Education is probably the biggest business in India, just after medical care. The main reason is when the Government fails to provide a quality eduction and healthcare, private players step in which then becomes a business; profits and profiteering become the motives.
This story talks about how educating people was considered a noble activity in India for centuries an absolute contrast to what we see today.
Jayakanthan was a prolific writer in Tamil; he also produced feature films. A left leaning liberal thinker, he won the highest literary award in India, the Jnanpith in 2002. He also won the Sahitya Academy award and was honoured with Padma Bhushan in 2009.
Incidentally Jayakanthan (aka JK), my brother, was named after him.
An interesting story especially for millennials who can get a glimpse of the ‘simple living and great thinking’ way of lives of our forefathers.
What Should I do? Please Tell Me
It’s been forty years since I stepped into this house as daughter-in-law; my father brought me here and I was carrying a basket full of toys (Child Marriage!). My mother in law was alive then; she was mother in law as well as my mother. She passed away after five years. But for all time remaining I am still her daughter-in-law…. No? My father dropped me in the verandah and cried covering his face with a towel. I still don’t understand why did he do it. He (throughout the sttory ‘he’ refers mostly to her husband) was playing with a top on the brick floor; even when he was a kid he was adamant. It took me years to understand that I was his wife. He rapped on my head (kuttu). I was angry and one day I slapped him hard. My mother in law came out from kitchen shouting, “hey what did you do to him?” I replied, “why is rapping on my head repeatedly?” She smiled, hugged me and explained to me what’s our relationship. But you understand things only when the right time comes. I am still wondering – why and how do I fear him? Fear means a joyous fear – a respectful fear. Fear is not the right word. I should say devotion. Somehow it has come. It’s been more than forty years as I said.
‘What did I get marrying him? Did I get anything in return?’ some women cry as they walk from the tank to verandah of temple every day. They sulk and lament. I don’t understand what kind of women are they!
I don’t have anything to complain about. I will say this, wearing a wet cloth in any temple that I don’t have anything to complain about. Some people would say I don’t have a child which is one of the greatest shortcomings. Why should I lie? I have also felt the same for many years. He only made me understand how ignorant I was. Of course I did not understand that by myself. He made me understand and only he could do it. All grammatical treatise would hold hands once he starts talking. He would quote Vedas and scriptures and remove all doubts and ignorance in anyone’s mind. Only he has this ability. Don’t think I am praising him so much because he is my husband. I don’t have such knowledge and wisdom. I used to wonder how such an illiterate like me could marry someone like him? Once I asked him about this and he gave me big lecture as to how I am the most suitable woman for him and how happy he is to be married to me. I can’t tell you what all he told me. Let it be I am qualified to be his wife. But that still does not qualify me to praise him.
He is known as Maha Pandit and Sreeman throughout the country. His fame has extended from Chennai to Varanasi.
The people whom he had taught, some of them have even helped me in the kitchen, have become collectors and some are in very high positions in the Government.
So children need not be the only ones, who are given birth and brought up by us; only to find them at a later date quarrelling amongst themselves like cats and dogs. These students are our children.
“See! even now he is teaching children at the Sankara Mutt (a school where the Veda and scriptures are taught). His heavy tone, when it comes out from his naval and reaches you, make goosebumps all over. Then the small children would repeat what he says. These children with rapt attention and devotion, in a soft tone try to repeat exactly what he says. Since their young voices don’t have the depth they suck in their stomachs, keep their hands on their chest and try hard to chant like him. When this chant reaches you, it makes your stomach churn. Will this feeling come only if we give birth to children?
He would often say, ‘begetting children is not a great thing. To feed them and grow them is not a great thing either. To give them education and make them disciplined and to make them people of wisdom is the greatest challenge. Instead of being known as parents of some children it is great thing to be known as someone who made these students, people of wisdom.’ He would say this and much more. I am not capable of repeating all these. But I understand all this is true.
One of the students – we call him Seemachu – has become a professor in Sanskrit in one of the colleges in Madras. He is called Pundit Sreenivasa Sastrigal. It’s heartening to know this. We did not give birth to him. His parents are here always cursing him that their son is not taking care of them.
When he says all these you feel he is talking as if he is being specious, using subtle reasoning to prove a point (Casuistic). Then one day you wonder how he said this so correctly months or years ago.
