A student friend messaged me saying, “Sir I am reading Gandhiji’s autobiography.” My reply read, “May be this will change your views about the great man.”
Within a few seconds my mind went to my personal copy of Gandhiji’s autobiography. My mind opened the cover page of my copy and I could see, through my mind’s eye, written on the first page of my copy, in a red ink, ‘Wishing you a happy birthday. With love- Gangadhar E. Naik’ dated 30 March 1998.
Year 1997-98. We were in class 8 and during the second half of the academic year there were a bunch of B.Ed. trainees who came to our school to teach us for a couple of months as a part of their training. I faintly remember that there was someone to teach Science for our class. Or was it Mathematics? I don’t remember. But I remember, very well remember, Gangadhar E. Naik teaching the students of our class who had opted for Kannada as first language. I had opted for Sanskrit and never got to attend the classes of Gangadhar E. Naik. But he was quite popular among the students who had opted Kannada as their first language. We, the students of Sanksrit, heard a lot about this man and his classes. Not that his classes were excellent or extraordinary but that he was a very very friendly man. So we named him Gangu like we would have a shorter version for any of our friends. Then on, among our friends, we would refer to him as Gangu Sir.
Though he never took classes for us, he knew all our names and would also talk to us whenever we crossed paths. Once as were walking near the staff room he called my friend (Preetham, if am not wrong) and me. When we entered he asked, “So, you have renamed me?” We got scared. Thinking that he would complain about it to our teachers we started giving explanations and justifying ourselves. I remember saying, “Sir, people call me Sammu so I thought Gangu and Sammu would rhyme so we just referred to you so once. Not more than once Sir.” He just said, “I like the name and I felt happy that you thought I was so close to you all that you could rename me.” Then I remember having walked out of the staff room with the pride that I had managed to escape and that I had fooled someone with my answer.
With passing days Gangu Sir got close to few of us. He also started calling me Sammu, as I in my defence, had told him about the rhyming scheme. Being friendly with students was quite revolutionary on our school where teachers were not just strict but also spied on the students. His friendly approach was welcomed by all of us. We enjoyed his company and he enjoyed ours. After a couple of months he had to leave. He left. Though Ganu Sir’s training in our school was over he was still in Udupi. He would call some of us, including me, once a week asking how we were. Once when he had called me I told him that it was my birthday the following day and asked him to come home. He gifted me with Gandhiji’s autobiography.
That evening while talking to my parents he said he loved his time in our school especially because the students were lovely and also said that he had got very attached to all of us. In the same conversation he had also said where his room in Udupi was. I made a note of it mentally and decided to pay a surprise visit. When I gave a surprise visit he was extremely happy. He was sitting and writing a letter to someone in his room when I entered his room which had doors kept open. I told him that I too wrote letters to my cousins. That is when we had decided to exchange letters after he left Udupi.
He was in Hassan for sometime. Then in Madhya Pradesh for sometime. Wherever he was he wrote letters and also called occasionally. There were times when he would call and say, “It is so boring here. No friends. So called you.” I was quite young, I guess, to understand what it means to feel alienated and not connected to the world in which you reside. Whenever he called he would speak for hours together. We friends would tell each other that Gangu Sir had called and everyone had the same ‘complaint’ that he spoke for long and that it irritated our parents. Slowly some started avoiding him. But he and I continued to speak for hours and write letters to each other. He would ask me why others were not talking to him properly and the easiest answer I had with me was, “Sir they are all doing either medicine or engineering those courses demand too much of study. May be that is why…” and he would agree with me. This was years after he had come to our school as a part of training.
In the year 2004 October I had been to Heggodu for the yearly culture course. That was my first visit to Heggodu. One day after the morning first session was over, we all came out for a cup of tea and a friend of mine said, “Samvartha someone has come in search of you.” I was shocked. Who would come in search of me in Heggodu? That too when I myself am new to the place. I asked my friend, “Who is it?” and he pointed his finger towards a man. I look in that direction and there stood Gangu Sir.
I ran to him feeling glad to see a familiar human in a new place. I asked him if he was a part of the course. He said, “No. I had called your place last evening to tell you that I have come to Siddapura (his village). That is when your sister informed me that you are here. I felt very happy because Heggodu is close to Siddapura and I can meet you. He insisted we go to Sagara on his bike. I agreed and sat on his bike. On the way I asked him how far is Siddapura from Heggodu. “Around 40 kilometers,” he said. I was shocked!!! Gangu Sir, who was my teacher during my high school, would travel 40 kms on his bike just to meet me. I was deeply moved. Who was I? Why did I mean so much to him? I dint know. I realized that he was a very emotional man and remembered his words to my dad saying he got very attached to all of us.
