You saw an old family photograph which shows your great grandfather walking to school barefooted, holding a bag with a just a black, wooden-framed slate, and a small bag of rice to be given to the teacher as the monthly fees.
Write a letter to your friend about the feelings that arose in your mind on seeing this photograph. Compare it with the facilities you get to enjoy today.
Dear Kashyap, Date …..
Ever since I came to my grandfather’s house for the summer holidays, it has been a journey down the memory lane, full of intrigue and excitement.
Yesterday, my grandfather asked me to look for a certain property document which was not in its usual place – the hidden wooden chamber under my grandma’s cot. So, I was ordered to open the family vault that stores the family’s valuables. It is an antic wooden box that has been in the family home from time immemorial. Its lock is a huge 5kilo contraption that needs a 12-inch long key to open it. The ornate brass key has heads of so many gods and goddesses intricately engraved on it. The vault is kept just behind the family deity of Mother Kali. She is believed to keep the prying eyes of unwanted visitors away.
I proceeded to open the vault, clearing the cobwebs along the narrow dark passage. Before embarking on my mission, I said my prayers to the deity invoking her not to treat me as a trespasser as I was simply obeying orders. I cringed as a few bats flew off the passage’s walls. It took me some effort to open the lock. I poured a generous amount of coconut oil to nudge the lock to let the key in. Finally, as I turned all my strength on the key, the lock opened making a weird sound.
I began to rummage through the vault’s contents with a torch in my left hand. In minutes, I got the giant red-coloured cover that had the documents inside it. I was clearly elated. My eyes soon fell on an old photograph that had turned yellow with age. Its edges appeared frayed –perhaps disgusted with such long solitary confinement. I looked at it. It was the portrait of a young boy who resembled a beggar more than a student. The boy looked emaciated, forlorn and resigned to his fate. I was clearly intrigued.
Triumphantly, I brought the property documents out and also the tattered portrait. I handed over the documents to my grandfather, and received a hug from him for the hard work I did for him.
With sneer writ large in my face, I took the old photograph to my grandmother and asked who the ‘beggar boy’ was. ‘Or, was he our servant?’, I asked. She recoiled in horror at my arrogance and stupidity. With great reverence, she touched the photograph to her forehead, and admonishingly looked at me. She said, ‘It is your great grandfather.’ Then, she proceeded to give me a fleeting view of the eventful life of her father-in-law. She spoke about his humble beginning, his long duel with poverty, his intellect, and his success in studies. He had passed his Matriculation examination in first class. His record in marks stood unchallenged for nearly two decades.
The British government soon spotted him and offered him a clerk’s job in the District Collector’s office. By the time he retired as Deputy Collector 40 years later, he had served under nearly 10 different British collectors. For his long distinguished service, he received government awards on three occasions.
With a chuckle, she told me that her father-in-law got to use pen and paper only after he reached class eight! And he had just one pen, one pencil and an annual allotment of just 100 sheets of paper!
I gaped at her face as she reeled off these figures. Then, with searching eyes, she confronted me with the question that had my brain reeling from a mix of amazement, and guilt. Initially, I was incredulous. One pen, one pencil and just 100 sheets of paper in whole one year! To add to my bewilderment, my grandma added that my father had just two khaki pants, two vests, and no footwear. And his monthly school fees were just a few morsels of rice. He could not afford the monthly fees of four annas (25 paise of today).
For his first and only job interview before the British Collector, he wore the shoe so lovingly presented to him by the village cobbler. His full pant and shirt were stitched by the village tailor free of cost with the cloth the village temple priest had donated.
With pride and a sense of deep satisfaction, she narrated how her philanthropist father-in-law paid back to his village for the affection they had shown to him. Out of the savings from his salary, he bought and donated land for the village school’s expansion, renovated the temple, and used his influence to have loans of scores of distressed farmers waived. He got many widows remarried. When he departed from this world, villagers from far and wide came to give him a tearful farewell. His bronze bust stands at the entrance of the village.
With a glance that seemed to ask me a thousand questions, she told me, “How do I compare my student days with my great- grandfather’s?” I have a dozen pairs of dress, four sets of uniforms, three pairs of shoes, box-full of pencils and pens, inexhaustible supply of paper, internet, laptop, tablet, and, of course, the air-conditioned school bus.
She asked me about the enormous investment of resources in my education, the large carbon foot-print I was leaving on the environment, and, most disturbingly, my snobbish attitude to people around me. I felt miserable as I reflected on my upbringing, my selfishness and my total indifference to those boys and girls who lived next door, and went to the inexpensive government schools, because they were poor. A boy, attired like my great grandfather, would be shooed away by the security guard at my school gate, let alone get admission to study. As regards the expenses, my one month’s school fees are equal to my great grandfather’s ten years’ salary, possibly. How have things changed! For the better, or for the worse?
I began to introspect. Why the process of education needs to be so sophisticated, so expensive, so elitist? Remorse and repentance swept through my mind as I had mistaken my great grandfather to be a beggar. I was disturbed, and am quite so still. How far have we drifted from Gandhiji’s espousal of plain living and high thinking!
Yours dear friend,