The school house was high up on a flattened mountain top clearing of Chittagong Hill Tracts, a district in the farthest corner of Indian subcontinent and called appropriately so due to its hilly terrain and forbidding landscape of impenetrable jungle infested with year-round malaria and dengue causing mosquitoes. Its open spaces were carpeted with tall shimmering green grasses undulating languidly like a ballet dancer with the passing of humid breeze where blood sucking leeches lurked on every blade. Although surrounded by lush green rain forest, in the dog days of summer, the tormenting brew of high humidity, heat of the tropics and bright sunshine used to raise the temperature to 110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the tiny tin roofed school building where four class rooms for nine to ten year old school children were housed.
Currently on lease from the government of Pakistan by a giant private paper company that exploited the natural resources of the surrounding forest to make paper, no one actually knew how this building came into being. But elders say it was an abandoned hill-top Second World War era military station which in its hay days served as surveillance outpost in the Anglo-Japanese war front when the Japanese Imperial Army occupied Burma rather quickly and was knocking at Chittagong, located in the farthest South Eastern corner of British India.
The building was in disrepair and dilapidated; passage of time was evident on some of its corrugated tin sheets that had curled up and rusted long ago; in some others, rusting had given way to small holes through which sunlight poured in the midday like a thin slicing sword down from the heaven. The building base was a square of cement slab with brick walls on all sides; the cement was peeling away in many areas exposing the carnelian red bricks in places. Each of the classrooms could perhaps accommodate twenty children at the most, but now due to rapid population boom of this jungle town, fifty to sixty children were crammed in the same tiny space. Only some of the students could sit on the stools with a desk and the rest either stood on foot or sat on the floor during the class time.
Children used to come on foot traversing the dusty winding road cut in between the mountains from dense settlements sprawled at the foot hills of the hilly tracts, from far and near. Then they had to climb hundreds of steps of thin stairways, curved on the steep side of the mountain to get to the class room. This was the most dangerous part of their journey to school everyday and children did it with remarkable patience and care, because they knew just one slip of stairs meant their young body will swirl down several hundred feet down below. Climbing the steep stairs by the time they had reached the top of the hill, they were already drenched in sweat. The class rooms had no running water, but there was piped water that ran near the outhouse little further away. The water was pumped through the exposed on-the-surface metal pipes, and it was as hot as boiling water in the summer. Being so hot both inside and outside the class room, the children needed a constant supply of cool water.
The school had no air conditioning and in those days, children in the remote corner of East Pakistan, current Bangladesh, had never heard of refrigerator yet, let alone having one in the class room to keep the water cool. The only way they could keep the water cool is by storing water in an earthen pitcher, locally called “kolshi”. This large earthen vessel of the size of a giant turkey fryer used to be kept on the corner of the class room and students and teachers alike could pour in a little drink of cool water in their ceramic glass they all shared to keep them hydrated especially in the long hot summer days. Earthen pitcher cools down water by capillary action, a basic law of physics.
One day early in the summer time the old earthen pitcher of the class broke into pieces as it grew old and could not contain the pressure of the water inside it any longer. Children had no more supply of cold water, and in their tender mind, they knew that it was essential for their life. They decided to raise money and buy a new kolshi soon. Although just few pennies in American currency, it was expensive for the children in this corner of the world, where some of them used to come to school without any breakfast and some of them could only afford to eat one meager meal a day. So raising money was difficult and yet they all pitched in with an urgency and they raised about five “takas”, equivalent of six US pennies.
A boy, son of a teacher, who was voted as the “Class Captain,” was given the responsibility to safe guard the money the class had raised and it was his job to buy a new kolshi from the bazaar, one hour on foot journey from the neighborhood. The class decided for him to accomplish this on the weekend so they have cool water from next Monday.
As the Sunday came, he was ready to go to the market with the raised money to buy the kolshi. He took out the only pair of pants he had, which he always wore to school and as he put his hand in the pocket, he felt no coin! He was surprised; a shiver crossed through his spine. He put his hands on both the side pockets and then to the back pocket, but his fingers felt no money, no jingle of coins. He was at a loss and he now started sweating profusely. What had happened to the money? Did he lose it or did some one play a trick on him or had someone picked his pocket? What should he do? Not buy the kolshi and tell the class that he lost the money? That would be terrible, his classmates would think he is sloppy, certainly he will disappoint lot of them and some of them could even be mad at him. More importantly, he could not take the thought that he will not be trustworthy in their eyes any longer! He knew well that for some of the students, the only food for the day was the drink of cool water; they come to school without any food in their tiny stomach. No, there’s no way he can turn them down, he cannot endure such a disappointment by the fellow children, he cannot look at their faces any longer. They must have cool water by coming Monday, there’s no other way. “I have to do this”, his mind resolved in itself.
