Education and humility – The Hindu

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A tendency is observed among the literate, at least in the weakest moments, to despise people who are barely literate or who have only a basic education.

Could this condescension not be tempered by a certain humility considering that such people could also have gifts, sometimes refused to the more educated? Not necessarily a talent in the arts or sciences, but one that comes into play on a daily basis. Like memory or a sense of discretion.

The moment of humility came for my engineering school mates and I on our very first day on campus. In the 1960s, with only half a dozen engineering colleges in Madras state, we perhaps felt entitled to a sense of superiority. The moment has come in the form of a 40-year-old, short, stocky, dhoti-clad with a towel over his shoulder and simply known as Seenu.

The hostel office gave us a piece of paper with our name on it to be given to Seenu in the hostel mess. He took the paper, glanced at it, looked up at us, crumpled the paper and that was it. We were admitted to the mess. For the next five years, he will remember us by name and face. The paper was our passport for the food for the duration of our stay.

He ran the brothel, with the exception of the kitchen which, combined with his extraordinary memory, had made him a legend. The vegetarian mess was known simply as the Seenu mess. He kept a count of the numbers at each mealtime as well as additional servings ordered and all guests brought in, both paying. Never embarrassing the students as he approached them, he stood discreetly in a dark corner, a notepad in his left hand and a sharp pencil behind his right ear. His eagle eye wouldn’t miss a thing, even at the 60-foot length of the mess. Notes were taken discreetly and would be reflected in the monthly mess bill. There would be no revenue leakage.

It was a remarkable display of dynamic memory with one batch fading away each year and a new one arriving a bit later. Spellings, initials, father’s name in case of similarity, unknown names were all meticulously remembered. And, we were a few hundred students at one point!

He also had a human side – offering an elder brotherly shoulder on which to mourn the expense of the country or the boys who had suffered family bereavement. In addition, he distributed home remedies with cooking ingredients to sick boys on demand.

It would continue to amaze us 40 years later when a few of us visited campus. As expected, he came from his village at our request. Eighty plus and clearly having fallen on hard times but with his memory intact, he remembered most of us and even some by name. With some initial hesitation and his eyes wet, he accepted the collection we had made. It was a poignant reunion.

The postman was no less a man of memory. He had recipients outside the hostel and only saw us on certain days, but knew us all. He was a welcome figure because he arrived with money orders, a lifeline for the inns, which he delivered discreetly. It would be the other way around when it comes to homemade food packages. He would make it obvious and the wing mates would gather together quickly. He will leave later with his share. It was a great fellowship and sharing. Such moments are often recalled by my hostel mates during interactions.

After I passed out, I returned to college for convocation, to pick up the diploma in person. On the way to the convocation room, I ran into the postman. We exchanged jokes and went our way. He called me by my name but I couldn’t remember his despite a five-year association. A postman with basic training had preceded a graduate engineer on his way to graduate!

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