. But if your life depended on fighting, he was your go-to man. He was obnoxious; his performance was towering.
My friend, the chairman, wanted my help to write a formal letter of appointment on behalf of the Board of Directors. In that letter, he wanted to welcome the new CEO, and subtly, very subtly, admonish and caution him.
Why all that in a letter? Why not have a chat in private? The Board wants it in writing, my friend said. “You know how it is. If things go wrong and we have to remove him in a hurry and the media asks questions ….” I applauded my friend for being very prescient.
I hoped Google would throw up some inspiration. It did. A letter from Abraham Lincoln!
If Abe were to write
I have placed you at the head of this organization. Of course, I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons. And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which, I am not quite satisfied with you.
I believe you to be a brave and a skilful executive, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. But I think that during the reign of the previous CEO, you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the company, and to a most meritorious and honorable colleague.
I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the company and the Board needed a Dictator. Of course, it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those executives, who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is corporate success, and I will risk the dictatorship.
The Board will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all CEOs. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the company, of criticizing the CEO, and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can, to put it down. You could not get any good out of an organization, while such a spirit prevails in it.
And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories.
The Presidential original
With apologies to President Lincoln, what you just read is an adapted version of the letter he wrote more than 150 years ago, on January 26, 1863, to be precise. It was addressed to Major General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, who was being appointed to head the Army of the Potomac during the American Civil War. The website of the California Military Department begins the section on Major General Hooker by describing him as “One of the most immodest and immoral of the high Union commanders ….”
I did try to humour my friend with this adapted letter and a staider corporate version, but my friend rejected both. And now he wants me to send a new version to the President!
Going back a century and a half, this is what Major General Joseph Hooker told reporter Noah Brooks about the letter from President Lincoln: “That is just such a letter as a father might write to his son. It is a beautiful letter, and, although I think he was harder on me than I deserved, I will say that I love the man who wrote it.”
Hmm! The CEO never got to read it, but does that sound like how the President would respond if Lincoln were to rise and give him such a letter this January 26?
On the second Saturday of 2017 (just four days away as I write this) about 100 ex-employees of a company will meet for a reunion dinner. They were brought together by WhatsApp. And the name they chose for the group was born long before phones turned mobile and smart. When I was invited to join the group, what struck me was the name they had chosen for the group. It was the name of a beloved house magazine, synonymous with the people who worked in and loved that company.
The last time this house magazine figured in a conversation was when a new friend called me from my old company. Once upon a time, they had recruited me to launch and edit their house magazine. Now, after nearly three decades, my friend had been asked to revive the same magazine.
Same? I began writing for the magazine hammering away, two-fingered, at a borrowed typewriter. Now, he was trying to figure out how to use social media and the company’s intranet to bring the magazine digitally alive on laptops and smartphones.
We used to send each copy by first class mail to every employee’s home, I told him. He could hardly suppress a chuckle. “Mail? You mean as in post office?” He tried to explain it to me, speaking slowly, “We are talking of some 20,000 employees.”
I was fortunate that the number was just a little over 1000 then. Made it easier for me to know almost every name and face I communicated with.
I had joined as a proud writer, confident of bowling them all over with my clever writing. And they taught me that communication was not about English but about listening and sharing—sharing experiences, memories and moments.
Fish for cats
Ekvir remembered a day of torrential rain when he had to wade through waist-high water to reach office. Why? The magazine revealed the answer. “There were six cats in the pharmacology department, surviving solely on fish. With the floods, the poor creatures faced starvation. Therefore, Ekvir waded all the way to the market and floated back with the fish. Whatever the cats thought of this, he did win the admiration of a group of boys, who had followed him during the journey.”
The cycle walker
For the sake of getting the job, Rao lied to the manager that he could ride a bicycle. For several days, he suffered the ignominy of walking beside his cycle. At nights, he practised. Soon, he was delivering the company’s products to every nook and corner of the city. Yes, on the bicycle!
The dancer in stores
And who would have thought that the shy, silent Sudeep from stores was an accomplished dancer, until the day he agreed to a graceful lunchtime performance for the magazine’s camera!
The serious scientist in the lab transformed into a garrulent numismatist in his apartment.
The flautist and the violinist staged impromptu concerts at home, with the family joining in.
It was all for the sake of the magazine that belonged to all.
Made quarterly, retained forever
There were also people like Prakash who ensured my ego did not get mixed up with my job. “You may be the editor. But it is our magazine,” he would remind me every time he disagreed with something in the magazine.
Yes, the quarterly did carry plenty of corporate reports. But, the employees made the magazine home to some unforgettable moments of their lives. They truly took the house magazine home.
Some months ago, I ran into Usha, who, at that time, was still working with the same company. “Do you remember me?” I asked her. She looked at me for a few minutes, her face blank. Then she screamed the name. No, not my name, but the magazine’s.
I felt honoured.
Good language makes for better communication. Yet, the best communication often needs no language. That’s what I learned from a little girl just beginning to flap her wings and from a couple at the other end of life.
The little story teller
She must have been six or seven years of age. I landed in her class close to lunch time. The children were used to visitors and, right on cue, the teacher orchestrated a chorused welcome.
The hungrier ones were already moving towards their lunch boxes. The teacher persuaded one of them to repeat the story she had just told them. It came out pat, the mouse and the lion living happily ever after without any error or emotion.
This girl was at the back, hand raised, jumping up and down to catch the teacher’s eye, eager to tell the story. I requested the teacher to give that girl a chance before my conducted tour moved on to the next class.
“Once upon a time …” the girl began, panting a little after all the jumping. She soon lapsed into her mother tongue. “Speak in English,” came the sharp rebuke. The girl stopped and started again. Again, English deserted her by the second or the third sentence.
“But I am speaking in English,” she started crying. Her friends were laughing at her. The teacher was getting angrier. My tour conductor whispered it was time to move on.
I knelt before the girl and asked her to tell me the story. She wiped her tears and began. Within moments, everything else vanished. There were just the two of us.
I saw the terror the mouse felt in those round eyes. The almighty roar of the lion emerged from that little mouth. Her hands captured the cowering plea of the mouse. And I felt the anger and frustration of the lion when her entire body fought the net. Then the finale, the triumph of friendship.
The sudden silence brought me back to the class. I didn’t hear what the teacher was saying. I didn’t hear the giggles around me. I just applauded her. Did she speak in English? I had no idea. She had just brought the story alive for me. Language did not matter.
As we walked out of the class room a little tug on my trousers stopped me. She stood there, offering me a biscuit from her lunch box and a wide smile.
They held hands
At the palliative care centre, there were several instances of love and perseverance winning over excruciating pain and crushing misery. Some I witnessed; many the team would share with me.
“I don’t know what you are going to write about this case,” the social worker said. “They just sit and hold hands.”
The husband would come from work every evening. The nurses would have wheeled her bed out of the ward and closer to the garden by the time he arrived. She was too weak to get up. He would sit next to her and hold her hands. During those hours, they were oblivious to whatever happened around them.
It was a moving sight. But the social worker was understandably sceptical. Indeed, what was I going to write? That they held hands?
That’s exactly what I wrote.
He knew she didn’t have much time
Maybe she did too
That didn’t matter
This was out of their hands
The sun played hide and seek
With the leaves and the flowers
And people flowed around them
That didn’t matter
At times they spoke
Most times they didn’t
That didn’t matter
They yet had each other
To love, to care for
That was in their hands
That was all that mattered
So they held hands, always