Few days back, when I was returning from the temple, Seemachu’s mother caught hold of me and lamented that his son has gone to city and his mother in law’s place and he just does not bother about this parents any more. He has no gratitude for all the hard-work they made to educate him. When she was cursing him non-stop, I thought we need not beget children and we need not curse them either. Though I was nodding my head as if to say – ‘yes-yes’, I understood; she is burning in jealousy. She has no problem living here as she has all the comforts. But she could not digest the fact that because of her son many people are happy. I was wondering how people who want relationship with others fail to be in love with them.
All these I could understand only because he explained them to me. Otherwise I would have also joined the chorus with the lady in cursing her son.
I wonder how he is able to think clearly and analyze things methodically. He would not worry if it put him in loss or profit. He would not care how many people accept his theories. He would not do anything which is contradictory to the scriptures. He would throw them away and would be ready to defend his action against all the world as to why he did that. After talking to him no one ever went back saying, ‘what you say is not correct.’ They would come inside saying that but go back thoroughly convinced.
When he talks to them sitting on the pial (thinnai- a raised platform at the entrance of the house for the purpose of resting and chatting), I used stand behind his back and listen. I don’t understand most of the things he used to say. His command over English was amazing. As far as I know, he started learning English only after he turned twenty. He started learning from a man who came to study Sanskrit from him. He was little elder to him. After that he went to Kumbakonam city to write many exams in English.
Today his books are in the syllabus in those schools and colleges.
Ten years ago, we went to Varanasi for a conference. There he was given many awards. I felt very proud. I brought Ganga Jal (holy water) and distributed in the neighbourhood. I don’t lack in anything.
When we were coming back from Varanasi, we stayed with Seemachu. Seemachu came to Central station (Madras/Chennai) to receive us in his car. In the station itself Seemachu fell to the ground for our blessings (namaskaram) and showed us around the city and took us to the beach. But whenever he (my husband) spoke, Seemachu listened with rapt attention folding his hands. But I was little scared to see, when Seemachu dressed up to go to college wearing a suit. But my husband looked at his dress and laughed at him.
Few days after this, a big car came and stopped in front of our house. Some wise men (I was told they are from the college where Seemachu is a professor) got down and sat in the pial and started talking to him. Only Seemachu came right up to the kitchen. I asked him, ‘why can’t you come and see your mother often?’. He replied, ‘I have no time aunty. I am asking her to come and stay with me but she is not agreeing.’ Then he told me the reason for their visit.
They want him (my husband) to become the Head of the Department in their college but they are afraid to ask him. Seemachu told them that he would speak on behalf of them and make him accept the offer. Seemachu told me few other things as well. I was very interested in this.
They spoke for a long time sitting on the pial. I was listening to their conversation sitting in the room but I could not understand anything. But I did understand one thing – they could not convince him.
So, after they left, not able to control myself, I asked him.
“Why don’t you accept the offer? People who study there are also students. Why are you so adamant? Poor Seemachu! He came with lot of hope and confidence.” He laughed when I said this.
This laugh was born with him. And the laugh is exclusive for me.
He spoke to me as he was laughing away.
“You have a desire to see me dressed up like Seemachu. Don’t you know one should not get paid for teaching? Once the student pays the fees, what respect he will have for teacher? Why will he have respect for teacher? Then we become wage earners. Then we raise flags to say this money is not enough. Seemachu is saying he won’t call me for shouting slogans and raising flags. But he wants me to be their head. Can do I all this? You tell me!”
What could I say? I just listened to him not speaking anything.
I imagined him dressing up in a suit and laughed silently. I laid the matter to rest.
After knowing him so much I should not have asked him. That made me feel ashamed. In all these forty years, I have been a fool. I find new ways of being foolish. Then he would laugh at me. I have become a person like this.
Few days back one of his old students came to me. He showed me something and said’ ‘look aunty. This is a lottery ticket. This is run by the Government. It’s just One Rupee. It’s very difficult to get. I used all my influence to get you one. Please buy this.’ I did not think much about it. Just thought the kid has brought this for me with so much affection. I gave him one rupee and took the ticket.
