Remember, Remember: The Ninth of November, and more

Every cloud has a silver lining, as this old man's deed proved.

Sunanda Satwah,By Sunanda Satwah, Kalpana Raman Updated: Nov 5, 2018 16:12:52 IST
Illustration by Anirban Ghosh

On 9 November 2016, most of India was reeling under the overnight demonetization of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes. The closure of banks and ATMs across the nation only added to the public's woes. The day was witness to many heart-wrenching and heart-warming stories.

That day, I remember standing in front of a pharmacy in Mumbai and counting the last few valid notes in my purse. I wanted to make sure I had enough to pay for the insulin injection I was about to buy. Suddenly, I noticed a woman approach the counter. She wore a simple sari and looked wan and exhausted, like she had been running around in the sun for a long time. It wasn't hard to guess that she was an ordinary, working-class woman.

She handed a prescription to the pharmacist and asked, in Marathi, "Brother, could you give me these medicines, please?" After a pause, she meekly ventured, "Um, could I pay you later? Say in two or three days?" The pharmacist, who was packing her medicines into a white polythene bag, stopped. The harassed woman looked at him with pleading eyes, one hand resting on the pharmacy counter, the other clenching the sari pallu tightly. "My son is burning with fever. No one is buying my plastic toys today. Please could you help me, brother? It's just until the banks reopen and I can exchange the old Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes I have," she said.

She even showed him the two 500-rupee notes she was carrying to prove her point. "I am not asking you to give me the medicines for free; a loan is all I'm asking for. I will pay you as soon as I can," she pleaded. But this was a privately owned drugstore and the pharmacist was reluctant to take the now illegal tender. He quickly picked up the bag of medicines he had just assembled from the counter and dumped it back in a drawer, without a word. He then turned his back to the woman and got busy with some work. The woman bit her lower lip. The pharmacist's gesture was a clear, resounding 'no'.

The woman tried once more. She explained that she was a street vendor and not a beggar; she would surely return the money as soon as possible. Tears shimmered in her eyes with diminishing hope and her voice was choked with emotion. I admit I was reluctant to part with the little change I had. The pharmacist had probably refused enough people since morning; he didn't flinch while turning her away.

While this played out, an elderly Sikh gentleman, probably in his late 70s, stood by, silently observing the woman. He was a tall man, dressed in a white kurta-pyjama. He sported a white turban and a flowing, long beard. He had a gravelly but soft voice, and eyes that crinkled with kindness as he spoke to the woman-he called her "tiye", which means daughter in Punjabi. "How much money are you short of?" he asked. She wasn't sure.

He then turned to the pharmacist and asked him how much her medicines cost. After a quick calculation the pharmacist told him the total bill was Rs 625. The gentleman handed over his credit card to the shopkeeper and asked him for the bag of medicines. Handing it over to the woman, he said to her, "By God's grace, may your son recover soon."

The kind gentleman put away his credit card and was about to leave when the woman folded her hands in a namaskar, thanked him profusely and offered to repay the loan the following week at the same place. With the wave of an arm and a warm smile, he brushed aside her offer. He then walked away saying, "I was headed towards the gurdwara, but now I can go back home."

The Honest Heart

In 2008 my father worked for the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India's external intelligence agency. He was a senior officer posted in the Delhi headquarters of the organization. At RAW, keeping one's identity confidential is crucial to the job. Dad insisted on commuting daily on his scooter, in spite of the accidents he had had in the past. He refused to use a car, for reasons best known to him.

One day when he returned home from work, he was shocked to discover that his office bag was missing. We wondered if it might have fallen off the wretched scooter on his way home. Even though we looked high and low, retracing his steps, it could not be located. My parents started panicking. Dad's identity card, other classified documents, credit cards and driving licence were all in that bag.

My father was in tears: His identity theft could mean termination from service and even a possible jail term, not to mention the loss of his pension benefits. We were baffled about what to do next. As we sat contemplating the ramifications, the telephone rang. The caller seemed to be a stranger. Turns out, he was an autorickshaw driver who had seen Dad's bag fall out of his vehicle near a traffic signal at Lodhi Road [in central Delhi] and picked it up. He had found my father's contact details in his wallet and called the number. We could not believe our luck!

When Dad met the kind man, he handed the bag to him and asked him to check if anything was missing. Dad did so immediately and found everything intact. Overwhelmed by this gesture, my father thanked his well-wisher and handed him Rs 500 as a token of his appreciation. We were all struck by the auto driver's honesty and thoughtfulness. He made us believe, once again, in the goodness of people in these very trying times.

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