Banwarilal was his name––a man my age (nearing 60) but who appeared to be years older. He seemed to have seen 75 summers. He was a gardener and had undergone accelerated aging working in the lush lawns of Lutyens’ Delhi. Squatting on his haunches and working long hours in the sun, had given him a permanent stoop and a dark tan.

We met first when I saw him trudging on the roadside, a walking stick in hand, and had offered him a lift in my car. He was taken aback. He sat on the edge of the seat for that’s how poor people are supposed to sit in the presence of the well-to-do. At least, that’s how Bollywood depicts them. Overwhelmed and full of gratitude in his eyes, he sat quietly looking at the road ahead and occasionally stealing a glance at me.

Baba, kaise ho?” I tried to make him feel easy.

“ I am fine, Sir.”

“Where are you coming from?”

“Delhi Sir. I work in a government nursery.”

A polite meaningless conversation ensued. When I dropped him a kilometre further, he showered blessings as expected.

I saw him again the next day and pulled up by the roadside. He got into the car with a smile. It being the second time, his demeanour was devoid of apprehension. We resumed our conversation. He was immune to governments and governance. His life revolved around his small family––a son, a daughter-in-law and some grandchildren.

It became a routine––the business of me offering him a lift. It was two to three times a week. It continued for over two months. With time he opened up and became talkative. He even offered to take care of my lawn. Then there was a long break. I started car-pooling to the office. As a result our timings did not match any longer.

I forgot Banwarilal.

Until another warm day over three months later…

I returned early and found him again. I stopped the car for him to get in. He wasn’t his chirpy self.

“All’s well Banwarilal?” I asked.

“Not really, Sir. I have not got my pay for three months. There has been some hold-up in the computerised system of payment since de-monetisation drive began.”

“Life must be awfully difficult…” I sympathised.

“Our reserves have touched rock-bottom; life has indeed become very difficult…” he went on. It was a monologue and I was a mute listener. Here was a man tortured by fate. He was silently suffering––not begging for a job or largesse.

A thought engulfed me: “Is there anything I can do for him?”

My chain of thoughts was disrupted when he asked me to stop.

As he opened the door to get out, I asked him if I could give him some money to overcome the crisis in his life.

To be honest, it was a half-hearted offer borne out of my feeling of helplessness to do something to mitigate Banwarilal’s misery. There were two diametrically opposite reasons for my hesitation. One: I was sceptical that Banwarilal might accept the offer and demand a huge amount of money that I would not like to dish out. On my part, I had decided to give him Rs 3000/- an amount that I had just received as remuneration for writing an article for the Defence and diplomacy Journal. Two: Banwarilal might get offended or feel demeaned.

Banwarilal declined the offer. He said that conditions were bad but not so bad so as to seek largesse. It was still possible for his family to stay afloat. I made a counter offer: “If you are determined not to take money, consider it to be a loan and return it to me whenever you are comfortable.

Banwarilal smiled again. With a broader grin this time, he said, “Sir, I am touched by your gesture. But I really do not need money; all I need is your prayers so that there is an end to my misery.

Being rich, poor or well-to-do is but a figment of imagination.

On Doodhoo and Bickies

Learning a language to express oneself, English language in particular, is an important first step in our lives in India. Parents do everything possible so that their little ones learn to speak soon. Really soon. It is an obsession––a natural response to the need to master a skill that would enable smooth sail later in life.

As young parents, Chhaya and I observed others teaching their little ones to speak. They would use words that did not exist in dictionaries. For example: doodhoo for doodh (Hindi for milk); ta-ta for hot; kitchtchy for a kiss and bicky for biscuit… the list is long. No sooner did children learn those invented words it was time to start unlearning them and learn the right words to convey the same thoughts. Parents would say, “Sunny, it is not doodhoo, it is doodh; not bicky but biscuit etc.

Toddlers would go through a cycle of learning words; unlearning them and then, learning the appropriate words. Both kids and the parents paid a cost in terms of time and effort involved in the little ones being able to communicate meaningfully.

In our son, Mudit’s case we leapfrogged this step of teaching/ learning by making a deliberate effort to use the right word in the first instance. Thus Mudit picked up fairly decent diction right in the beginning.

Building vocabulary was a parallel process. We helped Mudit learn new words. On his part, he made use of his limited vocabulary to his best advantage. Once when he wanted a hammer and did not know the word for it, he said. “Papa, please give me a nail-pusher.” I was reminded of a 1970 Dustin Hoffman starrer, Little Big Man in which one of the characters says: “I have pain between my ears,” to convey that he had a headache.

Years later, when I was doing a certificate course in French language, our professor posed a question that had a binary answer in a “yes” or a “no”. I do not remember the exact question but it was like: “Are you an Indian?”. The student, who stood up to answer, gave a nod. It was just a nod, a universally accepted expression for “Y-E-S.” On his response, which looked comical the class burst out laughing because everyone expected him to say (in French): “Yes Sir, I am an Indian.” When the laughter died down, on a serious note our professor said that the purpose of learning a language is to be able to convey ideas and to get a feedback or a confirmation or an answer. A nod was as good as an answer formed with half a dozen words. “Do not lose sight of the aim of learning anything,” he said.

As a child Mudit, also learnt that a picture was worth a thousand words. Once we left him home playing with a friend. On our return we found the front door of the house closed and latched. Stuck in the door-handle was a rather longish message that read: “Papa, Vaibhav and I are in Vaibhav’s house…” It was enough need-to-know information for me at that moment. Therefore, I would not have read the complete message, which read further, “Please meet us before you open the door…. There is a snake in the house.” What drew my attention to the rest of the message was the drawing of a snake made prominently in the lower half of the note. Thanks to Mudit’s warning (drawing), the snake was removed and the house was secured. None was harmed.

Fast-forward a dozen years and more. It is a treat seeing Vilasini, our grandniece––based in Geneva with a Tamil-speaking father and a Hindi-speaking mother––effortlessly switching between Hindi, English, Tamil and French. And Kartik, our grandnephew (in the tutelage of his grandmother and parents), conversing in intelligible Hindi/ English and reciting Shlokas in Sanskrit.

In a fast shrinking world, ability to convey ideas will be power of sorts.

Sweet home is the university where education on effective communication begins.