"Are you the patient who wrote that letter about 20 years ago?" asked a nurse, in a sparkling white uniform, who had spotted me in the hospital lobby. It was just last week, and I was sitting in a wheelchair after a check-up, waiting to go home. I looked up at her smiling face and asked: "How are you, Sister Bharti?"
This time I was fine, but things were far mor serious in 1991 when I spent three weeks in a Mumbai hospital getting my heart refurbished. Being cocooned away from the world, my life revolved around the nurses and the ward boys. In a way, they became my family.
Deepak, my ward boy, worked in the day and then rushed to nightschool. Sister Maria nursed the sick, and sent money to her old parents in Kerala. Sister Rita from Andhra Pradesh worked long nights making sure that we all took our medications so she could support her younger brother studying in her village school.
In particular, I was impressed with the dedication of their team leader, Sister Bharti. Every morning she arrived with her group, everyone in neat, starched white uniforms, to see how we had fared that night. Some patients suffered, some moaned, but Bharti was always cheerful.
She was a mother and wife and commuted two hours to work, yet she was always fresh. Her radiance alleviated our pain and accelerated our recovery. "You are not a nurse, you are a garden of smiles," I told her.
So when I left the hospital after three weeks, I wrote to the director commending the selflessness of the nurses.
Twenty years later, Bharti remembered that small appreciation. I often wonder why we are slow to notice the contributions of others. It costs nothing to praise someone, but the compliment can help to motivate greater achievement. We are quick to criticise mediocre service or restaurant food, but rarely write a note of appreciation if either is commendable.
Another example: Brijesh joined my staff 15 years ago to run errands such as delivering the mail. He had a mind for figures, and I encouraged him to further his studies. With relentless determination, he transformed himself from an errand boy into a chartered accountant.
There are ceaseless lamentations about the indifferent service at retail outlets around the world. Yet we never commend a salesperson who serves us selflessly. Just two words - "great service" - can make someone's day.
Overtip the waitress at your favourite restaurant and see the smile illuminate her face. She will remember you on the next visit.
In South Asia, there is one famously unappreciated group: daughters-in-law in middle-class families. About 15 years ago, with some levity, I initiated a "best daughter-in-law" prize in my housing complex. We awarded a trophy and certificate annually to a daughter-in-law who was ably managing her home, family and career. The recognition, of course, mattered more than the trophy.
The same principle holds true regarding that 1991 letter. Nurse Bhartitold me: "It helped me too, your letter stirred me." She went on to further her studies, and she now works as an assistant to a leading doctor treating Parkinson's disease. She was ebullient.
It is heartening to see a person in any field of endeavour surpass him or herself, overcoming circumstances and breaking glass ceilings.
Having spent over five decades in corporations, I think organisations too should be more appreciative of employees. Most companies hunt for customers, spending millions of dollars on marketing, yet forget that their employees are their first concern.
Two forces motivate most employees: financial benefit and recognition. Perhaps an organisation cannot lavish bonuses in a world gripped by recession, but it costs little to be gracious.
Perhaps appreciation, rather than harsh austerity measures, will generate the energy among ordinary citizens to pull the global economy out of the current recession.
Hari Chand Aneja is an 91-year-old former corporate executive who now keeps busy with charity work