If one were to ask me to mention one factor that has uniformly sustained my self-esteem in the latter part of my 65-odd years, I will unhesitatingly zero in on the love and regard that youngsters of all ages have always shown me. Academic, professional and literary achievements pale into insignificance before the delight my young friends have given me all these years.
Truth to tell, I have not always been that lucky with adults. There have been some who tried to interact with me on the basis of factors such as my complexion, quaint (according to them) dress sense or my bank balance.
By contrast, my younger friends have always been considerate (without showing condescension), smart (without being impertinent) and friendly (without acting too familiar). That day, I was stranded at a bus stop in Hyderabad. Due to a sudden cloudburst, the bus services got crippled and the rare autorickshaw that appeared got hired before I could approach it. Suddenly, a youngster stopped his two-wheeler in front of me and volunteered to drop me home. I conveyed my doubt to him, “Son, our destinations may be in totally different directions.” He dismissed my protest with, “Uncle, so what!” He nearly dragged me to his bike.
This boy (who on the way informed that his name was Omar Sharif) was a total stranger to me. Yet, he made it appear that he was not doing anything extraordinary. I haven’t met him again, but the memory of his selfless gesture lingers on.
The trait that I admire the most in my young friends is their ready wit. I recall a telephonic conversation I had with my granddaughter, Shivani, when she was just three years old. I asked her, “Honey, what are you doing at present?”
“Grandpa, at present I’m speaking to you,” came her precise response.
There is this boy, Navneet, just about 10 years old, who stays next to my house. I playfully address him as ‘monkey’. One day his cricket ball fell into my compound. He scaled the boundary wall to retrieve his item. I questioned him about the unusual mode of entry into my house. “Uncle, you keep on calling me a monkey. Therefore, I’m entering your house like one,” he responded in a matter-of-fact manner. He then revealed his impish nature by lobbing the ball high on to the balcony of another neighbour.
But then, there is much more to Navneet than boyish pranks. One day, in a rare display of love, I handed over a chocolate bar to him. He promptly broke this into pieces and shared with all his cronies (myself included). His unselfish nature totally stumped me. I have always heard him adding the suffix uncle/aunty even for persons like the building caretaker, domestic help, post man and autorickshaw drivers. It is such traits that enhance his lovability quotient.
One thing that continues to amaze (and amuse) me is that in all the places that I had stayed, children became possessive towards me. I spent a few years in Port Blair. While I resided in the officers’ mess, my colleagues stayed with their families in the official quarters. Occasionally, they would invite me to their homes. One day I noticed some children engaged in a verbal tiff. A little girl rushed up to me, grabbed my hand and challenged her rivals, “See; now I have my uncle on my side.” The other group was equally smart. It latched on to my other arm. Soon I was drawn into a tug of war, with both sides claiming ‘ownership rights’ over me. They seemed to have forgotten the issue over which they were squabbling in the first place. I wriggled out of the tangle by making a lofty statement, “Look here, children, I’m an uncle to all of you.”
My young friends are not only schoolchildren; some of them are in their mid-20s. Each one of them is a model of utmost decency, capable of coming up with heart-warming statements. I am particularly fond of Shekar, aged about 25 years. He runs a cyber café near my house. Once I decided to play the role of a benevolent uncle with him and handed over a Rs. 100 note as a gift. Out of regard for me, he took it. I asked him how he proposed to spend the amount, expecting to hear of a movie or a restaurant meal. But his response was: “Uncle, I will give the amount to the temple priest and seek his blessings for a happy married life for my younger sister.”
Today, in the twilight years of my life, I visualise myself like the central character in Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant. When I hear the neighbourhood children engaged in their noisy games, I recall the Giant’s remarks, “I have many pretty flowers in my garden, but the most beautiful ones are these children.”