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Indians forget their past by putting self before community

An example from the past puts to shame the get-rich-quick mentality that plagues modern India.

'You do not need to lift these four bricks yourself, Babaji," I told my 85-year-old father-in-law.

"Son," he replied, "unless I participate in the process myself, I will not know what is happening here." He was helping to build three homes for his sons in Muzaffarnagar town, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, in 1959. Even though there was a contractor on site, he spent four hours a day supervising the construction, often lifting some materials himself.

Lala Kala Ram was a strong man. He worked about 10 hours a day. Partition had uprooted him from Pakistan and rendered him penniless. He had left behind his house and a flourishing textile business. His fellow refugees moaned about the lands and lifestyles they had lost. But not Babaji, as we called him. In 1947, he bought a roll of cloth, loaded it on a bicycle and started retailing it in the "gullies", or small lanes.

The family was horrified. Imagine a man who was the largest cloth merchant in Jaranwala town - in Faisalabad District of undivided Punjab, Pakistan - being reduced to selling cloth to by the yard in the lanes of a small town. His three sons joined him in the venture.

Gradually, they bought a shop in the retail market and then in the wholesale market. They then started selling cloth bales to wholesalers in surrounding districts. Babaji would visit rural retailers on the weekly off day to recover outstanding payments. He would return after dusk with monies tied around his belly under his trousers, unmindful of the dangers of robbers on the highways.

In 10 years, the cloth hawker had become the leading textile merchant in Uttar Pradesh. By dint of sheer hard work and integrity, he established himself again.

He made enough money to lend to members of his community. Relatives paid but only when they were able to do so. He never accepted any interest from them. He had been through thorny days of penury, so he knew how much the interest cost meant to the person paying.

Without ever appearing to interfere, he kept his sons and their 16 children in the joint family and business. He ensured everyone had the freedom of time and space. He never raised his voice to assert himself.

When his children grew up, he built separate houses for them. As the grandchildren married, Babaji built houses for them too. As he built homes for the family members, all that he retained for himself was one simple, sparsely furnished room.

No dispute in the community ever went to court. Even those unconnected with the family who had property, financial or matrimonial problems came to him for counsel. And they abided by his judgements.

As Babaji grew older, he delegated his responsibilities - except one. Every day, he rose at 4am and walked three kilometres with the younger grandsons to a cattle farm. It had been his practice to be present when the buffaloes were milked to ensure the family had pure milk.

Decades later, I asked him the secret of his success. He responded: "I never take shortcuts. I give a customer more service than he thought he would get. And I build relationships, not businesses." Babaji worked seven days a week.

When he passed away in 1969 at the age of 95, the entire textile market in the town downed its shutters for the day as a mark of respect to a man who had started his business in the lanes as a hawker but grew it into a leading firm, with honesty and humility.

These days, when I see the frenzied desire to get rich swiftly by any means, I am reminded of the values and ethic of tough work that men like Babaji practised.

In the past decade, many Indians have become obsessed with the desire to acquire wealth expeditiously. Land prices have spiralled making landowners millionaires many times over. Land has been grabbed and bought at any prices by rich industrialists, throwing millions of farmers off their lands and depriving them of their livelihoods.

It is energising for the country when millions of citizens seek progress and affluence. This collective ambition gives a giant thrust to economic development. But a generation of Indians is growing up in the culture of "self before community", and of getting rich expeditiously by "managing" the system.

Surely this is not the India that Mahatma Gandhi dreamt of. He always emphasised that the means are as important as the ends, as Lala Kala Ram has demonstrated.


Hari Chand Aneja is a 91-year-old former corporate executive who now keeps busy with charity work

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