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The transformative power of compassion

by P.S. Wasu
The author recalls a chance encounter with a taxi driver, which made him realize that nirvana is a profound peace found in the simple joys of sustenance, warmth, and love!

In 2009, I was on my way from Delhi to Vindhya Nagar in Madhya Pradesh in India to conduct a workshop for a public sector undertaking. Upon landing at Varanasi, a car arranged by the client awaited me to transport me to my final destination.

Raju, the driver, was a handsome young man in his early twenties. He struck me with his eloquence as he shared insights about the local landscape, towns, villages, and life in the region. When he learned that I was a good audience for his outpourings, he further opened up and shared his personal philosophy with me. He said there was no one like one’s mother, and the biggest problem in this world was hunger. He said it in such a compelling way that it piqued my curiosity, and I was eager to know what he meant by it. I also wondered how he had reached this conclusion.

It was a six-hour drive, and along the way, we stopped for lunch at a roadside dhaba. I asked Raju to join me for lunch. He insisted on sitting at a separate table, but I persuaded him to sit with me. We sat opposite each other on a table. 

I liked the fellow and was curious about his life. So, I started asking him personal questions. He was more than willing to share his life with me. His mother had died a year back, and he was all alone in this world. He told me all about his childhood. He lived with his mother and never knew who his father was. What he told me gave me a glimpse of how his ideas about mothers and hunger were formed.

He spoke in Hindi, and given below is an account of what he told me. I have tried to be as fidelitous as possible in my description.  

Nine-year-old Raju hated Mother because she left early in the morning. She always said she would be back in an hour or two, but she never returned before noon.

Hungry and alone, he started waiting for Mother almost from the moment she left. Sometimes, he came out of the hut and played with his friends. But mostly, he stayed in. To distract himself from hunger, he arranged and disarranged a few wooden toys he had. He did his best to concentrate on his game to keep his mind off hunger.

When he was tired, he lay on the cot. Staring at the walls, he snoozed. And dreamed. All his dreams centered around food. He dreamed that he was a guest at a feast. All kinds of dishes were laid out before him, and he didn’t know which one to sample first. Another favorite dream of his was that he was a grown-up man working in a factory. When he returned home in the evening, his arms were loaded with all sorts of fruit, sweets, and vegetables. Mother opened the door for him, and he handed her the bulky parcels. What joy radiated from her eyes!

What he liked most about his dreams was that in dreams he could dream whatever he wished. Nothing required much effort. He always had the best of things to eat. There was no question of staying hungry ever.

Dreams, filled with feasts and abundance, were his sanctuary, offering a respite from the harsh reality of persistent hunger. The dreams, however, were always interrupted by the cruel pangs of real hunger. His head reeled, and he felt something twisting in his stomach. When it became unbearable, he buried his face in his palms and sobbed. And all the time he waited for Mother to arrive. The slightest shuffling at the door made him spring to his feet.

He waited and waited. And then it happened. Like an angel from heaven, Mother showed up at the door. She carried food tied in a bundle—odd bits of victuals picked up from the homes where she worked as a help. Raju ran at the food and started eating greedily.

It happened daily. Day after day, Raju went through the same ordeal—the hunger, the boredom, the loneliness, and the wait. All of which ended when Mother returned. Raju was tired of it all. But he didn’t know what he could do about it.

“Raju, my taxi driver told me, there was no one like one’s mother, and the biggest problem in this world was hunger. He said it in such a compelling way that it piqued my curiosity, and I was eager to know what he meant by it.”

One morning he started weeping as Mother made to leave.

“What is the matter, son?” she asked, putting an arm around his shoulders. She wiped his tears, and he calmed down a bit.

He pleaded, “When you are gone Mother, I feel so lonely. I am also hungry and scared. Can’t you take me wherever you go?”

Mother was silent for a moment, thinking. Raju looked on wistfully. He was taken by surprise when she agreed to take him along.

“But you will have to be good, and you must help me at work.”

That day, she took him with her for the first time. This marked the beginning of Raju’s journey into the world of labour.

