August 09, 2013

The start to something right...

Amongst all the lessons we learn in life, the ones which have the deepest impact are those we learned as children.
Childhood, the most memorable time of our lives, the age we all yearn to go back to, the stage that tantalizes us, tempts us, eludes us and evades us time and again, making us reminisce about those wonder years of innocent glory.
I often drift away in nostalgia to time travel back into that wonderful period of my life. Life was so simple back then…so untainted…so pure…so innocent. There were hardly any grays to perceive, no difficult choices to choose from, no complicated issues to handle.
There were little joys, small victories, unadulterated pleasures and selfless emotions. Of course, we'd had our own dilemmas even back then---temper tantrums over who got the biggest toffees, competitive jealousy over who would score more in math,  childish pride over who got the best birthday gift, et al, but nothing that lasted long enough to flaw relations. In hindsight, these ‘insignificant’ childhood experiences, albeit slipped away silently, taught us the most important lessons of our life and carved us into the people we have turned out to be today.
Speaking of which, one incident comes to mind, knocking persistently at the back door of the museum of my precious memories.  I must have been around twelve then. My parents, my sister and me, had been invited by the CEO of the company where my dad worked, to a lavish party to celebrate the launch of a new project. It was an important event…a rising opportunity at both personal and professional levels. I was to be on my best behavior, and mind my manners. The burden of a huge pre-party sermon from mom, that  included instructions to smile politely at the hosts, not meddle with any of the lavish upholstery, eat with impeccable manners, saying thank-you’s and after-you’s and not get into any kind of trouble, weighed me down. Being under the watchful eye of my older sibling, made me feel like some well trained circus animal, causing me to be utterly bored and itching for action. It was late. I was sleepy and everyone else was having a pretty good time.  The hostess, Mrs Kamath, was a glamorous lady with yellow teeth,  and wore a string of perfectly white pearls, causing me to giggle at the ironical contrast. She was exchanging pleasantries with everyone and was now animatedly engaged in a friendly conversation with my mother. Her husband was talking to my dad, a serious undertone in his voice, an aura of seniority that I recognised as strictly business. My sister was keenly listening to Mrs Kamath's banter while I was struggling to pry my eyes open in a desperate attempt to stay awake. So, I looked around.

 It was a huge house which my juvenile mind immediately intercepted as a mansion of mysteries waiting to be explored. Maybe it was the enthusiasm of unraveling some adventure in some corner of that palatial house, or perhaps it was just the sheer disinterest in listening to a bunch of grownup's, that I decided to go for a walk around the place. There were people all over the place, and amidst the noisy chatter, my voice was unheard. Not wasting any time to explain where I was going, I drifted away from the place where my parents were standing and merged with the crowd. It was a regal hall decorated with balloons and confetti. On one side, was a delectable banquet table laden with the choicest of dishes, while on the other, a huge marble stairway led to vast spacious rooms upstairs.A narrow passage from the hallway led into the kitchen. As I followed the wonderful aroma wafting from the area, I peeped in to see an old woman frying snacks in a vat of hot oil, intermittently wiping her forehead with the loose end of her crumpled sari.
She saw me peeping inside and smiled sweetly at me. She called me in and told me that she had a granddaughter my age. I did not say anything. Suddenly, she flinched, as if realising the discrepancy in our financial status. With lowered eyes, she then proceeded to ask me if there was anything I needed. I shook my head and hurried out of the kitchen, swish swishing my pretty pink dress from the furnace like environ.

