"Papa, see what I have, it's so beautiful!" said Billu, my three-year-old son. In his tiny palm, he held a one-tola shiny brass weight, used by grocers in 1950s to weigh pricey commodities like saffron and cardamom. I was dumbstruck.
"But from where did you get this?" I asked. "I picked it up from the Sardarji's shop yesterday," he replied.
Yesterday, I had visited Sardar Sohan Singh's shop at Paharganj in Delhi to buy groceries. Billu was accompanying me to the shop for the first time and was thrilled to see massive trays laden with almonds, raisins, pistachios, cashews and dried figs. Sardarji was happy to see Billu dressed in a woollen jacket. He scooped a fistful of almonds and stuffed them into Billu's pockets.
I asked Billu, "Did Sardarji give you the weight?" "Oh, no," he replied, "Sardarji had many of them, so, I took one." True, Sardarji had an assortment of glittering weights on his table, in various denominations of mash, tola, chatak, pav and ser.
"Do you realise it is wrong to have taken this weight from the shop?" I asked my son. "But he had many of them. How does it matter if I take one," he replied. "It is wrong because it does not belong to us. When we go to a shop, we pay for what we take. These weights are not for sale," I explained to him.
"I will take my red marbles to Sardarji and offer him some," he replied. "No, this weight does not belong to us. We cannot keep it," I asserted.
That morning, instead of going to office, I took Billu to the shop. When we were inside the shop, I told him to return the weight. He took it out from his pocket and sheepishly placed it in Sardarji's large palm. Then he told Sardarji, "You had many shiny pieces. Therefore, I took the smallest. I wanted to give you some red marbles in exchange. But Papa says I am wrong. I am sorry."
Sardarji burst out laughing. "I did miss the weight yesterday and looked for it. Am delighted it is back." He was amused by Billu's story, picked him up, hugged him and again filled his pockets with almonds. As we left, he told Billu, "Bring the red marbles next time, I want to see them."
On the way home, it was Billu's turn to admonish me. "You made me go all the way to the shop early in the morning. My fingers are freezing in the cold. Sardarji was laughing. He gave me more almonds. Next time he wants to see the red marbles also. He is my friend." I reiterated that we should never take what does not belong to us.
A decade later, in 1962, after we moved to Mumbai, the secretary of the building we lived in called to tell me that they had identified the owner of the money Billu had found. "What money?" I asked. "Has your son not spoken to you?" he asked. "No" I replied, astonished.
When Billu, then 12, returned from school, I told him about the call. "A few days ago I found some currency notes in the compound. I gave them to the secretary to find the owner," he explained. "But why did you not bring the money to me to give to the secretary?" I asked. "But you had told me why take or bring home what does not belong to us. So I gave it to the secretary," he replied.
I was delighted that Billu remembered the lesson learnt at the age of three.
These days when I read about the scams, I am distressed. Those responsible for selling the national assets should ponder, "Why profit from what does not belong to us?" After all, coalmines are not the private property of a politician or a political party, but the wealth of the people of India.