Quickly, she figured out that Raju could start working at Mrs. Sharma’s house right away. Of all the employers she knew, Mrs. Sharma was the kindest. She didn’t want Raju to be exposed to hard task masters.

When they reached Mrs. Sharma’s house, she was standing at her door. Raju found her extremely beautiful. Mother greeted her and said, “I am not well, ma’am. The old pain has cropped up again. I don’t know how long it is going to last. This boy is my son. He has come to do your cleaning. He is small, but he knows the job well.”

Then Mother turned to Raju and said, “You must do a thorough job of it. There should be no complaint.”

Mrs. Sharma touched Raju on the shoulder and said, “He is so frail. How can he clean up the whole place?”

“It’s no problem, ma’am. Sooner or later he has to start working. The sooner the better.”

Then Mother left. Mrs. Sharma took Raju inside and told him what was to be done. Raju set about the job in earnest, putting all his strength into it. He wanted to prove himself to Mrs. Sharma. Crouching down, he scrubbed the floor real hard. He was a bit slow but he reached every nook and corner in the house and cleaned it out. Not so much as a crumb did he overlook. 

He wanted to endear himself to Mrs. Sharma through hard work and dedication. His idea was that if he could make her happy, she might give him something to eat. Appetising smells had already started wafting from the kitchen. 

When he finished he was totally exhausted. He asked Mrs. Sharma if she found his work okay. She said that for a boy of his age, he had done exceptionally well.

Then Raju said, “I don’t feel like going home yet. Shall I polish the shoes? I can polish them real bright.”

Mrs. Sharma, who was at this moment laying the table for lunch, told him where all the shoes were. Then, she called her children, and they all sat down to eat.

Raju put the shoes in a row and started polishing them vigorously. His idea was to attract the family’s attention. Maybe it would occur to someone to ask him to eat. 

When the shoes were done, Raju asked Mrs. Sharma if there was anything else to be done. This was his last chance, he thought. Mrs. Sharma was a good woman. She would surely give him a morsel of food as a reward. Only he had to get it across to her that he was hungry. He did his best to look famished.

“You have done a good job, boy,” said Mrs. Sharma. “You must be tired. There is nothing else to do. You can go home now.”

Raju made for the door. All hope of getting something to eat had vanished by now. For once, he thought he should blurt out that he was hungry, and wanted to eat. But he checked himself. Chewing his lips, he shot Mrs. Sharma a last hungry look.

Now, Mrs. Sharma was a sensitive person. She could see at once that Raju wanted to say something but was holding back. She knew that he had worked very hard and must be rewarded. So she asked him to wait a moment and slipped into the next room.

Hope welled up in Raju’s heart. It looked to him that Mrs. Sharma would get him something to eat. She was so kind-hearted, after all. 

When she returned, Raju stretched out his hand instinctively. Mrs. Sharma gave him a shirt and said, “Take this shirt, it is almost new. Now you are getting late. Go home straight and ask Mother to take some medicine.”

Raju swallowed his saliva and walked away, shirt and all. When he reached home, Mother was already there. He felt comforted. When Mother was around, he didn’t have to go hungry.

As soon as Mother saw his hungry face at the door, she pushed a bowl of rice towards him. Raju threw away the shirt, pounced upon the stuff, and started thrusting mouthfuls down his throat. He ate and ate until he had his fill. Then he lay on the cot and slept, enveloped in a haze of contentment.

It occurred to me at this point that if there was anything called Nirvana, this was it—a profound peace found in the simple joys of sustenance, warmth, and love!

As we concluded our lunch, Raju, overcome with emotion, couldn’t contain his tears. I put my hand on his shoulder, and he calmed down. He wiped his tears and smiled. I, too, smiled. The shared smile conveyed a profound connection. 

His face shone as he said, “Sir, you asked me to have lunch with you. I can almost see my mother in you! Thank you.” The transformative power of compassion was palpable.

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Mrs CK Pandey February 3, 2024 - 3:52 pm

Heart touching story. Food is priority for poor than any other thing.

Padam Singh February 1, 2024 - 1:47 pm

Wow. Such a sensitive subject, handled with finesse! Kudos, Sir.