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The Old Man and His God

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The Old Man and His God

  Sudha Murty


  Discovering the Spirit of India


  About the Author



  1: The Old Man and His God

  2: Freedom of Speech

  3: Horegallu

  4: The Way You Look at It

  5: A Tale of Two Brothers

  6: The Journey

  7: An Officegoer’s Dilemma

  8: The Deserving Candidate

  9: The Business of Philanthropy

  10: A Helping Hand

  11: True Shades of Nature

  12: Made in Heaven

  13: The Grateful Tenant

  14: A Foreigner, Always

  15: The Line of Separation

  16: A Buddhist on Airport Road

  17: Sweet Hospitality

  18: Friends Forever

  19: The Perfect Life

  20: Hundred Per Cent Free

  21: Two Faces of Poverty

  22: India, the Holy Land

  23: Mother’s Love

  24: Village Encounters

  25: May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Children

  Follow Penguin


  About the Author

  Sudha Murty was born in 1950 in Shiggaon in north Karnataka. An M.Tech in Computer Science, she teaches Computer Science to postgraduate students. She is also the chairperson of the Infosys Foundation. A prolific writer in English and Kannada, she has written nine novels, four technical books, three travelogues, one collection of short stories and two collections of non-fiction pieces, including How I Taught My Grandmother to Read and Other Stories (Puffin 2004). Her books have been translated into all the major Indian languages and have sold over 150,000 copies.

  For Infosys Foundation, that has shown me a world

  beyond, with immense gratitude


  I have now written two collections of my real-life experiences which many say they have enjoyed reading. This is my third. All the experiences mentioned here are real, though the names have been changed in some places. People often ask me how it is that so many interesting things happen only to me. To them I reply that in life’s journey we all meet strange people and undergo so many experiences that touch us and sometimes even change us. If you have a sensitive mind and record your observations regularly, you will see your life too is a vast storehouse of stories.

  Of course there are some incidents here which happened to me because of the people I met during my work or in my travels. In all the cases I have taken care to take the permission of the people I have written about.

  I have often wondered what it is about these experiences that has been appreciated by readers in all corners of the country. I have come to the conclusion that it is because they are told simply and are all true. After all, there is something within all of us that attracts us to the truth. I have tried to hold up a mirror to the lives of the people of our country and attempted to trace that spirit within us which makes us uniquely Indian.

  I have dedicated this book to the Infosys Foundation. For many, the foundation is a charitable organization, a branch of a rich company. But for me, it is something closest to my heart. Initially I was a mother to it. I was there from the day it came into existence. Somewhere along the line, it has become the mother and I the child. Holding its hands, I have journeyed many miles, faced praise and criticism. It has been an integral part of my life. We have never abandoned each other.

  There are many people who have worked with me in the long journey that a book undergoes from the time it leaves the writer’s desk. I would like to thank them all. I want to thank Sudeshna Shome Ghosh of Penguin India, for her efforts, without which the book would not have been published.

  The royalty proceeds from this book will go to charity.

  November 2005

  Sudha Murty



  The Old Man and His God

  A few years back, I was travelling in the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu. It was getting dark, and due to a depression over the Bay of Bengal, it was raining heavily. The roads were overflowing with water and my driver stopped the car near a village. ‘There is no way we can proceed further in this rain,’ said the driver. ‘Why don’t you look for shelter somewhere nearby rather than sit in the car?’

  Stranded in an unknown place among unknown people, I was a bit worried. Nevertheless, I retrieved my umbrella and marched out into the pelting rain. I started walking towards the tiny village, whose name I cannot recall now. There was no electricity and it was a trial walking in the darkness and the rain. In the distance I could just make out the shape of a small temple. I decided it would be an ideal place to take shelter, so I made my way to it. Halfway there, the rain started coming down even more fiercely and the strong wind blew my umbrella away, leaving me completely drenched. I reached the temple soaking wet. As soon as I entered, I heard an elderly person’s voice calling out to me. Though I cannot speak Tamil, I could make out the concern in the voice. In the course of my travels, I have come to realize that voices from the heart can be understood irrespective of the language they speak.

  I peered into the darkness of the temple and saw an old man of about eighty. Standing next to him was an equally old lady in a traditional nine-yard cotton sari. She said something to him and then approached me with a worn but clean towel in her hand. As I wiped my face and head I noticed that the man was blind. It was obvious from their surroundings that they were very poor. The Shiva temple, where I now stood, was simple with the minimum of ostentation in its decorations. The Shivalinga was bare except for a bilwa leaf on top. The only light came from a single oil lamp. In that flickering light a sense of calm overcame me and I felt myself closer to god than ever before.

  In halting Tamil, I asked the man to perform the evening mangalarati, which he did with love and dedication. When he finished, I placed a hundred-rupee note as the dakshina.