Then the kid gave a big lecture about lottery. So many people have become millionaires after buying this. And the prices always go to the poor ones. I just bought it for fun. But the same day evening my husband was giving a big lecture to his friends about gambling.
When I was listening to this, sitting in my room I felt someone had given me a big slap.
He always used to talk in soft tone explaining the logic. That day his tone was different. He was shouting as if he was to born to curse someone.
I could not understand why was he was so angry about lottery.
“Can this happen in this nation? Let gamblers gamble. Let adulterers commit adultery. Can people who govern the country do this? Can statesmen do this? This is the proof that Kaliyuga is at its peak. How Dharma in Mahabharata who governed with such straightforwardness lost everything? He lost everything because he gambled. Neither people who have lost in gambling nor people who have won in gambling lived a peaceful life. Mahabharata speaks the truth. There is rule for gambling. People who are in the same status can gamble amongst them. Even that is a sin. Can people who govern the nation fool its subjects? All is lost! More people will die of gambling than poverty. Is it enough if you build statues for Thiruvalluvar in every nook and corner? He has written a chapter on gambling.” Then he recited all the ten poems in the chapter and explained the meaning. He quoted from Mahabharata. He banged his head saying ‘I am no good.’
My stomach started churning. I felt bad about buying the lottery ticket. I could not understand why he was so angry. I was consoling myself saying, ‘he is not used to wearing a shirt. He knots his pony tail, looks at almanac for an auspicious date for shaving. But the whole world does not live like that.’
But still there was a fear. If due to my infortune, a hundred Rupees prize comes to my ticket, that will become talk of the town, especially when he talked so much criticizing the whole thing. People would doubt his words and integrity.
The kid who brought the ticket told me that if I get a prize, it will be published in magazines. Photographers will come. In Madras, they organize functions to distribute the prize and it’s given by a well-known people. More bad luck.
Then I thought there is a remote chance for me to get a prize and left it at that and did not talk to him about this.
But one day I just asked him as I was serving his food.
“What’s that? There is a prize ticket. If you buy it for one Rupee you will get one Lac (hundred thousand rupees). It’s run by the government so there is no cheating. It’s run with integrity. Our neighbor bought ten tickets. So I asked her about the lottery.”
“Oh it has come up to our Kitchen? This is a gambling run by the Government. People are running behind it as if they are caught up with vomiting and dysentery. Government which is trying to prevent dysentery and small-pox is doing this. Poor are becoming millionaires. Let it be. We are not crying to become millionaires. Why should we bother about it?”
“If someone give you one lac would you just refuse?” I asked him.
He laughed at me. I felt ashamed.
‘You understood me only so much after living with me for forty years?’ I felt his laugh meant this. I bowed my head.
“You would refuse it. I know that. But why should you? Look at this house which came as grant to your great grandfather. It’s leaking on three sides and when it rains it leaves a pond at the western corner of the house. We are not able to repair it. So we also need money. Why should I ignore Goddess Lakshmi? (Lakshmi is the Goddess of wealth). Is it wrong?” I asked him.
“The way you talk it looks like you want to buy one. Is it?” he asked.
I kept quiet.
“Stupid… desire is the enemy of mind. I am not saying it’s wrong because you will not get prize. Even you get the prize, it’s not virtuous and not ethical. It will carry the curse of hundreds of people. You talked about my great grandfather no? They were wise people but they lived by doing unjaviruthi (receiving rice as alms every day). I still remember this. My father was teaching in this same Sanskrit Mutt where I teach today. In the evenings, he would give discourses on scriptures and Vedas. In the morning, he would go for unjaviruthi. The bowl he carried would be big enough only for one-time food. He would walk in the centre of the streets. From both sides, children would come out of their houses to give alms which is just a handful of rice. Do you know why they sent children to give handful of rice? If elder people come with one handful of rice, the bowl will fill up in three to four houses and the rest of the households will be disappointed that they could not give rice to the noble men. So the sin of preventing others from giving alms would come to them. That’s why they sent children with handful of rice. In any case when the bowl is filled, they would stop and return to their houses. And people who take alms would take two grains of rice put on the heads of the children to bless them. Because of the virtuous deeds of the generation we have so much wisdom today. I don’t know what can be luckier than this. How many lacs can give this peace and mental health? Gambling can make a millionaire. Can they make a wise man out of it?” throughout the day he was giving lecture on these lines.
