I started school to find the strict discipline of the classroom an extension of the stern upbringing at home. Uninhibited laughter was reserved for the company of friends and that too confined to the school playground. The teachers appeared remote, so any childish familiarity with them was tantamount to sacrilege, and yet they evoked an inexplicable sense of security. Every word they articulated was received with a healthy respect.
My fifth-grade teacher continues to occupy a particular niche in my heart. She was simple and loved moral science teachings with an unsuppressed passion. I was from a non-Christian family but her rendering of the parables and the sermon on the mountain brought Jesus close to my heart.
Mrs. Mann’s concern for the poor and needy was very pronounced. She touched the sensitive side of my nature as she repeatedly told us that while giving alms we must ensure that the amount is sufficient to ensure a square meal for the recipient.
Considered against the background of the times, this altruistic counsel was the equivalent of two annas. That meant, one-eighth of a rupee – an amount not always available to a school girl!
In those days children were not encouraged to spend often, if at all. Good and healthy food was the norm of the day. Also, it was an age of survival, being post-partition days, and an age highlighted by ‘simple living, high thinking’ for all alike, be it, adult or child.
Inspired by Mrs. Mann’s words, I got into the habit of saving a portion of my midday tiffin and thus contributing my ‘mite’ to a visually impaired beggar, seated at a short distance from the school.
This went on for some time. He would almost always hear me approaching and begin with his blessings. On one particular day, as I drew near the corner, I realized that I had nothing to give him. I could hear his blessings from a distance and felt a pang of guilt. This was further aggravated by the thought of his disappointment.
Now, when I think about the emotions I experienced then – conflict amalgamated with a sense of helplessness – I gather that it was perhaps the budding of human compassion in me.
As he was seated at a crossroad, ostrich-like, I debated taking a different road to avoid going past him. In an instant, I turned to change my direction, the movement of my tunic set forth the jingle of something metallic. Out of curiosity I put my hand in the layers of my winter clothing and felt the presence of two coins. Initially, I wondered about their presence but the relief of finding two coins worth two and a half annas was greater than their mysterious presence.
This reprieve from guilt was followed by a difficult choice. Parting with half an anna coin would not ensure him a full meal whereas doling out the two anna coins would deprive me of the lavish treat of peppermint sticks and black currant lollipops at the school tuck shop.
“The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” was to decide the fate of the two coins. Human compassion overcame my selfish needs and with a wrench of my ten-year-old heart, I deposited the coins in his bowl. The clatter of the coins brought forth an extra dose of blessings along with the promise of imminent wealth.
Penniless myself, the blessings brought little comfort. At that age, I believed in fairy godmothers but did not expect miracles to happen to me. However, something made me glance up at the sky and thank my fairy godmother for working overtime for me.
I had barely proceeded a short distance when I spotted the inseparable duo of my mom and aunt. On a normal day, the two of them would only step out after ensuring all our needs were taken care of on our return home from school. It was strange to see them walking towards us so early, at mid-afternoon.
Stranger yet was to have my mom volunteering money for some goodies from our local shop. And, strangest of all, and bewildering to me, was the amount she handed to me. It was exactly the double of what I had given away. Five annas constituted a treasure trove found at the end of a rainbow!
This incident left an indelible mark on my mind. At that point, I believed in the true power of a good deed. Somehow, along the road to adulthood, it got shrouded by the name of ‘coincidence’.
A lot of time had gone by. As an adult, I had experienced my share of heartache and disillusionment and life was a far cry from the dreams and aspirations of my childhood. I was floundering between two choices, either to take the ‘primrose path of dalliance’ or the ‘steep and thorny way to heaven.’
In retrospect, I shudder at what might have been my choice if it was not for the arrival of a stranger on my doorstep. He was young, dressed in the garb of a hermit, and claimed to be on his way to the Himalayas. I was in no frame of mind to be charitable to an able-bodied mendicant. He looked at me with an intent gaze and requested a glassful of water. I could not deny a thirsty stranger and got him the water. He took it, waved his hand over it, and turned it milky white.
‘A conjuring act!’ I thought to myself.
He gave me a quizzing look and smiled, ‘You will want for nothing.’ he promised calmly.
‘How about some peace and quiet?’ Clamored my tired spirit.
‘You will want for nothing, for you have with an innocent heart offered your all to God.’
Without further ado, he left.
Something in his parting words struck a familiar chord. It was as if I had gone back in time, a deja vu of the moral crossroad of my childhood. The beggar, the blessings, and the twofold reward of the silent observer.
Earlier my prayers were a mechanical process but now they took a different dimension and I continue to remind myself that it is true when Lord Tennyson wrote, ‘Pray for my soul, more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.’