  He touched the note and pulled away his hand, looking uncomfortable. Politely he said, ‘Amma, I can make out that the note is not for ten rupees, the most we usually receive. Whoever you may be, in a temple, your devotion is important, not your money. Even our ancestors have said that a devotee should give as much as he or she can afford to. To me you are a devotee of Shiva, like everyone else who comes here. Please take back this money.’

  I was taken aback. I did not know how to react. I looked at the man’s wife expecting her to argue with him and urge him to take the money, but she just stood quietly. Often, in many households, a wife encourages the man’s greediness. Here, it was the opposite. She was endorsing her husband’s views. So I sat down with them, and with the wind and rain whipping up a frenzy outside, we talked about our lives. I asked them about themselves, their life in the village temple and whether they had anyone to look after them.

  Finally I said, ‘Both of you are old. You don’t have any children to look after your everyday needs. In old age one requires more medicines than groceries. This village is far from any of the towns in the district. Can I suggest something to you?’

  At that time, we had started an old-age pension scheme and I thought, looking at their worn-out but clean clothes, they would be the ideal candidates for it.

  This time the wife spoke up, ‘Please do tell, child.’

  ‘I will send you some money. Keep it in a nationalized bank or post office. The interest on that can be used for your monthly needs. If there is a medical emergency you can use the capital.’

  The old man smiled on hearing my words and his face lit up brighter than the lamp.

  ‘You sound much younger than us. You are still foolish. Why do I need money
in this great old age? Lord Shiva is also known as Vaidyanathan. He is the Mahavaidya, or great doctor. This village we live in has many kind people. I perform the pooja and they give me rice in return. If either of us is unwell, the local doctor gives us medicines. Our wants are very few. Why would I accept money from an unknown person? If I keep this money in the bank, like you are telling me to, someone will come to know and may harass us. Why should I take on these worries? You are a kind person to offer help to two unknown old people. But we are content; let us live as we always have. We don’t need anything more.’

  Just then the electricity came back and a bright light lit up the temple. For the first time I saw the couple properly. I could clearly see the peace and happiness on their faces. They were the first people I met who refused help in spite of their obvious need. I did not agree with everything he had just said, but it was clear to me that his contentment had brought him peace. such an attitude may not let you progress fast, but after a certain period in life it is required. Perhaps this world with its many stresses and strains has much to learn from an old couple in a forgettable corner of India.


  Freedom of Speech

  Alka and I have been friends since the time we were in school and college together. Alka was the star debater of our university. Her arguments, bold, convincing and razor sharp, usually left her opponents floundering. She was called the ‘Queen of Speech’ by her friends.

  Even after college and through our years of marriage and children, we continued to keep in touch. Alka married a mechanical engineer and settled down in Bombay in a beautiful flat on the Worli sea face. Her husband started his own small-scale industry and they were very well off. She had a daughter who got married and went to live in the US. Alka herself went on to become the head of the sociology department in a good college. I always thought of her as having the perfect life.

  Once, I had to go to Bombay on some work, and Alka invited me to stay with her. There I met Tulsi, her efficient maid. Tulsi was from the Maharashtra-Karnataka border and spoke the same language as Alka and me. Drought and poverty had forced many families from that region to emigrate to larger cities in search of work. Most ended up as construction workers on daily wages, yet they never lost the hope of being able to save enough money to go back to their villages.

  Tulsi too had come to Bombay in search of work, but had settled down here. She had worked in Alka’s house for many years and was an asset due to her hardworking nature, punctuality and reliability.

  One day, during my visit, Tulsi did not come for work at her usual time. As the clock ticked away, Alka was getting more and more agitated. She had to attend and also speak at an international sociology conference. She had become so used to Tulsi that she could not do anything on her own, though I knew, long back, she used to be a good cook. That is what efficient maids and secretaries do to you at home and in the office.

  I was watching her agitation and could not help laughing. This upset her even more. She said, ‘It is easy for you to laugh. But you don’t know how much I have helped her out in her times of need. How could she do this to me on such a busy day? She knows I have some very important work today. You do not realize the responsibility I have been given in this seminar. You take things too easy. That is why you have remained only a visiting professor.’

  I did not get upset at Alka’s remarks. After all, we had been friends for long, and had always been very frank with each other. And what she had said was also the truth, which few other people could have said to me.

  So instead of laughing, I offered a different solution.

  ‘Alka, why can’t we go to Tulsi’s house and find out what is causing the delay? There is no point in fuming and increasing your blood pressure.’

  I knew Tulsi stayed in a slum just across the road. In a city like Bombay, where rich people stay in beautiful apartments, there are double the number staying in adjoining slums. In fact, these slums have become essential for the survival of the residents of the big apartment blocks. Reluctantly, Alka agreed with my suggestion and we walked across the road to Tulsi’s house.

