Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Lost Names

"Time to get up. We need to leave shortly" said Shobha, hovering over Vikram.
"Today is a Sunday", Vikram said. "Where do we need to go?".
"I told you already yesterday", Shobha said irritatedly. "Shows you have not been listening again! Let me see if you can recollect where we are to go today".
Vikram racked his brains, trying to recall what had been discussed yesterday. Unable to recall anything, he tried what he thought was a safe guess "Shopping?" he suggested.
"For once no!" she said. "Don't you remember we are to go this NGO Children First".
"Oh, Ok" Vikram said. "Are you still sure we should go? It is very hot today and we need to travel close to 30 km".
"Of course. I am very keen to go" said Shobha.
"Ok" Vikram said fighting lethargy and getting up from bed.
Vikram & Shobha had contributed some money to the NGO Children First last year and they had invited them to their facility to see how the contributions they had made were put to use.

They got ready in a little while and made their way to Children First. They were received warmly by Ms Ruchika. There were in total 12 people who were visiting that day. Ruchika made a presentation on the various activities of the organization. She explained that they contributed to the education of children who were from poor families, and also ran an orphanage themselves. The presentation was followed by a Question & Answer session. Vikram & Shobha were then taken on a tour of the facility including the orphanage. Ruchika explained that the funds contributed by them was earmarked for the children. The children were told who had sponsored their education over the past year and were expecting them. They were then allowed to spend an hour with the children they had sponsored.  They were informed that their contribution specifically was used for a girl named Radha.

They were led to a room in the orphanage to meet Radha. She greeted them politely and asked them to sit. They asked her about her studies, and her hobbies.
"Well, I like physics. I generally like sketching in my free time", she said.
"Oh, great. Can we see some of your sketches?" asked Shobha

She handed over a book to them and they opened it. The book had what seemed like running notes and no sketches.
"This is not a sketch book. What book is this?" Vikram asked, glancing at some of the notes written.
"Oh, sorry" said Radha "Wrong book, Wait.." she said searching for her sketch book.
As he read through some of the notes in the book, Vikram’s curiousity was aroused. "Is this a diary you maintain?" he asked her, showing Shobha some of the notes.
The girl seemed suddenly uncomfortable. She handed over another book to them saying "This is my sketch book"
"Is this a diary you maintain?" Vikram asked her again.
She replied hesitantly "That is a book of some lost names".
"What do you mean?", Vikram asked her, not fully comprehending what she meant.
"This book is a record of my memories......", Radha said, her voice catching.
Shobha called her over and held her hand and said "What is it? Why don't you tell us?"
"I am not sure....", said Radha.
Shobha patted her on her shoulder and said "C'mon, you can surely trust us. What is this about?"
"Well it is a long story", said Radha, "and I am sure you are busy people"
"Well, we have lot of time, so don't worry" Vikram said.
Radha started on her narrative. "I stayed with my parents in a village near Nagapattinam. My father was a teacher in the village school. My mother used to sew clothes. It was not easy to make ends meet but we used to manage. My father had a lot of respect in our village. Everyone used to greet him with courtesy.

His ambition was to see some of his students being successful in life. Whenever, he travelled outside our village, he used to look for books which were not available in our village, buy them at his expense and distribute them among his students. I remember once one of his students moved out of our village to a bigger city. He wrote my father a letter saying that though he was now in a bigger school and a bigger city, he did not have any teacher who personally cared for his progress and explained things to him like my father had done. I still remember, my father had tears in his eyes and said that the respect and love his students showered on him was the best thing about his job.

My father worked late into the evenings, making notes for the next day, reading new books everyday. He used to call my mother and me to read, and pray with him. My mother liked listening to classical music on the radio. She also knew what my father's interests were and was ever by my father's side"

Radha paused at this point, biting her lips, her voice catching. As they looked at her gently, she continued "Life was so good. My father used to say that I would be a scientist. One day changed everything".

She continued after taking a deep breath "I still remember the day the tsunami hit our village. I recall looking up and seeing a wave the height of palm tree just a little distance away. There was suddenly water everywhere and the water simply dragged us with it. Our house was totally washed away, and that is the last I saw of my parents. I remember being dragged along the water and lost consciousness at some point. Some people apparently found me lying atop some debris, and pulled me out when they knew I was alive".

Vikram & Shobha sat watching her young face, while she relived the pain of the past. There was a small period of silence when nobody spoke.

"We are sorry for what you have been through", said Shobha gently.

Radha spoke up softly, "The bodies of my parents were found the next day. I spent a couple of months in a shelter. It was after that I moved to this orphanage and  I am very grateful for what these people have done for me. I do not even have a photo of my parents as our entire house and all our belongings were washed away and nothing could be traced. My father and mother were two good people who were so selfless, and did such a lot for others. But it is as if they are two lost names. There is no trace of their lives left. Nobody knows about them and how they lived. I think I am the only person who have memories of their lives".

She looked up at Vikram & Shobha, and continued, "I started noting all I remembered of their lives and started writing it in this book. They may be names which are lost, but I need something to remember them by. I was only 6 years old, when I lost my parents. Over time memories will also dim, and before that happens, I wanted to write what I remembered about them. As part of our history lessons, we read several pages of many known names in history. My parents can obviously not be one of those names, but at the same time I owe it to them to remember them for what they were".

