My heroes who I look up to would not be regarded as super human or larger-than-life characters but simple “ordinary” people who possess extraordinary qualities that somehow seem rare these days. In an increasingly cynical country, these unlikely heroes share a commonality that brings back my faith in humanity. In India. Their dignity and self-respect combined with a complete lack of greed or selfishness make them the most giving and generous people I’ve met. The kind India needs today, more than ever.
Shoba is the lady who helps me keep my house and life tidy and ordered. She makes my life in India possible after my living away for 35 years. When Shoba first came to me, she was a bit shy and nervous, not able to communicate with my husband who speaks only English, not able to operate any electrical gadgets in the kitchen, even afraid to touch them. In the space of a few short months she was reminding me the setting of the washing machine and other gadgets and checking after me to make sure I’d turned off all appliances. The speed with which she picked up new skills, including basic English amazed me. She is a workaholic who does not look at the clock and takes great pride in her work.
Shoba is a young mother, in her mid-20s, illiterate but with a razor sharp mind and a caring nature – the kind that would have made her a fine doctor or a teacher, had she been educated. She might be lacking in education and worldly possessions, but that has not affected her sense of innate dignity and integrity. She is a person of few words but means everything she says, and she always speaks sense. I admire the way she is bringing up her children, always clean, well dressed and equally well-mannered. . She makes sure they go to a local school where they are taught in English as she feels this is very important for their future. She has had a hard life in the past but her experiences have toughened her rather than broken her. She does not want the shadows of her past to affect her children. Her dogged and quiet determination in sorting out her own life and making sure her children have a better one is inspirational.
But she does speak out when she feels strongly about something – as I found to my discomfort very early on. When she heard I suffer from back pain due to a chronic slipped disc, she offered to massage my back. The first time I tried to pay her for it, she refused. I explained that massaging did not constitute part of her duties when we had first fixed her salary. She quietly, if bluntly, told me that if I paid her, she would stop. She explained that she saw in me a mother figure and wanted to help me when I was in pain. She could not take money for it. I have never offered her money since and if I give her food or snacks, it is returned two-fold. When I am on my own and it is a festival, as it often is in India, she always includes me among her family for dinner and brings mine home all packed, with kumkum, flowers and fruit.
And now, Shoba is a volunteer in my little NGO group, Dhvani. If she sees a mother figure in me, I see a daughter in her. Her integrity and, as I have found over time, complete honesty and trustworthiness have humbled me many times. Kind, loving, hard -working, independent and dignified, her caste or class does not stop her from holding her head high and living her life on her own terms.
I had not noticed Lakshmi the first few times I went to the little village near us for buying fruit and vegetables. My husband and I visit regular stalls in the little local “market” and go to the same vendors every time. On one such occasion, as I was turning away, I heard a voice from a little cart nearby. It was a little middle-aged woman seated on the cart selling flowers. Since I only buy long-stemmed flowers for vases, I had barely noticed her. Surprised, I went to her and she offered me a length of jasmine. Although I hadn’t intended to, I was happy to buy it as my memories of jasmine are deeply connected to my childhood in India and with my mother. But I was surprised when the woman laughed and waved away the money. I protested saying I could not take a length of jasmine for free as, by the appearance of her little cart, this money must mean something for her. She laughed again and said in rough Kannada that money comes and goes, and is not important. She instructed me to wear the flowers in my hair.
I was arrested by this because I had not worn jasmine since childhood when my mother used to put it in my hair. In fact, the fragrance of jasmine immediately takes me back to my beloved mum. When this happened a third time and still she refused any payment, I asked the lady her name and stood rooted when she said, “Lakshmi”, a part of my mother’s name, Jayalakshmi. I told her that and it was so right that she should give me jasmine to decorate my hair.
I sometimes stop for a chat with her when I go to get my fruit and vegetables. Although I regularly buy her jasmine garlands now, she always gives me almost as much for free, adding a handful of lovely red and pink roses which I float in my uruli, my round brass bowl. If I happen to take the odd overseas guest to introduce her, she promptly offers them flowers which I daren’t pay for of course. Her generosity and affection makes my day, as does her stoic good humour. She always has a smile, perched on her rickety cart surrounded by her colourful flowers, with never a complaint even when she is shivering, wrapped in her moth-eaten blanket, on cold evenings.
She has taught me that true generosity is giving when you have very little yourself, and not complaining at adversities which so many of us find so easy to do despite all our comforts.
I don’t know his real name so I call him Anna, or elder brother, out of respect. He is the elderly man, nearing his 80s I believe, who guards the side entrance of GKVK Agricultural College near my home in Bangalore. His job is to make sure cattle or other animals do not enter through this opening which local residents use when they go for walks.
We used to notice him standing by the entrance in the mornings or early evenings when we went for our walks. 84- years- old and in frayed clothes, he always stood erect and composed holding his staff. An ex-army man perhaps we thought, but he turned out to have been a farmer in his younger days.
One day we noticed a lost little puppy by the side of the road. Living as we did in an apartment, we could not take it home with us, but it worried us enough to go back to look for it the next day. We then saw this old man had been looking after it and bringing it food every day. In a way, it was a relief because it let us out! A bit guilty for feeling this and really appreciative of what this kind man had taken upon himself, we offered to help him in sharing the costs of looking after the puppy. Not unlike Shoba and Lakshmi, he also refused any help at all.
We did not insist and just spent a little time on most mornings with him and his little rescued dog. We noticed on our morning walks when we stopped at our usual coffee stall under the trees that this gentleman came there for his idli breakfast. I really wanted to treat him but was afraid of hurting his pride. We quietly said to the manager who we had befriended by then not to take any money from the gentleman, but to add it to our bill. He left before us and when we went to pay, we were told he had insisted on paying his own bill. We recognised this common vein of self-respect, dignity and independence that ran through individuals like Shoba, Lakshmi and Anna. From then on we desisted from offering any help except one time when Anna was racked with cough during the winter season. I so much wanted to at least let my driver take him to the local doctor. But he smiled and quietly assured me the college provided medical help and he would be alright.
We meet regularly and sit chatting on the stone bench near the entrance. We asked about his family. He said he had children, but now grown up and living far away. He said it was enough for him to know they were alright and happy in their lives and that he could occasionally get to see them even. I felt such enormous respect for this calm dignified man who has become like a father figure. Old, unwell at times and obviously quite poor, he has stature and worth, and a kind heart. The puppy could not have found a better friend.
I am grateful for the Shobas, Lakshmis, Annas and my ultimate hero and role model, my mother. Simple folk that we find around us, ordinary people with extra-ordinary qualities who teach us what is important in life. They are my anchors and when I feel I stray, their examples steady me with the simple truth that life is what we make of it, it is a state of mind, an attitude and that we become richer by giving more than by getting.
And this is my salute to them this Independence Day.
Rani Rao Innes is the senior partner and lead trainer of Link Communications, a specialized communications skills company based in the UK. She has regularly presented courses and training workshops for private and public business sectors as well as students and teachers in the UK, Belgium, Malaysia, Japan and India. She has also been active in theatre for 30 years and was the director of Canterbury Players in Kent for eight years.