An inheritance of spirit

Last week, pride swelled the collective bosom of my large extended family. One of our own had been named recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership. The story of Aruna’s leaving the Indian Administrative Service for a life dedicated to making other people’s live better was familiar to me growing up although I have never met this cousin. It was familiar, and I shared my mother’s undeniable pride in her niece who remained a role model I would not emulate. But she is not alone in my amazing family.

This tangled banyan grove formed by the various branches of my relatives and the complex relations they bear to each other abounds in examples of public-spirited activity, in lives devoted to service and in lifetimes littered with unrecorded acts of giving. Some of these took place in the public spotlight, many did not. All of them inform the values we would like to think we hold dear and by which we occasionally live.

My great-grandfather moved to Burma at the turn of the last century to work as an accountant. Taking walks in Rangoon harbour, he noticed that the dock labourers were being cheated of their wages because they were unable to count the number of loads they were carrying. An educationist by temperament, he and his brother set up a night school right there with the objective of teaching them how to compute their wages correctly. The night school grew and several of the younger members of the family were roped in to teach a variety of subjects. ‘Each one teach one’ became part of the family creed. In spite of having a large household of their own and limited means, my great-grandparents proved that your wallet and your means are as large as your heart. They took in all who came and did so in the most natural way. The ties they built in this fashion have survived more than one generation. We continue to reap the goodwill they sowed. When my family moved back to India after the Japanese invasion of Burma, the open household continued. My great-grandfather’s brothers took up the mantle of education and literacy and devoted their lives to those causes in and around the Theosophical Society in Madras.

My mother’s paternal family (of which Aruna is part) had its own history of public-spiritedness. My mother’s father had arrived in India prior to the rest of the family and was actively involved in the rehabilitation of hundreds of refugee families. By all accounts, a man of expensive and sophisticated tastes, he is also described as warm and generous—traits he no doubt brought to his work.

At the time that the Burma branch of my relatives moved back to India, the Madras branch had become very involved with the Quit India movement. Nationalist songs and khadi sarees were de rigeur in their households. My mother recalls people being arrested at all hours and people returning from jail. The younger adults were active in the Congress, an association many of them would keep for several years after Independence. From being kept back from school in order to participate in Gandhiji’s prayer meetings to being trained by Indian National Army soldiers in their scout camps, the schoolchildren in this family would internalize and pass on to their children a sense of belonging to something larger than their immediate contexts, with its corollary of obligation to that larger context. Nationalism and independence were one part of the dream, but social change and freedom were the other part.

After independence, this commitment continued. My great-aunts, Manjubhashini and Meenakshi, devoted much of their lives to building up Bala Mandir, a children’s home in Madras that has grown beyond its origins to include a school, a clinic and several vocational training centres. Indeed, a year or two before she died, Manjubhashini defied weather, technology and caution to go check on her children at Bala Mandir during a violent cyclonic storm. Who else would, as she asked? A simple example of a profound commitment. Some of my uncles and aunts strayed from their participation in the freedom movement to participation in electoral politics. In the course of their careers, their formal affiliations would change. But their commitment to a certain idea of India, and a certain vision of its future would not. Most of them did not become celebrities outside their circles, but as I discovered during fieldwork, to those who experienced their honesty and their generosity, they were unforgettable.

My father’s family, although somewhat removed by virtue of their rural location, shared these values. In my father’s life, honesty, loyalty and the willingness to help where he could became hallmarks. He could be brutally candid, and in his candor, spared no one at all—not even his bosses at the Indian Express. However, he stood by them through many situations, including the Emergency and Rajiv Gandhi’s attacks, no matter what the cost. When I read about the freedom of the press, I know that beyond that fine-sounding principle, it is about the lives and day-to-day choices of people like my father and his colleagues.

If there were people who chose the public sphere as their arena of activity, for others like my parents and uncles and aunts, giving and helping were a quotidian activity without an audience and without record-keepers. Their incomes stretched like elastic and the food on their tables expanded to feed the numbers that passed by. People stayed in their homes for weeks and months until they found their feet in the outside world. There were no limits to who and what constituted family and the result was this marvelous network that my friends envy. This tradition of giving and helping continues into my generation. Consciousness of a larger public commitment and a willingness to act on principle are virtues that I might attribute to several of my cousins—starting with Aruna, and including several others.

Life deals every one of us a different hand—in terms of our intrinsic strengths and weaknesses and in terms of the external circumstances in which we live our lives. The greatest legacy of my family is undoubtedly my family itself, but after that, it is this legacy of public spirit, this tradition of giving where one can and what one can. The greatest achievements of our lives will be the things (and the way in which) we give, not the things we get or the things we do. The greatest rewards we receive will be people. And sustained by generosity and open-mindedness, this banyan grove of mine/ours will grow and add new branches as it does.

Swarna Rajagopalan
East Lansing
July 30, 2000.

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