Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Notes of a Nobody: The Kindness of Strangers

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 13, 2013

Thinking ManPaan Singh.. jal laayiye

It was an unexpected but a pleasant baritone voice that I heard from the table oblique to me in the mess hall of Jubilee hostel a month after I took up residence there as a student to pursue my post-graduate studies. What really grabbed my attention was the effortless use of the pure Hindi word “jal”. Normally, even the most fluent, fanatic and native speakers of Hindi language use the word “paani” instead of “jal” for water. I looked at him involuntarily and he noticed that he was being observed and smiled at me. I too smiled but did not say anything. He was of medium height, with a mop of thick black hair on his head. As if to match this he also sported a thick beard. The beard failed to hide a strong jaw-line that made his face look unduly flat. I made a note that had he allowed the hair and beard to grow longer, he would surely have a budding philosopher’s look. His brief smile indicated to me that he was in the habit of chewing betel leaves. He was surrounded by a group of friends who did not pay much attention to what he said indicating they were used to the way he talked. I completed eating the drab fare more as a routine exercise to keep hunger at bay and left the mess hall. Barring rare occasions of festivals and weekend meals, the food was never well made at Jubilee Hall and like others I learnt to supplement my mess food with sandwiches, bread- omelet, samosas, maggi noodles and tea from a shop outside the hall.  Since I was new and have not yet made any friends, I quite often frequented this shop alone. Actually, I preferred it that way for it gave me time to be myself and think through the adjustments that I needed to make to settle down in the newer environs which were pretty far away from home.

It was on one of those sojourns to supplement food that I met my bearded man sitting on a bench laid in front of the shop. There was a mild chill in the air and my hunger was sharp. I ordered for a bread-omelet and tea combination and sat opposite to the man waiting to be served. For want of anything better, I smiled at him. He smiled at me and said in chaste Hindi:

“Which faculty do you belong to?”

“Management,” I said

“Oh! Your life is all set then” he said. There was a tinge of envy in his voice. I smiled at his observation. I especially found the traces of envy a little bothersome and dismissed it in an amiable way “Oh! nothing like it”

My omelet and tea had arrived and before I started on it I offered the plate to him. He refused saying “whatever we have we should have in full but I too am very hungry”. I kind of guessed his situation which appeared to be the situation of many students in that place, called the canteen boy and ordered a full bread omelet for him along with a cup of tea. Waiting for his plate to arrive, I offered my plate to him once again and said “take half… I will take half from the plate I ordered for you”. He took a portion and started munching it hungrily. I looked at him carefully and asked him

“Are you in the Hindi department?”

He stopped his munching and looked at me and said “Why Hindi? I am in pure math. I am pursuing my Ph.D – number theory he said” I did not at first get the pure Hindi translation of the subject “number theory” he employed in his sentence. He had to reiterate it inserting the necessary English words. Following on that he said “what made you think I belonged to Hindi faculty?”

“The way you speak Hindi. It is so pure. It is as if you are reading from a good text book” I replied

He chuckled loudly for a while and then said “Oh that! I love Hindi. It is a wonderful language when spoken in its purity. I do not like Hindustani which has many Urdu words mixed in it. But I would not hesitate to say that pure Urdu is as wonderful as Hindi. Both languages carry a magic in them”

I could not agree with him more. Coming from the region of Telangana, I have a deep sense of what he meant. In the meanwhile the other plate came along with two teas and we had our shares. He thanked me for the fare and we walked to our respective rooms. This was the beginning of our friendship. We used to meet each other at the canteen, talk about various things. I loved the way he spoke his Hindi which was pure and musical. More and more I started to look for these meetings to hear him speak his Hindi. However, with the onset of winter, I started to see him less and less. Once in a while I met him at the tea stall outside but he appeared serious and lost in himself. The usual chatty self was gone and after a while he was not to be seen completely. In the meanwhile, I had developed a set of friends of my own and settled quite well. The possibility of having good career prospects after my management studies had changed my own confidence. About a couple of months later I spotted him at the canteen and I walked up to him. He looked gaunt with long hair and beard. I walked upto him and said