  As we approached her house, we heard the sound of voices raised in argument. Some people were quarrelling very loudly. We turned a corner and were surprised to behold the sight of Tulsi berating someone. She was screaming at a man standing quietly near by. Alka whispered to me that it was Raman, Tulsi’s husband. His wife was showering the choicest of abuses at him and he was standing with his head bent low. In her extreme agitation, Tulsi was talking in her native dialect. She was so furious I would not have been surprised if she landed a few blows on him as well. Her neighbours were going about their work but were giving sympathetic glances in her direction from time to time. Tulsi finally saw us and calmed down slightly.

  ‘Tulsi, don’t use such language. You can solve the problem without bad words. What is the matter? Be cool and tell me what has happened.’ I asked her in our language.

  By this time Tulsi managed to control her emotions and breaking into tears she replied, ‘Amma, with such difficulty I had saved some money and bought a pair of gold bangles and a chain for myself. It was with my own hard-earned money. And do you know what this fellow has done? He has gone and mortgaged them in order to start a paan shop. Is it fair? How can you ask me to be cool? They were my life’s savings. I know Alka amma has some important work today but I could not control my anger when he told me this in the morning.’

  I stood and consoled her for some time. My work involves talking to many people like her, who are grappling with basic day-to-day survival issues and have nothing to do with the glitz and glamour that many of us take for granted. In any case, being a teacher, I am quite used to giving sermons, whether they are wanted or not.

  As we walked back home, Alka was very quiet. I assumed she was worried thinking of all the household work piled up for her. Affectionately I said, ‘Don’t worry about the cooking and other work. I’ll help you now and I am sure Tulsi will be back in the evening. These people talk freely about their feelings and hence forget fast too. I bet by tonight Tulsi will have made up with her husband and may even go off to watch a movie with him.’

  By this time we had entered the flat and I made my way to the kitchen to wash the vessels. I am not a very good cook, but I am definitely proficient in washing up. Alka said she would make some tea for us and went to the other corner of the kitchen. To my surprise after a while I heard sounds of sobbing coming from her. She was trying hard to suppress them but the tears were coming down fast.

  I walked up to her and laid a hand on her shoulder. The moment I touched her, Alka broke down and started crying openly.

  ‘Alka, please don’t be so upset. You should not be so sensitive about what happened to Tulsi . . .’

  ‘I am not worried about Tulsi. I have just realized today that my state is worse than hers.’

  I was stunned at her words. She went on, ‘It took a great deal of effort for us to buy this flat. You realize how expensive it is, and I gave every paisa from my salary towards the payment. This flat represents my life’s savings. But do you know what my husband did? One day, when he was not here, there was a registered letter for him from the bank. I opened it to find that he has mortgaged the flat, which we bought in his name for income tax reasons, to the bank. His business was not doing well and he needed extra money desperately. But he did all this without telling me anything. I was furious. If we lose this flat where shall we go? But we live in “civilized” society, so I could not shout and scream at him. I could not raise my voice and abuse him as the neighbours would then know we were fighting. I have been keeping all this anger inside me for a long time. Tulsi is better off than me. At least she has the freedom to shout at her husband and even hit him if she is angry and then forget about it. I have to live with the hurt festering inside me forever.’

  I did not know what to say to her. Helplessly I stared out at the sea from her beautiful balcony. The images I had in my mind about Alka from our school
days as a bold, confident orator lay ruined. She was nothing but an ordinary, meek, ineffectual woman, unable to stand up to her husband and fight for her rights. To change the subject I asked her, ‘What are you going to speak about at the seminar today?’

  Ironically, the answer came, ‘Freedom of speech.’



  Hot summer days remind me of my childhood in a little village. There was a large banyan tree right in the middle of the village, and I would spend many hours playing under it during my holidays. The tree was like a massive umbrella with its branches providing much needed shade and succour. Travellers spent some time sitting under it and catching their breath before going on their way. To make them comfortable there was a ‘horegallu’ under the tree. Horegallu literally means ‘a stone that can bear weight’. It was a large flat stone placed horizontally over two vertical ones, thus making a stone bench on which anyone could sit and rest awhile, chat with a fellow traveller and exchange news of the road. Cool water would be kept in earthern pots near the bench and people could quench their thirst before starting their journeys again. I am sure similar simple arrangements can be found in villages all over the country.

  The horegallu in our village holds special memories for me as it is inextricably linked with my grandfather. He was a retired schoolteacher and would spend hours every day sitting under the banyan tree and talking to those resting there. When I would get tired of playing I would sit next to him and observe the people he was speaking to and listen to their conversations. Most of them were villagers taking a break from their work in the fields nearby. They had to walk long distances each day carrying heavy burdens on their heads. Tired out by the heat, they would drink the cool water, wash their faces with it and chat with Grandfather. Their conversation would be about their daily lives and worries.

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