The shining light of a toothbrush

For a little boy in a remote village on the border, it became a symbol of empowerment

September 01, 2019 12:05 am | Updated 12:05 am IST



When Aaditya, my son, was in primary school, we would have a big discussion every time he was invited to a birthday party. What gift to buy?

I would start by asking, “Why not gift her a toothbrush?” Aaditya would convey in all possible ways that he was shocked. He would beseech me to become serious and suggest something useful.

Experience had taught me that no suggestion from my side was welcome. He would have something in his mind and was merely expecting it to come out of my mouth. For him, the purpose of the gift was clear. It was something which he could play with or use whenever he visited that friend. It was not his concern if the gift was of any use to the recipient.

Years later, as an adult, he asked me one day, “ Appa , why did you always suggest a toothbrush for a birthday gift?”

“Because a toothbrush was a symbol of empowerment and success for a child many years ago,” I replied.

In one of the isolated forward areas that I had the opportunity to serve, there was nothing other than a cluster of 15 to 20 huts with 10 to 12 children. It was heartening to see that though most of the parents were barely literate, every child of school-going age was enrolled in a government school almost 5 km away. During my interaction with the elders, on learning about the difficulties faced by the schoolchildren in studies, I offered to help.

Most regular among the children who then started attending the “captain’s classes”, as they started calling it (I was then a Captain), was 10-year-old Robin. He was the most gifted of the lot.

Honestly, other than correct his English, I did not have to teach him much. His grades in school were satisfactory. All that I had to do was give him a boost of confidence and he began to sparkle. Soon, I started using him as a teacher for the younger children. This helped him blossom further and allowed the young ones to assimilate their lessons in their mother tongue.

A luxury

Robin had a disarming smile. He was never conscious of his stained teeth. When I commented on his dental hygiene, he became serious.

That is when I learnt that what we took for granted was then a luxury in those parts. I bought a toothbrush, toothpaste and a tongue cleaner for him. He was overjoyed.

He told me that he had seen them being used by someone in a nearby village and had always longed for these. On his request, I had to give him a demonstration on their use. I stressed on him the importance of oral hygiene. To say that he was thereafter imbued with new-found confidence would be an understatement.

One day, he confided in me in all seriousness and innocence, “Some day, I will go out from here and study in a big college. I want to bring prosperity to my village. After all, I am lucky to get an education. After all, I am lucky to be brushing my teeth.” That is when I realised how much the toothbrush meant for him.

Till the time I moved out from there, I would guide him on the path to follow to fulfil his dreams.

Then, I would receive letters from Robin every few months. It was easy to discern that he was making good scholastic progress.

One day, a few years later, when I was posted in Delhi, a strapping young lad walked into my office. Robin it was, the toothy smile gave him away, though he was quite tall and muscular now. He had got admission in one of the top colleges of the country, located in Delhi.

We talked about his younger days and about the “captain’s classes”. I teased him about the toothbrush. Suddenly, he became emotional. He said, “Uncle, for me it was no laughing matter. For me, the toothbrush was empowerment.”

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