It is when you lose everything that your true character is revealed.
This was brought home to me when, on November 7, 1999, we lost our home in a fire. Ours was only one of the 50 or so houses and shops that burned down that day.
Like most people in India, we lived in a rented house, and had no insurance whatsoever. We had escaped with the clothes we wore.
Our bank account was almost non existent. My mother was about to retire in a few months and my father's business had just about managed to stay afloat.
Of all the things she lost, my mother was devastated at losing the stuff she had gathered for my dowry. She had always wanted to give me a good wedding- not lavish, but very dignified. That had been her fondest wish, her most fervent desire.
My parents were never rich, or even comfortably well off. But they had always helped people, and were respected by the few who could recognize character. In India, wealth commands respect most of the time. Here they were, in the autumn of their lives, and everything was at zero again.
My father shrugged. He had had to start from zero before - three times before to be precise. "All you need," he said, "are three things- Will (To do something), Good will (of fellow men) and God's will."
But before he did anything else, he went to the Sikh temple, and thanked God for everything-no lives were lost in the fire, his family was all right and he had been given a chance to start all over again. Somehow, my father's simple faith gave me strength. He had lost everything but still had the will to get his life in order again.
The next day, he went back to work. He asked the people he worked with for credit, explaining the circumstances- and he got it. His business did not suddenly start booming, but it did not splutter and fail either. He is still working, still managing to make ends meet.
My mother went back to school the day it opened. November 7 was a holiday because of Diwali- the festival of lights, and is usually accompanied by a short break.
We were living at a temporary shelter with others who had also lost their homes. Our clothes were what we had borrowed from our friends, and we depended on charity for food.
My mother was a bit late, a bit bedraggled- borrowed clothes don't always fit right- but she taught all her classes. Her students learnt an important lesson in life that day and it was not what she taught in words, but what she demonstrated by her actions. They now knew how to face the most adverse circumstances with dignity, courage and character.
My mother's retirement was postponed, and the principal suggested that she take a few days off. She refused - we needed the money, she explained. My mother asked the principal to waive the fees for the children affected by the fire, and help them get books and uniforms. The principal agreed and then started a fundraising drive. Donations poured in- money as well as clothes and household items. The clothes were shared with other families.
Mama refused to accept the money being collected- it seemed unfair because others who had been similarly affected did not have the same supports as she did- until the principal agreed to distribute the money to at least nine other families.
We were helped in other ways too. Many people offered us residence- and we finally took one - at a former student of my mother's- and we moved out of the shelter within 10 days. We were the first to move out.
People helped us search the ashes for valuables, and we could recover some of my prized antiques. One of my aunts stayed with us, at the shelter, for moral and emotional support as we ran around, trying to find a place to live. Since we were too emotionally distraught to be good hosts, she took over the role and made sure the guests (and there were many) got a good cup of tea before they left.
Later, she made a remark that struck me as too true. She said that while others cultivated money, my parents had cultivated respect and goodwill - and were better off because of that.
Some months later, I got married, and it was the kind of wedding my mother had always wanted. It cost her almost all her money, but she had no regrets- this was what she had wanted anyway. She retired later that year.
Now, my parents still live in that same small town in North India, still live in a rented house and are still not rich. They are respected by even more people than before. In a sense, not much has changed except, for a brief moment, they let the world catch a glimpse of their true character and the world never forgot it.
True character is like a diamond, hidden in the coal mine- it is revealed only when it is struck a very hard blow.Copyright © 2004 Harpreet Shah