He took me to a very good restaurant in Sagara. We were having food and talking. That day in our conversation he said, “Sammu, you shouldn’t grow up. Though you have grown up you are still the same high school going Samvartha to me. As one grows he loses his innocence. That pains. You all got so close to my heart those days was because while I was seeing a different kind of world filled with selfishness and cut throat competition I got to spend time with you all and you all were so innocent and uncorrupt. You all were like fresh breeze. You all mean so much to me because in your company I can still see humanity surviving somewhere.” Though I did not understand every word he said that day, I remember every word, to this day. I had understood that he was referring to the elderly world as corrupt and children as innocents. But slowly I understood why the man was so emotional about all of us, why he would speak to us for hours over the phone, why he would write lengthy letters to us saying there are no friends and why he would travel 40 kms on his bike just to meet me for a couple of hours.
I understood this even the more when I entered the world of selfishness and cut throat competition. I remember the day I completed my masters degree I had messaged Kinnari madam saying I am done with my exams. He reply was, “Welcome to the big bad dirty world.” It dint take much of a time to realize how bad and dirty the world is. But thankfully my first job was of a teacher and I got to interact closely with students who were just out of school, with still some innocence left in them. As and when I started spending more time with my students just because it was more comfortable and energizing being with the still not corrupted minds, I remembered Gangu Sir a lot and his words in Sagara. I too started wishing that my students would never grow up.
While I was doing my masters I got too involved with my course and my institutions. I forgot many friends and also my family. Gangu also disappeared slowly. During my third sem, while I was interning in Bangalore, I was terribly hurt by a friend and was walking on the streets of Bangalore all alone. My cel phone rang. It read ‘Gangu’. I cut the call. He called again. I cut the call again. He called again and again. I cut the call again and again. That was it. He never called me again. That was 2007 December.
In my melancholic mood I did not realize how rude it was on my part to repeatedly cut the calls of a man who was so emotionally attached to me. I thought my pain was larger than the universe. Probably that hurt him. He never called. Later when I remembered him very much as and when I was getting attached to my students, I thought of calling him several times. But I did not have the moral courage to call him for I knew that I was unnecessarily rude to him and had hurt him. I remained silent and the silence continued. I felt guilty. But there was no way that I could cleanse my sin.
Years passed. I left Manipal, went to Mangalore. Left Mangalore came to Delhi. Now even Delhi is also almost done. Wher is Gangu? How is he? Sadly, I think, against his wish, I too grew up and became a part of the selfish world to think that my pain was larger than the heart of the man who would travel 40 kms on the bike just to meet me for a couple of hours. I had disrespected his emotions. I had disrespected him too, through my rude behavior. I had misbehaved with the man who was in our school for just two months but never taught me yet got emotionally attached to me crossing the unseen ocean that flows between students and teachers in that school, who saw me as a friend leaving aside the fact that officially he and I shared a teacher-student relationship. I had hurt him. I was guilty. But the river kept flowing. I would remember him once in a while and tell myself- That was bad of you Samvartha. You shouldn’t have done so.
Two days ago somehow I remembered Gangu a lot. I was still awake at 00:30 hours in the night. I decided to break the silence. I checked if I had his number on my phone. Yes I had his number. I sent me a message at the ungodly hour saying, “Greetings to Gangu Sir. Remembering you. Hope you are doing good” and did not reveal my identity, even while knowing that he doesn’t have my Delhi phone number, just because of my guilt which was pricking me as intensely as I was remembering him. After some good twenty minutes his reply landed. “May I know who is this? I have a feeling that it is Samvartha”. My eyes had mist on them. I said “Yes, it is Samvartha” and within a minute he replied “I wont ask how you are for I know you would be doing well in life. How are your parents? Where are you these days? Doing what? It has been so long Sammu.” The moment I read him referring to me as Sammu tears broke open through my eyes.
Gangu promised me to call yesterday. I was waiting. He did not. I thought of calling him, several times. But my guilt was something that stopped me even after the messages that we exchanged. Will Gangu call me? I don’t know. Will I be able to call him? For that I should be able to forgive myself. Can I ever? I don’t know.
A very unusual broad smile appeared on his face as I held his hand to thank him. Rough hands. Hard work turned them rough. The unusual broad smile had appeared just a few minutes ago when I asked him if I could get myself photographed with him. That was the first time I saw that broad smile on his face.
For long I thought he was a very rough man, like his hands. Yes, I had thought that he was a serious and rough person. Those were initial days. Regular visits made me realize that he was not as rough as I thought he was. Though he and his eyes never smiled he was not a hot iron rod. There was warmth in him, I learnt soon, like there was warmth in that final shake hand, today.
Today I travelled for over 40 minutes just to meet him and have the tea that he prepares. Never had I forgotten the tea that I had in his stall nor can I ever forget. So, when my days in Delhi are coming to an end, I had to go meet him and have the tea that he prepares. Today was the day.