“Is all well? I do not see you at all these days. Any problem?” I asked

He looked at me for a while and said “No no major problems. I am preparing for Civil services exams and delayed my Ph.D work. They have stopped my scholarship and that is turning out to be a problem”. He paused for a while and said hesitatingly “Can I borrow 300 rupees from you? Can’t say when I will return it to you. But will return it certainly”

I couldn’t say no. I gave it to him although it was a big sum thanks to the financial support I was receiving from my father. I ordered something for both of us and we started to chat up on his preparation efforts. He had let me known that he was confident of success as his preparation was on track and he is in a revision mode now. After this, I did not see him for nearly five months. By this time much had changed at my end. I had found a nice summer job with a well sought after new-age financial services firm. My posting was in Delhi and I most probably would end up in the same company for a permanent slot in future. I started to love Delhi and had wanted to work there for a while before I made my next moves. Life looked rosy and bright. I was busy wrapping the loose ends at my institute for the year. It was during this period that I had gone all alone to our canteen for a cup of tea

After about 10 minutes at the canteen I found a clean shaven man standing in front of me trying to grab my hand. It took 10 seconds for me to realize that he was none other than my bearded friend who has now shed his beard. He was smiling at me and all the beetel stains on his teeth were gone. He was in complete formals including well polished black shoes. There was a quiet dignity in the way he looked.  I grabbed his hands in recognition and said

“You surprised me ! Don’t see you anymore these days. How are you? How did your exams go?” I asked

He looked at me for a while and said sheepishly “I did better than expected. I secured 11th in the overall merit list and opted for Indian Foreign Service”

“Congratulations!!” I said. I was in a mild state of disbelief but smiled and said “Look even your life is set”

He nodded his head. We ordered for more tea and started to exchange developments at our respective ends. He told me that he was going to Mussorie the following week for a six-month long training and then will be in Delhi for another six months before being attached to one of the Indian embassies abroad. He also told me he always had a desire to be in Indian Foreign Services and become a top notch diplomat. All of this he poured forth in his usual chaste Hindi

I said “Look you will not have a chance to speak like this anymore once you go abroad. You will have to speak mostly in English”

He laughed and said ”Yes I will miss that. “Perils of profession” you see”. That was the first time I saw him using an English expression with me and coming from him I found that a little odd. I felt like pulling his leg and asked him what would that expression in Hindi be. He thought for a while and said something in Hindi. It was beyond my comprehension. I let him go with that. We sat there for about another 30 minutes in which he told me how hard he worked for realizing his objective. It was time for me to go. I got up  and told him that I needed to get to my institute. He too stood, took my arm and quickly hugged me and said “thanks for all the help especially that money. I was really in a bad shape then” He took out his purse and pulled out 300 bucks for returning. Strangely, I did not feel like taking it. I told him that I did not want to take it back and would want to have it as a fond remembrance. I added jokingly “in future I can always tell my family and friends that somewhere in the upper echelons of Indian diplomatic circles there was a person who owed me money”. We laughed for a while. Despite his insistence I refused and requested him to let it be that way and not rob me of my remembrance. He relented after a while. We shook hands once again and parted.

That was the last I saw of him. Now I have even forgotten his name. Surely, it is not very difficult to trace him if I want to what with the ubiquitous search engines around. I am sure he must be quite a senior diplomat somewhere trying to maintain good relations between India and whichever country he is posted in presently.

It has been nearly three decades since this happened. My life too had gone many ups and downs and at every stage I was helped by friends. But more than friends I was helped by strangers. If not pure strangers by temporary acquaintances who had tendencies to become strangers rapidly. In moments of reminiscence, I always felt guilty of not keeping in touch with these good Samaritans (and there were many in my life) and being forgetful of their kindness. However, over a period, life also taught me that it is in its nature to throw strangers at us as much as it makes strangers of us and throws us at others. And therefore it is important for us to be kind and grateful to others for we never know, in life, when we will receive the kindness of strangers as much as we get an opportunity to show kindness to others


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