When and where did I format my conceptions about ethics? How and when was I convinced that right and wrong have to be adjudged, right is to be adopted and the wrong shunned? I do not think I was ever lectured about ethics. Yet, my parents managed to transfer their value system into my subconscious so well by the time I left home that I seldom had any difficulty of choice in real life. How did they manage this transfer? This is a mystery that I have not been able to solve. Perhaps it was through multiple demonstrations in unhurried and un-emphasized day to day life. I shall try to pick a couple of instances that might have been such demonstrations.
One day late in 1944 Baba wanted me to run down to the local grocer and fetch a two paisa worth packet of tika, a charcoal powder biscuit used to light up the tobacco fire-cup atop his al-bola that was known as gargara in Bangla idiom. (He had taken to smoking tobacco through this water filtered device in his semi-retired village life after he had chucked up his job and had come away from Jessore town to our village home). I tripped down as desired and bought the item without any difficulty. I however delayed my trip back home by some minutes. The shop was in the process of manufacturing fresh batasa out of boiling syrup of concentrated sugarcane juice. It was fascinating to watch the worker skimming off the foam from the boiling cauldron of syrup and letting it drop from his ladle from a height of about two meters to a bamboo mat laid on the floor. The droplets cooled in the air and formed perfect half spheres on the mat. In a few seconds they hardened to a sweet toffee that could be picked up and eaten. I don’t know for how long I just stood there and watched. After some time the shop keeper came down from his perch, picked up a handful of batasa from the mat and handed those to me. I then came back home with the packet of tika while munching the delicious handful of batasa. When I reached home, baba noticed my indulgence. He wanted to know where I had found the money to buy the handful of batasa. On being told that I had been gifted that handful, he became unhappy. Did I stand there gaping at the process of batasa being made? Was there greed in my eyes for those toffees when I stood and watched? Did I know that coveting with greed in the eyes was a form of begging? He left me in no doubt that he was unhappy with my acceptance of the gift from the shopkeeper. Baba picked up one paisa from his pocket and sent me back to the shop. I was to buy one paisa worth of batasa and return a handful from that lot with an apology for having displayed greed. I did what I was told to do against much protest from the shopkeeper. When I tendered my apology for having displayed my greed and told him that my father’s instructions he accepted my apology. Was this not a transfer of a value – greed is wrong – to me?
Some four years later, in April 1948, another incident took place that remains in my memory. My cousin was getting married. The house was full of people. It was the time for the ceremonial sending of gifts from the house of the bride to the house of the groom. Six taxis had been called; the taxis were waiting outside the house with their meters down. Five or six boys in their early teens were playing in front of the house. I was one of them. I had just arrived at Calcutta after having migrated out of East Pakistan and a lot of the city life that confronted me was novel for me. Taxi cabs in Jessore did not have meters. This little gadget hung outside the taxi on the left fascinated me. I particularly liked the little tinkling that sounded when the little flag on the meter was turned. I walked close to a taxi and on an impulse turned its flag around. The meter tinkled and I liked that sound. I had no idea about the effects of turning the meter flag around. The cab driver came running from wherever he was resting. I ran away. The cab drivers got together and raised a ruckus. The noise bought Baba down to the gate of the house. He was immediately accosted by the agitated drivers. Baba asked them to identify the boy they were complaining about. They pointed at me. Baba then asked the driver to quantify his loss. The driver was unable to name a sum. Baba then walked to another cab of the group and noted the meter reading. It was one rupee six annas more that the minimum fare. Baba took out his purse and paid the aggrieved driver the difference. He then looked at me with stern eyes, shook his head and went back into the house. That shake of his head prima-facie told me that he disapproved of my conduct and he was disappointed with my behavior. It was for me a very severe censure. But now, many years later, when I recollect the incident and try to evaluate the values that he must have transmitted to me through that simple shake of his head, I am amazed by the expanse to the educative value of that simple gesture.
a I should understand that my misdeeds will become known
b My playful mischiefs must not cause damage and distress to others as it did in this case
c When an innocent man is harmed it is better to bring succor to the victim before finding and punishing the guilty
d If direct evidence is not found in the scene of a crime, where are many other evidence that can be gathered and used effectively.
The fact that I remember the incident so vividly indicates to me that Baba’s that little shake of head indeed succeeded in transferring all those values to me even though neither of us ever spoke about it. Learning to understand what is right and what is not can often be done through intangible means. There must have been thousands of such interactions between me and my elders in my growing days to make me what I am. This process of transfer of values through generations is what culture and civilization is all about.
Now on to real life and to real tales about ethical quandaries.