On respect

(I’d posted this on facebook a while ago, and then hurriedly remembered that I have a blog. Sigh.)

I had a conversation with my mother this morning about various things – like all mothers and daughters do – ranging from cooking, to how husbands are incorrigible, to the prices of everything to eventually life itself. At some point, we discussed the value of respect as a value. It led to me thinking about respect and its changing importance for different generations.

When I grew up, some of us (not all) learnt to respect. Not obey or fear, but to respect. We respected our parents because it was incomprehensible to us why two people on the cusp of life would seemingly sacrifice so much – sacrifice their days to dirty little hands and clearing up toys; sacrifice their nights to crying babies; sacrifice their hard earned salaries to indulge as many childlike whims and fancies as they could and provide a solid education, indeed the best they could provide; sacrifice their peace of mind for parenthood.

We learn to respect teachers as surrogate parents, not because they always knew best but because they gave us the gift of knowledge. Even while we complained bitterly of ruthless teachers claiming every extra period available and snatching away games period (that most unforgivable of crimes!) somewhere deep down we knew the dedication and commitment that spurred each teacher to reach out beyond the call of duty and spend even further time looking at our at-best accusing faces to teach us as much as they could. Come to think of it, what’s to stop a teacher from saying “Well, that’s about it, I’ll leave you to die with the rest of the portion” and not insist on “I’m taking this period, and this one, and this one – all so I can finish this chapter though it doesn’t affect my variable pay in the least”? A teacher’s compliment was, and is, for some of us the Holy Grail and we would fly home from school on imagined winged horses that day, flush with joy, repeating the exact phrase or words to ourselves and yell it to our mothers as soon as we reached home – “Amma, miss said my essay was ‘very well written’!”

We learned to respect age – not to agree with everything it said or to sacrifice our views or principles – but because with that age must have come a wealth of experience -and experience is always worth listening to, even if not heeded all the time. We spent a few extra minutes listening to old people and their reminiscing, cribbing mentally but outwardly respectful.

Some of us, we’re none the worse for having respected. We’re none the worse for having bowed, folded our hands, smiled respectfully, lent an ear to the experience someone older, for trying (if not always succeeding) to treat the watchman, the ayah or the beggar with as much respect as would treat influence, power and wealth.

I had a very old tuition master once, a wizened old man with a joyous smile and very set ways of doing everything. Every day when I was fourteen, I would visit him and sit learning math – or his version of math that used to be taught twenty years before then. He had been a Maths teacher decades previously and sorely missed teaching eager classes. He did not know that math had advanced sufficiently for his teaching to be outdated now. His simple pleasure in solving a problem for me in his favourite purple ink was infectious. For a long time I visited him every evening and he looked forward to my visits, starting with familiar comments on what I was wearing (“Why is your nail polish not red? Red is the only colour nail polish should come in!”) and winding up with “Have you understood, girl?” (after having taught me the same problem as he had last week). Eventually, many months later, I rebelled and moved to another tuition class where my grades improved significantly. But somewhere deep down, I feel guilty even today thinking about his shocked and very let-down face when my father and I told him we would not come over again. No, my decision to get better tuition was not wrong, but I could have gone over simply twice a month to spend time with him, to let him teach me whatever he wanted to, to give him the pleasure of being a teacher again. I had the time, but my impatient youth did not have the consideration or thoughtfulness.

Sometimes, experiences in life are not about ‘us’ – they are not about whether WE want to go to drawing class or whether WE care to spend Sunday afternoons with an aged aunt. They are about the other person, that rare entity we barely pause to think about. They are about an old man’s dedication to catch a bus to and fro at the age of eighty five and teach you drawing and sketching every day. They are about a wrinkled, tired old lady’s pleasure in having a listener and reminiscing about her youth and beauty at a time when life is about to sing its swansong. These are experiences which life is throwing at you to see what we do with them – some of us welcome them with grace, some of us jeer and pass on.

And yet life throws still more experiences at us generously. I for one am learning (however late) to treat them with more maturity and grace, to respect people and experiences. One thing is for sure – I have never regretted the journey.

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