In the early 90s, I was working in Kochi. I used to have breakfast in a roadside shop run by a certain Sethu. He sent every morning to my workplace a parcel of four idlis and a vada by his helper named Balaji, about 14 years old.
Balaji was a smart boy. One day, I asked him to tell me about his house, his parents and where he came from. He came from a small town in Tamil Nadu. His father died when he was eight years old, ending his schooling prematurely. To help his mother, who worked as a housekeeper to raise him and his four siblings, he came to Kochi and joined Sethu’s sidewalk store as his helper.
The little boy opened his heart to me and revealed to me his intense desire for a “little hotel” of his own. “If only I have Rs 3,000, I’ll go to my hometown and open a restaurant. But where and from whom will I receive this large sum? ‘ he said.
The sadness in his eyes that carried this distant dream touched my heart and I decided to help him. The next morning, I prepared the amount and waited for Balaji. He came to give me my breakfast and was about to leave when I put in his hand a sealed envelope containing six Rs 500 bills. The boy was speechless when he opened the envelope. The next day, he left Kochi for his hometown to turn a new leaf in his life.
The man who inspired me to help the boy was Jim Corbett. In his book My India, he devoted a chapter to a Lalaji. Corbett found Lalaji lying on the banks of the Ganges, literally dying of cholera at a place called Mokameh Ghat in Bihar. He took the desperately ill person to his home and treated him. When he recovered, Lalaji told Corbett how, since the failure of his grain business, he had wandered from town to town like a beggar.
When the time came for Lalaji to leave, Corbett handed her Rs 500 in hand and asked her to restart his business. 500 rupees in the 1920s was not a small sum. Lalaji took the amount, promising to pay it back in a year, restarted his business, became affluent again, and returned the amount to Corbett within a year.
Although I never saw Balaji again, I learned that he opened his own tea and snack store and grew in life. His ex-employer also told me that he got married, had kids, built his own house, and his mom led a cool retiree life.