Sudha Murty, chairperson, Infosys Foundation and author, is known for her ability to glean interesting stories from the lives of ordinary people and weave these narratives into a unique blend of anecdote and fable.
Her latest collection of stories, ‘The Day I Stopped Drinking Milk’, features a fascinating cast of characters, each of whom made an indelible impression on the author. Extracted here is a nugget ‘Bombay to Bangalore’, one of the most heartwarming stories in this collection:
It was the beginning of summer. I was boarding the Udyan Express at Gulbarga railway station. My destination was Bangalore. As I boarded the train, I saw that the second-class reserved compartment was jam-packed with people. I sat down and was pushed to the corner of the berth. Though it was meant for three people, there were already six of us sitting on it…
The ticket collector came in and started checking people’s tickets and reservations.. Suddenly, he looked in my direction and asked, “What about your ticket?” “I have already shown my ticket to you,” I said.
“Not you, madam, the girl hiding below your berth. Hey, come out, where is your ticket?” I realized that someone was sitting below my berth. When the collector yelled at her, the girl came out of hiding.
She was thin, dark, scared and looked like she had been crying profusely. She must have been about thirteen or fourteen years old. She had uncombed hair and was dressed in a torn skirt and blouse. She was trembling and folded both her hands… The collector started forcibly pulling her out from the compartment. Suddenly, I had a strange feeling. I stood up and called out to the collector. “Sir, I will pay for her ticket,” I said.
Then he looked at me and said, “Madam, if you give her ten rupees, she will be much happier with that than with the ticket.”
I did not listen to him. I told the collector to give me a ticket to the last destination, Bangalore, so that the girl could get down wherever she wanted.
Slowly, she started talking. She told me that her name was Chitra. She lived in a village near Bidar. Her father was a coolie and she had lost her mother at birth. Her father had remarried and had two sons with her stepmother. But a few months ago, her father had died. Her stepmother started beating her often and did not give her food. She was tired of that life. She did not have anybody to support her so she left home in search of something better.
By this time, the train had reached Bangalore. I said goodbye to Chitra and got down from the train. My driver came and picked up my bags. I felt someone watching me. When I turned back, Chitra was standing there and looking at me with sad eyes. But there was nothing more that I could do. I had paid her ticket out of compassion but I had never thought that she was going to be my responsibility…!
I told her to get into my car. My driver looked at the girl curiously. I told him to take us to my friend Ram’s place. Ram ran separate shelter homes for boys and girls. We at the Infosys Foundation supported him financially. I thought Chitra could stay there for some time and we could talk about her future after I came back from my tours.
I was not sure if Chitra would even be there. But to my surprise, I saw Chitra looking much happier than before. Ram suggested that Chitra could go to a high school nearby. I immediately agreed and said that I would sponsor her expenses as long as she continued to study. I left the shelter knowing that Chitra had found a home and a new direction in her life.
I got busier and my visits to the shelter reduced to once a year. But I always enquired about Chitra’s well-being over the phone. I knew that she was studying well and that her progress was good… I offered to sponsor her college studies if she wanted to continue studying. But she said, “No, Akka. I have talked to my friends and made up my mind. I would like to do my diploma in computer science so that I can immediately get a job after three years.” She wanted to become economically independent as soon as possible…
Chitra obtained her diploma with flying colours. She also got a job in a software company as an assistant testing engineer. When she got her first salary, she came to my office with a sari and a box of sweets.
One day, when I was in Delhi, I got a call from Chitra. She was very happy. “Akka, my company is sending me to USA! I wanted to meet you and take your blessings but you are not here in Bangalore.”
Years passed. Occasionally, I received an e-mail from Chitra. She was doing very well in her career. She was posted across several cities in USA and was enjoying life. I silently prayed that she should always be happy wherever she was.
Years later, I was invited to deliver a lecture in San Francisco for Kannada Koota, an organization where families who speak Kannada meet and organize events. The lecture was in a convention hall of a hotel and I decided to stay at the same hotel. After the lecture, I was planning to leave for the airport. When I checked out of the hotel room and went to the reception counter to pay the bill, the receptionist said, “Ma’am, you don’t need to pay us anything. The lady over there has already settled your bill. She must know you pretty well.” I turned around and found Chitra there.
She was standing with a young white man and wore a beautiful sari. She was looking very pretty with short hair. Her dark eyes were beaming with happiness and pride. As soon as she saw me, she gave me a brilliant smile, hugged me and touched my feet. I was overwhelmed with joy and did not know what to say. I was very happy to see the way things had turned out for Chitra. But I came back to my original question. “Chitra, why did you pay my hotel bill? That is not right.”
Suddenly sobbing, she hugged me and said, “Because you paid for my ticket from Bombay to Bangalore!”
(Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India from Sudha Murty’s ‘The Day I Stopped Drinking Milk: Life Stories From Here and There’)