Monday 15 October 2012

For Grandma's sake

Kushal and his friends were absorbed in animated conversation. Grandpa watched them intently from across the room. They did not notice when he quietly moved to a sofa close by.
“Aha! So they want to open a day school for little ones,” he nodded to himself approvingly.
Two of Kushal’s friends were young women, evidently very taken with the idea. The men in the group obviously could not quite see the point, Grandpa reckoned.
“Men will be men,” he groaned.
He became restless, and decided he needed tea. He walked to the kitchen and told the maid to prepare seven cups of tea.
She looked enquiringly at him, but he growled at her: “Do as I say.”
Grandpa returned to his sofa, and the steaming tea arrived soon after.
“Sorry, why not take a tea break?” Grandpa said loudly to no one in particular.
Kushal gave his grandfather an irritated look, but the two women squealed with delight and gladly picked up a cup each. The men followed suit reluctantly.
“I do apologize. I’m bad with names, you see,” Grandpa said.
The guests were quick to protest that it was perfectly fine. A fresh round of introductions followed, leaving Kushal a little red-faced.
“And you were talking about …?” Grandpa asked gently.
“It won’t interest you, Grandpa. It’s a business proposal,” Kushal said gruffly.
He was conveniently ignored.
Grandpa seemed to purr silkily as he addressed the women now. “So you young ladies are businesswomen, are you?”
“No, sir,” replied the younger of the two. “We are only trying to get into business.”
Now Grandpa was being openly inquisitive. “What kind, if I may ask?”
“Setting up a day school for the children of office-going parents.”
‘I see, a crèche, in other words.”
“No, Grandpa … um-m … may we call you Grandpa?” she asked absent-mindedly, and carried on regardless. “It’s not just for tiny tots. Parents who work late into the evening are worried about their children’s safety, whatever their age. Servants are no answer for nuclear families now, are they?”
“Exactly my point!” Grandpa exclaimed triumphantly.
Kushal was almost livid with his grandfather for hijacking their meeting like this.
“Allow us to carry on our discussion, please, Grandpa,” he urged, not too discreetly.
“No, no, this is my favourite subject. I’m going nowhere,” Grandpa announced grandly.
Kushal rolled his eyes helplessly, but the girls promptly flanked Grandpa.
“Let’s hear you on this,” they cajoled him.
The other three men too pulled their chairs into a circle around Grandpa, forcing Kushal to join in.
“Well, when Kushal was very young, his Grandma and I lived many miles away. We used to be very worried about how his parents were managing, since they are both practising doctors,” Grandpa began.
His story was engrossing, and the tea went cold.
A full-time manservant engaged from a remote tribal village was the doctor couple’s only back-up. On those rare days when he took leave, mostly Kushal’s mother would skip work to be with her son. Another child followed, and she had to run her practice part-time, from home. The manservant had left by then, and two part-time maids helped out.
There was no mobile phone or Internet connection those days, only STD calls made mostly from telephone booths.
Kushal’s father had taken an STD connection at home to stay in touch with his parents. There were times when Kushal’s mother had to make a short outdoor trip, and she would dial Grandpa, asking him to talk to Kushal till she returned.
Thumbs up, Grandma!
Digital sketch: Harjeet
Kushal’s friends gasped. STD calls in those days must have cost a bomb.
They did, indeed, but there was no question of hiring a baby sitter: The concept simply did not exist in those days, and anyway middle-class families could not have afforded them.
Such calls were not frequent, but they did show the dilemma of having to leave children unattended.
“Where is all this taking us, Grandpa?” Kushal asked.
“To the business plan that your Grandma and I drew up, to help just such couples,” responded Grandpa.
The grandparents, both retired educationists themselves, broached the subject with some friends of theirs, and found it to be a universal problem among working couples trying to bring up children all by themselves. They formed an elders’ forum. Living far away from their son so that their daughter could complete her medical studies, Kushal’s grandparents took solace in the fact that they might be able to assist other young parents.
They took up the matter with the mayor of the town. He spoke to some local schools but they were unable to help beyond school hours. 
A philanthropist came to know of their efforts. After a lengthy meeting, he offered to fund any viable project they proposed, including teaching equipment that some members favoured.
Grandma put her foot down at this stage. She opposed the idea of more schooling after school hours.
Their benefactor seemed to agree with her on this and other issues, such as an adjoining crèche so that mothers could be free for some time and where children could join their little siblings after school for a short while. No studies unless the kids themselves wanted them. So a glass-partitioned study was proposed, and approved.
“Let me recall … to run the project, we needed, and found, volunteers from many professions: a lawyer, a chartered accountant, a doctor, a retired colonel and at least four retired school teachers. There were others, but more of a reserve force, if you know what I mean,” Grandpa looked at the keen faces around him.
They shook their heads wonderingly.
“So you set up the project, Grandpa?” asked one.
“We could not find a suitably located building. See, we could not have afforded a bus, its maintenance, drivers’ salaries and so on. So parents would have had to take their kids home themselves. But, more than that …”
“Don’t say it never happened, please,” whispered Kushal.
“Indeed it did not. Our friendly financier suffered a setback and went broke in a matter of months. We were so dejected. Your Grandma says she still dreams of that project.” Grandpa took a deep breath.
A bespectacled young man rose from his chair. “With due respect, Grandpa, would you care to fulfill her dream now?”
“I’m an old man, child, but all of you have age and courage on your side. Do it if you want to,” he replied.
Kushal was quiet, but the others babbled on for some time. Grandpa was clearly overwhelmed.
After they left, Kushal sat down at his knee. “Would you like to see the project come through?” he asked.
“I don’t have the money, son,” Grandpa pointed out.
“But you have the vision. Grandpa, at our management school, we are encouraged to propose innovative projects. We have financiers. Some are angel investors, some venture capitalists. May I take it forward? For Grandma’s sake?” Kushal asked.
Grandpa gave a silent assent, his eyes misty.
Twelve months later, a decrepit building donated by the family of one of Kushal’s woman friends had been renovated and equipped with the necessary infrastructure. It also had a play pen, a gym, indoor basketball and table tennis courts, a kitchen and two cooks, three full-time attendants, and a bus and two drivers.
At the registration counter, Grandpa proudly put the honorary chairman’s seal on the first admission for the launch batch of 25 children, aged 4 years to 13.
He looked up to see his snowy-haired wife making a happy thumbs-up sign as the gathering broke into a thunderous applause.