Friday, September 17, 2010

The Joy of Giving

Mukesh Ambani, according to predictions by the Forbes magazine, is slated to be the richest man in the world by 2014.

I assume that the predictions were not outsourced to us, notwithstanding our virtual patents on astrology, new rules from Mr B Obama, and other things. Maybe they heard about our messed up weather predictions, Commonwealth games stuff, Mumbai metro , and the Mumbai Nhava ShevaTrans Harbor Bridge, the last two still on paper.

Money has always been there. Disproportionately distributed in life. When I was a child, the Privy Purses had already been abolished, and visible manifestations of obscene wealth, were few and far between. Yes, there were hugely moneyed people around, but their wealth was never manifested like it is now. You would watch a dignified looking old person, preside judiciously at a meeting, and never realise that he was the ex-owner of a State.

I used to know , in my early childhood, someone in his sixties, who we used to visit a lot.

Born at the fag end of the 19th century, he came from a very poor family in a village in the western part of my state. It was then the done thing for the son of the family to make his way to the big city, for education, in the face of huge cash crunches and other troubles. Well meaning families would give a place to sleep, in return for a chore like filling water, or being a messenger boy, and there existed a social system , called Madhukri, whereby, families took upon themselves to provide a wholesome lunch for such boys, once a week. And so this boy, would eat at 6 different houses each week, the families doing what could be called, a precursor of what is today called Corporate Social Responsibility, and the system spread this load equitably across several families. There could have been a thin strain of the stress of "asking for food" in all this, but it helped keep egos under control, when you needed to prioritize things in your mind.

Which this boy did very well. He excelled at his studies, which were conducted in the harshest of environments, literally under streetlamps. By and by , he qualified to be an Engineer, where his proficiency earned him government scholarships and tuition help. The same single minded devotion saw him go to to England for training , and he returned to grace a responsible government post in what was then called the Central Provinces, in India.

Life was comfortable, he was happily married and had children. But destiny had other plans, and the children lost their mother at a very young age, leaving this man with memories and new responsibilities, as both father and mother to the kids. He never got married again, despite various overtures from well meaning families, because he didn't want to inflict a step-culture on his children.

He had the means and skills to conduct a household, and took a great interest in educating his kids, and particularly his daughter, who seemed to be academically inclined. He ensured she enjoyed the little things all girls enjoy, by always keeping in touch with her various aunts, who were very happy to help, and it was not unknown for him to have driven across town to one of them, just so his daughter could have her hair braided in some complicated way which all girls in her class were sporting.

Towards the end of his career, he decided to shift to Pune. He never forgot his roots, and spent a large portion of his judiciously managed savings, helping out in the education of deserving students. We would often observe him being visited by various young people, who he would talk to , asking about their progress, and occasionally someone would come by with a box of sweets to celebrate a hard earned brilliant graduation. He became a patron of some excellent educational societies, that started colleges across the state, and had very eminent educationists as advisers .

When he sensed his failing health, he expressed a wish to donate, what was then considered a outstandingly huge amount to the University, so that needy, hardworking, engineering students with good grades could be financially assisted , from the interest of the original sum.

Those were days when prosperity meant you had a rambling house, with all kinds of staff, even someone to pour warm water on your feet, when you arrived from outside, with someone else standing by with a towel. You had cars with drivers, personal attendants, male secretaries cum man Fridays, and you moved in exalted circles.

So it was an education in itself, to see this man washing his own clothes and hanging them on the wash line, and sweeping his own room daily. It wasn't that there was no help. But that was the way he preferred. His academically well qualified daughter had an opportunity to accompany her husband on a scholarship to the US in the 40's , and was hesitating because of a young son; he offered to look after the child (in the face of hesitant in laws), and urged her to make use of this wonderful opportunity. She listened and came back with a degree herself from Columbia University.

He must have passed away when I was 7 or 8 years old. We never knew he had such great and well known friends, particularly from the field of education.

His children knew of his wish to donate to the University, and consulted these qualified people. He wasn't a millionaire or anything, but what he taught his children by personal example was never forgotten. His three children together, after his death, donated the sum, then considered huge, to the University, in the form of securities, in companies, which like him, were blue chip and highly respected. Today none of his children are alive, but his grandchildren take an active interest as advisers in this.

