There is enough in this world to meet every man’s need
But not even one man’s greed – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
‘Could you give me a letter allowing a friend to stay for a month’, my maid, Heera, asked. She looked uncharacteristically anxious.
We lived in a defence colony which had strict security guidelines for allowing outsiders to stay. Heera was a verified member and lived in a small room close to our home. She had worked with us from the time we had arrived in Mumbai, and I knew we would miss her a great deal when we moved to another city, something that could happen anytime. Transfers were a part and parcel of an Indian defence officer’s family after all.
This was the first time Heera had asked us to give her this kind of letter. It must be important to her, I thought, and completed the necessary formalities.
Her friend, Sona Bai, arrived soon after. I realized in a couple of days that she was partially blind. Yet, I could see her doing her best to be helpful by cleaning Heera’s room. The month passed and Heera asked for Sona Bai’s stay to be extended. This was a little difficult, but we managed to get the required permission.
It was then that I found out more about her. Sona Bai’s eyesight had gradually failed and she had been supported by her daughter, her only living relative, for a few years. A few months back, her daughter had developed high fever and suddenly died. Sona Bai now had no one to call her own.
It was then that Heera had met her. Even with her limited means, Heera had not hesitated to immediately bring her home, though she was just a casual acquaintance.
Would I have been so large hearted ? I wondered. So called ‘educated’ people like us tend to think too much about long term implications: ‘How long can I keep her’, ‘What will I do later ?’ and so on, and stop ourselves from a natural, human response; simple folk like Heera have much stronger values and courage.
Soon after getting Sona Bai’s permission extended, I realized we needed to try and help Sona Bai settle down in a more permanent manner because of the colony’s restrictions, and also because, once we moved, Heera might not be able to ask her next employer for permission.
However, this was easier said than done. Options were limited as blind homes in Mumbai could not take her in; they were already fully occupied and, besides, her case was weak as she was only partially blind. She was not old enough for an old age home. And her blindness did not allow her to take on the kind of job she could do earlier.
As I was pondering on what could be done, I got a call from one of the blind homes that I had approached in Mumbai. ‘We understand the difficulty of the lady and have just got information that there is an ashram for the blind in Surendranagar in Gujarat, which has room for Sona Bai. Would you like to send her there ? the director asked.
This seemed suitable, but I wondered whether Sona Bai would want to move so far from her friends, and to a place where she did not understand the language. I spoke to her hesitantly and was amazed at her equanimity. ‘God has opened yet another door for me’, she said calmly, ‘yes, I shall go’.
We completed the formalities. Just before the social worker from the blind home came to take Sona Bai to Surendranagar, I gave Sona Bai a thousand rupees – a small amount, but enough to see her through for a couple of months at least.
When we got a call after three days from Sona Bai saying she had reached and was comfortable, I felt at ease and was happy that I could play a small role in making it possible for her to have a home.
There was one more surprise in store for me. The social worked called me in a few days saying she wished to meet me. Wondering what the matter could be, I went to meet her and was handed an envelope with a thousand rupees.
‘Sona Bai asked me to give this to you’, the social worker said. ‘And she asked me to write a letter to you on her behalf’. She opened up a sheet of paper, and read out:
‘I am very happy here. We spend our time weaving and knitting. Thank you for finding this place for me. Please don’t feel bad that I have returned your money. I took it thinking I might need it for travel or for some expense I might have in the ashram. But I spent nothing on travel. The social worker told me you had already paid for my ticket. When I reached here, I found I am given food and two sarees every year. What more do I need ? The money is probably more useful to you. So, please take it back’.
The sheer courage of the woman and her perception of ‘need’ astounded me.
This remains the most precious thousand rupees I have ever received.
This was one of the first stories I wrote and it got published in Chicken Soup for the Indian Soul. It remains one of my favourite stories and I feel truly proud to have shared it.