Tracing family history is a pastime that has become a passion for a number of people. The stories that emerge are riveting. One of the patterns that appears with crystal clarity is the material changes and physical comforts that the second and third generation have compared to the first. And, how these changes shape who we become.
I was corresponding with a friend about something similar. Yoo-mi is trying to capture the stories and memories of her father’s life (see: http://yoomilee.wordpress.com/2010/04/07/capturing-my-fathers-stories/). The arch of her father’s story in many ways reminded me of my grandfather. He grew up in a village in South India. A farmer’s son, the oldest of 11 siblings. Of 11, only three received a higher education. My grandfather educated and looked after them all. An enthusiastic participant in the national struggle for freedom from the British, he was jailed at the age of sixteen.
Family lore has it that in jail, he was sent for by Madan Mohan Malaviya, one of India’s great leaders during the freedom movement. Malaviyaji was looking for a Brahmin boy to cook and clean for him in jail, and my grandfather fit the bill. In the days they spent together Malaviyaji realized my grandfather’s thirst for learning and said to him, “I plan to set up a college in Benares. You come and study there.” Sure enough, a few years later, Malaviyaji founded BHU, and my grandfather got his first leg-up in the world of education.
The story gets better and better from there, but let us hit the pause button for a moment. Let us move to the Aravind founders. Their lives too follow a similar arch of moving from village to urban cities for education. Their stories are of childhoods that had close to no luxuries (what we today might even label as ‘necessities’). They follow the eldest brother, Dr.V in his dream of serving the poor, and set up an 11-bed eye clinic. By forsaking private practice of their own, they were clearly going to make very little money for years to come. The story that most vividly comes to mind is when Dr.Nam and Dr.Natchiar are in their late 20s. On Saturday afternoons, after a week’s worth of operating on patients at Aravind, Dr.Nam would take a bus and then a taxi to operate at two other hospitals in the foothills near Ooty. This earned them Rs.350. The journey was more than 8 hours long and he did this not once, not for a few months, but for ten years. Ten years for what today is easily spent in one afternoon at the movies.
The hardships faced by Yoo-mi’s father, (who built new beginnings on three continents), my grandfather, and the Aravind founders were incredible. I use that word deliberately: ‘incredible’ as in ‘hard to believe’ or ‘so extraordinary as to seem impossible’. We understand their stories, we know words like: hunger, hardship and difficult times. But the comprehension of it is almost off the radar of our experience.
All of us have experienced craving for things that we cannot afford. Some of us have been through hardships of a personal nature. We have even experienced working very hard at a job to earn money for family responsibilities. Or, as a young student, struggled to gather enough money to buy a ticket to go home. But how many of our generation know what it is to work seven days a week, ten to twelve hours a day, week after week for decades? To not go on a holiday for thirty or forty years? How many of us know what it is to live on two sets of clothes, having to wash out one set so it dries in time to wear the day after? How many of us have risked our lives for something far, far greater than ourselves, like fighting for freedom?
Take apart these stories. Choose one part of their lives. Even that one part in the lives of our elders seems like more than we could handle in a lifetime.