Vikram & Shobha sat quietly thinking over all Radha had said. The maturity of her thoughts, and the essence of what she had said. Above all, they reflected on her comment on history.  A stream of mental chatter started in their minds: History by its nature was a record of two ends of a pole – Heroes and Villians, Winners and Losers, Achievers and Failures.......Is the wisdom of the ages really captured in history? Of all the shades of colors, was history only recording black & white? Do all life forms and objects which have existed in this universe deserve atleast a mention in history's records? They thought of all the lost names in their own families – the wisdom of generations of noble people lost, with no record of their existence since they were not at the two ends of the pole but rather somewhere in between. If we can reserve pages upon pages of records for tyrants, can not a line of history be reserved for everyone who has been a part of this universe. But then who was the custodian of the records of the universe? The records we have access to today in the form of books, and other artifacts are those created by scores of people over a long period of time. This shared responsibility of recording and preserving history made the situation even more complex.

Shobha took Radha's hand and said "Your parents are surely watching you and are very proud of you. You are very intelligent and mature for a girl of your age. We are very happy we could meet you".

Vikram also shook hands with the girl and asked her "Is it Ok if we come around and meet you again sometime?"

"Of course", said Radha surprised. "I would like that very much. You would have to inform Ruchika Madam in advance"

As they travelled back home, both Shobha and Vikram were lost in our thoughts. Vikram tried to move to other things – tried reading a book, and then watching some TV. Yet, the events of the day were fresh in his mind and the mental chatter would not cease.

After dinner, Shobha asked "You cannot also stop thinking about what we heard today, can you?"
Vikram admitted "Her account was moving enough. It also provoked me to think".
Shobha said, "Right since the time we left Children First, I have been thinking of whether there is something more we can do for the girl, especially, her pain with regard to her parents, but cannot think of anything good".
"Yes", Vikram agreed. "The essence of most people's lives is almost always lost, and I cannot think of what we can do to alter that fact".
"Right, But, can we do something for Radha? Maybe convert her notebook into a neater document which we can print and give her?"
"Yes, maybe we can do that. Let us discuss it in more detail tomorrow", Vikram said.

They went to sleep, feeling better for having talked it over with each other.

They picked up the conversation again the next day. Vikram had spent some time thinking over this during the course of the day, and Shobha had clearly done the same as well.

Vikram said, "I thought over the options we have and could think of the options being a) Printing out a neat version of Radha's notebook as you suggested yesterday b) We could setup and maintain a blog for her which hopefully in future she can maintain herself"

Shobha said, "Yes, other than that the other options I could think of being contributing an article for a magazine or newspaper"

Vikram thought over this and said, "That would be good, but I am not sure if any editor or publisher would be interested in the life history of one girl".

"You are right", said Shobha "Maybe we could try making it an article to be published on the anniversary of the Tsunami"
Vikram thought over this and said "Good idea, let us give it a try"

Shobha went over to the orphanage a few more times, and collected as many details as possible from Radha on the Tsunami, and the details of people she knew who were affected. She told her vaguely that we were writing this as an account, which she could preserve.

They subsequently tried contacting a few newspapers. After some persuasion, one editor agreed to meet them personally. At their meeting, he listened to them patiently and said matter of factly "I fully appreciate what you are trying to do. But it has been a few years since the tsunami struck. We will probably carry a small article on the occassion – I doubt we can accomodate the details you want to include in this article". They had to admit that in practical terms, he was right. They thanked him for meeting them and left.

As they returned home, Shobha asked Vikram "Do you think we could make this a book? We have collected a lot of information of the tsunami and also the people affected".

Vikram said, "But again, will any publisher be interested in this. It has been some time since the tsunami".

"We can only try. Probably the last try we could make" said Shobha.

Vikram had to agree with her. They spent some time writing up the various details collected into a book format. They then contacted several potential publishers. However, after a couple of months, they had still not found anyone ready to publish. As they were planning to give up, Shobha contacted a publisher of study guides "Zoom Ahead Publishers" asking him if he would be willing to publish the book.

When they met him, he spoke up frankly "See, I have never published books before. Also from what you tell me, the interest for a story such as yours may not be widespread. So, I feel spending money on advertising will also be risky. What I can do for you is this – I can do a trial run of 100 copies for you which we can retail at two bookstores I know. I cannot pay you upfront for this, but am agreeable for a % royalty for every copy of the book which is sold. Let us hope I need to print more copies and your book sells".

Vikram & Shobha agreed as commercial success was not the intention behind publishing this book. After about a month the book was on display at two stores. In the first three days only 17 copies of the book had been sold and there was nothing to show that sales would pick up.

Vikram sat on the sofa, quite dejected at the poor sale of the book.

Shobha looked up at him and said "Look, we never intended this as a business venture. The book was not even advertised. So why are you taking this so hard? Also, after a few copies sell, the publisher may be willing to invest in advertising. So sales may still pick up. However, as I said we were never looking at making profits".
"I suppose you are right", Vikram said.
"We should go and meet Radha, and show the book to her" said Shobha.
"Of course", Vikram said, feeling guilty that it not struck his mind so far.

They travelled to Children First and met Radha. Shobha handed over the book to her. She sat down and skipped through the pages silently. She then hugged both of them, tears in her eyes. She then ran out of her room and returned, dragging Ms Ruchika with her.
Radha exclaimed with joy "You must read this......"

As Vikram looked at Shobha, he realised she was having as much trouble masking her emotions as he did.

As they were returning home, Shobha looked at Vikram and said "You know something. I always knew we were not going to be famous or rich! So it does not matter how many copies sell!". She threw her head back and laughed, tears gentling rolling down her cheeks. As Vikram joined her in laughter, he noticed his face was wet too.


  1. Very moving and motivating story. It's not enough to just send some money for charity and forget about it. What gives a real feeling of fulfillment is direct involvement. Thanks for the wonderful message and keep writing.

  2. The part about the need for history to be more than just black and white really struck a note...