In India, the Worst of Both Worlds
Experts have taken from the Book ‘Wise and Otherwise – A Salute to Life!” by Sudha Murty.
Monday is the first working day of the week and an extremely busy day in our offices. All emails and papers have to be processed and meetings held. Long lists of appointments inevitably fill up our diaries. In between appointments, unexpected callers invariably turn up. Secretaries sweat it out on Monday mornings. But we have to get past Monday to reach Sunday again.
I recall one such Monday. I was engrossed in checking and replying to my email when my secretary told me that there were two visitors who had come to meet me without an appointment.
I asked her, ‘What is special about these visitors that you are letting them in without an appointment?’ I have great confidence in my staff and their ways of screening visitors.
She replied in a low tone, ‘Ma’am, one is a very old man who looks very pale and the other is a middle-aged person. They say it is very urgent and have been waiting for quite some time.’
‘Send them in,’ I said.
They came in and sat opposite me. The old man seemed more than seventy years old. He was looking weak, tired and worried. He carried a worn-out bag. He was in a pitiable condition. With him was a middle-aged man who also looked somewhat worried.
I came to the point immediately. ‘Tell me, what is the matter?’ The old man did not talk but just looked at the younger man.
The middle-aged man said, ‘Madam, I saw this old man sitting near a bus stop. It seems he does not have anybody. He wants some shelter. Unfortunately,
he does not have any money.’
This middle-aged man wanted to go on with all kinds of explanations. I often come across people who beat around the bush quite unnecessarily. They never tell you what they want directly. As I am used to such things, I often cut them short even at the risk of sounding curt.
‘What do you want me to do?’ I asked outright.
‘I have read a lot about your work. I want you to help this gentleman.’ ‘Do you have anybody?’ I asked the old man.
Tears welled up in his eyes. In a low voice he said, ‘No, I do not have anybody.’
‘What about your family?’ ‘No, I do not have anybody.’
‘Where were you working before?’
I asked many questions and he gave reasonably satisfactory replies.
I felt bad for the old man. He had no money and nobody to give him a helping hand. It was a sad case. I thought of an old-age home with which we had regular contact. I called this home and told them that I was sending an old man there and that he should be kept there until we decided what we could do for him. The middle-aged man said, ‘Do not worry. I will go with him and leave him there.
From there, I will go to my office.’
Then they left my office. Soon, I got lost in my world of work, visitors, vouchers, budgets and so on.
Not that I forgot the old man’s case. Once in a while I would call the old-age home and enquire about him. They would tell me that he was fine. I never had time to think more about him. I used to send money every month to the old-age home.
One day, I got a call from the caretaker of the home saying that the old man was very sick and that they had admitted him to a hospital. Could I come in the evening?
I went to see the old man at the hospital that evening. He was really unwell.
The doctors felt his condition was critical and that he did not have long to live. I thought there might be somebody he wished to see at a time like this. Maybe not his own children, but perhaps a nephew or a sister or brother, at least a friend?
Was there anybody we could inform?
I asked him, ‘Do you want to see anybody? We will call whomever you want.
Do you have anybody’s phone number?’
With a trembling hand, he wrote down a number and gave it to me. We called the number and informed the person at the other end that the old man was critical. After some time, a person came to see him. He looked anxious and worried and he went straight to the old man.
I thought I had seen this man before. I tried to jog my memory but in vain. I just couldn’t remember why the old man’s visitor seemed so familiar. Perhaps he resembled someone I had met on my travels.
Meanwhile, the doctor came out and told me that the old man had breathed his last. I felt sad. I neither knew him nor had any contact with him. But somehow I felt very sad.
After a few minutes, the visitor came out. He had tears in his eyes. He sat down quietly on a bench. The whole place was quiet and depressing. The caretaker, this visitor and I sat in the visitors’ hall waiting for the formalities to be completed.
The visitor asked, ‘Where is the bag he had?’ ‘What bag?’
‘This man came to the old-age home carrying a bag,’ he said.
My interest quickened. How did the visitor know that there was a bag?
I sent a peon back to the old-age home to fetch the bag. When it arrived, the visitor was eager to open it, but I did not permit him.
‘You may not open the bag unless you identify yourself. What is your relationship with this old man? I want to know how you knew about this bag.’
He seemed very upset with my questions. Maybe he didn’t like a woman questioning him. In India, men often get upset when women raise questions that are inconvenient for them. They prefer women who do not question what they do. Fortunately, this trend is disappearing slowly.
‘It was I who accompanied him and left him at this home,’ said the man. ‘Who are you?’ I was very curious.
‘I am his son.’
You can imagine how shocked I was. Now I remembered—he was the middle-aged man who had come to our office that Monday morning claiming that he had found the old man sitting near a bus stop.
I was very upset. ‘Why did you lie to me?’
Of course he had a story to tell. ‘I have problems at home,’ he said. ‘My wife never liked my father. She asked me to choose between her and him. At that time we read about your Foundation. We thought then that our problem could be solved without money.’ He said he had no choice but to appease his wife because it was she who owned the house they lived in.
‘What a way to solve your problem!’ I protested. ‘We help people who are orphans, but not orphans with children.’
When the bag was finally opened we found three sets of old clothes in it, some medicines and a passbook. When I opened the passbook, I was astounded. The old man had a bank balance of more than a lakh of rupees. The old man had put down a nominee for the account—his son, the same son who had got rid of him. Here was a son who was heartless enough to pass off his father as destitute in order to admit him in an old-age home. Now, the same son had come to claim his father’s money.
Though his son had not wanted to look after him and had made him lie to me that he had nobody in this world, the old man nevertheless had wanted his money to go to his son. It never would have occurred to him to give that money to the old-age home that had sheltered him in his last days.
In Western countries, when old people die in old-age homes, they often will their property to the home or the hospital that cared for them. This is for the benefit of other senior citizens. They do not bequeath their money to their children, nor do the children expect their parents to do so. But in India, we have the worst of both worlds: children neglect aged parents, and parents routinely leave their property to their children.
‘It is shameful the way you and your father cooked up this drama for the sake of a few thousand rupees!’ I told the man. ‘And you are setting a bad example. Next time when a genuinely destitute person seeks help, we will be unwilling to offer it. The memory of people like you will stay on.’
He hung his head in shame.