Its not my greatness that I went all the way to meet Verma Ji. It is the greatness of Verma Ji and his chai which pulled me all the way from Jamia Nagar, where we stay now, to Patparganj, where we stayed earlier.
In the Patparganj area of Delhi if you get down at Balco stop, right next to the Balco market right in front of the Mother Diary milk booth, across the road, sits Verma Ji, in white kurta and payjama. He works from 7:00 to 20:00 hrs, which is almost 13 hours a day. He sits with a hand pump kerosene stove, some utensils, sugar can, milk can, water can and a box of tea powder other than two tin boxes containing some fried items. No shelter. The branches of the tree make the roof for his shop. But still one would always feel at home there.
For long I did not know what his name was. Once I overheard someone referring to him as Sharma ji. But later I realized that I had heard it wrong. He was not Sharma Ji but Verma Ji.
Verma Ji, a man of less words hardly smiled, though he was warm to all his customers. This I realized when I saw him give tea to some rickshaw fellows, who he was familiar with, for free when they did not have money in their pockets (In all possibilities they paid him once they had money in their pocket) My talks with him were restricted to “Ek Chai, bade cup mein” (one tea, in a big cup) and “Kitna hua?” (How much?) and his talks with me nothing beyond “Chaar” or whatever the cost was and “Kulle nahi hai kya?” (Don’t you have change on you?)
As I got familiar with him, slowly, it appears he too got familiar with me. Since then the moment I went and stood near his stall he would serve me with a cup of tea and there was no need for me to place an order. Once he stopped while pouring tea into a cup for me. I did not realize why he stopped. Then I saw him stretch his hand for a big cup. That is when I realized that he was pouring tea into a small cup, which would never be sufficient for a tea addict like me. He too had realized it after he poured half of the small cup. But he had realized without me telling him. An unspoken understanding and bonding had woven us together by then, though we never exchanged much words.
Yes, for reasons unknown I had an emotional bonding with him. Once, I remember, he was not to be seen for a few days. those days more than the tea I was missing Verma Ji. His absence was felt. Very much.
Verma Ji would utter unforgettable words whenever he spoke. Shaaz, my friend, once narrated one of his experience with Verma Ji, when he was in Delhi. Then, the cost of one tea was four rupees. Having a cup of tea Shaaz took out a five rupee coin from his pocket gave it to Verma Ji, who gave him a fried item, costing one rupee, in place of one rupee, as he did not have a one rupee coin, at that point of time. Shaaz was in no mood for a fried item. Refusing to take the fried item Shaaz said, “aap rakh lijiye ek rupai.” (You keep the one rupee with you). “Verrma Ji got annoyed when I said that,” Shaaz explained and recollected Verma Ji saying, “Dekho hum mehanat se kamaatey hai. Muft mein kisi se paisa nahi letey.” (Listen, I work hard to earn. I do not take money from anyone for which I have not toiled) Remembering this episode Shaaz had told me, “Sam Sir, I like Verma Ji a lot.” Undoubtedly Verma Ji is a very lovable man.
The most memorable moment with Verma Ji was during the winter of 2010. A man came to him and asked for water. Pointing the water can kept on his left side Verma Ji suggested, through his gesture- drink from it. As the man was drinking water Verma Ji said, “Main do cheezein kabhi nahi bechunga. Paani aur roti. Zindagi banti hai inn do cheezon se.” (I will never sell two things. Water and Roti for life stands on these two things) Faizan and I had our jaws dropped and eyebrows rose when Verma Ji uttered those words.
Verma Ji was an unusual business man. He, as he himself said, would never make money by selling the two most essential elements of life- water and roti. He would also add some ingredient with medicinal quality, during winters, which would help his customers sustain health in the extreme cold. As said earlier, he would serve free tea to some of his rickshaw friends in case they did not have money. He would shout at them saying how one should live with self respect without asking anyone for anything but would make sure they would not just have lectures from him but also a cup of tea, served with love.
Today when we went to Verma Ji almost after a year, nothing had changed. He was washing the utensil, before going to prepare the next round of tea, wearing his white kurta and payjaama. The moment we asked for tea, he took out big cups and served us with tea. When I extended my cup asking for more tea he said, while pouring tea to the cup, “Bade dino baad aaye” (I am seeing you after a long time) We explained that we do not stay in Patparganj these days and told him that we had come all the way just to have tea at his stall. There was no reaction on his face. No shine in his eyes no sense of pride. He remained calm, composed and serious, as always.
But when I asked him if I could get myself photographed with him there appeared a broad smile on his face and his eyes smiled too. He asked me to sit on the small chair on which he sits while preparing tea. We both shared that small chair. I felt proud, for some unknown reason, when I shared the chair with him. He smiled again, when I shook hands with him.
I may or may not remember Delhi with all my heart. But whenever I remember Delhi I will remember Verma Ji with all my heart.