Some people , are rich in money, and the manifestations are in terms of more and more houses, with more and more stories; more and more cars, and even aeroplanes, because they are like toys - you buy the latest, because you must fit in with what the world thinks you should be. You ensure you are seen moving in exalted circles, currently considered powerful. It is all about buying "people" and their confidence in you.

Life, to them , is basically, all about pluses and multiplications. Derivatives are sometimes studied, and Integrations are all about assets. Minuses are useful as tax sops, but, Divisions make you uncomfortable. So you avoid them. And you fight them . And the winner takes all.

And, of course, to hell with people.

The old man I knew will never make it to Forbes. When he passed away, the discussion was all about giving, and never really about taking. Individually or en masse.

No monuments, temples, statues in his honor. But a complete set of generations, that are inspired to live , in a manner where the priorities are suggested, not forced , by him.

This is supposed to lead up to the Joy of Giving week. (Sept 26- Oct 2)

Of gestures, slogans and graphics designed by advertising people to make you feel guilty. Or generous. Givers will be facilitated. Commissions will be subtracted. And the receivers will be grateful.

And I will once again think of this old gentleman, who taught us what a Lifetime of Giving was all about.......


  1. Such a wonderful and inspiring person. With the rich getting richer and the have & have-not gap getting wider, it doesn't take much for the richer pursuing to be the richest to find a way to narrow this gap, does it? And each of us, in our own small way, can certainly make a difference by reaching out to those in need.

  2. What a wonderful post about an extraordinary ordinary person!

  3. Wonder where that idealism has vanished. It used to be there.... I like to think that it is there, just not as well publicized as the pursuit of riches by the very wealthy.

  4. That was a great post very inspiring.Actually it is the ordinary person who does this kind of charity, where the left hand doesn't know what the right is doing. The rich advertise their 'charity' to the world even if it is just a fraction of their wealth.

  5. Nice of you to 'give' this experience to us!

  6. I too know such a person who went about inspiring people and leading by example.Such people are the unsung heroes of our society and they are really not worried about not being recognized.You share information about such wonderful people.
    Each one is a gem.Do keep up the good work.people like me feel happy that all is not lost -at least not yet.

  7. People like this gentlemen you have written about, are certainly an inspiration!

    The charity practised by them seems so different from the type we hear/read about frequently today.

  8. A wonderful Post - your writing brings tears to my eyes. You have such a way with words.
    May your days continue well....

  9. Some people aren't very wealthy monetary-wise but leave the world richest...with immeasurable amount of love, respect and gratitude by people which can only grow with every passing day.

    Its a truly inspirational life...much beyond the figures that Forbes can come up with.

  10. These days if you are rich you build a huge multi-storey complex for your family (how many rooms would they use?), buy the spouse a plane, buy an IPL team ... very very different from the person you described!

  11. Fal dene waalee daalee hamesha jhukee(humble) huee hotee hai

  12. RGBIts never about material richness. It has to be inside and native to you.

    Sandhya Thank you. yes, a truly extraordinary person...

    Ritu You know I think this idealism in there still; but people are so busy being impressed by moneyed gestures, they dont even bother to notice. I even know people who think sweeping their own room is embarassing. Kya kahoon ?

    Zephyr Welcome here ! My mother used to always say money needs to have quality, besides quantity. Today its all quantity, mostly. The old man was a "quality" mind millionaire !

    aativas Thank you ! I try :-)

    HHG You know, I look back at my life as a young person, and feel so lucky to have known all these folks. And writing about them surely makes one feel so good . ...

    manju Yes, this person was a great inspiration for so many ....

    One Woman's Journey Thank you. Wonderful memories make for wonderful narratives.

    Varsh So true.

    radha You know , I give all those folks the right to spend how they like , its their money, but why publicize ? And I hate to think what their children are learning.

    Khalil Sawant Our uske fal thode, lekin hamesha hamesha bahut mithe hote hai

  13. Great and inspiring blog post for Giving :)

    - Prashant