His mom and dad were out and the siblings were playing in the other room, but there on the nook on top of the cupboard his mother had left her purse as her usual habit. He looked around, pulled a chair and reached her purse on top. He snapped open its fragile hooks and through the gaping opening, he could easily see the fresh bills arranged in a linear file inside and coins resting at the bottom of the purse. His fingers shaking, he took out exactly five takas; that is about six US pennies. One final time, carefully looking around he made sure no one knew he put the money in his pocket. He then met another of his friend as scheduled before. Together the two boys went to the bazaar on foot and bought a nice looking kolshi for the class room. The boys were proud that they got a good bargain from the shop keeper after explaining what had happened to their old kolshi and why they needed a new one. It was a pinkish-red earthen pitcher with simple decorative flowers etched by the unknown potter around its belly.
Early on Monday, he took the earthen pitcher to school, and with the help of his friends he filled up the kolshi with water and together they placed it exactly in the same corner of the class room where the previous one used to rest on a circular makeshift device made of old torn clothes as soft padding so the vessel’s convex bottom is accommodated snugly in a stable manner on the school floor. In few hours, the water was refreshingly cooler compared with the hot blazing temperature in the class room and the whole class was happy to get access to the cool water again.
The boy “Class Captain” was happy, but as he returned home at the end of school day, his happiness was gone and a cloud of melancholy from the guilt of stealing his mother’s money set in. Today he looked at her face more frequently than ever before and when her eyes met him, he could not smile; he just looked the other way. But even with the burden of guilt in mind, he was sure that no one saw, no one knew what he did; besides it was for a good purpose. He was only hoping to forget the whole thing along with the guilt that came with it. He wished if he could only enjoy the accomplishment and could forget the stealing part of the whole thing.
Days went by and then it became weeks. The boy by now forgot the whole incident; new interest, burden of new home work and new persuasions of aspiring young mind took over. Then one day his mother, who also was a teacher in the same school came back from her work as he was doing homework on the family table. His mother called him to the other room and asked his two siblings who were there to go out. He felt a cold spell in his hands and feet. “I know you stole money from my purse son, I also know why you did it”, his mother said to him. The boy was thunder-stricken, in total shock. He at first didn’t know what to say, it has been so long ago, this was not expected. After a while of silence, he being a young kid, thought perhaps a denial should be the best defense. So, he vigorously started denying the stealing. His mother was rather quiet through the proceedings and to his surprise she even wore a faint smile on her face who finally told him, “Son, I know you wanted to do good to the class but you should have asked me for the money rather than stealing, I would have been happy to give it to you.” The boy resorted to method of insistence to buy his legitimacy. His mother let him have his way staying totally cool and by now with his own drama he attracted attention of rest of his siblings who all started wondering what had transpired. Finally, as he came to realize his own self-defeating maneuvers, he did the only thing that was left to do for the children of his age: crying, huffing and puffing. His mother left for the kitchen without telling the matter to any of his curious siblings. “I have to cook” she simply said.
That night when he was in bed half asleep, and a quietness had descended in the busy household, his mother came, she ran her hands on his head thick with jet black hair and said, “Son, never defend a bad action with a lie, to defend a lie, you will make up more lies and lies will drown you; now remember that for rest of your life”. The boy said nothing; he just turned on his stomach in the bed hiding his head in the pillow, pretending he was sleepy with a mind filled in shame of the letdown.
His mother left giving him a kiss. The boy could not fall asleep. He was especially surprised that his mother was not mad at all, she did not punish him at all and how little she spoke considering gravity of his crime. And she waited all of these times to tell him that she knew what he had done all along. He also got consolation that she had recognized his good act while at the same time calling out at him for the bad act he did to achieve the good. He thought and thought, not knowing when he fell asleep. The next morning when he woke up, the 10 year old resolved himself to one thing, “I shall never steal, I shall never lie”.
Ladies and gentleman: I am that boy, Nizam M. Meah, M.D., I am a GI doctor, practicing in Houston, Texas. I am much older now and the mother that I had told you about in this true story of life, I had lost her long ago, very early in life during my internship. It was the most difficult moment of my life, we were still in the crucible of poverty, my mother still fighting every day to keep the large family of nine children fed and educated. But the lesson she gave me is always with me, she is alive in me every day and night, every moment. My mother is my hero and it is her method of education and instruction complemented by my father’s unyielding principles that had made me into what I am today. It’s a privilege that I can serve fellow humanity with their instruction inscribed in my heart, with the passion of service that flows from their veins into mine. And mother, I had kept my promise: I don’t steal, I don’t lie, and I do work hard; and most of all, I serve humanity. Are you proud of me mother?