A new legislation made it mandatory to spend money on CSR. This excited the author and brought him back to his activist college days, before decades of selling to earn his daily bread and tipple had dulled all sensibilities. What happened in a village school, reveals Soumya, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.
All those fortunate enough to have sampled the literary Plum Pie would remember with relish Gussie Fink-Nottle’s speech to the school children when giving out the prizes at the village school. Except for Gussie, of course, who may not remember it quite so happily? So, when fate sprung a Gussie on me and fortified by little more than green tea, I was on my way to distribute prizes in a village school, I giggled with nervous anticipation, dreading the ordeal.
It all happened some months ago, during our annual budget meeting, when, basking in the glory of being the top sales honcho, and dozing through the presentations to recover from last night’s celebrations, I was alerted when the speaker was exhorting us to pay attention to our social responsibility and not just targets, as a new legislation made it mandatory to spend money on CSR. This excited me and brought me back to my activist college days, before decades of selling to earn my daily bread and tipple had dulled all sensibilities. I woke up with a mission.
We were supposed to adopt schools and villages in our territories. Although my jurisdiction was predominantly urban and affluent, and I had grown up and worked in areas far removed from the milieu I planned to target, I enthusiastically volunteered to take on the entire responsibility. Wiser heads smiled and suggested I do my share, which would be good enough. I pompously declared that I had earned enough revenue for my company, and now it is time to give something back to society.
Back in the office, I gathered my team and declared my noble intentions. Union reps, branch heads, all were preached at. To a man, miracles were promised, but results were much like election promises.
The next step was to rope in a few new recruits fresh from college, with some experience and training in social work, whose idealism was not yet quite dead. They battled the forces of bureaucracy with vim, and the result was this trip.
They discovered an old application gathering dust in the files, fought for necessary approvals and funds, visited the school, accessed needs, provided the infrastructure, and training, conducted competitions and quizzes, and finally, here I was, going down to inaugurate it all and give away the prizes.
What was a revelation to me was that within a two-hour drive from a bustling metropolis, was a village of fishermen whose kids went to a school without benches, blackboards, fans, computers, and, most surprising to my children, internet. Except for this last, we were trying to provide the rest.
The principal, who also appeared to double as the parish priest, as this was a Catholic village, greeted us at the door with his staff, and I sheepishly made my way through the children, squatting on the floor, and clapping on cue.
Entering the principal’s room gave me the jitters, as all my previous memories of being summoned to a principal’s room were to atone for some misdeeds, usually by a caning. But my host was less sinister and was effusively welcoming. After a photo session and cutting various ribbons to forced clapping by the captive audience, and duly admiring their artwork, we reached the makeshift podium.
Not having a hall, the function was in the corridors, and the students squatted all over, including the stairways. Speeches were made expressing embarrassing degrees of gratitude while the restive children looked on bored and I kept nodding and grinning like an idiot, perspiring in a silk tie. Next came the cultural programme. It consisted of racy Bollywood numbers performed by gyrating children, the likes of which, in my days would have resulted in expulsion. But the Principal and the teachers, including the nuns, looked on unfazed.
Noticing that the girls outnumbered the boys by a hefty margin, I wondered if this was a particularly empowered village, when the principal clarified that the boys from the families who could afford it went to the English medium school that charged fees, and the girls came to the government school which cost nothing and provided free lunch. So much for empowerment.
Finally, the dreaded moment arrived, and, as sponsors, having decided on cash as prizes as opposed to books which were never looked at, evoked some happiness amongst the recipients, and I avoided pitfalls by not talking at all, merely shaking a lot of sticky hands and grinning inanely.
Then I started on my speech, in the vernacular, written on a piece of paper in Roman script. It was met with complete silence and blank stares. I realised that with my accent it must be complete gibberish to them. So I congratulated the dance teacher, called the performers on stage and piled them with chocolates. On cue, my quick-witted colleagues started distributing the rest of the chocolate amongst the students. This was greeted with appreciative cheers, and the ordeal was over.
But the grand finale was to come. Whether spontaneous or planned I am not sure, but a popular song in the local dialect broke out, and the performers were back in an exuberant dance number, accompanied by a roar of approval from the audience. Caught in the spirit of things, the dance teacher stepped in, gyrating with professional skill. The audience approved with wolf whistles, while the Principal and nuns benignly looked on. My young colleague couldn’t resist the foot tapping number anymore and stepped in herself. A tall pretty kid, she was quite a twinkle toe, and fairly lit up the stage. The young lads of the school stood up to a man, letting off a roar of appreciation, and it was all I could do not to vault over the table and join them. But I desisted, and my Gussie moment was averted, probably as my tea wasn’t spiked, and the feel-good day ended happily for all concerned.
Photos from the Internet
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Soumya Mukherjee is an alumnus of St Stephens College and Delhi School of Economics. He earns his daily bread by working for a PSU Insurance company, and lectures for peanuts. His other passions, family, friends, films, travel, food, trekking, wildlife, music, theater, and occasionally, writing. He has been published in many national newspapers of repute. He has published his first novel, Memories, a novella, hopefully, the first of his many books. He blogs as well.