The story you were never told

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My grandfather and I

There was once a boy who hailed from a small, ramshackle village in the northern farming fields of Punjab. There, wooden plank playing card walls stood atop mustard greens and stalks of wheat, urban civilization a distant concept. The people of the village squatted aside hissing firepits, tossing backyard sabzis in smoking kadais with one hand, and pacifying wailing babies and restless children with the other. Their musty skin was traced with lines that told stories of toil; hours of labor and days without food. Village life was the epitome of nakedness, stripped down to the simplicities of give and take, earn and spend, love and sacrifice. But in the villagers, there was no ire, no frustration with a world that bore them in circumstances deemed unfavorable by the big city folk and an over-pitying media. To them, self gratification was supplemented not by the luxuries that came with a fatter wallet, but the strength in knowing that no quantity of money could sever the bonds that held their community together. That enduring sense of togetherness was the boy’s favorite part about the village. He found comfort in the idea that no matter which nook or cranny of the land he chose to explore, even the lizards scaling the stubby lemon trees would greet him warmly.

 

The boy’s dad was one of the most respected men in the village - they called him “Headmaster.” He served as the principal of the village school, dedicating his days to the education and upbringing of the children. He built that school from the ground up, forging a rickety wooden shack into a sturdy building, equipped with teachers and books and all the privileges the kids had never seen. He spent from his own pocket, poured his blood and sweat and salary into the creation of a haven for the village youth. He set a tuition so low that nearly all the children could attend. For the poorest, he made exceptions, organized scholarships, and raised funds in order to aid those families that couldn’t afford anything beyond the necessities. All because he had a dream. A dream of disregarding the disadvantages doled out by fate and giving those kids the shot at the better life they'd never had. The boy saw his father as an idol, as did everyone else in the village. He knew from a young age that it was his mission to carry on his father’s legacy, to make sure his dream was not lost to time nor age. The boy’s siblings were indifferent.

 

Time passed, and the boy grew to become a man. He lived on with the very values his father had passed down. With hard work and integrity, he had gone to engineering school, and rose in the ranks to become a head engineer and Brigadier in the Indian Army. He served with pride and dedication, duty to his role, his nation, and eventually his wife and children. Together they moved from city to city, shifting wherever the forces needed him. Life was fast. Life was hectic. And yet somehow, despite all the distractions, he never seemed to lose sight of what mattered most to him. He made routine trips back to the village, to his parents, to the school. And as his parents started to weather, fall victim to time’s pull towards the gray and ailing, he assumed his father’s responsibilities.

 

When his father passed, the man took his father’s dream and expanded it to astronomical heights.

 

The number of students, teachers, faculty grew. He provided jobs for the villagers, an education beyond baseline literacy for the kids. Above all, the man gave the people of his hometown hope. Hope that their lives could get better, that they weren’t trapped in the confines of Punjabi wheat fields and heroine dens. The man felt insurmountable pride and humility when he saw the glint in the eyes of the children when they looked towards him. His siblings did not share in his fulfillment, for they searched elsewhere. They craved what their brother had made, amassed with his own resilience and persistence. Wealth.

 

His siblings wanted in. The man’s brother requested to be of aid in the school’s business. He was given the responsibility of managing the school’s finances, familial faith and trust honored in the form of a job. Little time passed before his brother blew all the funds on a shiny new sports car. The faith wavered. Trust cracked. But the man did not revoke his brother’s role, for he believed in second chances. And while the man’s siblings played nice in the early years, greed pulled and stretched at their strained bonds until the time came for one to give way.

 

The school sat on a fairly sizable plot of land, passed down from the parents and divided amongst the children. The man had the plot with the school, and cared for it as one would their own child. The siblings sold off their land for money, to no objection from their brother. Still, they didn’t have the satisfaction they so desperately chased after. So they took their brother to court. Accused him of taking all the land for himself, forging signatures, dishonoring their parent’s will. Lies.

 

Every month for 14 years, the man traveled back to Punjab from his home in Delhi for hearings in court. He listened to his siblings and their lawyers work to tarnish his name repeatedly. As time passed, the school continued to grow, as did the resentment between the siblings. The man never confronted them, never said a word - instead he chose to channel his emotions into caring for and cultivating the futures of the village children.

 

Finally, after 14 years of endless road trips and drives between Delhi and Punjab, the verdict was released. The man was sent to jail with an unspecified sentencing, for the forgery of signatures he never signed. His children appealed to the court and tried to get their father bail, but the Indian judicial system was slow. Week after week, month after month the hearing was delayed and his kids’ hope withered away with each passing minute he spent locked away on the wrong side of the bars. The world seemed to be against him, no resolve in between the waves of hardship and struggle thrown his way (the sentencing had come only a year after he’d undergone surgery to remove his colon cancer). Yet somehow, despite the direness of his circumstances, he never once cried nor complained. Through all the change and growth he’d undergone in life, he was still a village boy at heart. While in jail, the man lived with the same respect and compassion for his peers instilled in him as a child. When his children came every Friday during visiting hours, he requested they bring shoes, clothing, and blankets as per the requests of the friends he’d made in the jail. His caretakers, the janitors, and the staff all turned to the man when in need of support for themselves or their families. They called him “Bapu,” an affectionate term that translates to ‘father,’ one given many years prior to the ‘Father of India’ - Mahatma Gandhi.

 

Five months after he was sent to jail, the man arrived in court with his children for yet another hearing. Only this time, favor didn’t sway in the opposite direction. The paperwork was in order, the evidence was clear, and the man’s siblings could no longer run from the truth. The only guilty parties in the room were themselves.

 

Five months after he was sent to jail, the man was granted bail on the grounds of the case against him being virtually baseless. The man did not return home unchanged; he’d missed his granddaughter’s high school graduation and his own fiftieth wedding anniversary. The photos left with an empty space, the memories with gaps where the man should have been left a weight on the family’s shoulders that only time could alleviate. Together, hand in hand they vowed to press on through all they’d faced and live with the same values and attitudes that they had before.

 

Two weeks after he got home, the man traveled back to the village to check up on the school and the children.

 

~

 

Time and time again we’re told the same tales. Sob and success stories, heroes victorious and villains vanquished. Nowadays we’ve entered an age of cynicism - people suck, the world sucks, everything sucks. It’s stories like this that remind us that there is good in the world, even if it doesn’t present itself in the clearest of ways. Sometimes it feels out of reach, but if we can drive ourselves to see the good in dark situations like the man saw the light from the corner of a dark jail cell, the world will follow suit.

 

This story isn’t a made up tall tale. It’s real.

 

On Thursday, February 7th of 2019, my grandfather was granted bail from Faridkot Jail, Punjab.

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