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The Old Man and his God

The Old Man and His God is a simply-told collection of snapshots of humanity's varied facets.

india Updated: Feb 03, 2006 17:38 IST

The Old Man and His God
by Sudha Murty
Penguin Books India
Pages: 131
Price: Rs 150.00
ISBN: 0-14-400101-2

‘People often ask me how it is that so many interesting things happen only to me. To them I reply that in life’s journey we all meet strange people and undergo many experiences that touch us and sometimes even change us. If you have a sensitive mind and record your observations regularly, you will see your life too is a vast storehouse of stories.’

As she goes about her work with the villagers, slum-dwellers and the common men and women of India Sudha Murty, writer, social worker and teacher, listens to them and records what they have to say. Their accounts of the struggles and hardships which they have at times overcome, and at other times been overwhelmed by, are put together in this book. A blind old man in a little Shiva temple offers the author shelter and peace in the midst of a storm and emerges as the most generous, unselfish soul she has ever met. A little stone bench under a banyan tree in a village in Karnataka is the perfect place for travellers to rest and forget their burdens for a while as they chat with the man sitting there patiently listening to them, a better counsellor than one can find anywhere in the city.

There are stories about people’s generosity—and selfishness—in times of natural disasters like the tsunami; women struggling to speak out in a world that refuses to listen to them and tales of young professionals trying to find their feet as they climb up the corporate ladder.

Told simply and directly from the heart, The Old Man and His God is a collection of snapshots of the varied facets of human nature and a mirror to the souls of the people of India.

Here is an excerpt from the eponymous chapter:

A few years back, I was travelling in the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu. It was getting dark, and due to a depression over the Bay of Bengal, it was raining heavily. The roads were overflowing with water and my driver stopped the car near a village. ‘There is no way we can proceed further in this rain,’ said the driver. ‘Why don’t you look for shelter somewhere nearby rather than sit in the car?’

Stranded in an unknown place among unknown people, I was a bit worried. Nevertheless, I retrieved my umbrella and marched out into the pelting rain. I started walking towards the tiny village, whose name I cannot recall now. There was no electricity and it was a trial walking in the darkness and the rain. In the distance I could just make out the shape of a small temple. I decided it would be an ideal place to take shelter, so I made my way to it. Halfway there, the rain started coming down even more fiercely and the strong wind blew my umbrella away, leaving me completely drenched. I reached the temple soaking wet. As soon as I entered, I heard an elderly person’s voice calling out to me. Though I cannot speak Tamil, I could make out the concern in the voice. In the course of my travels, I have come to realize that voices from the heat can be understood irrespective of the language they speak.

I peered into the darkness of the temple and saw an old man of about eighty. Standing next to him was an equally old lady in a traditional nine-yard cotton sari. She said something to him and then approached me with a worn and clean towel in her hand. As I wiped my face and head I noticed that the man was blind. It was obvious from their surroundings that they were very poor. The Shiva temple, where I now stood, was simple with the minimum of ostentation in its decorations. The Shivalinga was bare except for a bilwa leaf on top. The only light came from a single oil lamp. In that flickering light a sense of calm overcame me and I felt myself closer to god than ever before.

In halting Tamil, I asked the man to perform the evening mangalratri, which he did with love and dedication. When he finished, I placed a hundred-rupee note as the dakshina.

He touched the note and pulled away his hand, looking uncomfortable. Politely he said, ‘Amma, I can make out that the note is not for ten rupees, the most we receive. Whoever you may be, in a temple, your devotion is important, not your money. Even our ancestors have said that a devotee should give as much as he or she can afford to. To me you are a devotee of Shiva, like everyone else who comes here. Please take back this money.’

I was taken aback. I did not know how to react. I looked at the man’s wife expecting her to argue with him and urge him to take the money, but she just stood quietly. Often, in many households, a wife encourages the man’s greediness. Here, it was the opposite. She was endorsing her husband’s views. So I sat down with them, and with the wind and rain whipping up a frenzy outside, we talked about our lives. I asked them about themselves, their life in the village temple and whether they had anyone to look after them.

Finally, I said, ‘Both of you are old. You don’t have any children to look after your everyday needs. In old age one requires more medicines than groceries. This village is far away from any of the towns in the district. Can I suggest something to you?’

At that time, we have started an old-age pension scheme and I thought, looking at their worn-out but clean clothes, they would be ideal candidates for it.

This time the wife spoke up, ‘Please do tell, child.’

‘I will send you some money. Keep it in a nationalized bank or post office. The interest on that can be used for your monthly needs. If there is a medical emergency you can use the capital.’

The old man smiled on hearing my words and his face lit up brighter than the lamp.

‘You sound much younger than us. You are still foolish. Why do I need money in this great old age? Lord Shiva is also known as Vaidyanathan. He is the Mahavaidya, or great doctor. This village we live in has many kind people. I perform the pooja and they give me rice in return. If either of us is unwell, the local doctor gives us medicines. Our wants are very few. Why would I accept money from an unknown person? If I keep this money in the bank, like you are telling me to, someone will come to know and may harass us. Why should I take on these worries? You are a kind person to offer help to two unknown old people. But we are content; let us live as we always have. We don’t need anything more.’

First Published: Feb 03, 2006 13:57 IST