I have a colleague who always gets unfair treatment.
The guards at the office gate salute him (the only other people the guards salute are the ones who are ‘powerful’ enough to decide the guards’ fate). When there is no queue, the cashier at the staff canteen attends to him first even if there are other people surrounding the desk, thrusting money into his face asking for a chicken thaali or an extra paneer dish. In restaurants, the waiter is always extra nice to him, making sure that his biryani chicken matches his exact specifications. The peons in the office take extra care of him. A bike mechanic that he know, who does’t ordinarily go to customers’ houses to pick up bikes for repair because he has a garage of his own, lands on my doorstep 20 kilometres away, purely because this colleague requested him to.
Such behaviour by people, in a world where we have stopped bothering about each other, much less for people who don’t stay with us in the same house, surprises me.
The other day, because we usually have our lunch together, I was looking for him and found out that he wasn’t in yet. I called him and learnt that he was at a hospital, attending to his security guard’s mother (or father, I can’t remember correctly now)!
That partly explained the “unfair” treatment.
Long back, I had read an article by Subroto Bagchi on how he was surprised to see the behaviour of today’s kids towards their maids or drivers; how the kids think it’s okay to call a driver by name even if he is older than their father. For many others (which includes most of us), these people don’t matter. The guard, the housemaid, the presswallah, the newspaper vendor, the shopkeeper, the taxi driver, the waiter, the sweeper in office, the janitor, the golden boy, the peon, the electrician or the repair mechanic.
We all have a housemaid, but we don’t know how her own house looks like. How many mouths she feeds. We readily notice the driver leaving a speck of dust on the car, but never bother to find out how many kids he has and where they study. Or what career he has chosen for them. We never attempt to thank the uniformed sweeper who silently wipes the dust from under our chairs. We speak to them strictly on need basis, especially when we think they didn’t do their job properly. We become MBAs, run HR of large organisations and forget to apply the basic laws of human motivation in our own lives.
We feign the lack of time. But we all know better.
On a different day, we were passing over the Howrah bridge in the ubiquitous, ageing, yellow Kolkattan taxi. The driver was clearly a Bihari, a rough fellow, not just in the way he drove, but also in the way he spoke. This colleague struck a conversation with him as he does with all taxi drivers. He asked the driver about where he stayed, how many stay in the room, how he managed to eat and how much he saved every month, how often he went home, whether he had a wife and kid. The driver spoke to us about the challenges of the big city, sharing a small room with 4 others and hardly getting time to go home to Bihar. He was married with a kid, but couldn’t afford to rent a separate space for them.
After a while, I saw his tone change, and there was a perceptible pain in his voice. When we got down, he took out our luggage happily and, unusually, moved them to the doorstep of the house we were visiting. “No one talked to me like that” he said before disappearing into his rickety Ambassador.
The doorbell rings. It is our maid who is late, again, after three days of leave. My wife is slightly irritated.
“Can’t you come early? You know pretty well what time the kid goes to school,” wife says.
“I know. But can’t help. You think I don’t feel bad to trouble you like this? But mama (she doesn’t call my wife madam, or didi, but mama, which is entirely out of affection and very unusual) I am helpless. I don’t get an auto so early and my husband just lost his job as your society’s security guard . I used to come with him on his bicycle,” she answers. She then hands over a bag to my wife. “I have got some vegetables for you from village and sweets for your kid. I know he likes these.”
It is her last working day with us, because we badly needed someone who could come early. She finishes her work and cries when I give her the last salary. I surprisingly have tears in my eyes, but feel very awkward to let her see it.
“I didn’t work for you. That’s how I feel. You were part of my family” she says between sobs.
My wife accompanies her to the door where she says many things about how she thought she was cleaning her own house and how for once she hadn’t been reprimanded or misbehaved.
I reach office early that day.
There is a knock on the door. The sweeper comes in. His lips are stained red with paan with dark crease lines radiating from the lip joint. He briefly looks up at me and sees me smiling at him.
“You are good?” I ask.
He nods his head and gets busy with his work. I see his demeanor change slightly and he begins to wipe the floor with extra care, moving every chair, reaching every small corner. In his enthusiasm, his mop hits my shoe and smears it with a mixture of dust, water and floor cleaner.
He suddenly, almost unexpectedly, bends down to touch my feet. “Please forgive me sir. I did a mistake.”
I jerk myself up from the chair and move away. “What are you doing? This is not needed.”
He only nods his head to display his acquiescence and gets busy again. I switch on my speakers that start playing a music from the 90s. It lifts my mood and when he looks at me after a while, I smile back at him.
“Are you always this happy sir?” he asks autonomously, in a departure from his usual mute rendezvous with me.
I did not expect such as question from him. I think for a while and say “At least I try to be”.
Somewhere between these moments it begins to occur to me if there is one investment whose returns are always many times the investment itself, it is Love. It can’t be anything else. And that staying happy has a lot of do with how happy others are to see you.