Ten days passed after all these happened. I forgot about the lottery ticket.
Yesterday the kid who brought the lottery ticket came to me and said, “aunty here is the newspaper. It has the winning numbers of the lottery tickets. Get your ticket and we can check if you have won anything.”
The kid was happy and jumping with joy. Fortunately, he was not there.
Something churned in my stomach again.
‘Please Lord don’t let me down with this’ as I was praying I got an idea.
“I don’t know where did I keep it! It’s not there.” I lied to him.
He was crestfallen. He looked at me as if he was angry, gave the newspaper and got out.
After he left, I took the paper inside and looked at it alone.
Even though I don’t know to read letters, I can read numbers. But there were some letters before the numbers.
I checked the paper to see if the same letters appeared as it was in my ticket.
‘Oh my God! First two letters were same. Then same numbers Three…. Seven…. Zero…. One…. One…. Six’
Oh my God! Does it mean I have got one lac prize money? My dear God what would I do?
When he came back in the afternoon, I took the ticket to him, put it on his feet and started crying.
“The kid compelled me so much. So I bought the ticket for fun. I came to know only later that you hate gambling so much. I did not think much about this as I thought I would never get the prize. I even prayed to The God that I should not win the lottery. Now the whole thing has turned upside down. Please forgive and accept me” I cried out.
“Hey you have become a millionaire. Hats off! You have earned this without involving me. Why are you putting it under my feet and passing on the sin to me? I did not say for fun that I don’t need the lac of Rupees. I really don’t need it. My worry is there are not enough students to study the Vedas. The numbers are dwindling. We need ten more students. They should not come because of money or for money. You won’t understand this. I am a unjaviruthi Brahmin. My father, grandfather and many before them walked the same path. I am not qualified to be the husband of a millionaire. Nor do I have the status for it!” he kept his lecture on.
“Why are you disowning me? Tell me what should I do? I will do that. I did not expect this to happen. But it happened. Tell me what should I do now.” I kept asking him.
He laughed without any mercy.
At last he got up saying he was getting late for the Vedic School. But he kept laughing.
“It’s for you to decide if you want to use this lucky ticket. You will be photographed and you will be famous and you can live happily. But you should not say that you are my wife. You can tell this lie for your satisfaction. Or you can say, ‘I don’t want to get into this net of illusion and I don’t want it’ and tear the ticket and throw it. Yes, tear it off. Even if you give it to someone and take interest or just gratitude from them it still is a sin. Don’t give into this illusion and just tear it off. It’s for you to decide either way. Also you need to decide if it’s sin or a virtue. I am getting late.” He left after telling me this.
Tell me if this is possible for illiterates like me to decide?
He is greater than the lac of Rupees. I am not denying it. He always treated the money like dirt; he is a great man. He will not lack in anything if he continues to live by unjaviruthi. It’s a great honour to live as wife to such a great man.
I don’t know if money or virtue is greater. As they say money is not going to last forever, in the same token even the great men are not going to live forever. Life has to end.
Oh my God. It’s a sin even to think on those lines. But nowadays no woman jumps on the funeral pyre of their husbands and die. They continue to live. If such a thing happens to me how can I live?
I can’t do unjaviruthi. People will call me a beggar. The same people will curse the great man saying he has left me destitute.
He can tear off and throw the ticket. Can I afford to do it? He has left the choice also to me.
I am standing, holding the ticket in my hand. It feels heavy in my hand. Tell me what should I do?
Jayakanthan (24 April 1934 – 8 April 2015), popularly known as JK, was an Indian writer, journalist, orator, film-maker, critic and activist. Born in Cuddalore, he dropped out of school at an early age and went to Madras, where he joined the Communist Party of India. In a career spanning six decades, he authored around 40 novels, 200 short stories, apart from two autobiographies. Outside literature, he made two films. In addition, four of his other novels were adapted into films by others.
Jayakanthan’s literary honours include Jnanpith and Sahitya Akademi awards. He was also a recipient of Padma Bhushan (2009), India’s third-highest civilian honour, the Soviet Land Nehru Award (1978), and the Russian government’s Order of Friendship (2011).