The marble banisters were beckoning, but I had been strictly instructed to stay out of trouble and sliding down them would be quite a spectacle. So I refrained from humoring the idea.
Still, what lay beyond the polished white stairway enthralled me. A quick look wouldn't hurt anyone, I thought, and made my way up the stairs. There were exotic paintings encased in rich gold frame work adorning the walls along the banisters, but I stopped myself from touching anything. Finally on top of the staircase, I looked at the gathering below. 
"What a view!!!,"  I marveled at the sight.
The door to the master bedroom was ajar. I peeped inside.It was the grandest room I had ever seen. There was a majestic mirror with a lacquered royal blue trim, on the wall opposite the antique mahogany double sized canopy bed. I placed my hand on the pillow at the head end and had I to have touched clouds in my life time, I was sure it would have felt like a similar experience. There were big french windows adorned with floral lace curtains. You could see the entire city from that height, I thought. I wanted to see what it looked like. I was tempted to draw the curtains and experience a birds eye view of the whole city.
"How wonderful it will have the whole world at my feet," my twelve year brain was delirious with enthusiasm.
Forgetting all instructions on formal etiquette and social decorum, I jumped in glee.I was just about to reach for the drawstrings of the closed curtains when I heard footsteps approaching.
My attention drifted, I turned. As I turned to see who it was my grasp slipped from the drawstring and dashed against something.
There was a loud crash. I ran and hid behind the door. A beautiful crystal vase lay smashed to pieces. I stood trembling behind the half open door, hoping I wouldn't get caught. The footsteps became louder. I peeped through the gap between the hinges to see who it was. Whoever it was had definitely heard the crash.
It was then that she entered the room. She failed to see me. She was too engrossed in panicking over the broken vase. From her panic stricken face, I gathered it must have been an expensive antique which she had been warned against touching, before. I slowly sneaked out from my position.My devil mind was at work. I had found someone to place the blame on. I would simply say that I followed the noise, and found this old lady sweeping the broken pieces. That was the only way to save me from all the trouble it would get me at home, and all the embarrassment it would get me amidst all these strangers.
"Nobody knows her," I thought,  "She works here.They wont say anything to her."

With hands on my hips, I stood glowering over her and said, "You did it, didn't you? You broke the vase, I know." 
I was lying though my teeth, but only I knew it...and she...
She stared at me with surprise in her eyes. There was no one else in the room other than us. I stared back, my heart pacing.
"LIAR!!!" my insides screamed. I tried to ignore the voice that rose within me.
Just then the gorgeous Mrs Kamath entered into the room. What had been initiated as a 'touch up' visit to the powder room had transpired into this sudden discovery, and she was now clenching her pearl necklace tightly, staring furiously at the old woman besides me. She had not heard any of what I'd said but immediately assumed that the house help was the culprit behind the heinous destruction of priceless art.
"Memsaab, I was just cleaning the other room..I heard a noi..." the old woman mumbled nervously trying to explain it wasnt her fault. Unable to face the wrath in Mrs Kamath's eyes, she looked at me for help. I looked away.
Mrs Kamath continued, "Shut up you! Don't you dare say a word!! I should have known not to keep you at work. You irresponsible old hag. How many times have I warned you to be careful? Do you know how much this vase costs?" 
I was staring shell shocked at the woman with yellow teeth, as she continued to spill venom. My parents and a few other guests had now gathered in the room. But Mrs Kamath did not care. She continued to humiliate her maid, as if wealth had endowed her with the right to do so.
"How would you know?" she snorted, "You wretched people stay in the slums and cant bear to see others enjoying wealth."
Then one look at the guests and she said, "Who knows? You might be here to steal something.What else are you doing in the master bedroom when there is a party downstairs? Didn't I tell you to stay in the kitchen?"
The woman's eyes were now brimming with tears. She kept blinking the accusations away, hoping her Memsaab would stop. But Mrs Kamath was on a roll, and did not show any signs of stopping.
I looked around nervously. There were people I did not know. There were my parents. There was Mr and Mrs Kamath. But above all, there was this old woman was getting punished for something that was not even her fault, humiliated for something I'd done, accused of some mistake I'd committed.

I was faced with two choices now---I could be honest about the whole thing...accept my mistake, confess that it was me who had broken the vase, or I could let things lie the way they were, let the poor woman take the blame of what was rightfully part of my wrong doing.The former option would cause me much humiliation in front of strangers whom I did not even know, perhaps a good dressing down at home from my parents, embarrassment at the Kamath's, and possibly even the guilt of placing my dad's business relation with them at stake. However, the latter, albeit seemed the easy way out, somehow felt terribly wrong. In hindsight, had I chosen to stay mum that day, the episode that transpired would keep me awake every single night for the rest of my life. I would not be able to meet eyes with myself and even though nobody else would know about it, there would be a stranger in the mirror whom I would have to face every day and hang my head in shame.
The old woman's kind face in the kitchen flashed in front of me. Hadn't she thought of me as her own grandchild some time back? And here I was, being an insensitive monster, keeping a secret that could save her job and self respect. My respect for the woman only grew as I realised she was saying nothing against the harsh words that kept spilling from Mrs Kamath's loud mouth.
"Memsaab, I have not....d..done a...anything," she stammered, then bracing herself she continued, "But if you still think it is my mistake, I will leave your job."
I noticed her eyes stinging with tears. My respect for the woman had increased. She was still not saying anything against me---the actual culprit. I noticed her saree, frayed at the edges. She was poor. She needed the job. She was old, yet worked for a living. She did not want to compromise on her self respect. Mrs Kamath was still muttering. She was about to leave the room. It was now that I panicked.
"NO....Wait..She didn't do it," I cried. All eyes in the room flashed onto me. Mrs Kamath was glaring at me, a look of surprise in her eyes.
I ran towards my mother. Clutching her tightly I wailed, "It was not her mistake.She didn't break your costly china...." then trembling, I added amidst sobs, "I did..."
I then glanced shyly at the old woman and mumbled an apologetic 'Sorry' before hiding behind my mother again. The crowd dissipated. Mr and Mrs Kamath were embarassed at the spectacle and muttered a reluctant apology to the maid. The rest of the party continued with everyone pretending that the incident never happened. I stayed gloomy and prepared myself for the tirade that lay ahead at home. My only solace was that the woman for whom I had fought against myself, understood my feelings---a fact evident from the appreciative wave I received through the kitchen window, while I was getting into the backseat of our car, when it was time to go home.
My parents too were equally proud of my confession and much to my siblings disappointment, I even received a surprise gift for the bravery I'd shown that day.
"The path of honesty is always difficult. There will be many distractions that will tempt you away. Sometimes your mind will insist that it is not worth it. But always remember, listen to your heart. It will show you the way," my dad said.
It was true. My heart chose to stand by the woman's side. My heart chose to respect her humility, her perseverance, her loyalty. My heart preferred the path of honesty against the temptation of a well spun fabricated deceit. It taught me compassion for someone I did not even know, and yet formed a special bond with.
"I'm so glad you have learned your first lesson in integrity, on your own," my mother said and hugged me.
I didn't know what that word meant then. All I knew was that it made me feel happy...made me feel complete...made me feel like I belonged here, like I gave this world a small part of what I owed it. That moment made me feel like it was just the start...the start to something right.

Years later, I came to realise that these ethical dilemmas never really left me. I experienced similar choices time and again during my life in medical school. Even today, these choices still visit me from time to time, as a consultant doctor, as a private practitioner, as a friend, a daughter, a sister, but more importantly as a human being. But it is these values which have been ingrained in me from my childhood, that help me take the appropriate decisions. It is these that make me think and ponder. It is these that force me to reflect and introspect. They have become a part of me---character traits that constitute an inseparable part of my attitude towards life. Even today, they direct and guide. They taunt and haunt...and I constantly find myself trying to live up to the self expectations they have raised in me.

Even today, I still let my heart decide....because I know...
...I know my heart will always do the right thing...


I am sharing my Do RIght Stories at in association with Tata Capital.


Niki said...

Wonderful narration. A simple experience of childhood can come a long way.
All the very best, Doc! :)

The Bibliophile said...

Awesome write-up!Really liked it and a lesson well learnt!Keep up the right doings!

KKG said...

I think you should seriously consider writing a book someday soon. :)

Anonymous said...

Love the way you write :)

Pri said...

@ Niki
Thanks dear. In a way, recollecting such incidents helps me keep in check :)

Pri said...

@ Tanz
Thanks for the vote of confidence.
But as we grow up, the line between right and wrong keeps getting blurred.It is during such confusing times that I just leave it to my heart to decide.I guess it knows best :)

Pri said...

Thanks dear, that is definitely a thought :)

Pri said...

@ anon
Danke! I'm flattered :)